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Flying high 'Spider-Man 3' has all the bonuses of a blockbuster super-hero flick, but with a cast and human touch that sets it apart

You're going to see it anyway. What I want to call your attention to in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3" are Kirsten Dunst's canine teeth. They're prominent and just a wee bit snaggly whenever she smiles in radiant close-up. And they symbolize everything you need to know about why this series has been the most welcome and aesthetically viable of all the big recent Super Hero fantasies.

Please understand: Dunst is a breathtakingly lovely young woman (she turned 25 on the movie's recent screening day in Manhattan). But she is captivatingly beautiful in a real way that one might actually encounter in life, not in that distanced, unreal Jessica Biel way that comes with a smile that might well be the product of six-figure Hollywood orthodontia.

She's beautiful in the way M.J. -- the former Girl Next Door to Peter Parker in his Queens neighborhood -- might plausibly have been.

What was the genius of director Sam Raimi and Co. right from the beginning was that they didn't cast Spider-Man and his girlfriend, they cast Peter Parker and M.J., two troubled, unhappy teens in Queens who had the ambiguous luck to be in love -- not in that sexually supercharged way of Hollywood fantasy but in the forlorn soul-hungry way teenagers often are.

And now, two films and some fictional years later, they still are. They didn't cast some handsome, giant-thighed bulging bicep gym rat to be Spider-Man, a triumph of abs and glutes and heavy exercise machinery, they cast a weak-voiced, somewhat nerdly actor to be Peter Parker, a shy, dweeby, tormented fellow who can, by accident, leap off tall buildings and do glorious jungle swings from skyscrapers that seem to cover five city blocks in one mighty swoop.

That's why these Spider-Man movies are so good, every one of them.

The new one cost somewhere between $250 million and $300 million, depending on whom you believe, and I'm absolutely not going to get into the game of saying it's the best of the series or the worst or any of that hoo-ha that masquerades as discernment in Fan World obsession. Every one of these "Spider-Man" movies has been terrific and the new one is no less so.

The last "Superman" was a spectacular-looking emo-bore. The last "Batman" was one of the most overpraised movies of the past decade, I think. "The X-Men" movies are interestingly rife with gay subtext and full of gaudy special effects, but I have yet to care a whit about a single character in any of them. We won't even talk about Ben Affleck as Daredevil unless we can give a small cheer for Jennifer Garner as Electra.

But these "Spider-Man" movies can get you where you live. Lord knows the special effects are grandiose and magnificent but what propels them across vast urban canyons of potential audience boredom is human reality -- the sweet, sensitive nerdliness of Tobey Maguire as an actor, the ever-so-tiny imperfection in Kirsten Dunst's smile which symbolizes what makes her as believable and endearing a love object as you will ever find in a comic book movie.

Sure, you want injustice stopped, cruelty thwarted and evil crushed by derring-do but mostly what you want is for these two kids to get together and look up at the moon on summer nights.

In "Spider-Man 3," that is fraught with problems.

Truth to be told, the new installment is a wee bit plot heavy for me -- too many characters and switcheroos to pay attention to. Think of it as a bit too much macaroni in the casserole. It's still delicious, it's just that it didn't need all the carbs. It's about 15 minutes too long too, while we're at it.

But when it's good, it's spectacular and I don't just mean the stunts and effects, though one of those had me in genuine awe.

Thomas Haden Church plays a character in this one named Flint Marko, the escaped murderer of Parker's beloved uncle. In one scene, a typical confluence of weird forces turns him into a wild Marvel Comic monster named Sandman. The CGI scene in which all that sand ever-so-slowly coalesces into giant humanoid form was, I swear, the closest movies have come to Adam's arrival on earth in the Book of Genesis. It's as if we finally have the visual technology in movies to show us the creation of form itself out of chaos (or, in this case, millions of grains of sand.)

Scenes like that, by the way, are why I've never pooh-poohed the Special Effects in blockbusters. Some of the "magic" really is magical.

The other quite remarkable thing about "Spider-Man 3" is the amount of dramatic ambiguity that was shot through the whole movie. Everyone in it has a rival of some sort and almost everyone takes a turn at being a jerk or a villain or worse.

Even Spider-Man when, at one point, some extraterrestrial black goo mysteriously forces him to start dressing in black and doing nasty things. Before that, the old red and blue swinger has gotten so full of himself that he refers to himself as an "icon" and, on Spider-Man appreciation day, re-enacts his upside down kiss with a woman other than Mary Jane (one played by Ron Howard's haunting-looking daughter Bryce Dallas Howard.)

No one here is purely good or evil but a little bit of both -- with some melancholy thrown in for Freud's sake. The Dark Side awaits everyone in "Spider-Man 3" and it's the making of it.

Rivalries are everywhere. James Franco comes back as our boy's old buddy/nemesis and a competitor for M.J.'s affections. Topher Grace is a rival for Parker's photographic gigs at the paper. The black goo turns him into a wicked monster named Venom. Spider-Man has so many rivals he wonders "where DO these guys come from?"

M.J. sings in this one -- not well enough to keep her Broadway gig but good enough to be a singing waitress in a jazz club (until Peter, under black goo influence, competes with her). The comic relief scenes with J.K. Simmons as Peter's blustering editor are outrageously funny.

M.J. has a rival, too.

One final word: so good are Sam Raimi and Co. in these movies that if they try to keep the series going with anyone else directing, I wouldn't blame Maguire and Dunst for taking a flying bye-bye.

It's Raimi who figured out how to make these movies truly fly and become what they are -- the traditional dramatic annunciation of Blockbuster Season.

Expect a lot of "3s" this year.

Expect some downhill after this, too.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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>Movie review

Spider-Man 3
Review: 3 1/2 stars(out of four)

Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Topher Grace, Thomas Haden Church and Bryce Dallas Howard in Sam Raimi's $250 million third installment in the world-conquering blockbuster series about the super double-life of Peter Parker. Rated PG-13, opening tomorrow in area theaters.

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