Comic books used to be nerdy and disreputable. I read them with a flashlight under the covers; I never dreamed I'd someday have to read them for my job — or get hate mail for not knowing the complete works of Marvel Comics.
Rather than bemoan the fact that "Spider-Man 3" is the most expensive movie ever made, I'd like to point out that the genre is not all mindless escapism.
Today's comic-book superhero movies are stories of neurotic freaks working through adolescent crises, on a mythic scale.
It started, of course, with the 1989 Tim Burton movie "Batman," a Gothic meditation on being a terminal outsider, a vigilante addict. Since then, there haven't been many cheerful, straight-ahead superhero movies.
Marvel comics were always rooted in loneliness, and that's what director Bryan Singer brought to the "X-Men" series, a portrait of mutants banding together in the face of intolerance. The gay subtext was a badge of honor.
But some filmmakers got too serious; Ang Lee's "Hulk" was overloaded with Freudian baggage, and last year's "Superman Returns," directed by "X-Men"'s Singer, made Superman a depressive. It left out all the pop fun.
When it comes to mixing pop and torment, though, nothing tops the "Spider-Man" series of director Sam Raimi. He toyed with real adolescent confusions, as the nerdy Peter Parker, played by the terrific Tobey Maguire, had to cope with sudden sticky excretions.
The first movie was marred by its cartoony, computer-generated Spider-Man, but the 2004 sequel was a triumph. It was amusing and affecting to see a hero so conflicted that neither side of him, human or super, functioned properly.
Raimi's "Spider-Man 3" is not, I'm afraid, as exhilarating a ride. It's good: It has exuberant bits and breathtaking effects — which it should at these prices. But it's supposed to be fun and inspirational, and it's a little too leaden for liftoff.
This time, Spidey is a star — and too comfortable with himself, so that he can't empathize with his girlfriend, played by Kirsten Dunst. Cue a meteor bringing black sticky stuff that makes him Darth Spidey. Only he's not mean enough. Instead, there are three super-villains. The best is the Sandman, played by Thomas Haden Church (aided by 6,782 computer people).
The clashes between Spider-Man and his foes still look a tad video game-esque, but who cares with all the rock-'em-sock-'em new permutations. Today's kids have even more incentive to study math and physics: Better computer-generated superhero battles!
What's missing? Momentum. A touch of nastiness. The movie wears its heart on its web. With its holy choirs and good-conduct sermons and bad guys who don't really mean it, it's a different kind of comic-book movie, the kind where superheroes don't just want to save people, they want to save their souls.