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The problem with the present? All anyone wants to talk about is the future.


At least that’s the case with director Sam Raimi and the cast of Spider-Man 3, which opens nationwide Friday.


cover art

Spider-Man 3

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard

(Sony; US theatrical: 4 May 2007 (General release); 2007)

“It’s really funny, but all anyone seems to be interested in is whether there will be a Spider-Man 4,” says Spider-Man himself, Tobey Maguire, who, on this rainy L.A. day, is dressed in a generic dark suit and white shirt. He seems to be emulating Raimi, who famously goes to work in what look like off-the-rack suits. “It’s like, whoa, slow down, let us enjoy having this one finished first, you know?”


If the speculation is more intense than it would be, say, about the possibility of a Blades of Glory II, there are two primary reasons: movie contracts and the creative legend of Spider-Man.


First, Raimi and the primary cast members—Maguire as naive shutterbug Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man; James Franco as his best friend, Harry Osborn, who turns super-nemesis as the New Goblin; and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane, the woman they both love—were contracted for only three films. All, at one time or another, have strongly implied that they would probably be ready to move on after three installments. But with Spider-Man 3 ready to roll out, all are hedging their bets.


Even Dunst, who had flatly said that this was her last Spidey, has left the door open. “When we were in Tokyo for the world premiere, Kirsten told the press there she was still open to the idea of coming back,” says Franco.


Raimi has been publicly courted by New Line chairman Bob Shaye to direct two “Lord of the Rings” prequels based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit. In his usually disingenuous way, Raimi declares that he has “no idea, truly” if distributor Sony would even want him to direct a fourth film, or whether “they might want to go in a different direction, to shake things up a little.” (Note to Sam: Not bloody likely.)


And now, Maguire, who at one point claimed a back injury might prevent him from doing Spider-Man 2 before the studio threatened to replace him with Jake Gyllenhaal, is refusing to close the door.


“I think maybe we’ve gone as far with this storyline as we could go,” says Maguire, who in Spider-Man 3 grows out of his gawky teenage persona . “But if Sam or somebody could come up with a great story that took the character someplace new and exciting—you know, that could be pretty interesting.”


The second reason the series could continue—not counting the pot loads of money that would be offered for salaries if Spider-Man 3 is the box-office smash it is expected to be—is all the great stories that Spider-Man creator Stan Lee was able to tell. “So many exciting paths were taken,” Raimi says. “I remember as a kid reading the comics and just being amazed at how fresh and new every adventure was, how much more we learned about Peter and this world he existed in. I couldn’t wait for every issue to come out.”


And, as Franco points out, the legend of Spider-Man was rife with reinvention.


“In one version of the story, Harry dies, but in another, alternative version that came later, he doesn’t. It’s the world of comic books, where they have spinoffs and reboots.


“First, there was the Tim Burton version of `Batman,’ and then another director, Joel Schumacher, came in and took it in a different direction. Then, along comes Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins and he basically just starts all over, with his own take on the thing.”


Ultimately, the comic book fans may be the final arbiter of which sequels get made and which ones don’t.


“My entire focus has always been on being true to Stan Lee’s conception,” says Raimi. “But as we’ve gone along, I guess I’ve added some personal touches here and there.”


One example is an extended comic sequence in Spider-Man 3 set in a French restaurant that serves as a showcase for Bruce Campbell, the character actor who has been a good-luck charm for Raimi.


“That scene started as three or four lines, and it ended up becoming a page-and-a-half,” says Raimi. He wrote the script with his brother Ivan Raimi. The final credit is awarded to the two of them with Alvin Sargent (“Unfaithful”), who was called in to work on the emotional scenes between Peter and Mary Jane, and Peter and his beloved aunt, played by Rosemary Harris.


“Still, the basic storylines, with Venom and Sandman, those are Stan’s; they come from the comics. I just translated them for the movies.”


As is the case with most franchises, the third chapter of Spider-Man not only raises the emotional stakes for its hero, but also raises the level of everything else. In the first film, Spider-Man had to deal with the murder of his uncle (Cliff Robertson), his crush on next-door neighbor Mary Jane, the responsibility that accompanies his newly acquired superpowers and super-villain the Green Goblin. In 3, he has to cope with three villains: the New Goblin, Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and Venom (Topher Grace).


At the same time, Pete has to deal with his dark side, unleashed by a mysterious black goo; new competition for his job at the Daily Bugle; his relationship with Mary Jane, threatened by his new self-absorption and attraction to college lab partner Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), and unresolved issues with Harry and his uncle’s death.


It’s a lot of story, and Raimi allows that Spider-Man wasn’t the only one grappling with issues of responsibility.


“With every movie after the first one, it’s been about going deeper, into the characters and the conflicts, but also wider, too, because the fans have certain expectations. ... Things we were doing special effects-wise in the first film, for example, were really new and exciting for an audience, but now they’re sort of expected. So we have to find new ways to thrill them.


“I make these movies for the audience, I always have the audience in mind, because they have such attachment to this on going adventure. And especially the kids, you know, because they really look up to Spider-Man. It’s like he can’t disappoint them, so I can’t disappoint them, either.”


Raimi says his role in any future Spider-Man projects is not entirely in his hands.


“Sony could decide they want to go in a new direction, you know, get a fresh take on it. Or, if they wanted me, I could maybe go off and do something else, and then come back.”


Raimi says while he is flattered that Shaye would want him to direct The Hobbit movies, he repeats his assertion that he would do The Hobbit only if Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, who has feuded with Shaye over profits from those blockbusters, would “be OK with my doing it. Because the way I see it, those are his movies, his and Bob’s movies, and I would want both of them to feel all right about it.”


So by the same token, wouldn’t any future Spider-Man movies be Sam Raimi movies?


“Gee, that’s an interesting question, I don’t know,” he says. “One thing I do know, there will always be a Spider-Man. He’s bigger than all this other stuff.”


___


BEYOND SPIDER-MAN


In the five years since Spider-Man was released:


Sam Raimi has been producer or executive producer on films (including The Grudge and its sequel and Boogeyman) and TV shows; at Sony’s request, he agreed to let eight minutes be added to the Spider-Man 2.1 DVD, but he did not allow the studio to call it a “director’s cut.” He also has seven announced projects, including an Evil Dead offering for 2008.


Tobey Maguire has had juicy roles in 2003’s Seabiscuit and last year’s The Good German, playing a most un-Spider-Man-like heel in the latter.


Kirsten Dunst has done seven movies, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Elizabethtown and the title role in Marie Antoinette.


James Franco has been the busiest, knocking off more than 20 films as an actor. He also has directed two movies; Good Time Max will have its premiere this week at the Tribeca Film Festival.



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