The archetypal superhero is infallible, modest, reticent to the point of shyness. He leads an everyday life among citizens who are unaware of his true identity, slipping into his colourful, skin-tight crime-fighting outfit only when a bad guy causes trouble.
But Sam Raimi has meddled with that formula in the latest Spider-Man movie, which had its world premiere in Tokyo a fortnight ago. The man with webs at his wrists becomes cocky, arrogant and darker while the audience quickly develops an empathy for the prison escapee who happens to stumble on a top secret government research centre and is turned into the Sand Man. This isn't the way it's meant to be. Good is good and bad is bad, surely.
'My main goal when we were working on the script was to take the continuing story of this character and ask where Peter Parker is going and what is he learning as a human being - those are the most interesting things,' says Raimi, who has directed all three Spider-Man movies. 'I enjoyed watching all the characters interact and seeing Peter Parker grow. It's like the journey that we're all on.'
Parker needs to learn how to value responsibility in order to grow into a better person, Raimi says. 'When kids see this movie and identify with Peter Parker and see the character Flynt Marko killing Uncle Ben, they'll understand his rage, but by the end I want them to reach the point that Peter Parker also reaches. They want Marko to be punished, but Peter is capable of learning forgiveness.'
The message might be a good one for plenty of adults too. Raimi has pulled out all the special-effect stops for this film. The airborne scenes are impressive and the sand undulates and moves in an almost liquid, living way as Marko, played by Thomas Haden Church, morphs into the Sand Man character. Raimi knew that after the first two titles, the audience would expect even more visual 'wow' this time around and says the pressure was greater than ever to produce a hit film. 'With the first film, we didn't know how successful it was going to be - and we had no idea that it was going to achieve the level of success that it did,' he says. 'But now there are far higher levels of expectation from the fans and the studio, and I definitely sensed that.'
Spectacular screen images and stunts on a grand scale inevitably bump up the cost of a film, but the producers are trying to play down the price tag of a movie that's virtually guaranteed of blockbuster status when it goes on global general release. Co-producer Laura Ziskin refuses to reveal the total cost or compare it with Titanic. 'It was very expensive, no doubt about it,' she says. Some have put the figure as high as US$300 million. 'I'll never say the budget of a Spider-Man movie,' Ziskin says. 'I don't know if it's the most expensive ever, but I doubt it.' Ziskin says the basic production costs of the third big-screen adventure for the comic book hero was 'a dramatic increase on the second instalment'. She admits that the computer graphics budget was up 30 per cent, but that was reflected in the increase in the action sequences plus a huge leap in the difficulty of the project such as the technical difficulty of realistically filming sand for the Sand Man character - just one element of the film. 'In many ways, the budget is the least important because if what you get on the screen is good, then it's money well spent,' says co-producer Avi Arad. 'If you like the film and think that it succeeds on all levels, then it can be judged at the box office.'
Ziskin says the studio was obliged to spend big to compare favourably with the previous two titles. 'We couldn't lessen our appetite because we knew the audiences' appetite is bigger too,' she says. 'We went to Sony and told them it was going to be expensive, and they said, 'OK'.' The outlay on eye-catching action sequences clearly caught the attention of the Japanese media, with television stations devoting plenty of coverage tothe premiere and a press conference at the Roppongi Hills complex the next morning. Fans were still lingering outside the nearby hotel where the stars of the film were staying before departing for their global promotional tour.
'I wouldn't want this to be known as the most expensive movie made because that would prejudice people going to see it to ask whether it was worth that much,' says Raimi. 'I would much rather people focus on the characters.'
For Tobey Maguire, playing Peter Parker/Spider-Man in a new way was a challenge. 'He has got this sense of pride and an ego all of a sudden because the city loves him and he feeds off that, but we're really setting him up for a fall,' he says. 'I enjoyed doing the scenes in the jazz bar, where Peter was drinking and dancing. It was darker and different. I worked very closely with Sam to find the right tone for him in that part of the movie, the arrogance, thinking he's cool, a ladies' man, when really he's still a nerd.' Maguire says he struggled with fame early in his career. He disliked being constantly on display and having strangers feel they knew him from having seen him onscreen and approaching him as if they were old friends. He says fame is 'complicated' - but has little fear of getting caught up in it like Spider-Man does.
A weary-looking Dunst says the movie was the most intimate and collaborative of the three titles to date and that she has gained a great deal of confidence since playing the part as a 17-year-old in the first film. 'I'm just so proud of everyone,' says Dunst, who spent several days touring Osaka and Kyoto - as well as singing at a karaoke parlour - before arriving in Tokyo for the premiere. 'It's very hard to do these movies. Everyone has been phenomenal and I'm proud that we could share it with everyone last night.'
Those sentiments were echoed by co-stars Topher Grace and James Franco. The latter plays Parker's old friend Harry Osborn; the former plays Eddie Brock, who is overcome by what Raimi describes as 'black sludge from outer space' that arrives on a meteorite, true to the Marvel comic story, and turns him into Venom. The question on many lips, however, is whether there will be another title in the series now that the original three-picture deal has been completed. 'I'd do another movie if Sam and Tobey were involved,' Dunst says, although she has plans to direct her own short film later this year. Likewise, Maguire has other projects that he's pursuing, including directing. 'For me, it would all depend on the script, on Sam being involved and the right cast,' he says. 'I'm still young enough to play the part in another one.'
So, the two main characters are on board for a fourth film, which just leaves the man behind the lens - who has just been linked to the making of The Hobbit. 'I love working with these people simply because they're so good and I really like them as people,' says Raimi. 'When you're making a film there's always the process of getting to the actors and that takes time. I have a head start with these people now and I can work with them so intimately.
'There are more characters that we like in the comic books - a lot of great villains - but what happens to Peter Parker, that's what's most important to us,' he says. 'Peter is a teenager in the movie. He has a lot of growing up still to do.'
Expect the first rumblings of another sequel soon.
Spider-Man 3 opens on Thursday