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The inner life of the super-villain

Special to The Times

A rumored $250 million is riding on whether sand, venom, a goblin and a mysterious black tar-like substance from outer space can keep a high-flying movie franchise soaring.

Considering that they’ll be filtered through “Spider-Man’s” proven mix of angst, humor, timely themes and all the CGI those millions can buy, Sony is betting that “Spider-Man 3,” even as it faces off against a blockbuster lineup that includes new entries from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Harry Potter” camps, will have the drawing power of the last web-slinger yarn, which took in $780 million worldwide.

The film will get its first test when it premieres Monday night at the Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills near Sony headquarters in Tokyo. Los Angeles press screenings start Wednesday, followed by what promises to be an exhaustively reported cast and crew junket on Friday.

But general audiences will have to wait until May 4 to draw their own conclusions about a tortured Spider-Man gone bad, infected by a sort of alien crystal meth, and this installment’s three villains -- Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), a shape-shifting thug; Venom (Topher Grace), a fanged menace; and the New Goblin (James Franco), the vengeful son of Green Goblin. Though none of this year’s bad guys have yet seen the final film, they promise their characters will be more than cartoons. What’s bare-knuckle vengeance, after all, without back story, motivation and even a lesson in forgiveness?

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In other words, they’re aiming for that classic theatrical creation: the intriguing villain.

Grace -- an action figure in a superhero film for the first time in his career -- is a fan of fantasy epics such as “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars,” and he gauges himself a tough audience, saying he deeply dislikes “irresponsible franchise rehashes.” As Eddie Brock, he’ll go head to head with Peter Parker at the Daily Bugle, where the two compete for plum photo assignments, but, upping the stakes with a sharper brand of tension, only one can win a full-time gig with benefits. And when Brock, too, succumbs to that mysterious space tar, turning into Venom, a Marvel villain created by Todd McFarlane in the ‘80s, he’s an insidiously immoral 21st century creation.

As director Sam Raimi told fans at the Comic-Con convention last summer, Venom didn’t have the well-developed conscience and history of such earlier Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Marvel villains as Sandman, Doc Ock and Green Goblin. So the filmmakers reimagined Eddie Brock as a younger, slicker, emotionally torn menace with a taste for white-collar crime. (Grace, who became a household name in “That ‘70s Show,” described Brock as an “evil doppelganger” who looks good but lacks a good moral core and Venom as more of a “psycho killer alien from outer space.” Quite a departure for Grace, who spent seven TV seasons as a teen heart-throb.)

"[Producer] Avi Arad said to me in one of our first meetings: ‘In Marvel, there are no bad guys,’ ” Grace explains. “I took it to mean that unlike other comic book companies, where someone falls into a vat of acid, then wants to rule the world, we can understand the source of their anger. Blurring that line can be a dangerous thing, but when it’s done right it can also be a lot more rewarding for the audience.”

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A 2007 flavor

RAIMI, Marvel’s Arad, screenwriter Alvin Sargent and producer Laura Ziskin have also taken care to make their familiar recurring characters fresh, or at least better accessorized.

“What’s fairly unique about the ‘Spider-Man’ films is that the conflicts and characters have carried through all three films,” says Franco, appearing for the third time as Harry Osborn, Peter Parker’s best friend and the wealthy son of OsCorp founder Norman Osborn, a.k.a. Green Goblin. “There are character arcs and new plateaus in those arcs this time around.”

Harry’s arc puts him in possession of a fresh arsenal of Goblin weapons to avenge the death of his father: a Sky Stick (a flying skateboard), pumpkin bombs and a futurist paramilitary cum extreme sports Goblin suit, complete with web-slicing blades.

(The movie may not be out, and after 2 1/2 years in production on the Sony lot, it’s a surprise more well-kept secrets have yet to wend their way to Spidey’s fanbase. But the “official novelization of the film” and related spinoffs are on the shelves, packed with details.)

Spider-Man (a returning Tobey Maguire), in this round of the tale, resurfaces as a poisoned man in black, and both he and Peter Parker are toxic. Hero and villains alike are caught up in scandals, festering fights and emotional dramas, and the flavor is recognizably 2007.

Peter Parker becomes intoxicated with Spider-Man’s fame thanks to an ego-engorging substance that reaches Earth in a meteor shower and gravitates toward him. Emboldened by the chemical, he misbehaves at a nightclub (this being aimed at a PG-13 audience, we can assume his behavior stops short of current “up-skirt” snafus), hams it up for the paparazzi, gropes girls he doesn’t know, and acts like a jerk around both his girlfriend (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry, his best pal since high school.

Paparazzi and tabloid journalism are recurring themes for the confused young characters in “Spider-Man 3.” In an attempt to impress his boss, Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, Brock’s misguided weapon of choice is Photoshop, causing a Jayson Blair-sized scandal. In another scene, Brock, driven by Jameson’s “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos, aims his lens at a friend in peril, but doesn’t try to help her.

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Rage against larger injustices makes Sandman, a Lee/Ditko creation who dates back to 1963, perhaps the most layered villain. He starts out as Flint Marko, a disaffected ex-con with no health-care benefits and a small daughter in desperate need of treatment for a deadly disease. A giant misstep at an energy test site works the transformation of man to shape-shifting sand, but it doesn’t change Marko’s emotions or his “race for the cure.”

“The stakes are considerably higher than one guy having a grievance with his daughter’s health-care provider,” said Church, who bulked up to Hulk-like proportions for the role. “What’s at hand is catastrophically frustrating to Flint Marko, and it compels him to enact very dangerous events.”

Church and Raimi talked a lot about infusing Sandman with the inherent sadness Lon Chaney Jr. brought to such misunderstood creatures as the Wolf Man. They also tried to echo recent CGI-intensive evildoers such as Gollum and King Kong.

“Villains with a conscience have this sad realization of who they are, and the monster they’ve become -- there’s a sense of regret,” said Church, an Oscar nominee for his bachelor with wanderlust in “Sideways” who’s a Raimi choice in the mold of previous heavies Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin) and Alfred Molina (Doc Ock.) “So at the end of these movies there’s a dramatic resonance that really stays with the audience.”

This being a comic book audience, it also craves big, action-packed battles, so the new story will be put to another sort of test when the villains go toe to toe with that nerdy kid from Queens in a red-and-blue suit.

“Spider-Man is a great guy, we all love him,” Grace said. “But he’s about to get his ass kicked. People are either going to get into it or not, but it is going to happen.”

Is another sequel waiting just offscreen?

Sony will say only that “Spider-Man 4" is in the early stages of development, with no official word on casting, start date or release.

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