'Spider-Man 3' Is a 4-Star Opera

'Spider-Man 3' | Katie Couric | Odds 'n' Ends

'Spider-Man 3' Is a 4-Star Opera

Whatever Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3" cost to make — and some say the number could be around $300 million — it's worth it, and you see it on the screen.

I screened the Columbia Pictures blockbuster-to-be Tuesday morning and was fascinated by how completely unlike other superhero movies it is, and at the same time, completely entertaining.

One thing is for sure: "Spider-Man 3" is a long movie, even though it's not many more minutes longer than its predecessors. This feeling may come from the number of plot lines and characters.

"Spider-Man 3" is a big meal, a kind of opera in which every character — Peter Parker, Mary Jane, Aunt May, Harry — each gets to sing a couple of show-stopping arias.

Thanks to veteran screenwriter Alvin Sargent, by the time this movie is over, we know more about these characters than we ever wanted to.

At the same time, "Spider-Man 3" also has lots of action. A lot of it is computer-generated, but that's OK. We don't really expect to see Tobey Maguire swinging from skyscrapers on dental floss-like spider webs.

And the very cool Sandman character, played by a steroidal Thomas Haden Church, would not be possible otherwise.

But "Spider-Man 3" is kind of an interesting movie in that the leading man is really a character actor (Maguire) and the second banana villain is played by a heartthrob (James Franco).

While Maguire is perfectly cast as Spider-Man's clueless alter ego, Peter Parker, Franco even more so seems to step up in this third chapter as a bigger movie star than ever before. It's not just his matinee idol looks; Franco looks comfortable for the first time in a feature film.

But the movie is really centered on Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as Peter and Mary Jane. They are a durable couple, but you do think that if it weren't for all the outside complications in their lives, they would be very boring.

Mary Jane in particular is more wishy-washy than ever. I found myself hoping Peter would dump her for the new female in the film played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

But that's the way Mary Jane is written; she's the good girl who waits patiently for Parker to come around, and she doesn't mind that he's Spider-Man (she knows this secret, although she seems unfazed by it).

There's plenty of humor in "Spider-Man 3" — and that's a good thing. Several times I found myself laughing out loud, like when Aunt May (the always lovely Rosemary Harris) visits Peter's dump of an apartment. Doesn't Spider-Man deserve better digs?

And there's plenty of inside baseball stuff, too, as Peter reminds Mary Jane — who gets poor reviews in her Broadway debut — that "Spider-Man gets criticized all the time."

Peter also makes reference to his alter ego having become an iconic figure and a bestselling Halloween costume.

And of course, there's a cameo appearance by Marvel Comics' Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man.

One thing that did surprise me: A dangling plot line about Peter planning to propose marriage to Mary Jane. Instead of wrapping up this Spider-Man cycle in a trilogy, Raimi leaves the door open for a fourth episode. Is there any more juice left? I'm not sure.

A fourth installment is what killed off Christopher Reeves' "Superman" series for good, and the finale wasn't that rewarding. But for now, "Spider-Man" remains an intelligent treat, a lot of fun and the first big, big movie of 2007.

P.S.: "Spider-Man Week" is about to launch in New York from April 30 to May 1. This includes five related events with the Tribeca Film Festival, including Monday's all-star premiere in Queens.

Some of the other activities include a rare comic book display at the New York Public Library and a closing-night rap-off at the Apollo Theater, where urban poets can win a Sony TV by reciting original rhymes based on Spider-Man's exploits. It's all at www.Spider-manweeknyc.com.

Katie Couric: Lesley's Stahl Tactics Not Appreciated

I told you yesterday that CBS News' Bob Schieffer, a beloved news vet, has been fingered by insiders as a chief instigator of the bad press directed at Katie Couric.

Since we published that column, another name has turned up as an active inside critic of Couric: Lesley Stahl.

You may recall that when Couric was first chosen as the new anchor of the CBS Evening News, Stahl threw her a luncheon. Stahl even told me that she was looking forward to Couric coming to CBS and joining "60 Minutes" as well.

Alas, sources at the tarnished Tiffany network say that was the last time Stahl had any contact with Couric. "They may say 'hi' passing each other in the hallway," my source said. "But otherwise, Lesley is known to gripe publicly about Katie."

Stahl, insiders feel, joined Schieffer in complaining to the Philadelphia Inquirer's former TV writer Gail Shister. The result was Shister's recent attempted "assassination" of Couric.

It's easy to see why Stahl would be unhappy. She has been the only full-time female at "60 Minutes" for decades, having watched the likes of Connie Chung and Christiane Amanpour come and go.

For Stahl — whom this columnist likes a lot — to feel encroached upon or bitter would not be much of a leap.

Much of the finger-pointing at Schieffer and Stahl came out last Friday, I'm told, after a "CBS Evening News" staff meeting overseen by new exec producer Rick Kaplan.

According to sources, the meeting included everyone from Couric down and across to all the bureaus, reporters, producers, etc.

"It was network-wide," an insider said.

At some point, Kaplan asked if anyone had questions. A longtime, respected female producer cleared her throat and asked, "How long are we going to take this crap?"

It was a reference to the barrage of ad hominem attacks on Couric and the show.

"The floodgates opened," my source said, "and all of a sudden everyone was talking about stuff they'd heard in the office, about all the people who'd said stuff."

Certain CBS vets were described as "treasonous" for the way they had behaved toward Couric.

"The staff is behind Katie," another source said. "They're mobilized now that it's coming out about what's happened inside."

If anything, Couric's show has changed in the five weeks since Kaplan came aboard. Tuesday night's broadcast was top-notch, leading with the Pat Tillman story and staying on track with Iraq, the economy and new material about the Virginia Tech shootings.

Fans of Charlie Gibson or Brian Williams would have no trouble finding themselves at home with Couric's show. They would just have to give it a chance.

'Everyone' Eats Where?; Nicole Celebrates

I'm just devouring a new book by veteran journalist Bill Stadiem and Mara Gibbs (she of the Morton's of Hollywood family) called "Everybody Eats There: The Fabulous World of Celebrity Restaurants."

It's the story of a couple dozen of the most famous joints in the world: who eats there, why and how the places came to be.

Some of them are known to us, like Elaine's in New York and Spago in L.A., but there are many eateries in far-flung locales that we will never be able to afford to visit — in Europe and beyond.

There are also the kinds of watering holes you have to know about to know about, if you know what I mean, like Giorgio's in Santa Monica and Rao's in New York.

Stadiem and Gibbs do an excellent job of taking us into the kitchens and dining rooms. It's a book you can't put down, and the good thing is, it's calorie-free.

And congrats to our old pal, designer Nicole Miller. She's celebrating 25 years of being a force in the fashion biz, from her famous ties to knockout dresses.

Only: How can it be so long if Nicole is only 25? We knew her when! I still have my first Nicole Miller tie with airplanes imprinted on it: a true collector's item.