When word began to spread that Sony would be dipping back into Marvel's pool for a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, instead of a fresh sequel or a standalone offshoot, it generated a bit of head-scratching. Less than ten years after Sam Raimi propelled the series into a mostly well-regarded body of work (a hip-thrusting, sulking Peter Parker notwithstanding), and they're already anxious to rub it out and establish a new face for the web-slinger? Upon revisiting this Spider-Man, there's something to be (re)discovered: while it's exciting and magnetic as a high-brow superhero movie done by way of the director responsible for Evil Dead and Darkman, and you'll relish the flickers of creativity he injects, it's also rough around the edges in establishing the how and the why behind the origin of the classic character. Charisma and relative ingenuity go a long way in making Raimi's outlook a success, and it's the ways his cinematic genes splice with the slapdash writing that make it one not so easily dismissed, even in the current climate of stern-faced, pragmatic hero films. It can be done better, but it is done rather well here.
As with most superhero stories, Spider-Man's origin -- and Raimi's film -- can be stripped down to a succinct blurb. After a freak interaction with a genetically-altered spider, a weak yet intelligent high-school geek, do-gooder photographer Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), develops spider-like abilities that grant him the strength, agility, and perception to combat forces beyond human control. Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp use this as their foundation, and web it together with tried-and-true superhero tropes: developing strengths as a parallel to growing up; learning that power goes hand-in-hand with controlling and using it for good; and the idea that an out-of-reach love interest, crimson-haired wannabe actress Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), might be drawn to the charismatic hero before the man behind the mask. And, of course, they don't neglect Peter's relationship with his "adoptive" caregivers, Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), and how he being an orphan plays into his blossoming start.
Spider-Man, as expected, leads into several by-the-numbers sequences where Peter discovers the extent of his spider-propelled powers, and it's here where Rami's film slouches into a breezy, partly-brainless slice of escapist confection. Koepp's script streamlines the "established" story into quicker, convenient answers for the reasons Spidey has his abilities, which occasionally lead into corny bridge-gapping exposition to keep the film gleefully skipping forward; the ultra-quick, mostly snag-free process in how Peter learns to use his inbuilt web-slinging shows a hankering for charm at the expense of practicality. Raimi makes it palatable by exploiting the visual ornaments he incorporates into the hero-development arc, from clever dutch-angle photography showing how Peter scales walls to the Evil-Dead-meets-comic-panel way that we witness his costume's origin. This is a director that emphasizes the zany and high-spirited before prudence, and it shows in this distilled, visually captivating method of conveying a hero's transformation.
That's not to say that darkness doesn't creep into Spider-Man, which it does -- mostly in the presence of the villain, The Green Goblin, where Raimi's creative inclinations find their firmest footing. Broad-market scientist Norman Osborne swimmingly fits within Willem Dafoe's spectrum of inflated dramatic spectacle and facial expressions, ramping up as the events that occur around Oscorp drive him over the edge of lunacy and into a hyper-exaggerated metallic suit outfitted with bombs, a jet-propelled glider, and a gargoyle-esque mask. The duality Osborne suffers, and how it plays into his relationship with his son Harry (James Franco), adds a subversive edge to the story; Norman's musings in front of a mirror and in the presence of the quasi-haunting mask make for tremendously entertaining displays of descents into mania, while also creating somewhat humanizing arch-villain sequences. While his overarching motives for being The Green Goblin devolve as the story progresses, Dafoe's abstract charisma picks up the slack for an underwritten Osborne.
Once Raimi finds his rhythm and throttles into the anticipated scope of a comic-book blockbuster, complete with rapid transitions through explosions and collapsing buildings for our hero to swing through, his resourcefulness as a director elevates the action sequences into polished, briskly-paced set pieces that sustain visceral and expressive energy. He borrows cues from the landmarks of superhero cinema that precede it, sure -- most noticeable being Tim Burton's Batman in the chaos of a parade and the hero dangling from a thin cord while holding another person, a fact not helped by the presence of Danny Elfman's score -- but Raimi manages to make them his own through signature aesthetic ideas and a quirky focus on Spidey's dialogue. He even finds a way to sneak in a Hollywood-caliber kiss in an inventive way, a scene that's embedded itself into pop-culture's annals. Excitement's to be found amid the angst-driven foundation, hitting expected but stimulating peaks and valleys once the hero meets his villain.
Raimi musters a measure of inspired ambition that perseveres in Spider-Man, injecting earnest doses of turmoil over loss, identity, and moral complexity into a two-hour summertime hero flick, one filled with product placements and convincing-yet-dated computer effects galore. That's nothing to sneeze at. His successes in achieving relative depth, along with lively performances from Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (not to mention J.K. Simmons' brilliant turn as J. Jonah Jameson), make it easier to ignore the storytelling that conveniently moves from plot point to plot point. Everything loosely ties together into a coherent origin for the character among the red-and-blue blur of hero contrivances; his motivation, internal angst, and conflicted duality don't fall to the wayside, shirking opportunities where they very easily could. Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp achieved the rough idea behind a gripping origin comic-in-motion that both takes itself seriously and not too seriously, something they'd expound upon in the sequel.
Surely there's another reason outside of the release of The Amazing Spider-Man in July for Sony Home Entertainment to present the original Spider-Man in a standalone Blu-ray, right? Nah, but there's nothing wrong with that, especially when they put the work into compiling special features for this release (more on that later). Each of these Blu-rays comes equipped with a slick, embossed slipcover with newly-designed artwork, closely mirroring that of the half-face design adorning the recent Men in Black re-release. And, just like that one in relation to Men in Black III, each package arrives with a ticket voucher to see The Amazing Spider-Man in theaters, up to $10. Therefore, in many cases, buying this Blu-ray and getting the voucher will turn out to be a better deal than just going to the theater and buying a ticket, so you might as well get Raimi's entertaining original in the process (or the sequel, or, hell, both if you're taking someone along).
Video and Audio:
Spider-Man's Blu-ray transfer correctly presents the film in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but it's an erratic treatment that mixes suitable clarity and composure with rough, unimpressive patches. Both light and dark sequences share their own sets of off-and-on problems: darker sequences retain pleasing colors but also exhibit hefty grain and detail-crushing contrast that's either bloatedly dark or unstable, while lighter sequences can appear either richly detailed or hazy to a point that looks only a step or two above an upconverted standard-definition source. There are moments where the transfer will surprise, however; a close-up on Peter Parker's hand when the spider sinks its teeth in, the weave work in Mary Jane's sweater, and the glean on Goblin's green armor and Spidey's textured garment all assert a firmer HD punch than the weaker sequences suggest possible. And, almost universally, you'll see accurate, pleasing palette control, from flesh tones to the vivid comic-book elements. Good and bad can be found here, but while it's a respectable lunge upward in quality, it could've been much more consistent and refined.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track proves much more stable and concretely satisfying than the visuals, though not entirely free of problems. A few explosive elements sounded thin and compressed in the space of the sound design, packing less lower-frequency punch than they should and rattling off limp after effects in falling rubble and other periphery points. Mostly, however, we're working with a pretty darn solid aural foundation here, from explosions that do carry punch and mid-range swoops and punches to low-lying dialogue that remains exceedingly audible and mindful of the design's surroundings. Rear-channel activity creates a meagerly enveloping surround stage, with the occasional Spidey-swoop or periphery destruction component rushing in from the back. I can't help but feel that the design could have followed through with a substantial uppercut to give the design more aggressive, full force in spots, but there's plenty of dimensionally-sound substance to absorb here.
Audio options have also been made avaiable in a 2-channel English stereo track, alongside 5.1 dubs in French, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai. Subtitles have been made available in the following languages (clears throat): English, English SDH, Chinese Simplified and Traditional, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Thai, Japanese, and Korean.
Check this out, folks: special features have been included this time around, and on the actual Blu-ray disc itself. Many of them will appear familiar to those who have owned Spider-Man in the past, but it's a wonderful thing to have them all crammed onto one disc. There are also two exclusives: the Spider Sense Trivia Challenge playable with the film, which is self-explanatory, and The Spider-Man Cutting Room feature, which allows the user to create videos using snippets of visual and music content from the film. Both provide entertaining diversions for fans, but nothing of substance that's out-right necessary for those out for examination of the material. Some audiences might have fun with 'em, though.
I think it's best to first address a few things included on this Blu-ray that aren't listed on the packaging, namely the three recycled Commentaries -- one from Sam Raimi and the Cast/Crew, one from Tobey Maguire and J.K. Simmons from the Superbit DVD, and the other from the Visual F/X Designer and Crew. The third commentary, one I haven't listened to previously, proves to be an excellent one with concise examination of the film's visual tempo from effects design John Dykstra and his team, if a bit on the low-key side; they discuss practical vs. digital elements, superimposing Tobey Maguire's face onto a less physically-defined body, creating digital (and not-so-digital) spiders and spider webs, and the practical decision against using a stunt man for a scene. They remain on-point, rarely default to narrating the story, and go for the throat in terms of analyzing the content. As to be expected, the Raimi-driven commentary leans more to the lively, passionate side, where he examines the story's machinations, his fondness-driven motivations, and navigating how to bring the web-slinger on-screen in a way that satisfies the fan-base, and the Maguire/Simmons track can be a fun listen when the two aren't staying quiet.
Most of the other supplements will appear familiar to those who have owned the film in one fashion or another over the years. We've got the Spider-Man: Mythology of the 21st Century (25:29, SD) piece that examines the progression of the character towards the entity present in Raimi's film, which includes input from Stan Lee and other writers/artists that collaborated on Spidey's progression. On top of interviews, it also cobbles together stills from the comics and behind-the-scenes shots of the artists sketching them out. HBO's Making-of Spider Man (24:42, SD) goes down the more lavish, glitzy path of revealing general behind-the-scenes impressions, from classic on-set interviews with the cast (Maguire, Dunst, Dafoe, Raimi, and others) and prop/costume design to fight choreography and stunt coordination. Spider-Mania: An E! Special (40:32, SD) accomplishes similar things to HBO's documentary, only from a different, more vibrant, "promo junket" angle that does include a few candid interviews with Raimi and the crew that makes it worth the time. Rounding out the more substantive features, we've got the Behind The Scenes of Spider-Man (32:19, SD) series of featurettes, which includes seven concentrated topics that range from costume focus to location/set analysis.
On the less-analytical side of the supplements, we've got: the Director and Composer Profiles (14:32); the collection of Screen Tests (5:19, SD) for Maguire, Simmons, CGI Spider-Man and Make-Up/Costumes; Gags and Outtakes (3:04, SD); seven Webisodes (20:36, SD) focusing on varying topics; as well as the Original Theatrical Trailer (1:19, HD) and eleven TV Spots (5:22, HD). And, let's not forget the two Music Videos for the Chad Kroeger and Sum41 songs that persevered on the back of the film's success.
As of this writing, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man had grossed somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million in domestic ticket sales and $800 million worldwide, so it's safe to assume that one or two people enjoyed the work put into Peter Parker's metamorphosis from a geeky, lovelorn high-schooler into a evil-fighting, genetically-altered superhero. In terms of blockbuster entertainment, it's very well-realized; there's a sense of authentic emotional gravity to Parker's transformation and the motivations behind him using his powers for good as the web-slinger, and the process in which he does so is filled with exhilarating action sequences, clever production design that exhibits a glimmer or two of Raimi's other work, and charismatic performances that punctuate the themes of internal turmoil and superhero duality well enough for the film's purposes. More importantly, Spider-Man pushes (well, pushed) comic-book movie conventions without insulting the viewer's intelligence or testing their threshold of disbelief too much. While there's a rough patch here and there in terms of the villain's motives and the ease of Peter Parker's realization of his place as a hero, the balance Raimi strikes between darker themes and panel-for-panel aesthetic enjoyment shouldn't be ignored.
Sony Home Entertainment have done something a little sneaky with this standalone Blu-ray release of Spider-Man: they've given us an updated disc loaded down with previous special features, a ticket voucher to The Amazing Spider-Man, and a low price tag that, when looking at sale prices, will almost cover the cost of a trip to the movies anyway. Enjoy Raimi's initial stab at the Spider-Man franchise, one that shouldn't be merely rubbed out by the emergence of a new face for the web-slinger less than ten years after, and do it while you can get the disc cheap and with a free movie ticket in the process. Highly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site