Just in time for the release of its summer behemoth Spider-Man 2, Columbia/TriStar has decided to release two new DVD versions of its blockbuster first film, Spider-Man. You can choose between Spider-Man: Deluxe Edition—which sloppily repackages the existing 2-disc set with a new disc containing about a half hour's worth of bonus features—and this fascinating Spider-Man: Superbit release. I say "fascinating" because this Superbit release is at once outstanding and…confusing.
So, by now, we're all familiar with the story. You don't need me spouting off at great length about how wonderful or awful I think Spider-Man is. (For the record, I think it's pretty good.) So let's just focus for a moment on the Superbit phenomenon. Originally conceived as a technology for maximizing audio/video quality by eschewing all supplements and animated menus, and devoting every single bit to the film itself, Superbit has become something of an oddity. Rarely do we see a company—in this case, Columbia/TriStar—flail about so wildly in search of a stable concept.
With fondness, I remember beholding the obvious image and sound improvements of the first Superbit titles, such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Fifth Element, and Desperado. With those introductions to the format, I looked forward to more Superbit titles to enjoy on my 65" screen. But as the technology improved, the Superbit concept started changing. The notion of a high-end movie-only presentation was partnered with the idea of a two-disc Superbit Deluxe DVD, which offered a Superbit presentation on Disc 1 and an array of supplements on Disc 2. (Films such as Charlie's Angels, The Patriot, and Hollow Man received this treatment.) Many people loved the idea, but it did mess with the original concept. But Superbit Deluxe was a positively marvelous idea compared with Columbia/TriStar's seeming insistence to release B and C titles in its shining format. What are we to make of Superbit titles such as Anaconda, The Big Hit, Heavy Metal 2000, Johnny Mnemonic, and Vertical Limit?
And what's the deal with supplements and animated menus seeping into some recent Superbit titles? Why is there a teaser trailer on the Panic Room Superbit DVD? Why do both Panic Room and Adaptation include animated menus? Aren't such things verboten according to the Superbit philosophy?
Such developments have caused much souring on the Superbit format, which many now consider a marketing ploy. I myself backed away from the format for a while. Occasionally, I would receive Superbit screeners to review, and I would find myself increasingly perplexed with the Superbit philosophy. In my reviews of the Superbit editions of Heavy Metal, Leon: The Professional, and Quick and the Dead, for example, I discovered a displeasing sameness in image quality when comparing the original release with the Superbit DVD. In theory, of course, the Superbit philosophy is loaded with potential, but in practice, Columbia/TriStar is shooting itself in the foot by simply upping the bit rate on flawed, existing transfers and fidelity-challenged audio presentations.
In my eyes, an ideal Superbit DVD is one that pays more attention to video or audio than simply putting a flawed print on a pedestal. And perhaps Columbia/TriStar is starting to move in that direction. For perhaps the ultimate Superbit presentation, you need look no further than Lawrence of Arabia, a title that film preservationist Robert Harris himself supervised specifically for the Superbit release. These are the types of films and efforts I want to see in future Superbit titles. These are the types of Superbit titles that I will buy.
And now we have a Superbit presentation of Spider-Man. The good news is that image quality is significantly improved, as you will see below. It's so good that you'll assume (although I'm unsure) that Columbia/TriStar has struck a brand-new, sparkling transfer from a new source. The confusing news is that, once again, the company has thrown a supplement—in this case, an audio commentary—on the disc, betraying the original Superbit concept and making you wonder, If you can fit a commentary on this thing, why didn't you just give us the sparkling transfer in the first place? Which brings you back to Superbit as Marketing Ploy idea.
Still, I can't deny that this image is very much worth treasuring. And the commentary is just enough cheeky fun to warrant a recommendation. In the end, I have to admit that this Superbit release is worthy of adding to your shelf, right next to the previously released 2-disc set. And see? I've fallen for Columbia/TriStar's ploy.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Columbia/TriStar presents Spider-Man in an anamorphic-widescreen Superbit transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. In order to judge the quality of the transfer, I compared it with the quality of the first DVD version, released in 2002. That original transfer is no slouch, but it's not an eye-boggler, either. Detail of that version was fine, but overall, it seemed flat and a bit murky.
In direct comparison, this Superbit presentation is really quite striking—so much so that you'll probably suspect it was struck from a new print. The level of detail is peerless. Comparison with the earlier release makes that DVD's image quality seem almost unwatchable—particularly if you own a large monitor. Sharpness is blisteringly tight. This is one of those transfers that offers such clean detail that you notice the slight errors of the focus puller. The film's bright color palette is reproduced with intensity, truly like a vivid comic book come to life. This is a vividly colorful image. And black levels are inkily dense, with precise shadow detail. You'll be very pleasantly surprised by the levels of depth and definition in this effort.
I noticed only the barest hint of edge halos, and only rarely. Otherwise, this is an edge-enhancement-free presentation. There's also a slight filmlike grain at certain periods, but it's no concern at all. I perceived practically no image specks or flaws.
This is one Superbit transfer that easily bests the version that preceded it.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The original DVD offered a very nice Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presentation, nicely defined through all channels. This Superbit DVD reproduces that effort, and adds a new DTS 5.1 track. You DTS nuts out there will probably buy this DVD solely for its inclusion, but the truth is that it's not far removed from the existing Dolby Digital track. As always, it's a bit louder when compared head-to-head with the original, and its bass might be a tad tighter, but the differences are infinitesimal—so slight that I doubt I would be able to discern a difference in a blind test at the same level.
Both tracks provide clean and accurate dialog, with no distortion at the high end. Sound effects are dynamic and involving, swirling across and through all channels. Danny Elfman's score comes across with gusto. Stereo separation across the front is at once aggressive and natural. Surrounds come into play not only for ambience but also for highly charged discrete sounds such as explosions and flight effects.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
As previously mentioned, the Spider-Man Superbit DVD flies in the face of the traditional Superbit philosophy by giving you an Audio Commentary with Actors Tobey Maguire and JK Simmons. (Apparently, this track was previously available online, but this is its first appearance on DVD.) Recorded together, the two men offer a fairly engaging track in which they share many anecdotes about the shoot and funny stories about Sam Raimi. Although it's a low-key chat, there's plenty of laughter and fun reminiscing. They cover everything from casting to costume problems to stunts. Tobey tends to dominate the track, whereas Simmons functions as backup. Tobey points out a Sam Raimi cameo. The pair seems to run out of steam toward the end, and there are a few gaps throughout.
The Superbit DVD comes with one other cool extra: a ticket to see Spider-Man 2, good through July 30, 2004.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Although Columbia/TriStar remains a bit befuddled about what to do with its potential-laden Superbit format, I can't deny that the image quality of a couple recent efforts have won me over. This is one of them. I highly recommend this disc, particularly if you have a high-end setup.