Spider-Man is one of America's most beloved and enduring iconic figures. Along with Superman and Batman, he completes the "holy trilogy" of comic book characters who have transcended their origins to become worldwide cultural touchstones. Spidey has had phenomenal success in a variety of mediums, and perhaps his most dramatic adventure has been in his transition to the world of film. When director Sam Raimi, at the time best known for his Evil Dead series, took the reins of the franchise in 2002, no one was quite sure how it would turn out. But the first film would break opening weekend box office records, a feat Raimi repeated not once, but twice, with Spider-Man 2 and 3. Now, to coincide with the release of the third film on DVD and Blu-ray, Sony has seen fit to release the whole trilogy in high definition.
The first film in the series does an excellent job of giving us a hero's origins. Tobey Maguire is perfectly cast as both Parker and Spider-Man. Quiet and unassuming in his secret identity, he comes to life as the main character, full of wit and enthusiasm. There are a few bumps in the road. Raimi had never helmed a production of that size before (the budget was reported to be around $140 million, much larger than any of Raimi's previous efforts), and at times you can see he's still getting his footing. Dafoe is great as Norman Osborn, but comes off as silly when playing The Green Goblin. This is made even worse by a poorly designed costume that looks no better now than it did then.
The effects are also woefully substandard, even for the time (this was the same year as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones) and look even worse today. But Raimi is able to overcome these problems by getting the attitude of the story right. Peter Parker is a normal kid with normal problems who also happens to be a superhero. The film balances several disparate tones and elements and does it rather well, so we can forgive a few missteps along the way. 4 Stars.
Spider-Man 2 is where all the pieces come together. Every aspect of the story is given equal weight and measure. Peter's human interactions are as emotionally involving as Spider-Man's gravity-defying fights are adrenaline pumping. Raimi proves he's the right man for the job, directing the piece with assurance and flair. Alfred Molina is a wonderful addition to the cast as Doctor Octopus, and J.K. Simmons once again steals the show as The Daily Bugle's cynical editor-in-chief, J. Jonah Jameson.
There's a good amount of humor in the picture, with in-jokes referencing the comics, Raimi's past films (a brilliant Evil Dead II homage finds its way into Doc Ock's escape from the hospital, and Bruce Campbell has a much more pronounced and hilarious cameo this time around), and even a few real life events (a scene where Peter falls from a great height and complains about back pain is a little jab at Maguire, who himself complained that he didn't want to do the second because of his own back pain). But the drama is equally important, and Peter's relationships with Mary-Jane, Aunt May, and Harry Osborn are all handled with intelligence and class.
In fact, one of the best things about Spider-Man 2 is how organically events unfold due to the internal motivations of the characters. The conflicts and interactions all make sense, both emotionally and intellectually. And the cast is at an all-time high. Maguire handles the humor, the drama, and the action with equal aplomb. Kirsten Dunst is, well, not awful, and James Franco has fun playing a man obsessed. Even better, the effects took a quantum leap forward, selling the story instead of detracting from it. Spider-Man 2 accomplishes what every sequel should strive for: Take all the best elements of the last picture, make them all bigger, and add more on top, all without ever sacrificing quality. The undisputed highlight of the trilogy. 4.5 Stars
Not all of it is bad. There's an alternate take of the Hal Sparks elevator ride that had me in stitches, and a few of the fights have been extended to great effect. Still, 2 is the definitive cut of the film, and 2.1 will mostly be remembered as a cash-in on Sony's part. 4 Stars.
Comic books have a peculiar curse attached to them. Long running stories that revolve around the same central character in a medium that demands stringent adherence to continuity leads to a lot of tortured logic and outlandish storylines that, in my mind, represent the worst that comics have to offer. When the hero is fighting space aliens who have resurrected long dead characters from earlier issues and have also created a mutated clone of the protagonist, it's just silly. Spider-Man 3 doesn't quite reach those depths of desperation, it certainly seems to take its inspiration from the more outlandish aspects of Spider-Man's long history.
Spider-Man 2 worked so well because the story unfolded as a result of the character's motivations, the groundwork of which had been laid down in the first film. Spider-Man 3 was intended to be the resolution of the storylines that began back in the first picture, but a monkey wrench was thrown into the works in the form of Venom. Sam Raimi wrote a draft of the script where the main conflict was between Peter and Harry, with the Sandman being the wild card villain. The film's producers, Avi Arad and Laura Ziskin, responding to fan requests, pushed Sam to include Venom. Sam had long been adamant about not using Venom, but with $300 million riding on the film, even he had to acquiesce. Venom's backstory was complicated, requiring an alien symbiote that gets attached to Spidey, and subsequently rejected by him. It also requires the symbiote's second host, Eddie Brock, who had to be introduced and spurned by Peter Parker.
As a result, Spider-Man 3 is overlong, crowded, and awkward. The opening of the film seems to be a natural extension of the last, but Harry is quickly written out and doesn't appear again until very close to the end of the second act. Instead, we're given shallow versions of Flint Marko and Eddie Brock, and a series of plot contrivances that often changed the basic nature of the characters, or otherwise just make no sense (how is it that Mary-Jane, who previously had fantastic success as both a model and an actress, suddenly can only find a job as a waitress after receiving a single bad review on her latest musical?). Gone is the organic flow of 2. Even worse, the script actually retreads many of the same issues that had been tied up in the last two, making the movie feel like a bad remake of its own predecessors.
But even a failed Sam Raimi film isn't a bad movie. The action sequences are on par with anything in the series, kinetic and exciting. The birth of Sandman is a balletic and touching moment that reminds us of the power filmmaking holds. The humor is even more apparent in this one, with Bruce Campbell giving his most expanded and gut-busting cameo yet. James Franco also plays Harry Osborn with relish, going completely over the top and actually stealing the spotlight right out from under Maguire's nose. Also, Chris Young's score is a nice departure from Danny Elfman's work in the other two.
Spider-Man 3 is the kind of film that demands you shut down your brain. If you start thinking about it for even a second, you'll find enough that almost every scene has something worth picking apart. I actually have to hold myself back from adding in even more examples of the problems that plague the picture (don't even get me started on the 11th hour introduction of Bernard, Harry's butler). But at the same time, it's hard to dismiss the movie entirely. There's something about it, perhaps familiarity with the characters, or the strength of the action, that brings the audience back. It's the weakest of the trilogy, but still a fun superhero flick. 3 Stars.
The Blu-ray Discs:
Spider-Man: Having not seen the first film in a few years, I was shocked to discover that it's framed at 1.85:1. I had to double check that this wasn't some kind of mistake, but no, that's how it was shot and exhibited, and that's what we get here. And the fact that it's in OAR is about the best thing I can say about it. This is the worst high-profile transfer I've seen since the early days of Blu-ray. The brightness in dark scenes have been jacked up, turning the blacks into murky blues. I often saw stray flashes of colors where they weren't supposed to be, perhaps breaking up the solid color of a wall or girder. Detail is extremely low, to the point where I felt like I was watching a DVD, and maybe not even an upconverted one. 2 Stars.
Spider-Man 2: Ah, now this is more like it. For the first time, it feels like we're watching high definition. This 2.40:1 transfer is the best I've ever seen 2 look since its theatrical release. The colors are bright and vivid, with excellent delineation. I was much more impressed with the detail. I could make out every rivet in Doc Ock's tentacles, and the slight pockmarks on Tobey Maguire's face. Interestingly, there is a lot of grain on this transfer. But it's not video noise, just a very thick layer of film grain. I actually applaud Sony for including it, as studios often tend to process that sort of stuff out. This is a damn good transfer. 4 Stars.
Spider-Man 3: And the quality just keeps going up. This 2.40:1 transfer is absolutely crystal clear, as befits a brand-new top of the line release. Due to Sam Raimi's lighting choices, many of the daylight scenes intentionally wash out finer details, but other than that, I have no complaints. Unlike 2, there is practically no grain visible at all. The sense of depth is palpable, with excellent blacks and shadow detail. Of course, this comes in handy given that Spidey spends at least half an hour in a suit that's nothing but differing shades of black. And that suit looks gorgeous here, with every fine stitch and mark ready for inspection. After having seen the film in Imax, it doesn't look quite as impressive, but then again, it would be unrealistic to expect it to look just as good as a format that massive. 4.5 Stars.
Spider-Man: While miles ahead of the video quality, I still had problems with the audio on this title. While the mix is certainly lively, with active surrounds and deep bass, I found that at times dialogue had a noticeable hiss. It was most discernible in the scene where Norman takes his own serum. The mix also didn't have nearly as much sound isolation as the other two films. 3.5 Stars.
Spider-Man 2: The thing that impressed me the most about the Dolby True HD 5.1 mix on 2 was the fidelity of the effects. Octavius' fusion generator was a cornucopia of ear-catching tones. His tentacles had always been used wonderfully, and they are well represented here, with all kinds of small noises that simulate emotions and communication. The mixing feels more advanced than in the first film. Surrounds get used in a more immersing way, sucking you in, especially in the fight sequences. 4.5 Stars.
Spider-Man 3: The only movie in the set to get two lossless tracks, one Dolby True HD, and the other PCM. While the True HD is 24 bit and the PCM is 16 bit, I have to say that the differences between them are almost negligible. They both sound absolutely fantastic. Again, this is a brand-new film, so that's almost a given, but that really isn't fair to the amazing fidelity and range this track possesses. The mix is aggressive and dynamic in the action sequences, but it doesn't sacrifice small details when delivering the big bombast. The quieter scenes don't suffer, with plenty of aural cues to keep you occupied, all while making sure dialogue is clear. And don't forget that pounding bass, which I actually enjoyed Christopher Young's score. Just for comparison's sake, I threw on the Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 lossy mix during a scene without dialogue and was shocked by the difference. 5 Stars.
Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2: Despite the fact that both of these films have fully loaded special edition DVDs, none (yes, NONE) of the extras have been ported over for this set. Both discs have 1080p trailers for Surf's Up and Ghost Rider. I suppose Sony's weak rationale for this decision would be that since all of Spider-Man 3's extras are in 1080p, they didn't want to put standard definition extras on the other movies. But that doesn't explain why the various audio commentaries haven't been included. And frankly, I'd rather have standard definition extras than no extras. Show a little effort, Sony.
Spider-Man 3: The only title available outside of this box set, we get the fully loaded two-disc edition of Spider-Man 3 being sold separately. All of the supplements on both discs are in 1080i or 1080p. Here's what we get on disc 1:
Much to my surprise, disc 2 has a pop-up menu like those that you can pull up during the film. This is accessible from any extra on the disc.