(Movie review written in May, '02)
It's interesting to see the resurgence in comic book movies, after many thought that director Joel Schumacher single-handedly ruined the "Batman" franchise with the one-two punch of "Batman Forever" and "Batman and Robin". "X-Men" was enough of a hit to renew interest in the genre, which was followed by development of such characters as "Daredevil" (who will be played by Ben Affleck) and "Spider Man", which finally emerged out of development hell after a lengthy battle over rights and several screenplay treatments, including some work by James Cameron.
After a lengthy discussion over stars (Heath Ledger and, shockingly, Freddie Prinze, Jr. were in the running) and directors (Sam Raimi was a terrific eventual choice), the film was set. Expertly marketed to not really overhype it all, the final film is certainly a good one, in my opinion. There's just a few things about it that keep it from swinging over from very good to excellent.
I'd most certainly call the opening half the better of the two. We're introduced to Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), an intelligent, aspiring photographer who also happens to be on the low end of the status ladder of high school. He's fallen for the girl-next-door Mary Jane ("M.J.") Watson (Kirsten Dunst), but doesn't know how to express his feelings; he also happens to get beaten-up by the local bullies.
On a field trip to a science experiment at a local university, Peter gets a pretty nasty bite from a genetically modified spider, causing him to fall ill and pass out once he gets home. When he wakes up, things have changed drastically; he can climb walls, has incredible reflexes, can sense danger and can shoot webs. There are a few scenes early on where Maguire hits perfect, goofy notes trying to figure out how these new powers work.
After a tragic event, Peter decides to use his powers to fight crime, riding the streets of criminals large and small by swooping in on them unexpectedly. Elsewhere, industrialist Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), the father of Peter's friend Harry (James Franco) takes an overdose of an experiment he was working on, giving him super strength and a second, far darker personality, eventually becoming the Green Goblin, Spider Man's villian in this particular picture (who knows which of many bad guys in the series will be chosen for the sequel).
There's a lot to like about this picture, which entertains and adds a little more character depth than viewers usually find in a Summer movie. Director Raimi, who has been consistently moving up and showing great talent with smaller character-driven dramas like "Simple Plan" and "The Gift", alternates between exhilarating action sequences and character moments. Maguire and Dunst take several sequences that are mainly dialogue-driven and through expressions and other subtle touches, make their unspoken romance believable and their characters sympathetic. Maguire was a perfect choice, easily moving from awkward to serious to subdued.
The one character element that didn't work for me was Dafoe's Green Goblin. While the actor certainly gives it an over-the-top try, the character as written here doesn't make for a particularly interesting villian. The Goblin's mask, which looks like it could have been picked up at a Halloween store, doesn't really help matters, either.
The film's special effects are quite good, as one would probably expect from a picture with a reported 120 million dollar budget. While a few scenes here and there don't look seamless, there are several remarkable shots of Spider Man flying through the streets of Manhattan that are dazzling. Speaking of visuals, it's interesting to see how Raimi's visual style has changed over the years, from the highly inventive camera work of Bill Pope in "Army of Darkness" (Raimi's "Darkness"/"Evil Dead") star Bruce Campbell has a cameo) to Dante Spinotti's stylish and fast-paced work for "Quick and the Dead" to the picture-perfect baseball scenes by John Bailey in "For Love Of the Game". For "Spider Man", Raimi has borrowed director Robert Zemeckis's usual cinematographer, Don Burgess ("Cast Away") and the result is a film with slick, attractive visuals that either remain subdued for quiet moments or follow the rapid action clearly.
Certainly, this is a very good film and one of the stronger "Summer" movies that I've seen in a couple of years. There are some concerns I had; the first half feels more fresh and energetic to the somewhat familiar and louder second half and the villian could have been stronger, but other than that, I was certainly entertained.
VIDEO: "Spider-Man" is presented by Columbia/Tristar Home Video. While there are some aspects where this transfer really shines, I was surprised to find a few faults I wasn't expecting from a new, blockbuster release. First off, sharpness and detail are often very pleasant, with the picture attaining a crisp, well-defined quality that is consistently present throughout both daylight and dimly-lit/night scenes. A few scenes here and there - such as some of the mainly CGI sequences - appear a bit flat in comparison, but most of the film looked quite nicely defined.
On the other hand, a few of the usual faults do appear. Mild edge enhnancement is noticed in a handful of scenes - while rather bothersome, some may be able to overlook it. A few traces of artifacts and some light specks on the print used were also spotted. Some slight grain is occasionally also visible throughout the film, although this was also apparent in the theatrical showings I viewed.
The film's vibrant color palette looked vivid and bright, with nice saturation and rich tones. Black level also appeared solid, as well. Flesh tones, however, occasionally appeared a bit off. While this is certainly an enjoyable, above-average presentation, it falls just short of reaching the level of some of the other releases I've recently viewed.
SOUND: "Spider-Man" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in Dolby Digital 5.1. The presentation is generally very enjoyable, although it comes up a bit short in comparison to other films with a similar genre and budget. There are considerable opportunities for creative surround use that really aren't taken, which was a bit of a disapointment. Furthermore, I was a little surprised that the surrounds were only put to noticable use on a few occasions. Danny Elfman's exciting score is really the main standout in terms of audio, as it filled up the front speakers wonderfully, sounding full and crisp. Dialogue sounded clear, as well. As for low bass, the film did provide some deep rumbles on occasion.
MENUS: The main & sub menus are nicely animated, made up of clips and other images from the movie. However, some of the buttons are rather tiny and the menus aren't always terribly easy to navigate.
Commentaries: The disc includes a commentary by director Sam Raimi, Kirsten Dunst, producer Laura Ziskin, and co-producer Grant Curtis, as well as a commentary from special effects designer John Dykstra and members of the visual effects crew. The first commentary seems to have been recorded in pairs, with Dunst/Ziskin together and Raimi/Curtis together. I was a little surprised that Dunst didn't have more to say - while her commentary with director John Stockwell proved to be both entertaining and insightful, her occasional comments here are mainly just praise of the film and her co-stars and crew. Ziskin and Raimi provide more noteworthy information, as Raimi provides an especially solid mixture of discussion of story, technical information and the obstacles of taking on such a major project that also had a major fan-base. It's a decent commentary, but there are some patches of silences and stretches of rather uninteresting chatter.
The second commentary with Dykstra (who has worked on the visual FX of "Star Wars" and "Stuart Little") and crew is a bit more dry, but also a bit more interesting because it gets right to the point and provides solid technical information. They provide a bit of good humor on occasion and, while there are some occasional pauses of silence in the track, they rarely fall back to simply restating what's happening in the story or spending too long praising the cast/crew.
Also on Disc 1: Disc one also offers two features to play along with the picture. "Spider Sense" is another one of those features where viewers must click upon a little logo when it pops up to access a short featurette about the production. In addition, there's also subtitle fact track. "Marketing Campaign" includes trailers for "Spider-Man", "XXX", "Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters and Marvels", "Mr. Deeds", "Men in Black II" and "Stuart Little 2". There's also 11 TV ads, two music videos ("Hero" and "What We're All About"), character bios and DVD-ROM features.
HBO Making Of: This feature starts off disc two and is an indication of the kind of trouble ahead. While this 24-minute piece isn't too terrible in comparison to most promotional documentaries, it's disapointing that in-depth documentaries on the production (rather than a lengthy discussion of what we've just seen) weren't done for the DVD. What we get here is a general overview of the film, with interviews from members of the cast and crew about the production, with some behind-the-scenes material and an awful lot of clips from the picture.
E! Special: This is a 40-minute look at the making of the picture. Thankfully, the interviews here are a little more fun, insightful and informative, while the behind-the-scenes clips are a little stronger. Unfortunately, some of the material shown here has already been covered on the HBO documentary. If anything, I'd skip that piece and watch this one instead.
Profiles: Sam Raimi and Danny Elfman: These two featurettes run for several minutes each and tell us why both are so wonderful and brilliant. Yes, Sam Raimi is a great director and Danny Elfman is a marvelous composer. However, several minutes of telling me that on both just isn't very interesting. The only funny moment is Raimi's "Evil Dead" star Bruce Campbell making a few jokes on the Raimi featurette.
Screen Tests: First, there's Tobey Maguire's screen test, which comes complete with background music bad enough to make a serious scene almost humorous. Also included in this section are: the test for JK Simmons, a CGI Spider Man test and make-up/costume tests. All are very brief.
Gag Reel: A gag reel that lasts a few minutes. A couple laughs to be had, but there's been better gag reels on other DVDs...
Spider-Man: The Mythology: This is a 25-minute piece that focuses on the creation of the comic and its history. It includes interviews with Stan Lee and others, who give a lot of interesting tidbits about "Spider Man", as well as some other background about the comic industry. Those deeply familiar with the comic industry may find this featurette old news, but I enjoyed it.
Archives: This includes various images from the comic (covers) from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 21st century, along with the storylines. There's also an Artist's Gallery, with additional comic stills. Rogue's Gallery provides a look at Spider-Man's various villians, while Loves of Peter Parker looks at Parker's love interests.
Activision Game Tips: Tips for the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube game are available here. Pretty fun game, actually.
DVD-ROM: Pop the first disc into your computer and you'll find a few rather nifty features. The first feature is Record Your Commentary. I believe this was also a feature on the "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" DVD. While it's rather difficult to discuss the movie, given the fact that I was not a member of the production, some may find this fun to do a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" and provide some jokes about the film. The other feature included on disc one is a Comic/Feature comparison, which is quite enjoyable - it's actually a split-screen comparison of the film and stills from the comic book adaptation. There's also a web-link, which didn't appear to be ready yet. Disc two's DVD-ROM features include a screen-saver and game demo.
Final Thoughts: "Spider-Man" remains terrific entertainment - a blockbuster that delivers excitement, heart and great characters. The DVD is very nice, but not groundbreaking: the extras are certainly on the promotional side, while the audio/video quality is above-average, but not excellent. Still, the film's highly entertaining and the DVD is still worthy of a look for those who haven't seen it and purchase consideration for those who have and enjoyed it.