(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: (original review) "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.
Sharpness and detail on the Superbit release appeared somewhat improved over the original release, as the image appeared largely rock-solid, aside from a couple of shots that appeared slightly lacking in shadow detail. Some slight grain and a couple of specks were still visible here, although the edge enhancement and minor compression artifacts apparent on the prior release seemed noticably lessened.
SOUND: (original review) "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 disappointment. 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.
The Superbit edition provides the film's soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Both soundtracks appeared mostly the same, but the DTS presentation did offer some mild improvements. Surround energy on the DTS edition seemed somewhat stronger, discrete sound effects seemed a little less "speaker-specific" and the soundtrack overall seemed a tad more full and dynamic. Overall, the two soundtracks remained pretty similar, but the DTS edged forward.
EXTRAS: Going against the whole "Superbit" philosophy, the "Spider-Man" Superbit edition includes an exclusive commentary from actors Tobey Maguire and JK Simmons. Maguire has a great deal to offer, talking about how many of the stunt sequences were accomplished and chatting about many of the stories that happened on-set. When not providing information about the production, the two engage in a pretty consistent line of fun, entertaining chatter about what's happening on-screen. This is one of the better commentaries I've listened to lately.
For those looking for more supplements, there is also a 3-DVD "Deluxe" edition of the film with the supplements of the original DVD release and new features. However, the commentary included here is exlusive to the Superbit DVD.
Final Thoughts: "Spider-Man" is a fun, entertaining action flick with more character depth than most of these sort of films. While a few moments here-and-there could have been shaved, the picture balances action and drama quite well. Columbia/Tristar's Superbit Edition provides very good video quality, fine audio and one very good supplement. Recommended.
The Film ***