|Spider-Man (Widescreen Special Edition)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Friday, 01 November 2002|
Reaching the home screen in an added-value-packed two-disc edition, “Spider-Man” is an appealing, appreciative rendering of the popular comic book character, with plenty of filmmaking pizzazz bolstering the action and the angst. Director Sam Raimi, probably the ideal choice for this project given both his zesty style and his love of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko source material, finds a rather magical middle ground between heightened drama and straight emotion in this superhero original tale.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a shy, brainy, unpopular high school nerd being raised by his loving Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) when we meet him. Peter has an unspoken lifelong love for classmate and neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and is best friends with wealthy Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of ambition industrialist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). Then Peter is bitten by a genetically-spliced spider and overnight, his muscles, senses and reflexes are miraculously enhanced; he discovers that he also has the ability to shoot webbing from his wrists. Peter enjoys playing with his newfound powers until tragedy strikes and he resolves to fight crime anonymously. Meanwhile, Norman goes through a few changes of his own and soon Manhattan is menaced by the mysterious, maniacal Green Goblin …
The pacing is very swift, even as David Koepp’s well-paced screenplay and Maguire’s intelligent performance deftly draw us in. We’re invited to share Peter’s astonishment and delight as he finds that he can effortlessly outmaneuver the class bully, so that we feel for him when things get bad. Dafoe is appropriately and entertainingly larger than life as the tormented Norman and as the malicious Goblin – the Chapter 19 scene in which he argues with himself in both personas is a standout in both acting and editing terms. Dunst simply shines, making Mary Jane’s role seem larger and more complex than it really is. J.K. Simmons plays cantankerous newspaper editor J.J. Jamison with such enthusiastic curmudgeonliness that he steals every scene he’s in (no mean feat up against the Goblin).
Danny Elfman’s score begins the film with a symphonic urgency over a Chapter 1 opening credit sequence that’s a nifty CGI marriage of comic book art and the New York City skyline. Visual effects are topnotch, especially Spider-Man’s web-swinging races through the canyons of Manhattan skyscrapers. The fabled “spider sense” is represented in a three-dimensional frozen tableau effect introduced in Chapter 7 that is no less effective for its similarity to effects in “The Matrix” and “Clockstoppers.”
Director Raimi not only obviously loves the characters, but he also knows how to combine his affection with a fast pace. Peter’s odyssey of discovery when he first encounters his powers conveys a sense of real joy, and more solemn moments have dramatic heft without being overblown.
There are a lot of extras lavished on the two discs, including two separate commentary tracks over the film itself. Unusually, this time out, the comments by visual effects supervisor John Dykstra (who shot to fame way back when for his work on “Star Wars”) and his team are livelier than those of Raimi, Dunst and the producers – these techies are not only informative but also fun. You have to like people who comment, when they realize they’re supposed to explain the wall-to-wall effects section is coming up, “We’ll never be able to talk fast enough.” They also take a certain amount of pride and glee in describing an incident in which Sony executives were certain that a very lifelike CGI rendering of Spider-Man was really Maguire’s stuntman rather than a computer creation.
The disc contains two music videos, both of which can be found in the “Marketing Campaign” section. Chad Kroeger with Josey Scott’s “Hero” is a swell ballad, perfect for “Spider-Man,” but the song doesn’t get the video cut it deserves – you can see chances for greater emotional impact slipping away in the choice of specific clips intercut with the band. Sum 41’s “What We’re All About” is infectiously bouncy and goofy, a bit reminiscent of some parts of “Moulin Rouge.” Both videos (like all of the supplemental materials) are in two-channel sound.
The cheerfully informative fact track is cleverly designed to look like comic-book description boxes. Disc 1 also comes with a “Spider-Sense” set of “webisodes” that sound like the “White Rabbit” feature on “The Matrix” or the “Infinifilm” feature on various New Line Home Entertainment releases. However, after several attempts, I remained unable to find the onscreen icon to enable the webisodes as various scenes ran. I remain unclear as to whether this is a problem with my powers of detection, a flaw in the individual review disc or a glitch in the interaction between the review disc and my player.
Disc 2 has two separate sections: “Web of Spider-Man” contains a plethora of features on the comic books, while “Goblin’s Lair” provides many supplements on the film. The movie material includes both the HBO and the E! Channel “making-of” specials, which are agreeable if fairly standard. A profile of director Raimi has a bountiful amount of behind-the-scenes footage of the filmmaker at work, including a sort of funny/awful moment when he coaxes another take out of actress Dunst by asking her (presumably rhetorically) if she wants the movie to be good or bad. Maguire’s screen test is a bit of a cheat – it’s already edited together and scored (though it’s amusing to see the baddies have their swearing bleeped out), but a short outtakes reel is fun, with Dafoe proving to be the prime cut-up of the bunch.
The comic book stuff is swell, especially for anyone interested in the history of the Spidey character. Besides a pretty thorough documentary with most of the comic’s creative forces, there are features on significant plot points throughout the comic books, major villains (complete with three-dimensional renderings of the characters, their histories, special powers and weapons), love interests and design schemes. The one complaint here is that the comic book section is a little sticky to navigate – once you start investigating, you cannot go straight back to the main menu midstream, but must instead back up to the section menu and do a step-by-step retreat.
Sound is good, with effects rendered clearly and thoroughly, though the rears aren’t utilized discretely as much as might be expected. The whooshing sound of “spider-sense” is handled with awe and imagination as Peter feels everything slow down around him. The clicking of a restraining device is specific and atmosphere-setting in Chapter 8, which also makes good use of Elfman’s score and startles us slightly with a realistic warning buzzer in the left rear. When glass breaks onscreen, it cracks in the front and clatters into the rears. A wrestling match in Chapter 10 begins with a striking, every-speaker “ding” of the starting bell and has very convincing surrounding crowd noises, but the fight itself remains largely confined to the center and mains, even though the characters are tossing each other all over the ring. The sequence does feature a very nifty echoing effect as the microphone-enhanced voice of the fight emcee (Raimi stalwart Bruce Campbell in a cameo) resonates throughout the cavernous space. Quiet is also used to dramatic effect – when we are out of the arena, the sound abruptly drops to near-stillness and the disc handles the transition with great smoothness.
As in the Chapter 10 wrestling, Chapter 18 has strong sound that is more prominent in the center and mains, even though the onscreen action suggests that the rears should come into play more as the Goblin goes on a rampage and Spider-Man tries to stop him. Spidey himself web-swings satisfyingly through the rears and the Goblin’s glider likewise travels throughout the sound system, but explosions and crumbling masonry seem to remain more in the front than all around. The sequence also has some cool visual effects, including a death ray that momentarily reduces victims to skeletons surrounded by bursts of light before they vanish entirely.
Chapter 22 has good rain surround effects, and Chapter 23 likewise make full use of the surround, with crackling, burning timber and whooshing metal weapons putting us smack in the middle of a hero-vs.-villain battle on treacherous terrain. Chapter 27 features another fight where the combat is mostly up front, though the rumbles of shifting terrain and showers of falling dust sound in the rears. There’s a strong, visceral blade impact sound here, though the extreme raspiness of the Goblin’s voice starts to have a slightly congestive interaction with the speakers here.
Many diehard “Spider-Man” fans are deliriously happy with the movie’s visual and emotional fidelity to its origins (despite the controversy of the switch from manufactured to organic web-shooters in Spidey’s wrists). To the previously uninitiated, “Spider-Man” plays as really good, skillfully-crafted fun, a fantasy that takes itself just seriously enough to carry us along with great energy and flair.