Spider-Man (2002)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Making Of, Outtakes, Trailers and TV Spots, Music Video, Pop-up Factoids, and much more

Far from the madding crowds who haunted multiplexes endlessly this past summer, "Spider-Man" arrives amid fresh hype on DVD from Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment. Not content with having what will probably be this year’s most successful theatrical release, Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment wanted to make sure that this title would be the coolest, most sought after DVD for the holiday season. Did they succeed? Well, I guess with anything on DVD, it starts with the film itself. Spidey fans beware: you might not like the next few paragraphs.

As everyone must surely know by now, Sam Raimi’s "Spider-Man" represented the first big-screen incarnation of Marvel Comics’ most durable and enduring super-hero. During a class field trip to a lab, nerdy high-school student Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) accidentally gets bitten from by a genetically altered spid
er. He soon discovers that he has developed very unusual abilities: enhanced strength, the ability to climb sheer vertical walls with ease, spin web strands at will and heightened ESP or "spider sense." When a robber kills Peter’s beloved uncle, a tragedy that might have been averted, he dedicates his life to fighting crime as Spider-man. He remembers something his uncle told him: "With great power there must also come great responsibility." Of course, just as a benevolent superhero is born, so must an equally malevolent archenemy emerge: the Green Goblin aka maniacal businessman and scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). With similarly augmented strength and intelligence – but also driven insane by his own physical power – Osborn/Green Goblin and Peter/Spider-Man clash in a series of epic showdowns in and around the Big Apple itself.

In many ways, director Sam Raimi was the perfect candidate to bring Spidey to the big screen. There’s a comic book sensibility to most of his films, especially 1990’s "Darkman." He brought a real reverence to the production, rarely straying too far conceptually from the character’s comic book origins. For the die-hand fans, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp kept Spider-Man’s world intact. This movie is not retro, campy, dark or brooding. It is fast-paced, very colorful, vivid and alive at times. The first major skirmish between Spider-Man and Green Goblin amid Macy’s Parade type balloons (Chapter 18) offers the type of action that previously only existed in the comics, but with the aid of a visual effects army led by guru John "original ‘Star Wars’" Dykstra, Raimi stages the fantasy with a fair amount of energy and swagger, especially in the swooping camera shots of Spider-Man swinging through the steel canyons of Manhattan.

Ironically, Raimi’s iron-fisted devotion to the concept is what I found most disappointing about the film. Raimi has faithfully transferred Spider-Man from the two-dimensional comics page to the two-dimensional movie screen, but he also seemed to have backed away from giving the character or the property any subtext. Again, the most sterling example of comic book filmdom for me is Richard Donner’s "Superman." Christopher Reeve’s Gary Cooper-esque interpretation of the character proved the perfect counterpoint to Donner’s mythic filmmaking. The resulting juxtaposition created the subtext of conquering the ego – something anyone can relate to. In the Tim Burton "Batman" films, the undertones gets a little murkier. Probably more so in "Batman Returns" than in "Batman," the Caped Crusader’s vigilantism represented the fear of middle age. (Once you consider the casting in those films, the theory fits.) Peter’s guilt over his uncle’s death may be a psychological motivation for his superhero mantle, but it doesn’t allow us to connect Peter on an abstract, more emotional level. Consequently, I found some of the later scenes with the Goblin and Spider-Man quite anti-climatic. For one thing, having a mask that allows no expression or even facial gestures made it difficult to connect emotionally. Spidey’s frozen pupil-less face may work fine on a static comic-book panel, but not at 24 frames per second.

Columbia Tristar’s two-disc DVD spares no bits in giving the viewer every conceivable detail of the project. Disc one contains the film (released as separate full-frame and <$PS,widescreen> editions), commentary by director Raimi, visual effects supervisor Dykstra, and actors Maguire and Dunst, trailers, music video, TV spots and "Pop-Up Video" feature that displays random factoids during the presentation. Disc two houses two behind-the-scenes broadcast specials from E! Entertainment Television and HBO, two featurettes profiling director Raimi and composer Danny Elfman, screen tests, and an entire section devoted to the "Evolution of Spider-Man" including a "villainography". Whew!

The 1.85 <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer looks fresh and clean, but does fall a little short of the best looking DVDs out there. Colors look sharp and clean, with no <$chroma,chroma noise>, amazing given Spider-Man’s solid crimson costume. Deep blacks and perfect contrast balance contribute to giving lots of depth and detail to many scenes. Despite the heavy competition from primary reds and greens, fleshtones look nice and natural. The source print shows no blemishes at all and even the process shots comes across much clearer here than what I remember when I saw it theatrically. So what’s the beef? A number of scenes exhibit either excessive grain or <$pixelation,pixelation> artifacts. For instance, the early lab scenes read just a little rough. Did they detract from my enjoyment because of their visual appearance? No, but it is so noticeable only because when the disc gets the image right, it is SO right that any flaws, however slight, become that much more apparent.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 audio presents a very active, aggressive soundfield. The soundtrack is very busy, with more than frequent rear channel sound effects activity, a very wide soundstage and deep but short of gut-busting LFE enhancement. In fact, there were times when I almost wanted to turn down the surrounds at one point simply because they are so constantly engaged. The only other soundtrack is a French language 5.1 discrete track.

The commentaries are broken down into "Filmmakers and cast" and "Visual effects crew." Director Raimi, producers Grant Curtis and Laura Ziskin and star Kirsten Dunst all chime in with varying degrees of success, and the visual effects commentary by Dykstra, visual effects producer Scott Skoroyk and animation supervisor Anthony LaMolinara just got too technical for me. Just like it’s inspiration from VH-1, the "Weaving the Web" pop-up factoids are a lot of fun, with tidbits ranging from Kirsten Dunst’s career to how they painted the spider that bites Parker.

There is only one "Spider-Man" trailer in the Marketing Campaign section (it’s the final theatrical version, not the teaser that featured the World Trade Center which was eventually pulled from theaters). The remaining trailers are from other Columbia Tristar movies including "Men in Black II" and "XXX." Eleven TV spots and three music videos round out this section.

Disc two splits the Spider-Man comic book extras from the Spider-Man film extras with the menus splitting them between the Spider-Man archive and the Goblin’s Lair. (Maybe it’s me, but I found the menus very difficult to maneuver through, let alone figure out when the options I wanted were actually highlighted for selection.) The Goblin’s Lair features the HBO and E! Specials, both of which play more like electronic press kits than actual investigative reporting. The Sam Raimi and Danny Elfman profiles seem also to be culled from EPK materials since they feature the actors and producers on-set for their laudatory comments about their respective subjects. The gag/outtakes reel is self-explanatory: a collage of the funnier flubs and goofs spliced together (the gag reel is a tradition at wrap parties). Screen tests of Maguire, Dunst, J.K. Simmons (as ultra suspicious newspaper editor J. Jonas Jameson), along with make-up/costume tests and even some test footage of a CGI Spider-Man scaling an apartment wall round out the second disc’s extras. Where Columbia Tristar missed the boat was not including the hysterical "Spider-Man" parody from this year’s MTV Movie Awards, featuring Jack Black ("Shallow Hal") as Peter Parker and Sarah Michelle Geller as Mary Jane Watson.

Columbia Tristar really pulled out the stops in bringing "Spider-Man" to DVD. Despite a few technical caveats in the transfer, the two-disc set really represents the state-of-the-art in DVD quality and content. As for the film, perhaps I’ve been a little harsh. After all, with the headaches of the world today, who couldn’t use a dose of Spider-Man?