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Spider-Man 2 picks up the first film’s story a couple of years later and things haven’t been going Peter Parker’s (Tobey Maguire) way as of late. He is becoming increasingly estranged from his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) over the hatred Harry feels towards Spider-Man and is slowly but surely letting the girl of his dreams, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), slip away for fear his alter ego will eventually cause her undue harm. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is losing the home she shared with Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) since she has not been able to keep up the mortgage and Peter himself is close to losing his rundown apartment for similar reasons. His grades in college are dropping since he is off saving the day instead of attending class or doing his homework, and to top it all off his super powers are inexplicably failing on him at the most inopportune of times. It’s not easy being a young, angst riddled super hero in this day and age, even if you happen to be the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.

Spider-Man 2: Superbit Edition
During this turbulent time Peter conducts an interview for a college term paper in an attempt to salvage his failing grades and becomes fast friends with Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who has been doing research involving fusion energy and is close to unveiling his work to the world. His new reactor could create a cheap and efficient energy source for all the peoples of the world, but the slightest miscalculation during the process could leave half of New York City a wasteland.  

When the inevitable accident does occur and only Spider-Man’s heroics save the entire city, Octavius’ laboratory, reputation and life are decimated and his is left with only the robotic tentacles he utilized for his complex scientific work…only now they are fused to his spine and are free to live a life of their own. Soon the artificial intelligence of the tentacles take over Octavius’ higher brain functions and in his lowest moments of desperation are able to convince the good doctor that the work on his fusion reactor must continue, whatever the cost.

While Dr. Octavius, now dubbed Dr. Octopus by the Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), plunders the city for the funds he needs to complete his life’s work, Peter Parker’s life hits rock bottom on all fronts. Forced to choose living a dual life as Spider-Man or a life as simply Peter Parker the happy go lucky college student, he leaves his web-slinging days behind. But soon, a friend’s betrayal and Octavius’ continuing crimes fuelled by the desire to rebuild his fusion reactor force Peter to confront the recent decisions in his life when only Spider-Man can save his loved ones and the residents of the city from certain destruction.

Many of Spider-Man 2’s plot elements are very similar to 1980’s Superman 2, and I am willing to let the film slide on that since the theme of the hero abandoning his powers and duty for personal happiness was originally explored in Spider-Man lore years ago. But the two films also share another common link, one that can only be appreciated when held in comparison to other super hero action films made in the past twenty five years; both films draw their protagonist’s dual identities as fully developed characters. In this film as in Superman 2, the super hero is secondary to the individual underneath the tights facing more day-to-day trials and tribulations. Since the audience can more easily emotionally connect with the real person than the super hero, there is a greater resonance to the drama that arises from the internal and external conflicts the hero faces when portrayed as either alter ego. Many super hero adaptations have attempted this in the past, 1989’s Batman for instance, but none have succeeded in the delivery so well since Superman 2…until now.

Spider-Man 2: Superbit Edition
Nearly every aspect of the film this time is better than it was the first time around; the special effects have improved sharply, the script is leaner and meaner, the film boasts better editing and pacing and even the acting by the entire cast and Sam Raimi’s direction surpass the original film.

A lot of the improvements in the special effects can be attributed to the advancement in technology since the original film’s release over two years ago, but also from the experience and growing pains born out of the work put into the first film. The line between the digital stuntman versions of Spider-Man, Dr. Octopus and the other characters and their real life counterparts is nearly seamless this time around and only upon closer inspection does that line become evident. Spider-Man in particular moves with a fluidity and grace that he lacked in the first film allowing for much more intricate and believable action scenes this go around; a scene involving Spidey and Doc Ock on an elevated train ride through the city is the film’s special effects high point and it is MARVEL-ous. The tentacles employed by Octavius have a life of their own and while at times are brought about by alternating between puppetry and the magic of CGI, the difference is virtually indistinguishable.

The screenplay, by Alvin Sargent based on a screen story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon, is tight and makes the alternating of drama and action in the film seem easy. They also manage to supply a good bit of light-hearted moments in just the right places and offer up a few hints towards possible, future villains during the course of the film that anyone with the slightest Spidey knowledge should be able to pick up on. While the first film felt at times like two separate halves of a whole, while being an origin story that may have been difficult to avoid, the story this time around is solid throughout and is as straight as an arrow. The story arc of the main characters that began in the first film is continued here admirably and by the time the film has fully played out the screenplay has given a good indication as to what course the next film must take.

All of the returning actors seem more assured and comfortable in these characters’ skins and understand the motivations of them very well, allowing them to give much more natural performances this time. These actors have also developed a very nice chemistry between each other over the course of two films as their relationships feel real and familiar. With the majority of the film anchored to Peter Parker, had Tobey Maguire’s performance been anything less than good the entire movie could have fallen apart. Clearly when first casting the role the filmmakers knew they had to have an actor that could deliver a solid performance for the Peter Parker half of the two-sided Spider-Man coin to match the extraordinary special effects work used in realizing the super hero half and Maguire is still the perfect choice for the role.  

Spider-Man 2: Superbit Edition
Any good hero needs an equally delicious foil, and Dr. Octopus is the next best choice of the classic villains after previously focusing on Norman Osborn, a.k.a. the Green Goblin. Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus is a sympathetic villain at heart and he conveys the character’s internal struggle well, in turn making the character believable even in this hyperbolic world of super heroes and villains. Kirsten Dunst is still the residential damsel in distress and her performance is on par with the last film, no better and no worse; if you enjoyed her performance before, you will enjoy it this time around as well. The only character which comes across as one note is James Franco’s Harry Osbourn with his obsessive devotion to finding Spider-Man and avenging his father’s death, but to his credit Franco gives a good performance with what he is given from the screenplay and we should expect bigger things for Harry next time around.

It seems that in successfully tackling his first big budget, special effects film, director Sam Raimi has loosened up a bit in his approach and direction. While the direction of the first film was good, here he is even better and allows himself a bit of fun. Evil Dead fans will surely delight to the scene of Dr. Octopus’ villainous emergence in a hospital operating room that pays homage to Raimi’s earlier films. Raimi’s sensibilities towards the material make him, like Maguire in the lead role, the perfect choice for the job.

While Spider-Man 2 isn’t the best super hero film ever made, it comes fairly close in easily taking its place as one of the genre’s elite films. It contains all the fun and excitement that any super hero movie should and offers more depth than most others. The only thing I would have preferred was a bit more action to go along with the angst, but this is a minor issue with an otherwise great film. In the context of being a sequel to the 2002 original, it does exactly what every good sequel of this type should accomplish in furthering the story of its characters and offering viewers more of the same, only bigger and better; Spider-Man 2 is definitely highly recommended.

Video
Columbia has presented Spider-Man 2 in an anamorphic widescreen transfer at the film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1. While some may disagree, I find the change in aspect ratio from the first film a welcome one since I prefer the wider picture and it gives the film greater scope in comparison. While not without its problems, Columbia’s Superbit transfer is good but far from reference quality and offers a bitrate about 45% greater than the standard widescreen edition. Grain and edge enhancement, while not as prevalent as in the standard edition, still exist in a number of scenes in the film, but the image here is sharper, more defined and better overall. When compared to other recently released films on DVD the quality is middle of the road for a film released this year and a bit of a let down, especially when one would consider this a cornerstone of Columbia’s library.

Spider-Man 2: Superbit Edition
Audio
The Superbit DVD offers Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 in English, along with English, French and Spanish subtitles. The Dolby Digital track, identical to the track supplied on the standard DVD edition of the film, is a very good audio presentation and represents what a Dolby Digital track should sound like. The available DTS track, at a just over 40% higher bit rate than the Dolby track, is even better and near reference quality with sharper, clearer sound and a wider dynamic range. The dialogue is clear coming from the centre channel and the music and sound effects offer an immersive sound field to the experience on both tracks. Your system’s sub woofer will also get a workout during the action scenes with either track as well, especially those featuring Doc Ock and his lumbering tentacles and/or fusion reactor.

Extras
If you are looking for any special features on this DVD you are plain out of luck.  Besides some bare boned DVD-ROM content linking to Columbia sites mainly promoting the Superbit line of DVDs and an absolutely no frills menu system there are zero, zilch, nada, no special features to be found (if you consider such DVD-ROM content and menus special features at all). With over 2.0 GB remaining on the disc, at least a commentary like the one found on the first film’s Superbit DVD and a trailer could have been added with still enough disc space for a bit more. I assume that the exclusion of any special features and the basic menu system is to maintain the illusion that the entire disc is devoted to the video and audio presentation, but such is just not the case.

Spider-Man 2: Superbit Edition
Overall
While Spider-Man 2 is a great super hero film and a lot of fun, Columbia’s Superbit release still leaves much to be desired. If you have even the slightest need or want for the special features and commentaries offered in the standard edition then purchase that version, but if you absolutely must have the better picture quality and DTS sound purchase the Superbit. Personally, I did not find the Superbit video transfer and extra DTS track to be significant enough of an upgrade to forgo the special features and commentaries on the standard release, but then again I purchased both versions. Nevertheless, this video transfer and audio presentation should have been the one packaged in the standard release of the film.


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