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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: Widescreen Special 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.


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.

Spider-Man 2: Widescreen Special Edition
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.  

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.

Spider-Man 2: Widescreen Special Edition
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. This, however, is where the good points of the transfer end. The low bit rate and poor quality of the transfer is inexcusable for a film that is now a cornerstone of Columbia’s library, let alone a film released just this year. The picture isn’t as sharp as it should be and grain and edge enhancement problems are noticeable in numerous portions of the film and when held up in comparison to other recently released films on DVD the problems become even more apparent. Columbia does separately offer a Superbit version of Spider-Man 2 sans any special features, so if you feel you will be satisfied without them and want a better viewing experience perhaps the Superbit is the way to go. The film and its fans, however, deserve and should have gotten a better transfer without having to choose between presentation quality and extras.

* All of the images seen here have been captured from the standard, widescreen edition of Spider-Man 2.

Audio
Spider-Man 2 offers Dolby Digital 5.1 in English and French and Dolby Surround 2.0 in English and Spanish along with English, French and Spanish subtitles. While the video transfer leaves much to be desired, there is little to complain about the Dolby Digital 5.1 track on this DVD. The dialogue is clear coming from the centre channel and the music and sound effects offer an immersive sound field to the experience. Your system’s sub woofer will also get a workout during the action scenes, especially those featuring Doc Ock and his lumbering tentacles and/or fusion reactor. Danny Elfman’s score builds nicely from themes heard in the first film and is on par with some of his best work. Overall this is a very good audio presentation and represents what a Dolby Digital track should sound like.

Extras
This edition of Spider-Man 2 contains a great number of special features that will take hours for you to comb through with the majority housed on disc two.

First up on disc one are two commentary tracks to listen to while watching the film.  The first track features director Sam Raimi, star Tobey Maguire, producer Avi Arad and co-producer Grant Curtis, while the second is a technical commentary featuring John Dykstra and Steve Johnson among others who were responsible for the film’s effects work. Both commentaries are worth a listen and offer good insight to the production of the film.

Also on disc one is a series of four Web-i-sodes, featurettes that were available via the film’s official site. These featurettes include ‘Costume Design’, a look into the making of the new Spider-Man costume used in the film and features director Sam Raimi and designer James Acheon. The next featurette entitled ‘Comic Con Q&A’ is a look into the question and answer session conducted at the San Diego Comic Con which focuses mainly on the Doc Ock character; participants include Alfred Molina, John Dykstra, and producers Avi Arad and Laura Ziskin. The third featurette entitled, ‘J. Jonah Jameson’, goes behind the scenes to look at the infamous Daily Bugle editor as portrayed by J.K. Simmons. The last featurette, ‘Peter Parker & Mary Jane Watson’, delves a bit deeper into the relationship between the main characters and includes blurbs from Maguire and Dunst. All of the featurettes have an average running time of one minute and thirty seconds to two minutes and thirty seconds each.

Spider-Man 2: Widescreen Special Edition
 ‘Spidey Sense 2’ is an alternate subtitle trivia track that supplies the viewer with information on the production of the film and Spider-Man lore throughout the entirety of the film and is presented in pop-up video fashion. The track contains some interesting nuggets of information and should make for an interesting sit.

Lastly there is a seven minute blooper reel included, the music video ‘Ordinary’ from the rock group Train, and a number of trailers for other Columbia titles including Spider-Man, Christmas with The Kranks, Spanglish, Hitch, Seinfeld, The Forgotten, White Chicks, Hellboy and the Spider-Man 2 theatrical trailer.

Now we can move on to disc two where the meat of the special features are found.  The centrepiece of this compilation is the documentary ‘Making the Amazing’, which clocks in at just over two hours in length. The feature covers all aspects of the film’s production including story and character, visual design and effects, costuming, sound design and music and the film’s release just to name a few with the choice given to watch the entire documentary or in twelve separate parts. This one is by far the best special feature included and is nearly worth the price of the set in and of itself. If there was ever anything you wanted to know about Spider-Man 2, this documentary will more than likely answer your questions and then some.

Next are three more featurettes with a combined run time of nearly an hour and are good for a look at, preferably on a different day than the one you will spend watching the full length documentary from above. The first, ‘Hero in Crisis’, gives a closer look into the character of Peter Parker and the origins of the major themes used in Spider-Man 2. The next featurette, ‘Ock-Umentary’, focuses its attention to the origins of the Dr. Octopus character from the issues of “The Amazing Spider-Man” and the acting and effects work it took to bring Spider-Man’s latest foe to life. The last of these featurettes, ‘Interwoven: The Women of Spider-Man’ mainly features background information pertaining to Aunt May and Mary Jane Watson with interviews from the actresses that portray them on screen. The feature also looks into some of the other, minor female characters from the film such as Jameson’s secretary Betty and Peter’s neighbour Ursula.

The next extra, a multi-angle featurette called ‘Enter the Web’, gives the viewer a unique perspective into eight days worth of the cast and crew shooting the film’s climax and is approximately fourteen minutes in length, viewable in four separate parts or as a whole. The feature grants the viewer the ability to choose multiple angles from around the set by use of their DVD player’s remote control. A similar feature was attempted on Universal’s Van Helsing a little while back and while that feature failed in its execution, this one delivers what it sets out to while adding to a long line of good features on the disc.

Under the ‘Gallery’ option from the main menu the user is taken to a series of paintings created by artist Alex Ross for use during the film’s amazing opening title sequence. Also included under the ‘Interactive’ portion of the disc is a trailer for Activision’s Spider-Man 2:The Movie video game and a brief glimpse into the making of the game itself.  Rounding out the special features are links to additional DVD-ROM content such as press reviews, mobile phone content, the on-line game ‘Web of Words’ and a link to the Spider-Man 3 countdown if you just can’t wait any longer.

Add in a great menu system along with Easter eggs hidden within the set and this package, exhaustive in its attention to detail, should satisfy anyone looking for good and plentiful special features.

Spider-Man 2: Widescreen Special Edition
Overall
While Spider-Man 2 is a great super hero action film and the special features hold a lot in store for viewers, the package as a whole is brought down by the execution of the most important part of all, the film itself. If the set had contained the Superbit transfer of the film, and there seems to be more than enough space on disc one to accommodate it, this might have been one of this year’s best releases. Instead we are left with half a great release and considering all of the hard work that went into bringing the film to life, which is made abundantly clear in this edition’s special features, it’s a real shame.


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