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It’s really no exaggeration to say that that was waiting since the early 90’s for a Spider-Man movie to arrive. Of all the Marvel’s superheroes, Spider-Man has always been my favourite (even more so than the Uncanny X-Men). Perhaps it’s the everyman appeal of the hero that explains the popularity of the character, but he’s someone that I - and many others - strongly identify with. I can remember a Stan Lee interview conducted way back in the early nineties, in which talk of a Spider-Man movie was rife. At the time I seem to remember all kinds of ideas being bandied about, with the possibility of James Cameron at the helm and huge stars like Arnie (as Doc Ock) attached. There was even talk of a CGI Venom, but I don’t know how successful it would have been all those years ago! I was incredibly excited at the prospect of a Spider-Man film, not to mention a little bit impatient that I’d have to wait until 1995 for the movie to appear. Ahem. Ten years after that interview we finally have the finished article, but has the transition to DVD been a successful one?

Spider-Man, Spider-Man...

Feature


Brilliant young high school student Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire) lives in New York with his elderly aunt and uncle. Although he enjoys a loving, nurturing home environment, the same cannot be said of his school life. Peter is an outcast, a shy science geek who is constantly ridiculed and bullied by the more popular kids. For many years Peter has been deeply infatuated with his beautiful next-door neighbour Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), but she doesn’t even know he exists. To make matters worse she’s dating the biggest jerk in school, the egocentric jock Flash Thomson, who just happens to be Peter’s biggest tormentor!

As fate would have it, during a class trip to an exhibition on genetically altered ‘super spiders’, one of the specimens escapes and bites Peter. Before long he starts to manifest amazing ‘spider-like’ traits, including super strength, superhuman reflexes, the ability to leap great distances, spin webs and cling to almost any surface. In addition to these remarkable powers, Peter also develops an uncanny ‘spider sense’ that warns him of impending danger.

In order to earn money with which to impress Mary Jane, Peter decides to put his newfound powers to use as a costumed wrestler. Although he easily defeats his opponent (played here by ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, who’s hairline has receeded even further these days), the unscrupulous promoter cheats Peter out of his winnings. Sickened by the promoter’s dishonesty, Peter stands idly by as a robber makes off with the night’s takings. This proves to be a decision he will regret for the rest of his life. While on his way to meet his uncle, Peter happens across a terrible commotion in the street. Someone has been shot, and that someone is uncle Ben! Devastated by Ben’s death, Peter leaps into action and manages to track the killer to an abandoned warehouse, but when he finally confronts the thug and leans his identity Peter is shattered - the killer is the very same robber that he allowed to walk free only a short time ago!

Wracked by guilt over his failure to take action, and with his uncle’s last words ringing in his ears, Peter realises that “With great power comes great responsibility”, and Spider-Man is born. As is often the case in comic book tales, the birth of a super hero is paralleled by the birth of a super villain. Norman Osborne, brilliant scientist and father of Peter’s best friend Harry, is using himself as a guinea pig to test an experimental ‘super soldier’ formula developed by his company, Oscorp. The test goes horribly wrong, and although Norman gains superhuman strength and intelligence he is driven quite mad. Armed with a vast arsenal of deadly weapons, including a gravity-defying glider, he adopts the name Green Goblin and sets out to terrorise the city of New York. Of course it isn’t long before he crosses paths with Spider-Man, and when this pair of super powered individuals meet, the sparks really begin to fly!

Long time Spidey fans should be relatively pleased with Sam Raimi’s effort to bring their favourite hero to the big screen. Sure there have been a number of significant changes to the storyline, but for the most part these have been made to bring the story into the new millennium. Rather than our hero receiving his powers from a radioactive spider, Peter now obtains his amazing gifts as the result of a bite from a genetically enhanced arachnid. This is as good a way as any to explain things, and it certainly makes as much sense as the ‘radioactive’ spider in any event. One other significant change from the comic books is that Peter now creates his own organic webbing, rather than manufacturing it with his chemistry set. When you think about it this actually makes a lot more sense than a spotty teenager inventing a miracle adhesive (although I’ve heard explanations of how he’s able to do it), but it does remove the possibility of some tense moments where Spidey runs out of web fluid (unless they plan to have him get ‘tired’ from spinning too many webs).

Does whatever a spider can...
Other changes are fairly incidental, such as uncle Ben’s death. In true ‘New Millenium’ style, he’s now the victim of a car jacking instead of a burglary. The character of Mary Jane Watson also appears to be an amalgamation of her character and that of Gwen Stacy. I can live with this, although I have to admit that MJ didn’t ‘feel’ quite right. Kirsten Dunst does a decent enough job with what she’s given, especially seeing as neither she nor McGuire were Spider-Man fans prior to making this film. Any thoughts I might have had about them not having the passion required for such a project were quickly dispelled, especially as McGuire pretty much nails the Parker character dead on. However, the undoubted star of the show is clearly Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborne/The Green Goblin. The guy is plain freaky at the best of times, but he really manages to capture the schizophrenic nature of the character, right down to having full-blown conversations with himself!

Many of your favourite characters also make appearances, however brief. Aside from uncle Ben, aunt May and Harry Osborne we have J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie, Betty Brant and Flash Thompson. There is even mention of Eddie Brock and Dr. Kurt Conners (Venom and The Lizard respectively), which opens up all kinds of sequel possibilities beyond next year’s ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’. All in all this is a pretty decent attempt at bringing the web-headed one to the big screen, but it’s not quite as ‘amazing’ as I had hoped.

Video


Spider-Man’s anamorphic transfer arrives in its theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, and while it’s a good enough effort it’s doesn’t quite live up to my expectations. For the most part this is a competent transfer, with excellent colour reproduction and solid black levels (especially during the nighttime scenes). During the action scenes, colours have an incredibly vibrant, almost comic book quality to them, while in other, more sedate scenes they are far more akin to the real world hues we know and love. The image is also very sharp and detailed, with any particularly obvious instances of edge enhancement (at least to my poor old eyes). However, there are a couple of minor faults that detract from the viewing experience. One of the most obvious is excessive ‘grain’. Now I’m told that there was a fair bit of grain present in the theatrical version, but this transfer really serves to highlight it to the point where it becomes distracting. Even my girlfriend, who knows nothing of and cares nothing for the technicalities of DVD, was quick to point out the ‘graininess’ of the image. When that happens there has to be something wrong. However, this isn’t my biggest criticism. What really damages the presentation, and costs Spider-Man points in the image stakes, is the alarming number of white specks present on the print. And we’re not just talking about the odd, inconspicuous fleck here and there: some of the speckles are rather large and appear quite frequently throughout. For a very recent film, and one that was surely intended as a flagship title for Columbia Tristar, this is very disappointing.

I also found the picture a little dark for my liking, but this may have been intentional in order to mask some of the CGI work. Even with that said the visual aspects of the film are still impressive, not just for the reasons mentioned above, but also for the often-amazing CGI characters. Admittedly there are scenes where both Spider-Man and the Green Goblin are both very obviously computer generated, but on the whole the animation is very convincing. Given Spider-Man’s arachnid like abilities, it’s not hard to suspend disbelief when he moves in ways that aren’t quite humanly possible. It’s a shame that a couple of niggling flaws prevent this transfer from rivalling discs such as ‘Attack of the Clones’ or ‘The Matrix Reloaded’, but it’s not a bad effort all things considered.

Audio


Spider-Man arrives with Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in both English and French, as well as an English Dolby Surround track. There is a mysterious sixth audio track in English Dolby Mono, but this appears to be completely silent for the entirety of the movie. I’m not quite sure what this track is there for, but perhaps it has something to do with the ‘Record Your Own Commentary’ feature of the disc. Who knows? If you do, then answers on a postcard (or email if you prefer) please.

The 5.1 mix is decent enough, but again falls short of reference quality. While there is a fair amount of rear channel action throughout the proceedings, it’s not the most expertly balanced mix I’ve ever heard, and the track is a little biased towards the front of the soundstage for my liking. Dialogue is clearly audible, and the Danny Elfman score, while not particularly outstanding, is a decent enough accompaniment to the film. Bass isn’t quite what it could be either, with a number of scenes lacking that certain punch found in other, reference quality mixes. This isn’t a bad effort by any means, but it just doesn’t achieve the high standards set by other discs.

Spins a web, any size...

Extras


As previously mentioned, Spider-Man breaks slightly with special edition tradition by including a significant amount of additional material on the first disc, as well as on the usual second, dedicated extras disc. Let’s start with the commentary tracks on disc one, of which two are included. The first track features director Sam Raimi, actress Kirsten Dunst, producer Laura Ziskin and co-producer Grant Curtis. The participants have been recorded in pairs (Raimi/Curtis and Dunst/Ziskin) and so the track feels a little disjointed at times. The second commentary track features special effects designer John Dykstra and the visual effects crew and, as you would expect, concentrates primarily on the technical aspects of the production.

Moving on we come to the branching Web-i-sodes, which is basically your standard ‘white rabbit’ feature. In a similar vein to the Web-i-sodes are the subtitled factoids. These offer many interesting Spidey related fact via pop-up text boxes at regular intervals throughout the film.

Filmographies and character files make for interesting reading, especially for those who aren’t too familiar with the comics. Alongside pages for much of the principal cast (as found on many high profile releases nowadays), there are links to information on the comic book characters they portray. In Tobey McGuire’s case, this leads to a fairly detailed introduction to Peter Parker/Spider-Man, his background, abilities and so forth. It’s nice to see Columbia Tristar making the extra effort to offer something more than the bog standard filmographies generally found elsewhere.

The next section contains the promotional material. First up in this section we have a bunch of trailers, including Spider-Man, xXx, Mr Deeds, Men In Black II, Stuart Little 2 and Stan Lee: Mutants, Monsters and Marvels. Aside from Mutants, Monsters and Marvels, all trailers feature anamorphic video with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Two music videos are also featured: Chad Kroeger’s ‘Hero’ and Sum 41’s ‘What We’re All About’. The fact that neither of these songs actually feature in the movie (only in the credits) apparently doesn’t seem to matter… I’m not particularly fond of either track, although Kroeger’s effort isn’t as obnoxious as Sum 41’s. Finally in this section we come to the teaser trailers, of which there are many. However, the now legendary World Trade Centre teaser trailer isn’t present on the disc, which is a bit of a shame (if understandable).

Rounding off disc one is some DVD-Rom content. This contains a comic/feature comparison, the ability to record your own commentary, a countdown to Spider-Man 2 and some weblinks.

Disc two is split into two sections. The first, entitled ‘Web of Spider-Man’, concentrates on the comic book origins of Spider-Man, and the second, ‘Goblin’s Lair’, on the movie. I’d like to start with the portion of the disc dedicated to the movie, simply because this features the more conventional extras.

First up is a twenty-five minute HBO making of featurette, which contains interviews with all of the main cast and crew, not to mention the odd snippet from Marvel legends Stan Lee and Avi Arad. This isn’t too bad as far as these things go, but it still falls into the back slapping category that I despise.

The ‘E! – Entertainment Online’ featurette runs for just over forty minutes and is horrendously promotional in nature. Aside from the usual back slapping interviews with cast and crew, we’re ‘treated’ to some incredibly staged advertisements for the E website, in the form of some online polls. Each poll is so clearly biased towards Spider-Man it’s ridiculous. The highlight is an interesting interview with the film’s ‘bug wrangler’, in which he takes us through a few of the spiders used in the film and how he got them to perform. Overall though, this is a disappointing and over-long featurette.

Catches thieves, just like flies...
Next up we have two profiles: Sam Raimi and Danny Elfman. These run for around seven minutes apiece, and mostly feature people talking about the greatness of the pair. There is some reasonable behind the scenes footage, and if you’re a fan of Bruce Campbell you’ll be pleased to hear that he makes an appearance in Raimi’s section. The section on Elfman is pretty interesting, as he discusses how he begins the film scoring process.

Three screen tests are included, for Maguire, Simmons and the CGI Spider-Man. Maguire’s test is a straight out action scene, in which a stripped to the waist Tobey beats the crap out of some thugs. J. K. Simmons gives us a script reading that shows us exactly why he got the part of J. Jonah Jameson. The CGI Spider-Man is basically a very rough mock up of what the finished article would look like, and it only runs for a few seconds. Finally in this section we have some rather dull make up and costume tests set to music from the film. The only thing that makes this feature even remotely interesting is Kirsten Dunst…

Finally in the Goblin’s Lair we have a gag/outtake reel. This is nowhere near as funny as some, and is mostly just a compilation of fluffed lines and actor’s pulling silly faces.

Moving on to Web of Spider-Man, we finally come to the more interesting extras (for me at least). The Evolution of Spider-Man contains a number of sub menus that lead to some exciting explorations of the web-headed wonder. ‘Spider-Man: The Mythology of the 21st Century’ is a twenty-five minute featurette that features a lengthy interview with Stan Lee. Stan tells how he got into the business, and gives his theories on just why Spider-Man is so popular. The featurette also interviews Spider-Man artists including John Romita (senior and junior), Todd McFarlane and Eric Larsen, and it’s great to hear from the people who have shaped the look of the wall crawler over the years. There’s even an interview with Viewaskew maestro Kevin Smith. All in all this is a very interesting look at the evolution of the character over the years.

‘The Spider-Man Archives’ take a look at some selected comics from the 60s right through to today. You can select the decade you wish to view, then the exact year, before finally clicking on a comic book cover to view details of the writer, pencil artist, inker (or should that be tracer?) and editor, along with a brief story synopsis of the issue. This is a nice touch, and there are some very fond memories to be found in here if you’ve read any of the books in question.

The Artists Gallery is a huge repository of production artwork, locations, Spider-Man designs and Green Goblin concept work. Even better is that this section includes some comic book art as well as the conceptual art for the movie. In this you can delve through dozens of pieces of art from the various comic books, which should delight the artistically inclined among you.

‘The Rogue’s Gallery’ is another fun section in which you get to learn a little more about some of the super villains that Spider-Man has battled throughout the years. Aside from the Green Goblin there are character biographies for Hobgoblin, Scorpion, Dr. Octopus, Sandman, The Chameleon, Mysterio, Electro, Vulture, Kraven, Rhino, Shocker and Venom. Along with character histories and weapons and powers, there are rotating 3D models of the nefarious wrongdoers for you to enjoy. This is a great little addition to the package, and one that I really enjoyed looking through.

Finally in this section we have ‘The Loves of Peter Parker’. This section takes a look at our hero’s (mostly) ill-fated romances with Betty Brandt, Gwen Stacey, Felicia Hardy (better known as The Black Cat) and Mary Jane Watson. This makes for interesting, if depressing reading, as our poor hero hasn’t exactly had an easy love life.

Heading back to the main Web of Spider-Man menu we come to the last of the supplemental features. The first is a short guide to the first three levels of the Spider-Man game from Activision. A slightly annoying commentator talks us through the first three levels with accompanying footage from the Playstation 2 version of the game, and this could be a useful feature for those of you stuck on the game. Finally we have the second of the DVD-Rom menus. This menu holds information on the Marvel dot.comics, an Activision game promo and the Spider-Man visualiszer, as well as an interesting easter egg. It’s also worth noting that all the menus are animated in some way and include some fantastic transitions and ‘spider’ themes.

Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man!

Overall


Spider-Man is a good film that definitely does justice to the character, but I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I had hoped I would. I found Blade, another Marvel adaptation, more involving and entertaining than this film (although the tone of the films is worlds apart). However, this is not a slight on Spider-Man, it’s just down to personal taste. Columbia Tri-Star’s special edition DVD set includes pretty much everything a Spider fan could ask for, with plenty of information on both the comic book and the movie versions of our favourite wall-crawling hero. When coupled with solid, if not outstanding, audio and visual presentation, it makes for a very entertaining package. This is definitely one title that I have no trouble recommending to Spidey fans everywhere, and it should provide enough entertainment to amuse even those who are unfamiliar with the webbed wonder (and until the sequel arrives in 2004).


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