[box cover]

Spider-Man: Special Edition

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst
James Franco, and Cliff Robertson

Written by David Koepp (with Alvin Sargent)
Based on the Comic Book by Sam Ditko and Stan Lee

Directed by Sam Raimi

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Review by Damon Houx                    

With their storyboard-like structures, comic books seem like they would make an easy transition to big-screen movies. They have a visceral and visual quality that should be a shoo-in for the medium.

Seem. Should.

Nonetheless, the comic-to-film translation has wielded few films that succeed on any level, and though there are the exceptions, the list of poor comic-book movies is long and varied — and those good exceptions have fueled much of the worst of it. Even so, a wave of titles is now at its peak after the relative success of X-Men (2000) — which, in retrospect, wasn't so much good as it wasn't bad. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man is leading the charge, and Daredevil, The Hulk, Hellboy, and a new Superman are on the way.

But after Dick Tracy, after Brenda Starr, after Flash Gordon, after From Hell, the minefield has been planted for any filmmaker who dares trod in the comic-book domain. And you couldn't pick a worse time to adapt a comic book. Not because it's difficult to translate one medium to another (although that's certainly true), but because dedicated fans are critical to the point of viciousness.

Let's put it this way: There's a reason why Fox-TV's The Simpsons has a "Comic Book Guy" character. It's a recognized personality (the "fanboy"), one that the Internet has given a voice, and they seem to exist almost solely to decry any effort that in any way meddles with the sacred comic-book text. Actually, after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), a new criticism was created by this Borg-like entity: It can also be "too faithful." It seems this cast exists solely to be disappointed. Then again, after 20 years of bad adaptations, can we really blame them?

Surely the 2002 release of Spider-Man had the deck stacked against it, and the fanboys were ready to pounce. It was a big summer release that hoped to become a franchise; it had been kicking around Hollywood for decades with James Cameron attached for a long period (he also was attached to the previous year's Planet of the Apes remake as well, so his presence was not necessarily a good sign); and, perhaps most troubling of all, the shoot was fast-tracked because of the big actors/directors/writers strike that was expected to occur in the summer of 2001, but did not. (A note: This strike, which was all the buzz in Hollywood right before it was narrowly averted, led to a great number of films made on a rushed schedule that may have been better served had the industry not been making poor decisions like a drunk trying to get laid once the bar has announced last-call.) Spider-Man was under the microscope even before it was released, with every facet held in check. Who might direct it (David Fincher was a contender) and who might star (Freddie Prinze Jr. reportedly campaigned for the role) were hotly debated. Minutiae was given major attention as well — there was a great outpouring of debate over the decision to give Peter Parker organic web shooters; in the original comic book, our teen genius invented them.

And when Sam Raimi was announced as the director, fans didn't know how to react. Raimi was best known for his Evil Dead trilogy, movies built on the inventiveness and insanity of filmmakers working under the constraints of a low budget. His most successful effort was 1990's comic-book-inspired Darkman, but with 1998's A Simple Plan, the director had begun a shift towards more mature fare. Nothing in his canon reflected someone who could work under major-studio pressures for a summer tentpole picture, nothing that showed someone who had the authority to keep the top-brass at bay. Sony was taking a huge risk.

Meanwhile, the cast was loaded with actors, but no ringers. Tobey Maguire was picked as the arachnid-like hero, but he was best known for his friendship with Leonardo DiCaprio and a string of interesting — if mostly non-commercial — art films (for Ang Lee in The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil and Curtis Hanson in Wonder Boys, and with commercial success with Lasse Hallstrom's The Cider House Rules). Kirsten Dunst had some commercial hits (most notably Bring It On) but wasn't an A-lister, while Willem Dafoe has become more of a character actor than a star over the years. The movie had to succeed based on the marquee value of the comic-book character — and heavy, heavy promotion.

Of course, films like this one always sound sketchy on paper, yet Spider-Man was a smash hit. It grossed over $400 million domestically and as much internationally, trumping George Lucas's long rule of the box-office roost by outgrossing Attack of the Clones. But gross is never indicative of quality, and it might be easy to dismiss Spider-Man as the summer's hit du jour, another crumb of the mindless crap that tends to dominate summer cineplexes, only to be forgotten along with the promotional fast-food wrappers used to promote it.

Thankfully, it's not.

*          *          *

Spider-Man, the movie, concerns Peter Parker (Maguire), a geeky high-schooler with a crush on his next-door neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Dunst). Peter lives with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), and his only friend is Harry Osborn (James Franco), whose father Norman (Dafoe) is a famous scientist. On a field trip to a science lab, Peter is bitten by a genetically engineered super-spider — the small bite's altered venom gives him the ability to spin webs, climb walls, jump far distances, and preternaturally sense threats. But as Peter adjust to his powers, Norman Osborn's corporate military project is threatened by budget cuts, which leads Norman to test his experimental nerve gas on himself. Like Peter, the elder Osborn gains superpowers, but also a bad temper that transforms him into the Green Goblin.

Entering a pro-wrestling contest to earn money, with which he hopes to impress Mary Jane, Peter wins but is jilted out of his prize. Angered, he flippantly lets a thief rush by with the promoter's gate-money. But this leads to Peter being stung by an irony, one that causes his Uncle Ben to pay for his indiscretion. Haunted by Ben's advice that "with great power comes great responsibility," Peter turns himself into the crime-fighting Spider-Man, only to be confronted by the Green Goblin. Peter must not only fight his new nemesis, but also try and make a living. Meanwhile, Harry romances Mary Jane as she falls for the elusive Spider-Man.

*          *          *

Certainly, Spider-Man was a major success on all levels; even the stingiest of critics gave the movie credit, with most liking or loving it. But though it may be hard to admit, the nitpickers have their points. Raimi's Spider-Man is not without its faults.

For starters, the special-effects work is lacking in many scenes. A couple of shots of Peter jumping from roof to roof don't work, and many of the action scenes give Spidey an ill-defined sense of gravity. Spider-Man and the Green Goblin wear masks, so when they fight it's just two guys in costume arguing with each other, which makes one think they might be watching a dubbed movie — especially when many of Spidey's bon mots are playground-level insults (which is in keeping with the character). Danny Elfman's score sounds like leftover Elfmanisms and lacks the majestic theme we expect from a superhero movie (all the more disappointing, since Elfman came up with good ones for both Darkman and Batman). The tie-in soundtrack features some of the worst music imaginable, some of which is peppered in the film. And many geeks have lamented that the famous Spider-Man issue entitled "The Death of Gwen Stacy" was used for the finale of the film, but the filmmakers seemed to miss the point of that story (which would have reinforced the theme of the film about power and responsibility). Product-placement is omnipresent and obvious. And on top of all of that, the movie is an origin-tale, and most of the unfolding drama (how Spider-Man was born, how The Green Goblin was created, etc.) is stuff that people with a rudimentary Spidey-sense already know.

Some of the faults really can't be argued against: Two guys in masks arguing with each other looks silly. But it's probably best to accept (and perhaps this is a resignation) that all comic-book film adaptations are inherently flawed. Not just because it's nigh impossible to please the fans (a dumb thing to try anyway), but because comic-book films are business ventures and tentpole events. Francis Ford Coppola once described big-budget filmmaking as "writing a story with a gigantic pencil," and these movies have become so expensive (Spider-Man cost over $100 million to produce and an additional $30 million to promote) that it's something of a surprise when there's anything good about them at all. Raimi was a fan of the material, he was faithful to it, and the picture succeeded because of that love. One wishes that studios more often realized that such love is what it takes to make these films (witness the success of fellow geek auteur Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings).

Ultimately artistic compromises were essential to getting Spider-Man made, and Dr. Pepper, the appearance of Macy Gray, and Chad Kroeger's outstandingly awful end-credit song surely were concessions. Some fights just couldn't be won. What Raimi and his crew brought to the film was something no other superhero film previously had: real human emotions. And in making Spidey so sympathetic, Raimi crafted the best superhero film yet made.

*          *          *

What probably is most appealing about Sam Raimi's Spider-Man is that, unlike most superhero movies, Raimi didn't make an action movie — he made a melodrama. It helps that Spider-Man is unlike any other superhero. Superman was an extra-terrestrial. Batman was a rich guy with cool toys engaged in vigilante justice. Peter Parker is a boffin who accidentally becomes a superhero. And for what should be a fairly boring first hour, Raimi seems most in command of the film when setting up the creation of Spider-Man. As the film begins, its hard not to empathize with Peter and his crush on Mary Jane. Some of the sequences should be corny, but Maguire and Dunst give their scenes a human undercurrent, and Raimi allows these scenes to play out as naturally as possible. This sense of humanity for all characters (following the Renoirian principle that "everyone has their reasons") is what makes the picture work. For a movie based on a comic-book, it's impressive that Raimi never lets the characters become cartoonish.

And this is where having a great cast of actors comes in handy. People like Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, J.K. Simmons (as J. Jonah Jameson, the editor of the Daily Bugle), Rosemary Harris, and Cliff Robertson are all perfect in their roles and allowed to act, not just react. One of the film's best moments comes after Peter is given a moment to reflect and cry over the loss of his uncle (and Cliff Robertson, in his brief scenes, gives the film its moral gravitas). Yet it's unfair to dote on one scene, as the movie is filled with subtle grace notes. As the Green Goblin, Dafoe gives a great bipolar performance: Norman really does cares for Peter Parker until he finds out he's Spider-Man. Many of his looks (like the murderous glance he gives Aunt May after she slaps his hand) and throwaway lines ("It's cold") give his character both empathy and menace.

Even the small parts are well cast. Delivering every line at a machine-gun clip, Simmons' editor Jameson runs roughshod over his staff, but when the Green Goblin threatens Jameson's life to get Parker's name, he protects the kid. James Franco is also good in the thankless role of Norman's progeny, making the most of his character's insecurities, while Dunst does her best to make her character more than eye-candy. Her performance probably is the most complex, as she plays a character who is a different person with Peter than she is with everyone else. We get brief glimpses of the superficial MJ, but she seems drawn and quieter around Peter — such details make great contributions to the characters and story.

But as good as the performances are, it's really Raimi's show, and for something that shouldn't be a personal assignment, Spider-Man surprisingly echoes of many of Sam Raimi's earlier movies. Sure, the appearance of Raimi regulars Bruce Campbell and brother Ted Raimi, the Green Goblin's conversations in the mirror, and the brutal finale in the cemetery will remind fans of The Evil Dead series. But it's more important to note that Raimi always has been fascinated by the all-to-human-hero, from Ash in the Evil Dead, to Darkman's fractured relationships, to The Quick and the Dead's protagonist whose revenge is fueled by her own failings, to Kevin Costner's flawed baseball player in For the Love of the Game. In fact, Spider-Man works best when it concentrates on the human elements of its story. When the action scenes kick in, they feel almost generic by comparison.

*          *          *

Columbia TriStar's two-disc Spider-Man: Special Edition is what we've come to expect from major DVD releases — packed with extras, but far from definitive and less than the sum of its parts. It would be hard not to expect a Superbit (or Superbit Deluxe) edition to come along eventually, perhaps when the sequel arrives in 2004.

The DVD has been released in separate anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and full-frame sets, along with a collectible box-set that includes Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters & Marvels DVD, a reprint of "Amazing Fantasy #15," which includes the first appearance of Spider-Man, a film cel from the movie, and an off-set lithograph reproduction by Spider-Man artists John Romita Sr. and John Romita Jr. All versions feature Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround tracks (as well as 5.1 in French). As should be expect from any current release, the surround tracks are active throughout, and the picture quality is excellent (though the transfer might look a bit better under the Superbit treatment).

The majority of the film-related supplements are on Disc One. The primary extra is the edited-together commentary track with director Sam Raimi and producer Grant Curtis (recorder together) and producer Laura Ziskin and star Kirsten Dunst (also paired together). Raimi drops in his trademark deadpan humor every once in a while, but while this track offers the most behind-the-scenes information (and Raimi constantly mentions script-polisher Alvin Sargent), it's also filled with pauses and descriptions of locations and sets. A second commentary features visual-effects designer John Dykstra along with visual-effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk and director of animation Anthony LaMolinara. Their track only comes alive when talking about effects (naturally), and is mostly tedious.

To complement both there are two subtitle tracks (which remove the option of on-the-fly switching between the English, French, and Spanish subtitles). The first is a factoid track (entitled Weaving the Web), the second an on-the-fly icon that takes the viewer to vignettes about the production called Spider Sense. The factoid track is good, written by Kevin Smith fans, and generally filled with nuggets. The pop-up icon is a good idea, but there are only six instances of it, making it too sparse to not be a distraction. These supplements cover the bug-wrangler, an interview with supporting player and ex-professional wrestler Randy Savage, the model makers, an interview with production designer Neil Spisak, the art department, and the prop maker.

Also included on the first disc is much of the promotional material. The infamous World Trade Center teaser has long been banished, but there were two long trailers made for the feature, and here only was has been included, marking this set as less than definitive. Also included are trailers for Mr. Deeds, Men In Black II, Stuart Little 2, XXX, and Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters & Marvels. In this section are cast notes (why bother?), 11 TV spots (which include an ad Raimi directed for a cell-phone sponsor), and two music videos for "Hero" by Chad Kroeger and "What We're All About" by Sum 41. Both songs are awful. Those looking for Easter Eggs might want to look in the commentary menus, as to the left there's one featuring "CGI Bloopers" (2:22).

Onward to Disc Two. Though this platter won't give film geeks too much, this disc does have great supplements about the comic book. It begins with a menu broken into two sections: The first is Web of Spider-Man, which covers the comic, and the second is The Goblin's Lair, which is dedicated to the movie. Once in the "Web," it's broken into three sections: The Evolution of Spider-Man, Activison Game Hints and Tips, and DVD-ROM. The "Hints" is basically an extended promo for the video game, while the DVD-ROM section holds an Easter Egg interview with Todd McFarland entitled "A New Twist on the Web."

Once inside the "Evolution," it is broken into multiple sections. The first is the featurette Spider-Man: The Mythology of the 21st Century (Hmm. 21st, you sure about that?), which covers the comic's origin and talks to many of the authors, including interviews with creator Stan Lee, artists and writers John Romita, Todd McFarland, Erik Larsen, John Byrne, John Romita Jr. Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, Joe Quesada, Bill Jemas and Alex Alonzo, Wizard Magazine's Brian Cunningham and Gareb Shamus, and comic-book authors Kevin Smith and Kevin Platt. This covers the history of Spider-Man and goes up to the Ultimate Spider-Man issue about September 11th, and is hands-down the best supplement of the set.

Also in this section is The Spider-Man Archives, which shows a couple of comics from each year of the comic's existence (from 1963 on) and covers most of the major developments of the character. This is complimented by the next couple of sections: Rouge's Gallery, which covers the history, weapons, powers, real names, occupations, and first appearances of all of Spider-Man's major foes. The Loves of Peter Parker talks of his significant others, and Artist's Gallery — which is called "Peter Parker's Darkroom" once entered — has sections for the "Environments" of the comic, different drawings of Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and a "Comic Book Artist's Gallery". This feature offers a good sense of the many changes the character has gone through during its run. In the "Evolution" section there is another Easter Egg entitled "The Romitas," which discusses how great the father/son Spidey artists are.

Those impressed by the detail in this section will find little reward in The Goblin's Lair. It begins with the HBO featurette (24:41), which is a fairly standard behind-the-scenes spot, while E Entertainment's Spider Mania (40:29) is even more vapid. These are followed by two profiles, one of Sam Raimi (7:04) where everyone compliments him, the second on composer Danny Elfman (7:27), who discuses his working process.

Next up are the Screen Tests. Tobey Maguire's (1:13) shows him whuppin' butt to save MJ, which was studio-produced and fascinating. J.K. Simmons's test (:49) shows him getting into J. Jonah Jameson's role sans mustache or hair. The CGI Spider-Man test (:21) shows Spidey climbing a wall, while Make Up and Costumes (2:55) has the cast parading out many of their outfits. Finally there's a blooper reel (3:04) that shows people futzing up their lines. It's not bad, but far from the final word.

— Damon Houx

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