Looking back, the warning signs were there fairly early on. As the pre-release marketing juggernaut for 'Spider-Man 3' started to kick into high gear earlier this year, director Sam Raimi began giving a series of surprisingly candid interviews. Rather than professing a love for the film's top villian, fan-favorite Venom -- a black, goopy creation of the comics that brings out Peter Parker's "dark side" -- Raimi seemed more interested in the Sandman, a character that few die-hard Spidey fans were eager to see hit the big screen.
When the film finally hit theaters, following months of trailers indicating that Venom was the film's star villain, fans and critics alike were left with a strange, underwhelming feeling that they'd just seen the wrong 'Spider-Man 3.'
Indeed, watching the film today, in a story overloaded with characters and villains and love triangles and mysterious backstories, it's immediately clear that Raimi put his true heart and soul in the misunderstood, tragic Sandman. As the director made very plain in those jittery pre-release interviews, the fact that Venom is in the movie at all is solely because the fans wanted to see the character so bad that it was mandated by the studio.
Perhaps that's why, despite its gargantuan $900 million worldwide haul, 'Spider-man 3' remains a disappointment in the eyes of many fans and critics.
To be sure, the accusations of narrative clutter leveled at 'Spider-Man 3' are completely valid. Over the course of the film's run time, poor Spidey must defeat both Sandman and Venom, work through two different love triangles, repair his broken relationship with Harry, solve the backstories of both the Green Goblin and his own dearly-departed pops, battle his dark side, and tie up all the loose story threads of the first two movies. On top of that, the film is capped off with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink climax that's so dense it requires cheesy fictional news reporters to narrate it.
Still, even if I longed for the less frenetic pacing of the earlier installments, I can't say that I was ever anything less than entertained by 'Spider-Man 3.' Raimi continues to amaze with the sheer child-like exuberance of his visual style. The age of computer-generated imagery has clearly liberated him from the shackles of the practical effects limitations of his 'Evil Dead' days, allowing him to completely ignore the laws of physics to great effect. His camera zooms, spins, swoops and does loop-de-loops, bouncing his characters around as if they have steel for bones. The film is pure comic book, and when Raimi hits those fantastic peaks, the achievement is breathtaking.
Even better (and rare for a blockbuster franchise that's still raking in the coin), Raimi sets out to create -- and largely achieves -- a finite resolution with 'Spider-Man 3.' Granted, some of the moralizing of the film's final ten minutes is a bit ham-fisted, but unlike so many cynical comic book adaptations with endings that seem designed to leave the door open for yet another sequel, there is enough earned emotional resonance at the end of 'Spider-Man 3' that, if this is indeed the end of the series (at least with Raimi and the current cast on board), it's a fitting capper.
All things considered, 'Spider-Man 3' is certainly the weakest link in the franchise, but I still felt there was enough of that old Spidey magic to make it worthwhile.
'Spider-Man 3' may just be the most eagerly-awaited Blu-ray title from Sony since the launch of the format war. Simply put, this one can't just be good, it's got to be outstanding -- the kind of demo disc that will get the fence-sitters to finally plunk down the cash and buy a Blu-ray player. Thankfully for Sony, they've largely delivered. The picture quality of 'Spider-Man 3' may not be perfect, but it is without a doubt among the top tier of titles released on the format so far.
The film is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen, and encoded in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video. Although it was shot on film, the CGI effects are so prevalent that, like the 'Star Wars' prequels, it often feels like you're watching an animated movie -- not live-action. That gives 'Spider-Man 3' an unreal quality, which is heightened by the processed nature of the transfer.
As you would expect from a new release, the source is impeccable, with rich blacks and very bright contrast. Unfortunately, this leads me to my main gripe with the image -- the darker scenes actually look the best and most dimensional. Anything brightly lit or in daylight suffers from hot whites, which flatten out depth somewhat. Fleshtones also suffer, with even close-ups of the actors faces not looking natural in texture.
Still, when 'Spider-Man 3' delivers, it delivers in spades. The image is razor sharp, and colors are bold with no bleeding or noise. Again, darker scenes are fantastic. Even the most panoramic wide shots are rich in detail, seemingly down to the pixel. Three-dimensionality is exquisite, with the image often boasting that perfect picture window effect. Sony has also clearly taken their time with the encoding, and there are no noticeable artifacts, such as banding or macroblocking.
In short, although I can't give Spidey my full vote of confidence with a perfect five-star video rating, I can't imagine anyone being disappointed with the picture quality of this disc.
Even better than the video is the audio. Two tracks are included -- a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround mix (at 48kHz/24-bit) and an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround mix (at 48kHz/16-bit/4.6mbps). Although both tracks are quite stellar, if pressed, I would give the TrueHD a slight edge in terms of impact, dynamics and accuracy of sound placement.
What's great about 'Spider-Man 3,' however, is that regardless of audio format, any one of its many action sequences is instant demo material. The early fight between Spidey and Harry, the transformation of the Sandman, the over-the-top final battle -- take your pick, and you'll be treated to a stunning home theater audio experience. The "wall of sound" effect in the rears can be mammoth. The swirling waves of the Sandman are like a sonic character all on their own, while the shrieks of Venom seriously gave me one of the biggest jolts I've ever had on my couch. Deployment of discrete effects is highly aggressive, with frequent and seamless pans between all channels that create a terrific, wholly believable 360-degree effect. This is exactly the kind of surround experience that high-def is all about.
The soundtrack elements are also impeccably produced and recorded. Clarity, tonal range and realism are state-of-the-art. Low bass is a mover, shaking up the subwoofer almost constantly during the action sequences. Thankfully, volume balance is also terrific. From the all-too-clear reproduction of Kirsten Dunst's singing (please, god, no!) to the loud-as-hell extended climax, dialogue is always intelligible and well-placed in the mix. There are no apparent defects to the source at all, with the entire sonic spectrum crystal clear and free from noise, harshness or other imperfections.
Simply put, this one is reference quality, from beginning to end.
Sony has certainly picked the right title for its first-ever two-disc Blu-ray release. 'Spider-Man 3' is exactly the kind of thrill ride that demands the special edition treatment. Even better, Sony hasn't skimped on the quality, delivering a good number of the bonus features in 1080/i/AVC MPEG-4 video.
Let's start on disc one with the audio commentaries, of which there are two. First up, Sam Raimi is joined by Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard and Thomas Hayden Church for one heck of a big group hug. This is certainly up there with the best cast tracks I've heard on any disc format, even going back to the laserdisc days. Unlike those spliced-together tracks (where the editors just rip the audio portion off a bunch of EPK interviews and call it a commentary), this one is all live (albeit with some of the cast beamed in by phone). Franco and Church in particular are articulate and passionate, prompting Raimi with all sorts of questions about the story construction, character arcs, and staying consistent to all the various incarnations and origins of the Spider-Man comic. Simply put, this track kept me riveted.
By comparison, the second track feels lethargic. Producers Avi Arad, Grant Curtis and Laura Ziskin are joined by editor Bob Murawski and visual effects supervisor Scott Stokoyk, but unlike the cast track, this one has clearly been spliced together. Much of the discussion revolves around production nuts, but Ziskin and Arad also go into pretty lengthy detail on the gestation of the Sandman and Venom characters, and the balancing of the overflowing story elements. Raimi's presence is sorely missed here, however, making this track less than essential.
Also included on disc one is a 6-minute reel of Bloopers, comprised of a series of missed lines, plus a goofy final montage of the cast making funny faces. For once, I'd love to see Maguire, unable to see though tin foil eyes, finally fall on his arse in the costume. No such luck.
Next on disc one is a very nifty selection of Photo Galleries. This is one of the best-designed interfaces for a feature like this that I've seen yet. With just a flick of the button, you can easily toggle through the five sections -- "Director & Cast" (16 stills), "Paintings" (21 stills), "Sculptures" (10 stills), "Special Effects" (20 stills), "Sketches" (34 stills) -- then, once you're there, you can scroll through each of the images super-fast with the left and right arrow commands. There's even an optional "Slideshow" function for each gallery, which automates your viewing, complete with underscore. Very nicely done.
Rounding out disc one is a music video for Snow Patrol's "Signal Fire," plus theatrical trailers for the Sony flicks 'Surf's Up,' 'Casino Royale,' 'Ghost Rider' and 'Across the Universe' (which, as I write this, hasn't yet been announced for Blu-ray).
(Note that unlike disc two, which is presented entirely in high-def, all of the video materials on disc one are 480i/MPEG-2 video only. Sadly, the quality is noticeably poor.)
Moving onto disc two, we have the true centerpiece of the supplements. Sony has produced an excellent full-length documentary that, at 126 minutes, is almost as long as the feature film itself. Divided into thirteen chapters (kudos to Sony for allowing both direct access to each one as well as a "Play All" function), this one covers just about every element of the production you could hope for. Comprised of on-set and post-production interviews with every major cast and crew member, plus tons of behind-the-scenes and effects footage, the editing is razor-sharp. Though the very tech-sounding segment headings may not suggest it, the doc is actually quite well-rounded and linear, taking us on a guided tour of the main characters, through the inter-related story threads, through the editing and post-production.
"Grains of Sand: Building a Sandman" (13 minutes), "Re-Imaging the Goblin" (11 min.) and "Covered in Black: Creating Venom" (16 min.) introduce us to the three main villains in the film, both from a story point of view as well as an effects perspective.
The next five vignettes dissect the film's many action setpieces: "Hanging On: Gwen Stacy and the Collapsing Floor" (10 min.), "Fighting, Flying and Driving: The Stunts" (19 min.), "Wall of Water" (7 min.), "Cleveland: The Chase on Euclid Avenue" (7 min.) and "New York: From Rooftops to Backstreets" (13 min.). It's here where all that behind-the-scenes footage really pays off. The 'Spider-Man' films have always been produced under a shroud of secrecy, with even a stolen, blurry snapshot posted on the web suddenly big news. Here, we finally get to see Spidey on the set, walking around and eating donuts. We also get a sense of the absolutely humongous size of the sets, locations and scope of the project -- if you're wondering how 'Spider-Man 3' could cost upwards of $250 million bucks to make, these chapters are a must-see.
"Tangled Webs: The Love Triangles of 'Spider-Man 3' (9 min.) would seem like the odd one out, but it examines an underrated element of all the Spidey flicks -- their heart. Although I don't think 'Spider-Man 3' completely succeeds as a love story (it's too busy for that), as evidenced by "Tangled Webs," the effort certainly seems sincere.
Wrapping up the doc are two post-production segments. "Inside the Editing Room" (4 min.) is an all-too-short visit with Raimi's long-time editor Bob Murawski, while "The Science of Sound" (16 min.) may seem like just another scoring featurette, but it actually offers something quite unique. Presented in what's billed as "optimized sound" (which is really just hard-encoded picture-in-picture video), this one shows a scoring session and the final film as a series of composited sequences. We also get an interview with composer Christopher Young, who does a clear and concise job of breaking down the key motifs and thematic elements of his score.
Disc two concludes with a feature I'd love to see become standard on all next-gen releases. Rather than just giving us the film's theatrical trailer and maybe a teaser, Sony presents a complete Ad Campaign gallery. Included here are all three domestic theatrical trailers and the teaser for 'Spider-Man 3,' plus an International TV Spot compilation, featuring eight full-screen promos from various overseas territories. Truly great stuff.
'Spider-Man 3' doesn't scale quite the same heights as the first two installments, but there is still enough of the old Spider-Man magic that, for me, it worked. As a Blu-ray release, this one's even better. The video is often stunning, the audio is reference-quality and there's a whole second disc of supplements, presented in super-slick HD video. If you've been waiting to finally give Spidey a spin in your Blu-ray player, you won't be disappointed by this release.