"You're not Superman, you know..."
With the successful adaptation of the 'X-Men' franchise from comics to film, Pandora's Box was, as it were, opened, never to be closed again. Comic movies became instant green lights, many of which made money, no matter their quality. The greatest heroes in Marvel history finally had a chance to shine on the big screen, and possibly earn a new following. It was a great, great time to be a comic fan, even if it meant we got stuck with those 'Fantastic Four' films.
The king of Marvel Comics, their A-list property to end all A-list properties, has long been Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, since his first issue back in March of 1963 (or August of 1962, Spidey's first appearance, in Amazing Fantasy #15). He's had countless comics, many of which have run concurrently with each other, with a few arcs that cover each series, was adapted in the future (the failed 2099 experiment), and, possibly most importantly, was rebooted in the Ultimate line of Marvel comics, which brought characters back to square one, including the change from the webs shot from Spidey's wrists being organic instead of a compound he creates.
With the screen adaptation of Spider-Man in 2002, the origin story for the character seemed to pull from all angles, not following any particular version of the story. As such, it wasn't limited in the same ways, doomed to either appease fans by staying 100 percent true to the source, or incur fanboy wrath. And though the comics were directly affected by the 9/11 tragedy (as many Marvel comics are based in New York City, rather than fictional amalgamations like Gotham or Metropolis), going so far as to portray the devastation in a special issue, the film adapted, removing the now-infamous poster portraying Spidey crafting a web between the two towers (and there's no way the bridge ending cannot be considered a slight reaction, to show the strength and resolve of the people).
The story of 'Spider-Man' is as much a part of American culture and the collective subconscious as the growing nose of Pinocchio, the twisted tale of Frankenstein's monster, or the saga of Luke Skywalker. One doesn't have to be a comic or film fan to know about the teenager bitten by a radioactive spider, gaining some superhuman abilities, and leading a life as a crime fighter. One doesn't need to know that Sam Raimi ('The Evil Dead') is the man behind the films that took forever to finally be made, though knowledge of his history and style does make for a more enjoyable experience.
This origin story/first adventure stars Tobey Maguire as the iconic Peter Parker, science nerd and social reject, whose life changes when he's bitten by a genetically altered spider (radioactive spiders are so 1962), developing super strength and agility, the ability to create webs, and reflexes that define precognition. His life isn't of the charmed sort, though, and he learns, very soon after being granted these powers, that there is also a terrible price to be paid to fate, and it will come to collect quite often. Moving from the suburbs to the big city after high school graduation may grant him the buildings needed to be an efficient webslinger, but it will also help the nefarious Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) find his first true nemesis. As Parker learns that keeping his identity secret will save the lives of those he loves, he must also come to grips with the burgeoning reciprocal feelings of the beautiful girl next door, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the man his best friend Harry (James Franco) is growing to be, and the way his mentor, Norman Osborn, Harry's father, is the very man he will have to defeat to save the city.
When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spider-Man, I doubt either man would have though the character would be popular in fifty years, let alone a global influence that includes regionalized adaptations in foreign countries and currently a troubled but potential Blockbuster of a Broadway musical! Or that a simple line, told by Peter's Uncle Ben ("With great power comes great responsibility") would be forever tied to the webhead, and become one of the most revered statements in comic book history. The highly anticipated film adaptation had tons of expectations of the highest order to meet, and comic fans were left with a pleasant experience, even if the film wears thin after a few too many repeat viewings.
'Spider-Man' is a film that sometimes struggles to find its own identity. Is it dark and moody? Bubbly and quirky? There are so many elements that have to be balanced, from the dramatic themes of responsibility and the polar opposite coming-of-age roles concerning such, to the comedic aspects, action sequences, and life-changing tragedies, that a two hour film just doesn't have the time to give each aspect the time and attention it deserves. It's kind of strange, saying this two hour film that does so much in so little time could easily fill four hours and still not feel all that complete, but that's the feeling I get watching it. We get a very prolonged opening act, which concludes with Peter graduating high school, but in that time, we have to meet the hero, his pal, and his love interest, deal with him being bullied, learn the backstory of what makes the villain tick, watch the hero gain his powers, watch the villain do the same, see each come to grips with how they will use them, and still have room for the best part of the film, the interactions between the arrogant Peter, so full of vigor and life once bitten, and the Uncle who raised him after his parents' death. Cliff Robertson is absolutely amazing as Ben Parker, and truly grounds the Peter character with his simple charm and strong ideals, with a great performance that obviously has to be cut short.
The second act is where the film so full of heart and potential starts to stutter, and that's a shame. The best supporting character who appears in all three films, Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, the most perfect casting decision in a comic movie, ever), gets very little screen time, as we instead focus on the terrorist acts of the Green Goblin, the painful romance between Harry and Mary Jane (which is upsetting to the audience only due to their chemistry, rather than what it means to our hero), each character's struggles and toils in the face of mediocrity, and the way the city feels about their new savior. It's really a large amount of time, spent on virtually nothing, leaving the third act stunted due to what little runtime is left, and how many loose ends it has to tie up. We have to get Mary Jane to fall for Peter, Norman to fall from grace in the eyes of his peers, Peter's secrets to be revealed, and the consequences of such, all while also balancing a poorly designed final fight (more on that later) and an ending that screams sequel as if the screen ended with a "To be continued..." cutaway.
This first attempt at the character was almost a rough draft, when compared to the polish and poise of 'Spider-Man 2.' Here, we find out what elements of the comic work (the reveals, the heartbreak, the trepidation), and what moments don't (let's just say the smart-mouthed Spider-Man's puns and nicknames sound way better on page than they do on screen), and at times, this process can be a bit painful. Funnily enough, the more time spent filling in the gaps of what were single panels in the comic are what rivets us the most, as the nearly perfectly executed wall-climbing and first bit of actual webslinging scenes are worthy of applause, due to the sheer amount of effort put into them, effort that seems lacking in other moments that were more crucial to the actual plot of the film. Peter's transformation alone tells the tale of the film. We get his awkward transition, and get fun moments like his realization that his vision has fixed itself, but then it all goes down the tubes with the cafeteria slip sequence that is about as painful as any moment in the dreadful third film, including the emo dance off.
The casting has its ups and downs, and that plays a big part in the ups and downs here. Maguire is a great Peter Parker, possessing both the look and what you'd imagine to be the demeanor, though Dunst is beyond awkward. In high school, she's way too developed and mature looking, as a young adult, she's full of overacting, annoying expressions, and an irritating pout. Franco, you would have never thought he'd be an Oscar and Golden Globe hopeful in the future based on his performance here, or in any of the films in this series. Sure, he's a perfect casting to be the son of Dafoe, and they look the part, but they are on screen together so little, the rest of the time is just a waste. Rosemary Harris as Aunt May can overact on occasion, but she has the wonderful sweetness that fits the character beautifully. The casting of Raimi's brother Ted doesn't quite get a payoff yet, as the character is literally only in one scene, but the payoff will come soon enough. The decision to have Sam Raimi direct this pivotal film for both Sony and Marvel paid off, even if the director's roots didn't seem to be a perfect fit. The moods and atmospheres typical to the director were somewhat subdued in this fairly cookie cutter first entry, and as such, I hardly think it paid off as well as it did with the references and gags in the sequel.
The Green Goblin? Hardly the most iconic Spider-Man villain, though he is quite high up on the totem pole, I'm honestly relieved the growing pains happened to this character. Why? I've just never been a fan of his glider riding mischievous ass. The way the character is re-imagined here is outright laughable, as his moments in costume are way too corny, helping create part of the identity problem of the film. Sure, having Spidey call him "Gobby" doesn't help, but the heavy plate armor, and non-expressive mask just don't work for the character. While he doesn't dance around to Prince music (praise the lord), he also doesn't intimidate, as he's constantly bested by Spider-Man, and can only seemingly pick on the little guys. The climax feels a bit too forced, as the scenes between hero and villain hardly set the stage for a classic showdown to end all showdowns, and the fact that said armor kind of protects him from any punch Spider-Man can lay out makes most fight scenes ridiculous at best. It's also best to not mention the way that New Yorkers band together in the face of a total dick and finally stand up to the Goblin, one of a few scenes that felt far too inspired by 9/11 (the final shot of the film being the biggest perp). Most people thinking of New Yorkers used to think of the rude tough guy behavior, not this we're all a big family don't pick on us mentality that seems a bit Mayberry when it rears its ugly head at a moment far too pivotal to be interfered with by random bystanders.
A flawed film, that flashes with moments of greatness often but can't quite grab hold of them long enough to create a truly memorable experience, 'Spider-Man' is merely a stepping stone in the series. The mishandled romantic moments between Parker and Watson are ever bad enough to be distracting, and the more memorable performances help us further forget most of the mistakes along the way. I still can't get over how many times Peter Parker risks his secret identity in public, through constantly taking his mask off too early, stripping off his clothing to get to his costume in the middle of a crowd, or using his powers while still dressed in plainclothes, but I suppose one could even contribute that to the immaturity of the character, still somewhat fresh out of high school. To be fair, this is one hero who shows later on that he can't wait to reveal his secret identity, even after the harsh lessons that were supposed to be learned here. Baby steps, perhaps. Comic book fans should hold a warm place in their hearts for the film that finally brought Spidey to the big screen, flawed as it may be. No matter what, not even the worst moments here are bested by the horrific trilogy endcap, so it's still enjoyable, even at its lowest!
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony previously released 'Spider-Man' as part of a trilogy boxset along with its sequels, and as two standalone releases: a barebones "Blu-ray Essentials" disc and a more recent Blu-ray/UltraViolet Combo Pack that included a solid array of special features. This new version is part of Sony's "Mastered in 4K" series, and while the special features have all been dropped, a new high bitrate transfer has been provided. Though not actually presented in 4K, the transfer was sourced from a 4K master and has been optimized for upscaling on Sony's UHDTV displays. According to the package, support for expanded color on xvYCC-compatible TVs and Blu-ray players has also been added. The BD-50 disc comes packaged in a standard case with a cardboard slipcover. An insert with a code for an UltraViolet digital copy is also included. Upon startup, the disc transitions directly to the menu, forgoing any trailers or promo clips. The packaging indicates that the release is region A coded.
A screenshot comparison between the old and new disc is provided throughout the review. The top images are from the original release, and the bottom are from the new disc (click each to see the full size).
Though far from the night and day difference that some might be hoping for, this new "Mastered in 4K" transfer is indeed an improvement over the previous release. Like before, the movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio (though there are some negligible framing differences) and the picture has very similar (but not quite) identical colors and contrast. Detail and grain, however, are slightly improved, but the film still features some inherent inconsistencies.
The print is in good shape with no distracting blemishes to report. Grain is a bit more natural on this new disc compared to the previous transfer and carries a finer appearance, though there are still fluctuations with some scenes looking heavier than others. Clarity is strong, revealing a pleasing sense of fine detail in the comic book inspired costumes and New York locations. The Spider-Man vs Green Goblin fight in the burning building is especially impressive, with lots of intricate effects happening all at once, and the transfer captures all the dancing flames and tiny sparks wonderfully. With that said, there are some comparatively soft shots that creep in from time to time. The bright and cheery colors offer strong pop with rich saturation, though some hues do faintly bleed and certain sequences look a tad faded. Contrast is well balanced, and while blacks are deep, they do crush a bit in the darkest scenes.
Compared to the old release, this new transfer provides a slightly more natural, filmic, and sharp image. While these improvements can be seen in the included screenshot comparisons, I must stress that when I was actually flipping between the two sources on my HDTV, the differences were fairly subtle and, in some cases, nearly undetectable. This is a technically stronger video presentation, but it doesn't quite offer the type of significant upgrade that other remastered discs have provided in the past ('The Terminator,' for instance).
Unlike the video, this audio mix appears to be the same as the previous release. Here's what Nate had to say about the track in his original review:
'Spider-Man' is given a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that at times stresses the age of the film, but still presents it faithfully and clearly.
Dialogue never has a problem with clarity, though it also never has an intention to move through the room or locate. Rears are just oddly utilized, as some random localization and movement is present, but far too often scenes are nowhere near as busy or full sounding as they look; the wrestling set is one such example, where there's nearly no rear presence, despite people coming from all angles. Range doesn't seem to be limited, and high ends come through quite nicely. Bass use, it's a bit sporadic, at times enjoyable and surprising, but hardly consistent in its use. The movement effects are fun, particularly the glider, spider-sense moments, the first act car chase, or the drugged echo in the second act. Ambience is a huge hit or miss, feeling mechanical at times (which was kind of cool and moody), but never really immersing you into this somewhat ageless New York.
Unfortunately, this "Mastered in 4K" disc is barebones, dropping all the extras that were found on the Spider-Man (+UV Digital Copy) release.
Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man' remains an enjoyable comic book flick that offers a very solid take on the famed webslinger. This new "Mastered in 4K" release from Sony features a subtle but welcome visual upgrade over previous versions, with some scenes displaying more noticeable improvements over others. The same solid audio mix is kept from the earlier discs, but none of the supplements from the last Blu-ray/UltraViolet Combo Pack have been included. The difference in picture quality isn't exactly night and day, but this is certainly the best this film has ever looked on home video. If bonus features aren’t a major concern, than this is definitely the release to get, and big fans who already own the last barebones disc might want to consider the upgrade.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.