SPIDER-MAN 2 – DVD review

I don’t know about you, but I’m no great fan of making decisions–especially coin-toss ones. But I’ve certainly wrestled with what I’ll buy and add to my DVD collection, and what I won’t. If it’s a significant audio-video upgrade of a film I really love, I’ll go for it. If it’s a Director’s Cut, I’ll be tempted, because, after all, it’s a matter of artistic vision versus studio pressure to come in under budget or under two hours. Extended Cuts? That’s where I start to get suspicious. A large part of me thinks that the deleted scenes that were (or weren’t) included on a previous release might not be worthy of being inserted into the film. Editing isn’t all bad, you know. I wonder, as you probably do, are these just ways to get fans to buy the movie all over again?

And then we get “Spider-Man 2.1,” which derives its name from the upgrades we routinely get on computer software and firmware and implies that we have to own it or we just don’t have the current version. But really, it’s just a two-disc extended cut, with eight minutes and new bonus features added.

It’s enough to make the knees buckle . . . or the stomach retch. Why are they doing this to us? I wanted “Spider-Man 2.1” to be the definitive “Spider-Man 2,” so I could replace the first “Spider-Man 2”–not a coin toss. But that’s what it is. There’s good and bad about this version, and it will be up to every movie lover and collector to decide for him or herself whether it’s worth adding to the collection.

I mean, think about it. If someone said they’d sell you a video of your family vacation with EIGHT EXTRA MINUTES on it, would you bite? I’m not even sure I’d fork over the cash for a birthing video of one of my children with eight extra minutes of footage. What would it be? My wife perspiring? Me perspiring? The pediatrician waiting by the warming tray, looking around, expectantly?

But hey, when it comes to movies, we’re fans . . . which is short for fanatics . . . which means that the studios will continue to repackage these movies as many times as it takes, as long as they think enough people will buy it. The trouble is, with so much emphasis on marketing, what we’re seeing now is a blurring of film aesthetics. What would it be like for movie fans now if the same situation existed years ago? What would it be like if “Casablanca” had a “Director’s Cut” and, oh, by the way, a “Casablanca 1.1”?

That’s my rant, and here’s my rave: “Spider-Man 2” is a great film, one of the best superhero films ever made, and there is an audience who will soak up every last drop of information that’s put out there–even if it’s more peripheral, as the features are on this release. But some of us only have so much space to store our ever-expanding DVD and HD collections, and so I have to choose whether to keep my original “Spider-Man 2” or this “2.1” version.

The problem is, those eight minutes constitute mostly extended scenes (including a battle between Doc Ock and Spider-Man) and one scene that isn’t in the movie–when editor Jameson dons the Spidey suit and starts aping the character. It’s funny, it’s memorable, and once you see it, can you go back to the version that played without it? Darn these marketing people! I especially want to smack them when I see that there are brand-new extras made especially for this release, one of which is really very good. And you know what that means? True fans are going to want to shelve this right alongside the other editions. To be fair, no one’s making anyone buy this disc, but you could rationalize that since there’s not much overlapping of extras, you could actually justify buying and keeping both versions, because it’s the equivalent of a four-disc special collector’s wowie-zowie edition.

“Spider-Man 2” was a huge hit among summer releases, grossing $361 million in the U.S. and over $700 million worldwide, and prompting more than a few critics to call it the best superhero movie ever made. Certainly it’s one of the best.

Freed from the constraints of having to explain the origin of the hero’s powers, the sequel manages to fly off more quickly into campier territory, with an even cooler villain. In that respect, it’s much like “Superman II,” which surpassed the original by multiplying the danger that the hero faced. Just as Superman had to defeat three unearthly supervillains the second time around, Spider-Man has to go up against an evil scientist times eight: the engaging, eight-appendaged Dr. Octopus and those four slithering mechanical arms of his, which look like the heads of raptors and have a mind of their own.

Director Sam Raimi returned to formula for the sequel, paying tribute to the comic books in a clever opening storyboard sequence that recaps for viewers what happened in the first film. He also tipped his hat to the animated TV-series by having a street-woman sing the old Spider-Man theme song to passing pedestrians. And J.K. Simmons, the actor who keeps it comic-book real, is back again as J. Jonah Jameson, as blustery at the Daily Bugle as his pointillistic, two-dimensional counterpart is in the pulps. That quintessentially comic performance, coupled with animated sequences where Spidey swings through the city, perfectly balances the human element in order to create a credible comic-book world. And in 2.1, Jameson has a brief stint as Spider-Man himself.

Structurally, the two Spider-Man films could be twins. Both begin with a focus on Peter Parker, who always seems to pick a peck of personal problems. And no one conveys haplessness like the doe-eyed Tobey Maguire. Just as you feel for him in the first movie, as he’s simultaneously struggling with his nerdy high school existence and wrestling to understand and control his new arachnid powers, this time around we can empathize with how a job can put a real crimp on a person’s style. Of course, Parker’s real job is Spider-Man, and much of the first act is devoted to showing how the demands of being a superhero are making it tough for him to lead the kind of double-life that Clark Kent managed so easily. He gets fired from his job as a pizza delivery man, underachieves in college (which, of course, makes him an instant and beloved Everyman), and finds that he has no life of his own.

In the first film, Parker decided that he couldn’t hook up with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the girl-next-door of his dreams, because Spider-Man would always have enemies who would try to hurt her to get to him. In the second, two years later, he still carries an Olympic-sized torch for MJ, but she’s dating an astronaut who just happens to be the son of that bellowing Bugler, Jameson. Meanwhile, his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), still holds a grudge against Spider-Man for killing his father, not knowing that Dad had really become the Green Goblin after an experiment had gone awry. Now, Harry’s bankrolling a brilliant physicist who’s developing a form of personal nuclear energy, and the good Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) will soon experience an errant scientific experiment of his own and become the evil Dr. Octopus, or Doc Ock, as the Bugle calls him. Just as Spidey had to engage in a far-flung battle with the Green Goblin, he’s going to have to tackle those nuclear-powered arms of his new nemesis. Talk about a tangled web!

With “Spider-Man 2,” Raimi stayed close to the comic book formula, with co-creator Stan Lee onboard as an executive producer to keep him honest. There’s nothing worse than a superhero film that takes itself too seriously, and this one plays like the best Bond flicks–with tongue planted firmly in cheek. When Parker displays some awesome powers in his street clothes and a group of young boys stare at him, bug-eyed, he quips, “Eat your vegetables.” And in a funny musical montage, Parker basks in the banal after deciding to dump the superhero outfit and live an ordinary life, with “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” playing in the background. And you’ve got to love a superhero who tries to discretely wash his uniform at the laundromat (and it turns all his white clothing pink).

Much of the interest in the first film was watching Parker learn to harness his powers. In the sequel, he has to relearn things, because his internal conflict (wondering whether he should be a superhero or a normal guy) is somehow causing a power outage, which makes for more than a little suspense because he (and the audience) never knows when those little webs will shoot out and his arachnid leaping ability will kick in, or when he’ll plummet like a kid in a cape just pretending to be a superhero. Ouch! In this respect, “Spider-Man 2” is again like “Superman II,” where the man of steel also momentarily lost his powers because of a lack of focus and commitment.

Given the whole superhero genre, what’s perhaps most striking about “Spider-Man 2” is how many scenes in which Spidey appears in costume, but unmasked, and in front of witnesses no less. He takes his lumps, too, but it’s that human element, ironically, that gives this superhero film its depth and power. The flawless FX battles are eye-candy, and sweet stuff they are! But it’s the human element that makes this superhero flick rise above the rest.

Do eight minutes of additional footage and a total run-time of 136 minutes make it better? Well, one of the added scenes is an extended shoe-shopping excursion between MJ and her friend (not!), while another is an extended birthday party exchange that does reveal more about character and situation (yep!). There’s also a longer turn at the doctor’s with Peter (not!), as well as Jameson in the Spider-Man costume (yep!), a longer take of the landlord’s daughter with Peter (not!), a longer scene on the elevator with a regular guy and Spider-Man (coin toss), and longer fight scene with Doc Ock (coin toss). Is that enough to make it a more enjoyable film to watch? Well, I have to say that I liked it, and not just because of the extra eight minutes.

The first release of “Spider-man 2” seemed to have a “soft” transfer, with an overexposed feel to some of the scenes and way too much light. Although the box doesn’t indicate that there’s been any remastering, to my eyes (yes, it could be my imagination) this version has a little more contrast, which is a big plus in my book. The colors are bright and vivid, and there seems to be more of a consistent look to the film. As with the original “Spider-Man 2,” the film is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen.

The sound is as rockin’ as it was on the first release, a regular Mary Poppins’ track: “practically perfect in every way.” There’s resonant bass, lively treble, great balance, and great distribution across the speakers so that the room fills with sound. The soundtrack options are English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English (CC), French, Spanish and Portuguese.

The full-length commentary from producer Laura Ziskin and screenwriter Alvin Sargent is a disappointment, to put it bluntly. They just don’t have all that much to say, and they’re flat-out dull. Though the picture seems better on 2.1, the weak commentary track alone is enough to make people hang onto their 2.0 discs, which had Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, and two producers offering a much livelier and informative commentary.

As with 2.0, there’s a trivia track with pop-ups here that’s okay, and for fans who can’t wait there’s a sneak-peak clip from “Spider-Man 3.” The main bonus feature is a five-part “Visual Effects Breakdown” which has some overlapping with the making-of feature on 2.0, insomuch as it covers some similar ground. There’s also a multi-angle music feature on the Danny Elfman score, with the second angle really the one to watch, since it adds an inset of Elfman commenting while the orchestra plays in the larger screen. Elfman talks about how “King Kong” was the big musical influence, as we watch Doc Ock scale the side of the building. But I wonder how many fans really wait for features on the music? I have to say that the extra I enjoyed the most was “With Great Effort Comes Great Recognition.” In it, the FX gang sit in movie theater seats and talk about their accomplishments and the process they had to go through to vet their work with the Oscar screening committee at what they called a “bake-off.” It’s a fascinating insider’s look at the Oscar process for technical awards.

Bottom Line:
Okay, I’ve decided. I’m going to keep both “Spider-Man 2.0” and “Spider-Man 2.1” for my collection–the former because of the bonus features, and the latter because of the print. And if this keeps up, at some point I may ask the studios to send someone to my house to advise me on where I can make room for more DVDs.