Case Number 04721: Small Claims Court


Sony // 2002 // 121 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // July 6th, 2004

The Charge

Face it, just hit the jackpot!

The Case

To hear Stan Lee tell it, there was no grand plan behind the creation of Spider-man. If fact, his origin almost never saw the light of day; Publisher Martin Goodman was convinced that readers would be disgusted by anything related to spiders. Luckily, Amazing Fantasy #15 was published and Stan's throwaway story became both the cornerstone and foundation of the Marvel Comics empire.

In a comic book world awash with powerful visitors from other planets, grizzled war heroes, and mysterious defenders of the dark, came to life a scrawny, put upon teenager whose call to greatness was nothing more than being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. While his contemporaries were busy battling gods and monsters, Spider-man's adventures were simple allegories for the problems faced by America's youth. This struck a chord with readers, drawn to the underdog teen by seeing a piece of themselves in all his many trials and tribulations. Peter Parker was the 1960s anti-hero, gifted with power and cursed by the resulting responsibility.

I cannot think of a better visionary than Sam Raimi to translate this tormented soul to the big screen. Raimi's own anti-heroes such as Ash (The Evil Dead) and Darkman have become cinematic cult icons, with Spidey being yet another perfect fit -- a brilliant mix of intelligence, humor, and self-doubt.

Spider-man, much like its main character, is not without its flaws. Cramming more than 40 years of continuity and character development into 121 minutes is no small task. Storylines and characters had to be modified to fit both the 21st century mindset and the time allotted. As a result, the canon has been skewed. While purists will argue the pros and cons of these changes, the fact is most of them work within Spidey's new live-action universe.

With this being a Small Claims look at the film (watch for our upcoming review of Spider-man: Deluxe Edition for the full treatment), let's break down what does and doesn't work.

What Doesn't Work:

Mary Jane Watson -- Kirsten Dunst is a wonderful actor, but the character has been stripped of her trademark self-confidence and ability to put up a good front even under the worst conditions. Peter first met Mary Jane in 1966, on a blind date set up by their respective meddlesome aunts, and MJ was far from a damsel in distress. With an abusive father and a nothing-ever-seems-to-go-right outlook, this Mary Jane has been deflated and defanged, much to the film's detriment.

James Franco -- As written, Harry Osborn is a troubled soul complicated by the fact that he cannot quite fit in with any of the people in his life. Here he's a trust fund baby with emotions that run hot and cold depending on the circumstances. Either way you play it, Franco simply doesn't exhibit the chops necessary to create anything more than the one-dimensional angst of a character from Dawson's Creek or The OC.

The Green Goblin Costume -- Oh brother. Willem Dafoe is an amazing actor with powerful facial expressions. Why bury him beneath a mannequin-esque costume, thus relegating his Goblin persona to nothing more than an ominous voiceover? I can see Raimi's team wanting to distinguish between the emotionally conflicted Norman Osborn and his newly liberated dark half, but there are more effective ways to make it work.

CGI -- God bless the pioneering accomplishments John Dykstra (Star Wars) has brought to the world of film. Sadly, CGI Spidey swinging through the caverns of Midtown Manhattan is not one of them. Ralph Bakshi's 1967 animated web-swinger looks more realistic.

What Does Work:

Tobey Maguire -- Credit the man with nailing Peter's tortured soul. He just has to learn to crank up the smartass attitude in future films. A bit of vocal differentiation between the two characters might also help, otherwise we have a developing case of Clark Kent Syndrome (glasses = Clark, no glasses = Superman).

Willem Dafoe -- The journey Norman Osborn takes in this film is all to the credit of Dafoe. Two scenes in particular spring to mind -- the disturbing mirrored conversation he has with his darker side and confronting the empty Goblin mask after learning Peter's secret. Chilling! Further emphasizing the dark side, Dafoe's Norman showcases more humanity than his written counterpart, which sells the differentiation all the more.

Peter's Transformation -- From the spider bite in the lab through his confrontation with the criminal who killed Uncle Ben, Raimi, Maguire, and screenwriter David Koepp capture the very essence of Peter Parker's tortured existence with vim and verve. Even the purists couldn't have asked for more.

J. Jonah Jameson -- If one thing was lifted off the page and placed onto the screen, it is the performance of J.K. Simmons as the Daily Bugle's pompous, publishing, pain in the ass. The sad thing is his character plays such a minor role in Spidey's origin that J.K. must make the most of what little screen time is available -- and that he does. I only hope we see more of JJJ in future films.

Uncle Ben and Aunt May -- Two of the sweetest, most loving characters you'll ever find are captured perfectly by Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris. Interpreted by many writers over the years, Aunt May has gone from dotty and dowdy to hip and hysterical, but through it all she has kept Peter and Spider-man well aware of what's most important in life.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Columbia's Superbit series delivers topflight visuals and a transfer that is virtually flawless -- although the same could be said for the original 2002 DVD release. Only the techiest of aficionados will find complaint with this video presentation. The colors are electric, moving from the eclectic celebration in Times Square to the nightmarish rescue on the George Washington Bridge. The remastered DTS and Dolby 5.1 Surround tracks are most impressive, utilizing each of the five channels with a healthy level of directional effects, particularly in the climactic Spidey/Goblin battle royale. Side-by-side comparisons show very little difference between the two.

Bonus features? You're kidding, right? This is a Superbit release. There's no such thing as bonus features. The packaging claims an optional commentary track by Tobey Maguire, but for the life of me I couldn't find it. Both of my systems show only two tracks: the Dolby 5.1 and the DTS. What's more, there is no option in the simplified menus to indicate a commentary. Go figure.

The Superbit series from Columbia has become the poster child of the industry's ongoing "double dip" debate. How much value does a studio provide to the viewer by releasing multiple editions of the same film? Here, I would have to say very little. Aside from the DTS track, you can be just as satisfied with the original two-disc release...or the brand new three-disc Deluxe Edition...or the sure to be forthcoming two film release of Spider-man 1 & 2 just in time for holiday gift giving! Oi vey...

This court offers the Presidential Suite to director Sam Raimi and his merry band of Marvelites for bringing one of the world's greatest superheroes to the big screen. Perhaps by having Spidey hang Columbia execs upside down over the 101 during rush hour, they will agree to discontinue their double dipping ways.

Then again, we might not see a Spider-man 3.

Decisions, decisions.

This Judge's rule of thumb: if you don't buy it, they won't make it. Court adjourned.

Review content copyright © 2004 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 82

Perp Profile
Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)

* English
* Chinese
* French
* Korean
* Portuguese
* Spanish
* Thai

Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13

Distinguishing Marks
* None

* IMDb

* Official Site