Appellate Judge Dan Mancini prefers organic web-shooters. You can dismiss him as a hippie environmentalist, but he's telling you, man, industrial farms pump all kinds of steroids and stuff into their web-shooters. It's a real bummer.
Our reviews of Spider-Man 2 (published January 24th, 2005), Spider-man 2 (Blu-ray) (published June 18th, 2012), and Spider-Man: The High Definition Trilogy (Blu-Ray) (published November 1st, 2007) are also available.
Sacrifice. Destiny. Choice.
Since Sam Raimi's Spider-Man is essentially a beat-for-beat remake of Richard Donner's Superman (with the street festival scene from Tim Burton's Batman thrown in for good measure), it's only fitting that Spider-Man 2 be a beat-for-beat remake of Superman II. But while Spider-Man is inferior in nearly every way to Donner's tale of the Last Son of Kypton, Spider-Man 2 is vastly superior to the sloppy, goofy, Ilya Salkind-mangled Superman II. In his sequel, Raimi succeeds big-time in delivering an action-packed meditation on the cost of super-heroism: Peter Parker, he shows us, doesn't deserve our admiration for his web-slinging derring-do, but for simply choosing to be Spider-Man day after ball-busting day.
Considering how Raimi's tale of the rigmarole of costumed heroism cleaned up at the box office and was even more appreciated by critics and fans than the mega-hit Spider-Man, it's no surprise that the folks at Sony would try to entice fans to open their wallets for a new DVD that promises a slightly longer cut of the flick and a preview of the upcoming Spider-Man 3. (I have no idea how involved Raimi was in 2.1's production, but it's not called a director's cut and he's notably absent from all of the new featurettes except the preview of the third entry in the series). So, is Spider-Man 2.1 worth your time and money? Let's take a look.
Facts of the Case
You already know the story, right?
Roughly two years after deciding to live by his Uncle Ben's maxim that "with great power comes great responsibility," the weight of said responsibility—and the double life that comes with it—is crushing poor Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire, Pleasantville). His heroics demand so much of his time that he's incapable of holding down a job as a pizza delivery guy, is falling behind in Dr. Connor's physics class, and is rapidly drifting away from the friends and family who need him most. Uncle Ben's death has left Aunt May (Rosemary Harris, Tom & Viv) on the verge of financial ruin. Peter's best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco, Flyboys) has taken a high-powered position as an executive for his dad's company, but is still haunted by self-doubt and the belief that Spider-Man is responsible for his father's death. And Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst, Elizabethtown)—the object of Peter's unrequited love—has gone from waiting tables to starring in a Broadway production of The Importance of Being Earnest and dating a handsome astronaut. Her life, however, remains unfulfilling because of her seemingly low priority in Peter's life.
Exhausted, depressed, and longing for a normal life, Peter decides to quit his gig as Spider-Man once and for all.
Meanwhile, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina, Frida), a brilliant, altruistic physicist working on a clean energy source that will revolutionize life on planet Earth is driven mad when a public demonstration of his invention goes horribly wrong. Octavius' beloved wife is killed, and his spine is fused to the mechanical arms he uses to handle radioactive materials. Obsessed with realizing his dream by any means necessary, Doc Ock puts the lives of all of the citizens of New York City in danger. Will Peter Parker put aside his desires for a normal life, take up the mantle of Spider-Man once again, and save the day?
My two favorite scenes in Spider-Man 2 involve the birth of its villain and the metaphorical death of its hero. For me, they distinguish the film from its predecessor by making it clear that this isn't just an entry in an über-successful superhero film franchise, it's a Sam Raimi flick. Dr. Octopus' catastrophic awakening in an operating theater draped in shadow is pure Raimi mayhem. It appropriates all of the grotesque humor, wild kinetic energy, monster's-eye-view shots, and horrifying hilarity that (so the legend goes) got Fellini's attention when he first lay eyes on Raimi's low-budget love letter to drive-in horror flicks, The Evil Dead. The scene is a little bit of old-fashioned visual sugar to help wash down the medicine of the occasionally rubbery computer-generated shots in the heartstopping, though more visually conventional, action sequences that follow.
The other scene I love is a montage set to B.J. Thomas' "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" in which Peter Parker finds great joy in sluffing off his Spider-Man persona and all the hassles that go with it, and returning to his pre-spider-bitten geekiness. The scene is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. Raimi and crew load it with every worn montage cliché they can muster, from slow motion to a freeze frame. But I love that Raimi had the guts to toss such smarmy, sarcastic humor unabashedly into the middle of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. When one considers that the scene basically represents the death of Spider-Man as a force for good, Raimi's layers of almost oppressive happiness hide black cynicism. Again, it's the sort of goofy playfulness that reminds us that Spider-Man 2 is more than just a formulaic entry in a franchise cash cow—it's also a Sam Raimi flick.
This more personal approach carries over to the main story where Raimi delivers a convincing tale built on the idea that even the greatest of heroes can't go it alone. When Marvel Comics honcho emeritus Stan Lee created Peter Parker in 1962, the kid was a socially stunted science geek. As the years moved on, Parker morphed into an everyman—and became wildly popular. In Spider-Man, Parker is a dork, just as he is in the earliest comic books. In Spider-Man 2, he graduates to everyman, and Raimi taps into the nearly universal experiences of boys and young men that Stan Lee deftly and intuitively grafted into the character's comic book DNA. Parker suffers just the sorts of trouble most guys in their late teens and early twenties suffer: romantic, financial, social, familial, and academic. The revelation at the heart of the Spider-Man mythos is that Parker's superpowers do nothing to mitigate these hassles. In fact, they only exacerbate things. Why this is so appealing when so many young boys harbor fantasies of their mundane problems being solved by the ability to climb walls, spin webs, lift impossibly heavy objects, fly, see through solid objects, or control other people's minds is beyond me. Misery loves company, I guess, and Peter Parker is pretty good company for the miserable.
As pure popcorn entertainment, Spider-Man 2 is considerably more impressive than the original, too. Doc Ock is a more physically formidable opponent than Spider-Man's Green Goblin. A larger budget and more expansive schedule also ensure that the film has action setpieces that put everything in the original to shame. Chief among these sequences is a rugged throw-down between Spidey and Doc Ock set on, in, and around an elevated commuter train. Some of the computer-generated effects are dicey when the characters blatantly defy the laws of physics, but overall the sequence is a vertiginous, edge-of-your-seat affair. Since it's the centerpiece of the action sequences, it should come as no surprise that the train fight is expanded in Spider-Man 2.1. The good news is that the added effects shots blend perfectly with the original scene, meaning they are a mixed bag of wild thrills and too-obvious computer fakery. The not-so-good news is that the sequence is no more enthralling than it was in its original form. The same can be said for each and every one of Spider-Man 2.1's additions.
Most of the new material fleshes out the drama, though not enough to appreciably alter the flow or impact of the narrative. The confrontation between Peter and Harry at Aunt May's house is slightly longer. Peter's visit to a doctor's office in an attempt to covertly discover why he's lost his web-slinging ability is longer and more comic. There's also more conversation during Spider-Man's elevator ride with Hal Sparks (Sparks' improvised suggestion that Spidey launch a men's fragrance called "Thwip!" is the only worthy addition to a scene that was already a jokey throw-away in the original cut). On the action front, a new scene finds our hero duking it out with Doc Ock in a law office library. It's a tough little sequence, much cooler than the unnecessary additions to the train fight. The weakest of the additions is a brief scene in which J. Jonah Jameson tries on the Spider-Man costume after Peter Parker abandons it in a city trashcan—hardy-har-har. None of this stuff mars Spider-Man 2, but none of it (with the possible exception of the law library fight) needed to be integrated back into the story. Unfortunately, Spider-Man 2.1 is nothing more than Spider-Man 2 padded with material more appropriately relegated to a deleted scenes featurette.
Every moment of Spider-Man 2.1—whether new or part of the original cut—looks spectacular on this DVD's exemplary 2.40:1 anamorphically-enhanced transfer. As with the Spider-Man 2 DVD, the image here is near-reference quality. The Dolby 5.1 Surround audio track also matches the original DVD for both clarity and bombast.
Spider-Man 2.1 comes with a decent slate of extras. Disc One augments the film with a new audio commentary by producer Laura Ziskin and screenwriter Alvin Sargent. It dovetails nicely with the two commentary tracks on the Spider-Man 2 DVD, covering mostly new territory.
The Spidey Sense 2.1 trivia track is nearly identical to the collection of pop-up factoids on the Spider-Man 2 DVD. In fact, 2.1's added scenes sometimes throw off the timing of the trivia. We're told, for instance, to look fast for the yellow 1973 Delta 88 Raimi puts in nearly all of his films a scene before the car actually appears. What has been added to the trivia track are a few (near-)seamlessly branched inserts of raw behind-the-scenes video footage of scenes being shot. They're perfectly married to the final product via picture-in-picture display.
Inside Spider-Man 2.1 is a 13-minute featurette most notable for cataloging the editorial changes made for this new cut of the film.
With Great Effort Comes Great Recognition is an eight-minute featurette about Spider-Man 2's Oscar win for Best Visual Effects.
Visual Effects Breakdown is a five-part featurette that discusses John Dykstra and crew's philosophy of using digital effects, then analyzes specific effects sequences from conception to realization.
Danny Elfman Scores Spider-Man 2 is billed as a multi-angle featurette, which I guess it technically is. Angle one shows the recording session in which the orchestra plays Elfman's score to scenes from the movie. The second angle offers a picture-in-picture window of Elfman commenting on what we see and hear in the first angle. Fans of Elfman's film work will thoroughly enjoy it.
Comic book geeks will be thrilled to learn that the Spider-Man 3 Sneak Peek featurette is packed to the gills with never-before-seen shots of Venom. Just kidding. The piece is a lame electronic press kit that runs two and a half minutes and intersperses snippets of interviews of Raimi, Maguire, Dunst, Topher Grace, producer Avi Arad, and others with shots from the movie we've already seen in various trailers. The presentation is 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen, which makes the piece significantly less appealing than the Spider-Man 3 trailer also included on Disc Two. It runs two and a half minutes, also, but is given an anamorphically-enhanced widescreen presentation and Dolby 5.1 Surround audio.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Spider-Man 2 is one of the best comic book-to-film adaptations ever made, but it does have its faults. Chief among them is Raimi's tendency to let characters cross the line into caricature, and the drama to be swamped in mawkishness. Nothing in Spider-Man 2 descends to the sickeningly syrupy "you mess with Spidey, you mess with New York" moment in the original, but a handful of scenes in the movie are hamstrung by cartoonishness.
Consider Dr. Otto Octavius. Before his descent into insanity and evil, he's a little too good. Raimi bars no holds as he bludgeons us with Octavius' near moral perfection. The man is a scientist-poet, his dinnertime meeting with Peter Parker loaded with equal parts pseudo-scientific nonsense and homespun wisdom about wooing girls. You have to give it up to Alfred Molina. He's so good in the role, he almost sells the grossly overwritten scene—almost.
A scene in which a whole train full of New Yorkers see Spidey unmasked starts off well enough. The moment where a middle-aged man looking down at Peter Parker's unconscious face observers that "he's just a kid," is actually sort of touching. Raimi overplays it, though, by having a couple tykes hand the Spidey mask over to Peter with promises that they "won't tell no one." It's a bit like Spider-Man meets the Little Rascals.
Still, these are sentimental, cartoonish moments in a comic book movie. They annoy, but hardly ruin the show.
With the exception of the duplicated Spidey-Sense 2 trivia track, the folks at Sony have done a fine job in putting together a package of supplements for Spider-Man 2.1 that complement those found on the original Spider-Man 2 DVD. The problem with this new set is that the alternate cut of the film is entirely unnecessary. 2.1's eight minutes of CGI fights and needlessly extended dramatic sequences neither detract from nor enhance the theatrical version of the film. The changes register so little, it's difficult to image even die-hard Spidey fans feeling the need to own this one.
Overall, Spider-Man 2 is the better DVD release, offering an original theatrical cut that didn't need fixing, as well as a more comprehensive slate of supplements. If you buy only one version of the second Spider-Man movie, don't make it 2.1.
Spider-Man 2.1 is not guilty. Its extended cut of the movie fails to improve on the theatrical cut, but succeeds in being just as good. Its supplements aren't as impressive as the original DVD's, but they're not bad.
Sony's guilty of ulterior motives: This release is all about trying to make a quick buck while saturating the marketing ether with hoopla about Spider-Man 3. But there's no point in my complaining about a movie studio behaving like a movie studio.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Producer Laura Ziskin and Screenwriter Alvin Sargent
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