Spider-Man 2 Widescreen Special Edition

Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy. Directed by Sam Raimi. Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French), Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English, Spanish). 127 minutes. 2004. Columbia TriStar 05149. PG-13 $29.96.

Picture TBD
Sound ****
Film ****

The original Spider-Man film had to spend a lot of time on the title character's background story. Where did he come from? Who are his friends and enemies? Why is his Aunt May in such dire straits, and how did his feelings develop for the girl next door, Mary Jane Watson? But perhaps most important—and the main thing that makes the Spider-Man series, to date, the best comic-book movie adaptation ever—how will he resolve the forces that are pulling him in every direction at once?

If Spider-Man set the stage for a compelling, ongoing story, Spider-Man 2 not only does nothing to diminish it, it's even better than the original in every way except its ending. By the thinnest of margins, the first film's bittersweet finale was more interesting, and unexpected, than 2's slightly forced, sunnier conclusion.

It helps that Spider-Man 2 has by far the better villain, in fact, one of the best in fantasy-film history. The story begins with a little background on what's been happening to Spider-Man's alter ego, Peter Parker, since we last saw him. He's struggling with combining his web-spinning, crime-busting duties with his desire to live a normal live. Between school, jobs, Aunt May's problems, and Spider-Man's responsibilities, he's a wreck.

The movie shifts into high gear when a fusion experiment by a brilliant nuclear physicist, Dr. Otto Octavius, turns into a disaster. In the process, four mechanical limbs are grafted onto his body and turn the good Dr. Octavius into the evil "Doctor Octopus." Doc Ock is obsessed with completing his work. Doing it bigger and better than before could destroy New York City, but he doesn't care, and sets about eliminating anyone who stands in his way. Spider-Man, of course, is job one. As events progress, the plot thickens dramatically, but you'll want to discover it for yourself if you weren't one of the millions who saw it on the big screen.

Spider-Man 2 is chock-full of thrilling action sequences. A train fight between Spidey and Doc Ock near the end, and the final confrontation in Ock's lair, are together worth more than the price of the disc. So are the CGI and other effects. They're far more convincing than in the first film.

But action and spectacle can only take you so far—the real magic comes from the script, acting, and direction. In fact, they are so consistently good—there isn't a weak performance in sight—that the film deserves more than one nod in the upcoming Oscar race. The quality of the work on display here is worthy of a Best Picture nomination, but it won't get it because this type of film is rarely so honored. The fact that one such film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, actually won last year adds a double whammy to the odds against this one getting the sort of recognition it deserves.

The special features in this 2-disc set are a little uneven (the absence of any trailers is a notable omission), but some of them are worthwhile. Neither of the commentaries on the movie disc is compelling, but the one by director Sam Raimi, star Tobey Maguire, producer Avi Arad and coproducer Grant Curtis is the best of the two. (The other is a technical commentary about the special effects.) "Spidey Sense 2" adds pop-up factoids during the running of the film. And the Blooper Reel is fun, though most of it is the typical collection of flubbed lines, bleeped expletives, and actors ruining takes by exploding into laughter.

Disc 2 has more. The most interesting extras are several short documentaries and a longer, multi-part "Making the Amazing" featurette. But the real fun comes in a very brief, semi-hidden selection in the "Gallery" feature. It's too easy to find to call it an "Easter Egg," so I won't spoil the surprise by telling you what it is.

You're wondering, I'm certain, about the TBD in the "Picture" rating. As with all monthly magazines, our ability to publish a DVD review in time for you to see it in print either before or just after the street date (November 30 in the case of Spider-Man 2) depends on our receiving a copy from the studio well in advance. With big hits like this one, and the ongoing studio paranoia about copy protection, some studios are starting to send out advance screeners with warnings such as "Property of Columbia TriStar. If you have rented or purchased this disc, please call (810) 555-0911. . ." and other such noise plastered across the image, obscuring much of the screen and often (as in this case) remaining in place throughout the entire film.

It isn't just this annoying graffiti that makes it hard to judge a DVD's image quality but the fact that anytime an additional layer of processing is added to the original transfer, there's a possibility that the video image of the film itself will be degraded. So when I tell you that our sample, while certainly watchable, was one of the worst-looking transfers I've seen in the past couple of years for a major studio blockbuster, take that comment with a grain of salt. Check our website, www.ultimateAVmag.com, in early December for more information on the image quality of the commercial release, which will have just been released. We'll also comment there on the Superbit version, which is scheduled to hit the shelves at the same time.

I had no problem judging the sound quality, however. It's superb. The bass is deep and clean (though not as consistently awesome as that in that other recent—and not nearly as good—superhero movie, Hellboy). The surrounds are active, the dialogue clean and clearly intelligible, and the music (except in a few very loud passages) open and spacious-sounding.

If you weren't one of those who caught Spider-Man 2 in the theater last summer, wait no longer. If you did catch it in the theater, you're almost certain to want to see it again. And while you don't need to have seen Spider-Man to enjoy this sequel, you're sure to find Spider-Man 2 a much richer experience after having first seen its predecessor. In any event, don't miss either of them. —TJN