Nobody really mentions Nicholas Hammond any more in relation to Spider-Man. Today, and probably even back then, he's more famous for his role in The Sound Of Music but in 1977, Nicholas Hammond was Spider-Man, much as Christopher Reeve was Superman one year later. Before you say that The Amazing Spider-Man (1977) was only a TV movie, it was a cinema release in Europe between 1977 and 1978, depending on when the print arrived in your town. I remember being incredibly excited at seeing a Spider-Man film on release but watching them now, they're clearly the product of a more innocent and more frugal age - the direction is flat, Hammond clearly only put in a couple of hours at the gym before taking the role and the special effects are rudimentary.
In 1977, however, Spider-Man was up against Star Wars - space was in and superheroes were out - and Lucas' movie left little room for other films at the box office. Hammond's Spider-Man films did fare quite well on TV and two sequels followed, Spider-Man Strikes Back and Spider-Man: The Dragon's Challenge in 1978 and 1979, respectively. It wasn't over for superheroes, though, with both The Incredible Hulk and Superman following in 1977 and 1978, the former also made for TV and the latter for the cinema but look back now and it's hard to think of the late-70's belonging to any other film but Star Wars.
Cut to 2002, twenty-five years on, and the story looked set to be repeated. A new version of Spider-Man was up against another Star Wars film, Attack Of The Clones, but this time, it was George Lucas who was left wondering what happened as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man became the fastest film to take $100m at the box-office and stayed on course to end the year as the bigger film. Contrary to the official line from Lucasfilm the critical reaction must have hurt as Spider-Man was met with general acclaim for its characterisation, direction, depiction of New York in a post-9/11 atmosphere and the warmth of its plot. Attack Of The Clones started off well with the line taken that at least it was an improvement on The Phantom Menace but that soon cooled as people realised that the special effects weren't that special, the story was clunky and dull and bar a few sequences to be regenerated in Lucasarts games, was not that exciting.
Lucasfilm must have thought that 2002 was in the bag for no matter how you look at it, Sam Raimi remains an odd choice and not only because of his history as the director of the Evil Dead trilogy. Think back to Darkman, his only previous superhero film, which was interesting but not exactly great and since then, he's directed a western, a crime/family drama, a supernatural thriller and a sports movie, all of which had interesting moments but in which, as a director, he was often overshadowed by his stars - Sharon Stone, Billy Bob Thornton and Kevin Costner. When he was mentioned, it tended to be linked with his flashy filming techniques, perfected on the Evil Dead films with the Shakey-cam, Ram-o-cam, etc. Raimi cannot have been a popular choice for although he obviously knows his comics, as the director of Sony's big summer release, executives must have had eyebrows raised to split their facelifts when he was being seriously considered.
Then there are the stars - Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst - good actors both but hard to believe that Maguire could play Spider-Man, being an actor known for the portrayal of sensitive youths such as in The Ice Storm with Dunst, an unconventional beauty known for The Virgin Suicides, playing Mary Jane Watson who, following the comic books, later becomes a model.
These three could have messed up the whole franchise at the very beginning, much as Joel Schumacher did with Batman at a much later stage. It is to their credit that they did not and while the film is not wholly successful, it's more enjoyable than any other recent Sam Raimi film has been, excepting A Simple Plan.
The film begins with the origins of Spider-Man, which are well known but for those of you unaware of his beginnings, Peter Parker lives with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May and is a bit of a loser, laughed at by even the no-mates fat kid on the bus. During a visit to a science lab, he gets bitten by a spider. In the original comic strip, the spider was radioactive but here it is a genetically modified specimen, reflecting the latest scary scientific research given that, by now, we must all be pretty comfortable with, and no longer fearful of, gamma radiation.
Parker goes home ill, sleeps through the night and wakes up the next morning with his DNA fused with that of the GM spider, now able to climb walls, produce webbing and sense danger with spider-sense. He is also stronger and faster than before but with Parker being essentially a normal kid, everything takes some time to discover. So the next morning he goes off to school as usual but it's not until he gets into a fight in the hallway with the school bully that he begins to realise what has happened to him. His reaction is entirely natural - he runs away, takes stock, tries out his new moves and decides to make some money off them to impress Mary Jane.
The original author of Spider-Man, and now star of adaptations of his comic books as well as Kevin Smith's Mallrats, is Stan Lee and his development of Spider-Man was innovative as he did not make him a hero from the off - Spider-Man developed his heroics over time as Lee, and now Raimi, initially has Parker taking part in amateur wrestling. Lee used this as the excuse for Parker to develop the famous red and blue Spider-Man costume, thinking he would need something flashy to stand out in a wrestling contest, thereby making more money.
Of course, this could not last and as Parker stands by watching a small-time thief escape with the takings from the wrestling contest, he feels nothing. This action immediately comes back to haunt him as that same thief runs out into the street, carjacks his Uncle Ben and shoots him. Parker watches Ben die and almost immediately resolves to do good, using his powers unselfishly - with great power comes great responsibility. Thus the transformation into Spider-Man is almost complete.
Almost, that is, because Spider-Man, as a superhero, needs a supervillain and this is provided by Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin, played by Willem Dafoe who is a self-made man and head of Oscorp, a company developing human enhancement therapy and flight and weapons technology for the military but threatened with having its funding withdrawn when the results do not meet the expectations of the military command. Osborn tests the technologies on himself, changing into The Green Goblin, who exists as a schizophrenic element within himself.
Norman's son, Harry Osborn (James Franco), is Peter Parker's best friend and is seeing Mary Jane Watson, Parker's true love and so the battle between Spiderman and The Green Goblin draws everyone, on both sides, into an familial struggle rather than one of masked enemies battling anonymously over the New York skyscrapers. Spider-Man, for a superhero movie, ends up feeling rather smaller because of this, which is not actually a bad thing. Instead of grand widescreen entertainment, this is almost an intimate drama about life, love and responsibility, albeit one with masked men.
Where Raimi makes his most intelligent move, however, is in avoiding lengthy battles between the CG Spider-Man and The Green Goblin. There are a number of battles where this is unavoidable but in all of the central fight scenes, particularly those with an emotional impact on the major characters, including those with the thief who killed Ben, the gang about to attack Mary Jane, the final fight against The Green Goblin and the escape from Osborn's mansion. In all of these, Spider-Man is unmasked, either wholly or partially, a good move by Raimi, which more closely links Spider-Man and Peter Parker, showing that the actions of one directly impact the other, a theme that is consistent with the comics. Indeed it is somewhat disappointing when Spider-Man appears as it is with Parker that the emotional depth of the film lies.
Part of the problem with Spider-Man and why that disappointment exists is that too often, and not really improving until late in the film, the CG effects are not up to scratch. The early scenes with Parker trying out his spider moves aren't bad but some of the early fight scenes with Spider-Man, particularly one involving a raid on a wages van, have not been that well executed. You suspect that Raimi also realises this and tries not to make the mistake of lingering too long on CG characters. Much later in the film, in particular the final scene of Spider-Man swinging through the New York streets and traffic, the effects have greatly improved although this may be more to do with a more mobile camera, indicating Spider-Man's growing confidence in his abilities.
Another problem is that it just feels a little incomplete, that the final push to greatness is missing. Spider-Man does have much that makes it a very good film and it is very entertaining but it's not a great film and while that statement might appear vague, what separates a film from being very good and being great can be. Some parts of the film that could have been improved would be to give Ben's death more impact as it's obvious he's doomed from very early on even without knowing the comics, make The Green Goblin darker as he is a bit of a pantomime villain, snickering and sneering rather than projecting any real menace and to develop the increasing love between Mary Jane and Peter and the growing resentment between Harry Osborn and Peter Parker after Harry has seen his friend and girlfriend in the hospital. While much of this is resolved in the final scenes, by then it feels a little much like closure for the sake of it and this disappoints.
The overall feeling is one of Raimi playing a little safe, aware that he couldn't be everyone's choice for the job and so, rather than cutting loose with his recognised style, he just played it down a little. There are plenty of scenes to indicate he's capable of having a greater impact and if he gets the job on the sequel, we might see Harry Osborn taking revenge on Spider-Man for his father's death, which will up the emotional content and prove, possibly, to be a more intense film.
There is also the fact that this is the opening chapter in a franchise, which, in common with Harry Potter, for example, requires that the first film spends of lot of time introducing characters rather than just hammering into the story. Again, this may be resolved in a sequel and although it shouldn't be necessary for a sequel to make a whole series of films look good, it is becoming more commonplace for the first sequel in a franchise to be the one that stands out, after the introductions take place and before the rot sets in. Here's hoping Raimi gets the job again, really delivers and gets out before he's churning out sequels every other year.
And, oh yeah, for Evil Dead fans, Bruce Campbell and Ivan and Ted Raimi are all in there, as is the 1973 Delta 88 Oldsmobile. Only Raimi fans might take note of them, but they are all there.
The film has been transferred anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and looks fantastic. Raimi looks to have created a bland, colourless world for Peter Parker and a rich, vibrant world for Spider-Man and the transfer looks great on both. The colours are handled well throughout and the film can occasionally look beautiful with New York being stunningly filmed, particularly in the parade sequence where Raimi allows just enough space in the film for the images to stand out.
As mentioned earlier, the effects aren't great to begin with but by the film's closing chapters, they really do improve noticeably with the final sequence being one that stands out. Ideally, this will be developed in the sequel, which should allow for some stunning aerial shots.
The only soundtrack is English Dolby Digital 5.1 and it sounds fine. There is good separation across all the front channels with action and dialogue well placed. The rear channels are not used excessively but action does move nicely between the front and rear speakers as required with clear separation between the two and low frequencies are well handled via the subwoofer.
I cannot recall, however, any scenes really standing out but overall, the soundtrack is one of high quality.
As with many Columbia Tristar DVD's, this comes loaded with extras although too often, Columbia Tristar simply throws everything that is available onto the discs letting you sort out for yourself what's good and what isn't. That can lead to a lot of repetition but overall, my view is that I'd rather have too much than too little.
Commentary with Sam Raimi, Grant Curtis, Laura Ziskin and Kirsten Dunst: Anyone who's heard Raimi's commentary on The Evil Dead without Bruce Campbell will know that there are many moments of silence and so it is here as Curtis (Co-Producer of Spider-Man) doesn't really add that much except to occasionally prompt Raimi to say something. Ziskin (Producer) and Dunst have been recorded separately and tend to be more talkative but have got less to say. Overall, the commentary is worth a listen but probably not more than once.
Effects Crew Commentary: This commentary includes John Dykstra who oversaw the visual effects on Spider-Man and is quite dry given it is wholly technical. There are a large number of comments on how effects were achieved and how sets were constructed. Unless you are really interested, only worth a single listen.
Factoids: These are similar to the type of facts that littered Pop-Up Video, in that these facts were rarely that interesting and tended to be a distraction that you eventually wished would go away. I watched the entire film with them on and I have to say that I learned nothing new from them.
Spider Sense Web-i-sodes: These are short featurettes, typically lasting no more than 6-8 minutes, branching off the main feature that can be selected when a spider-sense symbol is shown onscreen. They range from a profile on the insect handler to what a production manager does, some, obviously given their varied nature, more interesting that others.
Trailers: Four trailers are presented, only one of which is for Spider-Man, the other three being Mr Deeds, Men In Black II and Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters and Marvels.
Music Videos: Two videos off the soundtrack are shown here - Sum 41's "What We're All About" and Chad Kroeger's "Hero" - both alright but nothing special.
TV Spots: Ten of these are available, each of which is very short in length and so obviously come from the North American market, lasting little more than 10 seconds in each case, presented in 4:3.
Character Files: These are actor profiles and filmographies for the six main actors:
- Tobey Maguire
- Kirsten Dunst
- Willem Dafoe
- Cliff Robertson
- Rosemary Harris
- J.K. Simmons
Each of these, bar Cliff Robertson, has an associated Easter Egg allowing access to a character profile.
DVD ROM: This requires the installation of specific software to access it also included on the DVD, which allows you to access a comparison between the comic book and the film, although as they use the 2002 comic for reference, there are very few differences. There is also the chance to record your own commentary.
Easter Egg: There is a further Egg, which, when unlocked, will allow you to access CG Bloopers, letting you see CG characters in humourous moments such as Spider-Man leaping across rooftops eating yellow pills just like Pac-Man.
This disc is split into two sections, one for the film and another for the comic.
The Goblin's Lair - The Film
HBO The Making Of Spiderman (24m43s, 1.33:1, Stereo): This is the shorter of the two making-of's and duplicates only a little from the longer E! Entertainment special. This contains quite a lot of on-set and behind-the-scenes footage with cast and crew interviews taken from when film was being made.
Spider-Mania - An E! Entertainment Special (40m32s, 1.33:1, Stereo): Unlike the HBO Special, the interviews in this section look to be taken from later press meetings given that none of them are on-set.
Profile - Sam Raimi (7m05s, 1.33:1, Stereo): It would have been nice to see a profile on Sam Raimi that included a lot of information on his pre-Spiderman days including The Evil Dead films, A Simple Plan and The Quick And The Dead but very little in this featurette looks at his career pre-Spiderman. Instead it allows everyone involved in the production to say what a great guy Raimi is.
Profile - Danny Elfman (7m27s, 1.33:1, Stereo): Much as with the Sam Raimi profile, this is devoted to hearing how good working with Danny Elfman was on the Spider-Man score and what a fantastic score it is.
Screen Tests: Four screen tests are provided, one each for Tobey Maguire (1m13s) and J.K. Simmons (49s), one covering the CGI Spider-Man (21s) and lastly, one looking at the Make-Up and Costumes (2m55s).
Gag/Outtake Reel (3m05s, 1.85:1, Stereo): This is honestly not really that funny given that it's a bunch of fluffed lines, simple mistakes and Willem Dafoe gurning for the camera.
The Web Of Spider-Man - The Comic
The Evolution Of Spider-Man: This is broken into five further sections looking at the history of Spider-Man and the men who made it happen.
Spider-Man - The Mythology Of The 21st Century (25m30s, 1.33:1, Stereo): This begins with Stan Lee talking about how Spider-Man came to him as he watched a fly crawl up a wall through to the latest comic book series to tie in with the film. Along the way, it looks at many of the contributors, not on Stan Lee, and the artists involved. Being Spider-Man, set in New York, it also looks at how Marvel tried to comment on and reflect what happened after September 11 2001 through their superheroes. This is quite interesting and well worth watching.
Spider-Man Archive: This is a menu-driven year-by-year breakdown of events within Spider-Man's world from the very beginning to the present day. Therefore, we learn that in May 1984, Spider-Man returned from outer space with an alien costume, which later became the deadly Venom. It does, however, get a little tiresome going through each menu and could have been improved with simple scrolling.
Rogue's Gallery: This section covers Spider-Man's greatest enemies including The Green Goblin, Mysterio, Venom and many more. Each profile has sub-sections dealing with History and Weapons/Power. An Easter Egg reveals the story of the Sinister Six.
The Loves Of Peter Parker: This section looks at the four loves in Parker's life including Betty Brant, Gwen Stacey, The Black Cat and Mary Jane Watson.
Artist's Gallery: This consists of four groups of stills taken from the comics covering Environments, Spider-Man, The Green Goblin and Comic Book art. Each section includes roughly 12-15 stills.
Activision Game Hints And Tips: Back out of the Evolution Of Spider-Man menu, this option gives the viewer tips for completing the first three levels of the tie-in videogame though how useful they are will depend on how stupid you are given that most of them consist of "Keep your health up!" and "Use your webs!"
DVD ROM: Again, there is DVD ROM content on Disc Two, this time consisting of:
- Spider-Man Visual Plug-In for Winamp, Real Audio and Windows Media Player
- Spider-Man Screen Saver
- Spider-Man Activision Game, which will install two PC-playable levels but this does require a DirectX 8.1 graphics card to operate
- Marvel Dot Comics of which three are available here - Spider-Man: Blue #1, The Black Cat #1 and Peter Parker: Return Of The Goblin.
There are also a ton of Easter Eggs all over Disc Two and unlocking them will allow you to access features on the comic book artists amongst others.
Well the extras alone will keep you busy for a weekend or two and the film is well worth watching although it does look a little bit like filmmaking by committee rather than the vision of one man but it's better than I expected it to be and yet not as good as I thought it might have been.
The critical reaction to Spider-Man is, I feel, excessive but I suspect this is a reaction to a Star Wars saga that's not smelling as sweet as it once might have done. Therefore, anything that came along this year that looked like it might do better than Attack Of The Clones has been pushed harder than it deserved and Spider-Man was the recipient of this attention. Therefore, I started watching this with a view that there was no way it could be as good as it was being made out to be and, while it is good, do not believe the hype on this one. It's good, it will provide a cracking night's entertainment and you'll watch it more than once but film of the year? I don't think so.
Yet, as a fan of the comics, it could have been better. Spider-Man, in the comics at least, works by viewing Peter Parker's life as a normal guy growing up, getting married, having kids, etc. whilst at the same time living a life as Spider-Man. Therefore, for the films to cover the same of ground they need to pack more emotion and story into each one, for it's unlikely that they'll still be making Spider-Man films for as long as they comics have been printed. I suspect the sequel will follow this film directly and will have a greater emotional impact on the characters and, hopefully, the audience but that's yet to be seen.
Therefore, better than I thought it would be, yet not as good as it could have been. Overall, it was a good film but the Spider-Man story deserves better and I don't think Sam Raimi or Stan Lee has finished with it just yet.