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By Brad Cook | February 17, 2005

With the release of “Spider-Man 2,” I think we can safely say we’ve entered a Golden Age of superhero movies. While the late 70s and 80s managed to squeeze out just two very good movies—the first entries in the Batman and Superman series—and one decent one—“Superman II”, which could have been better had it not been for the Salkinds’ troublemaking—I think it’s safe to assume we’d all rather forget Supermen III and IV as well as the rest of the Bat flicks. (Okay, the second Batman film wasn’t that bad, but the other two sure stunk up the joint.)

Between the X-Men and Spider-Man series, however, we’ve already seen the release of four solid films, and while the rest of the Marvel and DC pantheons have been hit-or-miss on the big screen, at least Hollywood hasn’t given up on the genre like they did for a while after the disastrous “Batman and Robin.” Could these characters’ movie theater exploits eventually actually rival the fun and thrills they’ve offered on the comic book racks for decades? Boy, I’d love to see it happen, complete with crossovers, starting with an adaptation of “Secret Wars.”

But enough fanboy slobbering. Even if you’re not a comic book geek, odds are you know enough about Spider-Man and his supporting cast of characters to jump right into this film. Those who didn’t see the first movie will still be able to figure out what’s going on, thanks to the screenwriters’ deft ability to drop in bits of exposition here and there that aren’t too on-the-nose. And when they start spinning a web of character development, this movie really starts to come together.

“Spider-Man 2” picks up two years after the events of the first film, in which mild-mannered Peter Parker became the webslinger and faced off against the Green Goblin, a.k.a. Norman Osborne. Norman’s son, Harry, still seethes over his father’s death, believing Spider-Man is to blame, and Peter still pines for Mary Jane Watson, who loves him too but grows increasingly frustrated by his inability to be there for her. (It seems that being a superhero and going to college leaves little time for romance.) Meanwhile, Dr. Otto Octavius has reached a scientific breakthrough, but his big unveiling goes haywire and the metal arms he used to perform his experiment take on a life of their own, bending him to their will. Enter Spidey’s newest foe, Dr. Octopus.

This film contains all the melodrama that made the comic book series so popular, from Peter’s constant financial woes and nagging self-doubts to Aunt May’s struggles adjusting to life without Uncle Ben to Mary Jane’s aching love life. And, of course, we have the expected running gag of blustery Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson constantly firing and re-hiring Peter, as well as most of his other employees. While the comic books took their time developing those story lines, however, “Spider-Man 2” hurries things along, resolving character issues while at the same time setting the stage for the next installment in the saga.

While corny at times, the character development provides a welcome backdrop to the CGI-enhanced battles that we know are always just minutes away. To its credit, “Spider-Man 2” spends its first half-hour simply setting the stage for the story, keeping our masked hero’s exploits to a minimum while focusing on the character dilemmas that will drive the action scenes. There’s nothing worse than a set piece that exists simply because someone thought it was cool, and this film keeps such moments to a minimum, always making sure that the action serves a purpose beyond impressing the audience. Director Sam Raimi has proven that he wasn’t such an odd choice to helm these films after all.

So now that we know the movie lived up to the hype, what about this DVD release? Like the Special Edition for the first film, this is a two-disc set that offers up the expected commentaries and documentaries along with the obligatory fluff pieces designed to sell videogames. The first platter serves up a nice variety of treats, including two commentary tracks, a trivia track, a blooper reel, four featurettes that appeared online when the film was released, and a music video for the Train song “Ordinary.”

The first commentary features Raimi, Maguire, and producers Avi Arad and Grant Curtis. It’s not an overwhelming track, but it offers lots of nice insights into the making of the film, and Raimi and Maguire obviously enjoy hanging around each other. The second commentary is a technical one with visual effects designer John Dykstra (who helmed ILM in the very beginning), visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk, puppetmaster Eric Hayden, visual effects producer Lydia Bottegoni, animation supervisor Anthony LaMolinara, and animatronics creator Steve Johnson. If you enjoy tracks with lots of “That’s CGI, that isn’t”-type comments, this one is for you; personally, I find such things get old fast.

The trivia track is of the “pop-up” variety, offering lots of little tidbits about the making of the movie, its origins, factoids from the comic book series, and so forth. It’s not bad, but the comments appear so infrequently that you should save some time by turning it on while listening to one of the commentaries or watching the movie again. I’m still waiting for someone to produce one of these features in the mold of VH-1’s pop-up videos show, which were obviously the inspiration—I’d like to see little boxes show up and point to various things, such as a prominent crowd cameo or a crew member reflected in a window or whatever. Of course, VH-1’s series also offers a fair bit of snarkiness, something I bet the film studios would shy away from.

Rounding out disc one is the blooper reel, which thankfully goes on just long enough to not wear out its welcome, those four featurettes, which have the expected EPK feel to them, and the music video. Oh, and there are also a billion trailers, most of which have no connection to this movie other than Sony’s desire to shill for its other DVD and theater releases (except, of course, for the “Hellboy” trailer and the previews for this film and its predecessor). The “Hitch” preview is a forced one that also runs when you put in the disc, which is an annoying DVD trend that I’d like to see stopped immediately. Thank you.

Disc two leads off with “Making the Amazing,” a nice 12-part documentary that runs over two hours and gets into the standard stuff you’d expect from actors, producers, a director, and a crew returning for a sequel: how to top the first one, who’s going to be the main bad guy this time around, how do you advance the dangling plot threads from the previous movie, and so forth. It also offers plenty of moments where the curtain gets pulled back and we get to see how they shot the car crashing through the diner window, or when they decided to use puppet arms for Doc Ock versus when not to. Raimi makes sure his crew gets plenty of face-time too, which is nice.

As if that wasn’t enough, this platter also includes three featurettes: “Hero in Crisis,” “Ock-Umentary: Eight Arms to Hold You,” and “Interwoven: The Women of Spider-Man.” Given that we’re dealing with comic book characters, these mini-documentaries look at them in those terms, examining the relationships forged during almost 40 years on the printed page and their transition to the silver screen. The Marvel Comics folks, especially Stan Lee (Spidey co-creator Steve Ditko is notoriously reclusive), get plenty of time here, with Lee expounding on the characters’ origins and the early days of the comic book, when no one knew what Spider-Man would become (the publisher actually fought Lee when it came to giving Peter Parker his iconic teenage angst, for example). Good stuff, if you care about this aspect of the Spidey mythos.

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. “Enter the Web” gives us a multi-angle look at the climactic pier sequence. I don’t mind seeing such video in the context of a making-of documentary, but I can’t say they really engage me on their own; I don’t need to see how all those elements came together for the entire scene. Then we get two (yes, two) looks at Activision’s game based on the movie, which I can’t say are terribly exciting, and a gallery of the Alex Ross paintings featured during the opening credits sequence. I love Ross’ work, but I tend to get bored flipping through still galleries. Maybe I’m just jaded, having reviewed a billion DVDs at this point.

The bottom line, though, is that this Special Edition still offers enough bonus features that it’s a must-buy for all fans of this film, and I know there are a ton of you out there. ‘Nuff said, as Stan Lee would say. And, of course: “Excelsior!” There, this review is now thoroughly geeked-out.

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