[27 April 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s all about balance. That’s what makes Sam Raimi’s sequel to his multi-million dollar success Spider-Man so special. In a domain – the inevitable money-driven motion picture franchise – where art frequently falls to artifice, where bigger (not necessarily better) is the driving cinematic force, and fans expect more of the same, just reconfigured enough to make the redux seem worthwhile, this second spin for the noted web-slinger was both brilliant and brave. It was smart for staying within the well-honed path of the original movie, improving on things that audience’s complained about first time around (too much CGI, too much spectacle), while boldly making character and inner turmoil more important than all that crime fighting and villainy.
In Spider-Man 2, hero Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is learning to live with his new superhuman strength – and as his late Uncle warned, all the power and responsibility that comes with it. Such stresses are taking a toll on his life. He is unlucky in love. Gal pal Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is engaged to another. Parker is literally falling down on the job, and failing to meet the family and financial obligations of his widowed Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). Even worse, best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) keeps confronting Pete about his ‘relationship’ with the crime fighter, since he blames Spider-Man for his father’s death. On top of all this, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) is experimenting with fusion. A freak accident leaves him with a set of four robotic arms permanently fused to his spine. As they begin to control his thoughts, Doc Ock plans on perfecting his theories – even if it destroys the whole world.
Such a multifaceted strategy required expert directorial equilibrium, a skilled understanding of how to make everything work with machine-like precision. One false move, or better yet, one overlong sequence or one too many F/X shots, and you’ve betrayed the mandate sent down to you by fans. It was what happened to Tim Burton when he followed up his 1989 Batman with the goofy Goth grandiosity of 1992’s Batman Returns. From the overabundance of antagonists to the open-ended ability to do anything he wanted, the quirky director ended up spoiling the story with spectacle. It’s the same with the Superman films. The original wanted to establish myth. The second tried to get by on mirth. Yet, with expansion came exhaustion – of intent, or ideas, and of interest.
So what do you do if you’re Sony, and you’re frightened that the three-year gap between Spidey sequels has diluted the level of curiosity in your franchise. Why, you overstep your firmly-established filmmaker, craft eight minutes of missing footage onto an almost perfect motion picture, give it a fancy tech-type name (Spider-Man 2.1) and send it out onto DVD before your May 4th date with theatrical destiny. Shown on cable’s FX Channel before finding its way onto the digital domain, this crass cash grab is the truest indicator of the format’s lame legacy. Much more than a double dip, this is a way of flim flaming the film fans into paying for a movie twice.
The best example of this motion picture ploy is the whole “unrated” release scam. Promising you more bang – or in most cases, blood and guts – for your buck, media conglomerates get to fleece you both going to the theater and coming to the brick and mortar. Say you see a horror film at your local Cineplex. You enjoy it so much you can’t wait to own a copy once it hits stores. Sadly, you never get what you originally saw on the big screen. Instead, you get added gore, maybe a deleted conversation or two, and a completely different cinematic experience overall. While some studios are nice enough to offer both versions to their retail faithful, most make you cough up the coin – even if it’s for something slightly different than what you wanted in the first place.
It’s like ordering a black coffee and getting a latte with extra Splenda, instead. In some ways, this is how Spider-Man 2.1 feels. Unless you’ve revisited the original Part 2 recently (which this critic did in preparation for this review) you may not even notice the changes. Specifically, the added eight minutes include extended conversations between Peter and Harry (both share their revenge obsessions, Pete with his Uncle’s killer, Harry with Spidey), a moment where Mary Jane questions her engagement to astronaut John Jameson, additional moments between MJ and Pete, and of course, a few more seconds of action. The most impressive sequence takes place when Spider-Man and Doc Ock tumble into, and end up destroying, a law library, while both the original clock tower skirmish and the runaway subway battle get intriguing bits added to them.
And of course, there are “new” featurettes and a smattering of bonus context provided, all meant to capitalize on the timeliness of this release. A commentary track from producer Laura Ziskin and screenwriter Alvin Sargent represents the kind of backslapping ‘aren’t we special’ supplement that gives DVD extras a bad name. We learn more about the individual egos involved than the creative process. Similarly, a “Spidey Sense 2.1 Trivia Track” (nothing more than a pop up feature providing snippets of info as the movie plays) is not geared toward clarity. Instead, we get the same old nuts and bolts breakdown that appears all across the release’s many making-of documentaries. Since marketers know that two DVDs sell easier than one, this double barreled approach is somewhat rewarding. We get a sneak peek at Spider-Man 3, a minor piece explaining the expansion, and a look at both the musical score (by Danny Elfman) and the visual FX.
But does all this additional material make the Spider-Man 2.1 experience that much better? Does the film really need a collection of repetitive bonuses and five percent more narrative to make its point? Well, it depends on your overall opinion of the original. If you believe, like this critic, that Sam Raimi salvages what could have been an experiment in excess by flawlessly finding the right combination of movement and meaning, then any change – good or bad – messes with that mannerism. On the other hand, if you found the first version lacking in action and backstory motivation, if you need to be reminded time and time again that Harry Osborn, Mary Jane, and Dr. Octopus are important components of the overall storyline, then you’ll welcome the additional footage.
And still, there’s a feeling of aesthetic pointlessness to it all. Reports indicate that Raimi was not a part of this DVD update (though the EPK bumper material utilized during the FX broadcasts had the director hinting otherwise) and no matter how successful Part Three turns out to be, rumors are already flying that the franchise will continue – with or without its main stars and/or primary cinematic guide. Apparently blinded to the amount of money they could make (Part One brought in over $400 million at the box office, while Part Two came close to said number), Sony sees no problem in bleeding this series of all its serious artistic components. Spider-Man 2.1 is a perfect example off this strategy. While it may add a few more dollars to the company coffers, it’s definitely not doing the Spider Man series – or the digital domain – any real favors.