By Jonathan J. Morris, Antiscribe.com
With the coming July 4 holiday bringing the anticipated (though not by everybody) reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man, it seemed like an appropriate moment to once again trace the filmic and televisual history of another major figure in popular culture. Who? Why, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, of course!
The core backstory of Spider-Man is well and widely known – Peter Parker, a socially awkward but brilliant young man from Forest Hills, Queens is bitten by a radioactive spider (or a genetically enhanced one, depending on the era) while on a school field trip and soon finds himself blessed (and cursed) with spider-like powers. After a failure to use his “gifts” properly results in personal tragedy, he realizes the deeper meaning of the mantra “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Becoming the superhero Spider-Man, he protects the neighborhoods of his native New York City from both everyday criminals and monstrous super-villains; indeed, Spidey’s rogues’ gallery is second only to Batman’s in depth and popularity, boasting the Green Goblin, Venom, the Lizard, the Scorpion, the Kingpin, Carnage, the Sandman, Mysterio, Electro, and (my personal favorite) Doctor Octopus.
Spider-Man, first conceived by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, has long been the poster boy and franchise character for Marvel Comics (now a subsidiary of the Disney media empire), and he pretty much embodies Marvel’s archetypal “hero with problems.” Unlike most of his comic forbears, Spider-Man was notable for the pronounced difficulty he faced balancing the life of his alter-ego Peter Parker with the duty of being a hero. Like any young man of humble means trying to make his way in the world, Peter faced everyday stressors and obstacles: paying the rent, holding down a job, being there for his friends and family, and, perhaps most painfully, enduring the pain of romantic disappointment. Compounding this, of course, were the needs and responsibilities (and dangers) of being Spider-Man. Also, again unlike his forbears, Spider-Man was often considered as much of an outlaw to his public as the villains and criminals he fought against. Due to the fact that Peter Parker/Spider-Man endures these pressures, and the insecurities they generate, Spidey has often led to him being classified as the “neurotic superhero;” his personality often defined by a pronounced inferiority complex and a quirky, nervous sense of humor that belies a wellspring of deep pathos. Of course, Spidey is also the quintessential New York superhero, whose Big Apple spirit is as much as part of him as his persona as his trademark “Spider-Sense.”
Now, as a proponent of the superhero genre in general, I’ve been a fan of Spider-Man pretty much since I was a kid…albeit one often more in theory than in practice. Though I was fortunate to have read them mainly during the glory days of Todd McFarlane, Spider-Man comics in the modern era are heavily criticized for their periods of frustrating inconsistency (see the 1990s notorious “Clone Saga,” or even better…don’t), and the character historically has not held a particularly stellar track record when being adapted to film and television. Thereby, consider yourself warned in advance, true believers, because the story of Spider-Man in television and film is not always a happy tale, nor one necessarily for the faint of heart; in this little journey through part of Spider-Man’s pop culture history, the bad, unfortunately, sometimes outweighs the good.
This show marked the first, and perhaps the most famous, of Spider-Man’s animated incarnations; it may also be among the worst. Originally airing on ABC stations on Saturday mornings in 1967 before moving to syndication the next year, this early Spider-Man is infamous for its unspeakably bad animation, which sometimes barely qualified as animation. To clarify, the series’ (non-)style was defined by still frames being marginally animated with little or no actual character body movement; it’s especially infamous for its “talking heads,” which consisted of static close-ups with only the lips and eyes of a character moving, which has been comically aped over the years by Conan O’Brien and others. The rest of the episodes were often composed of continuously reused animation of Spider-Man swinging across New York City backgrounds, sometimes for literally minutes of screen time on end. Being fair, the series had almost no budget and episodes were often created with very little turnaround. Thus, it was very common to see entire sequences reused over and over again; some of the later episodes, in fact, were even cobbled together from earlier episodes (or even other cartoons) without any new footage whatsoever. The scripting was also often lackadaisical, simplistic, and padded with filler, and after the series switched studios after the first season, it pretty much ceased using Spidey’s main villains of the time, instead using very repetitive and nondescript aliens, wizards, mole people, monsters, and so forth.
With that said, as unwatchable as it often is by today’s standards, this series was a major reason why Spider-Man became part of the fabric of our popular culture, as it brought the character out of the limited scope of comic books (where it was a huge break out hit at the time) and into the childhood of an entire generation of American children. Its iconic theme song is also an indelible part of the character and his myth, known, sometimes by heart, to lucky bastards people who have never even seen the show itself. If you do decide to watch it, stick to the first season, where the episodes use many of the classic villains, with some of the stories even adapted from the early comics; the first episode of the second season also features a pretty faithful retelling of Spidey’s origin from his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15. The rest: pretty much death.
Spidey-Fact: The second and third seasons of the show were produced by Krantz Films, and was specifically overseen by animator Ralph Bakshi, who would go on to be one the icons of independent animation, directing the feature film versions of Fritz the Cat and Heavy Metal, as well as the original, animated feature adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-1979)
This series, which aired intermittently on CBS in the late 1970s, represented the first attempt to make a live action Spider-Man series…and it was pretty much an epic, epic failure, and not even in that so-bad-it’s good kind of way. The series first began as a television movie in 1977 before airing sporadically for the next two seasons for a grand total of about 13 episodes. It remained pretty faithful to the concept of the character, with an emphasis mainly on Peter Parker’s journalistic endeavors, though the only characters adapted from the comic though were Spidey’s elderly Aunt May and Peter Parker’s boss, J. Jonah Jameson (who was far more reserved here than his comic book counterpart). Also, like many other live action adaptations of comic book characters throughout the years, and for obvious budgetary reasons, none of Spidey’s iconic supervillains appeared in the series. Nicholas Hammond played both Peter Parker and Spider-Man, and he received little aid from some of the most pathetic special effects this side of an Ed Wood movie. Just terrible, terrible stuff all the way around, and the series remains so hated by both Marvel and Spider-Man fans that it’s never even seen the light of day on either DVD or legal online streaming (episodes did show up on both laserdisc and VHS, though, which means bootlegs are fairly plentiful).
Spidey-Fact: Though thoroughly dreadful, The Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t a ratings disaster; in fact, it was actually a moderate hit, landing in the top twenty television programs of the year in its first season. However, besides the fact it was a critical laughingstock, CBS axed the series out of fear of being seen as a kiddie “superhero” network in the eyes of advertisers; it also canceled the Linda Carter Wonder Woman series for this very reason.
Japanese Spider-Man (1978-1979)
Yep, there was a JAPANESE SPIDER-MAN, and unlike his live action American counterpart from above, his show does fall into the so-bad-it’s-good category. In fact, to hell with that: it’s so bad it’s AWESOME. Produced by the Toei Company during a brief licensing deal with Marvel, this was a half-hour, live action television series that aired in Japan during the late 1970s and was marketed pretty specifically to kids. Though called Spider-Man and starring a main character who looks and acts like the American original, it featured a different alter-ego and origin story for its main character. Instead of Peter Parker, the Japanese Spider-Man was Takuya Yamashiro, a young motocross biker who gains his powers from aliens through the injection of a spider-serum and by the wearing of a special spider suit. He uses these powers and weapons to do battle with the villainous Iron Cross Army, a group of presumably fascist extraterrestrials (or perhaps they’re just alien Commie-Nazis?) trying to take over the world. Oh yeah, and given that this is a Japanese show, he’s aided by a giant spaceship that turns into an equally giant robot. The best part? It’s not even a giant Spider-Man robot, but a giant leopard-man robot called Leopardan. Why would Spider-Man pilot a giant leopard-man robot? No reason given, and in this kind of show, none necessary.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten the hipster irony out of the way, this show was what it was: a 1970s hybrid of Spider-Man and the Power Rangers. To its credit, the show’s special effects, though often accompanied by a typically cheesy J-Pop theme, absolutely blew away those of the concurrent CBS series, as did the character’s costume design. And Takuya still carried around an inferiority complex that would have made Peter Parker proud, even if he possessed none of his trademark witty banter. In fact, some of his monologues were so nihilistic and bleak I half-expected the guy to just slit his web-shooters at some point. The complete series is currently available to stream for free on Marvel.com here, though it probably should not be endured without some kind of (clears throat) chemical enhancement.
Spidey-Fact: Though the Japanese Spider-Man’s origin was completely different from the American original, it did bare a marked similarity to that of a Filmation superhero character named “Web Woman.” Though not a Marvel character, Web Woman was more or less a female version of Spider-Man, and actually prompted Marvel to create and copyright its own character, Spider-Woman. In homage to Web Woman, Linda Gary, the actress who provided her voice, later provided the voice of Aunt May in the 1990s Spider-Man series.
This, the second major attempt to do an animated Spider-Man, was produced by Marvel and aired in syndication concurrently with the much more popular (and better-regarded) Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends; it also featured the same music, animation-style, and character designs, though with a different vocal cast. All told, the series was pretty faithful to both the best and worst of Spider-Man comics, retaining much of their superhero action but being overly representative of the contrived plotting and lame humor of some of the earlier Stan Lee-scripted Spider-Man stories; even by the lower standards of children’s television some of the writing was often asinine and unsophisticated – an opinion I even felt while watching it in reruns as a kid in the late 1980s. Not surprisingly, it also entirely lacked the harder-edged pathos of Spider-Man comics of the era, and though most of the major villains were on parade here, it pretty much failed to offer the kind of insight and background into their characters that made them so iconic; the Lizard, for instance, isn’t portrayed as the tragic victim of scientific accident, but just another bad guy. With all that said, this was still essentially Spider-Man being Spider-Man, and fighting against the typical cadre of Spidey bad guys (though Marvel’s uberbaddie Dr. Doom was the most recurring villain), and some fans prefer it to Amazing Friends for that reason. And it was certainly a marked improvement over the earlier 1960s series in terms of animation, with good fluidity and very little in the way of actual errors.
Spidey-Fact: Preceding this series in 1979 was another “spider” cartoon produced by Marvel: Spider-Woman. The show wasn’t a hit, only lasting 16 episodes – two of which featured guest appearances from Spider-Man himself.
Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981-1983)
One of the most popular and best-remembered Spider-Man cartoons of all time, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was an iconic show in the early-1980s and remained so popular that NBC aired it as part of its Saturday morning cartoon block through 1986, even though new episodes stopped being produced in 1983. Produced by Marvel Animation using the same music, character designs, and animation of its syndicated counterpart, this series represented the company putting its best foot forward in the writing and technical department. In this series, Peter Parker/Spider-Man is helped in his super-hero adventures by his roommates Bobby Drake, AKA Ice Man, and Angelica Jones, AKA Firestar (who in this continuity are former members of the X-Men); fortunately, their wacky “Jules and Jim” living and dating arrangement is never explored in depth. Typically, the “Spider-Friends” did battle with an assortment of popular Spider-Man villains, including the Green Goblin, the Sandman, and Electro, but unlike the syndicated series, Amazing Friends was far more prone to featuring appearances by other Marvel superheroes, like the Hulk and the X-Men, and their villains. Therefore, it felt sometimes less like a straight Spider-Man series than a Marvel team-up show; which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Even today, the show holds up mostly well, carried by strong character designs and animation, though the scripts and dialogue come across as mostly corny, albeit in a charming way. One of the keys to its success was actually the hackneyed “Spider-Friends” concept; as kind of loner, Spider-Man in the comics typically narrated his own stories, which has never really translated well to most of the animated adaptations. Here, giving Spider-Man other characters to play off made the show considerably more watchable, and enjoyable, than other versions (including the syndicated series).
Spidey-Fact: The character of Firestar/Angelica Jones was created specifically for the series; the role was originally earmarked for Johnny Storm/The Human Torch of the Fantastic Four, but copyright issues pertaining to the character (and presumably the fact that the show would have become a total sausagefest) prevented it from happening. Firestar/Jones did eventually debut in the comics as part of the X-Men mythology, and would become a member of the superhero groups the New Warriors and the Avengers; ironically, though, she has apparently had virtually no in-continuity interaction with either Spider-Man or Ice Man to date.
Spider-Man (AKA Spider-Man: The Animated Series) (1994-1998)
This version, which aired on the Fox Network, is widely regarded as the best and undeniably the most successful of the various Spider-Man animated series. And for the most part, that’s with good reason, as it’s an overall fine crystallization of over thirty years of the Webslinger’s mythology; one also can’t argue with longevity: Spider-Man aired for five seasons for a total of 65 episodes, making it, to date, the longest lasting Spider-Man series by a New York mile. Of course, to some folks of my generation, this was also the series that introduced them to Spider-Man (and current Spider-Man Andrew Garfield was supposedly a huge fan of it). I never really watched it religiously myself, since I was getting out of comic books and certainly cartoons at the time it began airing, therefore I don’t have the same nostalgia for it that others do.
Though it lies somewhat in the shadow of the beloved Batman: The Animated Series, Spider-Man is regarded highly for having many of the same qualities. Produced by Marvel Film Animation, the animation set a pretty high standard in the earlier seasons (though it went noticeably downhill as the series went on) and holds up very well almost twenty years later; it also featured some of the first uses of 3D CGI animation (albeit used only in the backgrounds). Many of the character designs could be pretty toyetic (justifiably since this show was a merchandising machine), but for the most part they remained pretty faithful to their classic comic designs. The series also featured some top notch voice work, especially with the villains (who were much better developed than earlier animated incarnations), including Hank Azaria as Venom, Efreem Zimbalist, Jr. as Doctor Octopus, Joseph Campenella as the Lizard, Martin Landau as the Scorpion, Roscoe Lee Browne as a particularly good Kingpin, and Mark Hamill as the Hobgoblin. Christopher Daniel Barnes was the voice of Spider-Man and Peter Parker, and he’s regarded as one of the best to vocalize the role; Ed Asner also voiced J. Jonah Jameson, in a part well suited for the former Lou Grant.
What really carried the series and made it remarkable in its earlier years was its writing or, at the very least, its plotting. The showrunner, John Semper, Jr., taking a page from its contemporary series X-Men, built the show predominantly on season-long story arcs and weaved many of its individual episodes, with featured Spidey battling his rogues’ gallery, within those storylines. They weren’t perfectly done, mind you (the Venom/Black Costume Saga, the first time it had been adapted outside of the comics, was considered a huge disappointment), but for the time the show demonstrated a level of narrative sophistication that would later influence a number of other animated series. By the fourth and fifth season, however, the show was relying on more outlandish storylines that broke from Spidey’s typical oeuvre (two words: the Beyonder) so unfortunately, that level didn’t necessarily maintain. Also, in keeping with Spider-Man’s role in the comics as a cross-promotional vehicle for other characters, the series featured guest appearances from numerous other Marvel super-heroes, including Iron Man, Captain America, Nick Fury, Daredevil, the Punisher, Blade, the Fantastic Four, Morbius the Living Vampire, Doctor Strange, and, in a crossover from their own series, the X-Men.
Personally speaking, I don’t hold the show in the same high regard that others do. For one thing, it completely overdid it in transposing the comic book Spidey’s highly internalized, first person narration into the series – to a point where I found where his continued kvetching in episode after episode to be gratingly obnoxious. Also, Spider-Man, while kind of lighthearted, was also never really very funny, and the show had this ultra-annoying tendency to follow up its few Spidey jokes with the Wallcrawler emphasizing how much angst he was feeling at a particular given moment. I mean, sure, Spidey’s wisecracking is a total psychological defense mechanism, but you’re not supposed to beat us over the head with it.
What really, really hurt the series for me, though, was the severity of its censorship. Besides the typical issues of the time where gunfire had to be replaced with lasers and direct portrayals of death and murder were verboten, Spider-Man faced some truly insane restrictions, including the fact its main character wasn’t even allowed to punch anyone. Perhaps the most egregious change came when Spider-Man’s main villain group, the Sinister Six, had to be renamed “the Insidious Six” because the word “sinister” was considered, well, too sinister for a children’s viewing audience (much like the phrase, “Are you fucking kidding me?”). Now a lot of shows of the time had to deal with similar issues, and some people would probably give credit to Semper and company for having to write around their restrictions, but given the fact that Batman: TAS had been kicking down the doors on those same restrictions for a few years prior on the very same network, I’m a little less sympathetic towards them than most. The show itself would sometimes inadvertently call attention to the censorship, too, including an ill-advised, watered down redo of the famous “Death of Gwen Stacy,” with Mary Jane in her stead. And seriously, when the God-damned Punisher can’t even fire a real gun, much less kill anybody, that’s just going to make your entire show look damned wussy.
And finally, the show’s theme song, by Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, was horrible. Just horrible. There…I said it.
Spidey-Fact #1: Neil Ross, who voiced Norman Osborn and his alter ego, the Green Goblin, on this show, also voiced the same character over a decade earlier on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.
Spidey-Fact #2: Though this Spider-Man did a pretty good job representing most of the popular Spidey villains, there were two major omissions in the series: Electro and the Sandman. This was because when the series first entered production, James Cameron had planned to use them (or more accurately, variations on them) as the villains in his own never-produced Spider-Man film.
Spider-Man Unlimited (1999-2001)
So where to start with this one? Technically speaking a continuation of the previous Spider-Man series, this is pretty much a test case of what happens when some idiot decides to take a popular idea, in this case Spider-Man, give it a “fresh spin” to make it more dynamic and marketable, and in the process completely fail to make anything either fresh or dynamic. To wit, Spider-Man Unlimited saw the friendly neighborhood wallcrawler leaving the neighborhood, and indeed, the entire Earth behind to go help a human resistance movement on the mysterious Counter Earth. Yep. Not surprisingly, this show was pretty much rejected by its audience before it even aired, with the rumor mill at the time stating that Marvel only agreed to produce it because they needed money coming in after their bankruptcy restructuring in 1998. The two-year duration is also a little misleading, as the show was yanked after only three weeks on the air in the fall of 1999 (where it was slaughtered in the ratings against the juggernaut that was Pokémon), and subsequently cancelled before being used as midseason filler by Fox the next year, with only a season’s worth of 13 episodes produced. I’ve honestly only seen maybe an episode or two over the years; while the animation, all told, remains fairly solid, at the end of the day, this asinine idea had two insurmountable problems: it just wasn’t Spider-Man, and it just wasn’t good.
Spidey-Fact: Spidey on this show was voiced by Rino Romano, who would later go on to voice the title character on The Batman, which unfortunately wasn’t cancelled after only one season. Anyway…he’s still notable for being the only person to have voiced both Spider-Man and Batman, so “yay” for him.
The long awaited film version of Spider-Man was a major media event when released in 2002 and its massive financial success single-handedly resurrected superhero movies as a viable genre after Joel Schumacher and the 1990s pretty much put a bullet in their collective head. Perhaps not without coincidence, it was also one of the first major New York City films following September 11 and something of a celebration of the city and its heroic spirit during a time when it was sorely needed.
Directed by Sam Raimi and starring a ideally cast Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spidey, the movie presented an absolutely dead-on interpretation of Spidey’s origin story and boasted a superb supporting cast on every level: Kirsten Dunst played Spidey’s true love Mary Jane with James Franco was his troubled best friend, Harry Osborn, Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris were tone perfect as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Willem Dafoe was an appropriately menacing Green Goblin/Norman Osborn, and J.K. Simmons almost stole the entire movie as the cantankerous J. Jonah Jameson. Though a big budget blockbuster, this was the rare one (for the time) with a heart, as it really captured the central humanity of Spider-Man and his world, and the movie remains well-liked today because it presented strong, complex, perfectly realized characters in thoroughly compelling situations. Funny how that works, huh?
Unfortunately, while Spider-Man earned its success, the fact remains that only half of it was really a good movie. While it nails the origin story, the second part of the film, with Spider-Man’s superheroics in facing down the Green Goblin, just never clicked. For one thing, the CGI used for Spider-Man himself, while good, wasn’t yet convincing (it would take a major step forward in the second film); the real problem, though, was the Goblin. Dafoe did good villain work as the character, but the Goblin’s costume was laughably bad (he’s often derisively referred to as the “Green Power Ranger”) and other than messing with Spidey and his loved ones he doesn’t really even have a master plan or focus. Lord knows, a villain without an evil plot really isn’t much of a villain, and as the mantra states a hero can only rise to the level of his villain.
With that said, Spider-Man stands as one of the most important and influential commercial movies of the new millennium. Before Spider-Man, the attitude of Hollywood’s executives toward comic book inspired films and many similar properties collectively was one of condescension bordering on contempt, with a vainglorious belief that Hollywood’s “creativity” could improve characters by fundamentally changing everything that people liked about them (for prime examples, just look up many of the god awful Spider-Man movie ideas that predated this film from the 1980s and 90s). While things today are hardly perfect, Raimi, a major Spider-man fan himself, demonstrated to Hollywood that showing fidelity to a character, and thus using the elements that made them popular to begin with, could directly yield both immense profits and fan adoration (which, in turn, yielded even more immense profits).
Spidey-Fact: Spider-Man, though it didn’t directly reference September 11 in any significant way, was nonetheless impacted by it. The film’s original trailer, released in the summer of 2001, was centered on a standalone scenario of bank robbers trying to escape on a helicopter and getting trapped in a giant spider web spun up between the Twin Towers; one of the posters also featured Spider-Man with the Towers being reflected in his eyes. After the World Trade Center attacks, both were understandably recalled from circulation.
The original theatrical trailer with the World Trade Center footage:
Spider-Man: The New Animated Series (2003)
Often referred to as MTV Spider-Man, this animated series had a brief run on cable channel in the summer of 2003. Superbly animated in three dimensional CGI and targeted towards a teenage audience, this presented a darker, more modern, and more mature Spider-Man universe that didn’t shy away from death and violence, or even sex and drinking, when it proved appropriate. Ostensibly a continuation of the Raimi movie, this was about Peter Parker (voiced by Neal Patrick Harris) balancing college life with friends Mary Jane (voiced by Lisa Loeb) and Harry Osborn (Ian Ziering), with the responsibilities of being Spider-Man. I’ve always really liked this series, as it did a fine job incorporating a nuanced view of Spidey’s personal life with some quality action and humor. The scripting was also pretty sophisticated by superhero cartoon standards (longtime Spider-Man writer Brian Michael Bendis was one the chief writers), and as with Amazing Friends, giving Peter Parker friends to play off of really kept Spidey’s first person narration manageable and gave the stories a much more organic flow. NPH, given his impeccable comedic timing and fair dramatic chops, was also perfectly suited for voicing Spidey, and he remains my personal favorite Spider-Man voice actor.
The series did have some issues. It would absolutely have benefitted from not trying to follow the movie’s continuity, since it limited how much actual narrative development they could do over the course of the show (which was, not surprisingly, ignored by Spider-Man 2 anyway). It also restricted the producers from using most of the major villains, which certainly hurt it from a marketing perspective – though it still boasted adaptations of the Lizard, Kingpin, Electro, Kraven the Hunter, and Silver Sable, as well as a number of villains created specifically for the show. Personally, I liked the fact it put characters and stories first and didn’t go nuts trying to replicate all the characters and storylines from the comics. Of course, the series did end up getting canceled, so shows what I know (though it wasn’t helped by the fact that MTV aired the episodes both out of order and with relative inconsistency).
Spidey-Fact: Among a pretty strong voice cast of villains that included Rob Zombie, James Marsters, Gina Gershon, Michael Dorn, Jeffrey Coombs, Ethan Embry, Virginia Madsen, Kathy Griffin, Jeremy Piven, and Harold Perrinaeau, Jr., the series tapped Michael Clarke Duncan to reprise his role as the Kingpin from the feature film version of Daredevil (a film which some say is underrated).
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
One of the best movie sequels ever, Spider-Man 2 represents the rare example of a follow-up that was not only vastly superior to its predecessor, but completely blew it away on every level. Spider-Man 2 further employed the strong characterizations and humanity from the first installment, addressed the issues that held it down, and blazed full speed ahead with a story that drew heavily from both Spider-Man’s epic mythology as well its own historical moment. In all, it essentially summed up, to an often heartbreaking degree, the central existential pathos of Spidey’s condition, demonstrating a Peter Parker trying, and for the most part failing, to reconcile his life as struggling young college student in New York City – one still madly in unrequited love with Mary Jane Watson (Dunst) – with the realities of being Spider-Man. Besides being unable to make his rent, hold down his job, keep up with his classes, or fulfill his obligations to his loved ones, Peter begins losing his spider powers, presenting him with the temptation of being “Spider-Man no more…” Peter soon finds, though, that no man, let alone a superhero, can escape his responsibilities, especially when a new villain emerges to threaten both his hometown and the woman he loves…
Instead of the mostly uninspired, aimless, and awkward Green Goblin of the first film, Spidey now had to contend with the many-armed genius Doctor Octopus (a terrific Alfred Molina), whom Raimi and company astutely transformed from the two-dimensional megalomaniacal mad scientist of the comics into a good man essentially living Peter Parker’s dream life, whose transformation into a monstrous villain feels genuinely tragic. Spider-Man 2 also furthered development the love story between Peter and Mary Jane beautifully, and if you don’t have a tear in your eye at the film’s end, then I question whether you have a soul.
While The Dark Knight is most often singled out as the profound example of the post-September 11 superhero film (and for good reason), Spider-Man 2 was the really the first post-9/11 superhero movie to incorporate many of the themes and subtexts of the post-9/11 zeitgeist. Allegorically, the entire film is about dealing with grief in a world of loss and lowered expectations, with the beleaguered Spider-Man coming to grips with the fact that he may never have the life he wants, clashing with a villain, Doc Ock, driven to insanity essentially by having his entire world taken away from him. Each man represents a different reaction to the “new normal,” one standing for noble acceptance and courage in the face of sorrow, and the other irrational anger and myopic violence after experiencing irreconcilable loss.
A strong case, I feel, can be made that given all its strengths as a blockbuster, and for its deep and moving perspective on the humanity that lies at the heart of the superhero’s journey, Spider-Man 2 may be the greatest superhero film of all time, and at the very least, it belongs in the discussion. What’s inarguable, in my opinion, is that Spider-Man 2 represents simply the best Spider-Man ever.
Spidey-Fact: Though Mary Jane Watson, across most adaptations of Spider-Man, is generally treated as Peter Parker’s one true love, in the comics she wasn’t his first love. That was the brilliant and beautiful Gwen Stacy, who was tragically killed during a battle between Spidey and the Green Goblin. While killing major characters is (too) commonplace an occurrence nowadays, the death of Gwen Stacy (in issue 121 of The Amazing Spider-Man comic, June 1973) was a landmark moment in comic book history, and represented a seismic shift away from comic books maintaining the status quo in favor of more realistic stories where anyone, no matter how popular or beloved, could die.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
And alas, here we go, from the penthouse to the outhouse. While Spider-Man 2 was both a major hit and a critical darling, Spider-Man 3 was one of the more astonishingly disappointing movies of the last decade. Simply put, the film’s story was, to be blunt, a colossal clusterfuck of underdeveloped story threads and obnoxious contrivances which tried to do so much that it ultimately failed to do anything right at all. Its biggest mistake, though, came in trying to shoehorn too many ill-chosen villains into a plot that was already focused on a hero briefly flirting with the dark side.
With his life seemingly beginning to look up, Peter Parker (Maguire) begins to grow too self-obsessed, which leads him to neglect Mary Jane (Dunst), whose own life isn’t going well at all That, in and of itself wasn’t a bad dynamic, but things get needlessly complicated when Spidey falls under the influence of a mysterious alien creature, who besides giving him a cool new black suit turns him into an obnoxious, unlikable, unsympathetic emo brat. As if that wasn’t bad enough (for us), Peter has to reckon with three supervillains – his best friend Harry as the new Green Goblin (Franco), the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and Venom (a completely miscast Topher Grace). Besides all of them being much too much for any one film, let alone this film, to execute properly, each villain’s presentation is almost completely wrong; for instance, the Sandman, who here was retconned as the real killer of Peter’s Uncle Ben from the first film, is very oddly portrayed as a sympathetic, guilt-stricken villain whose criminal acts are semi-justified, making Peter look like a jerk for – GASP – hating him for killing his uncle and wanting to hold him responsible. And don’t even get me started on the weasel-like Grace playing Spidey’s typically monstrous evil double. In the end, the film is just a schizophrenic mess of incompatible story elements, bad humor, and overdone action that completely sacrificed all the good will of the earlier films in the name of more CGI and more villains for its corporate masters to merchandise at the same time.
What’s probably the most disappointing aspect of Spider-Man 3 was that it was a clear throwback to the approach that made superhero films anathema to quality moviemaking back in the 1990s: too much executive tampering and corporate greed, with creative and narrative choices defined by what was serviceable rather than by anything that would stand up as quality storytelling. In essence, it was the opposite of just about everything that the first Spider-Man represented a drastic, and much welcomed, departure from.
With the new movie coming out, I get asked a lot about what I think about them rebooting the character only five years after his most recent big screen incarnation. In theory, I’m against it, as well as the entire modern tendency in popular culture to “reboot” things too quickly just because certain people didn’t show the proper care and attention to do something right the first time. In this case, though, I might be compelled to make an exception. Though others differ, at the end of the day, I’m not sure I would have wanted to see the series continue with the same characters and creative personnel after this. Spider-Man 3 is the definition of a franchise killer, and not even another movie as great as Spider-Man 2 could have made up for the travesty that this film was. It’s actually very revealing that, despite Spider-Man 3 shattering a number of box office records at the time and making almost $890 million worldwide, almost all parties, and especially director Sam Raimi, chose not to follow it up with an actual sequel. Besides being a testament to just how badly done this movie finally was, it’s a very public and welcome acknowledgement by Sony and Marvel it made some huge mistakes. So is The Amazing Spider-Man coming too soon? Probably, and I’m admittedly not incredibly excited for it for that reason. However, rebooting the series was really the only alternative; after Spider-Man 3, there was just no going forward.
If you were one of those unlucky enough to see it, I hope this is, at least, a small consolation:
Spidey-Fact: Another testament to the film’s failure: though it was a major box office success, the DVD sales of Spider-Man 3 fell far short of expectations, selling as many DVDs in its first week that Spider-Man 2 sold on its first day.
The Spectacular Spider-Man (2008-2009)
Yet another attempt to create an animated series of Spider-Man, this show aired for two seasons, first on the WB Network and then on the Disney XD cable channel. Directed mainly towards a kids’ audience, the series drew heavily from both the Ultimate Spider-Man comic book series, which portrayed Spider-Man as teenaged superhero dealing with the stresses of high school, as well as some of the classic Spider-Man stories from the character’s long comic book history. To get the criticisms out of the way, I’ve never personally been a big fan of the teenage incarnation of Spider-Man (not that I was this show’s target demographic anyway). I also personally disliked the character designs on this show: they were way, way, way too cartoony, even by Spider-Man’s standards, and the series’ overall animation kind of suffered because of it.
With that said, there was a lot to like here. The writing was very good, and far superior even to the 1990s series; it especially did a nice job organically blending the villains and their origins into the series’ overarching story arc, which pitted the young Spider-Man against the unscrupulous Oscorp CEO Norman Osborn. Osborn, at the behest of the crime boss Tombstone, sets out creating a series of costumed, super-powered super-villains to kill the fledgling superhero (or at least keep him distracted) so as to keep him out of the way of their criminal enterprise. Overall, the series was a strong mix of well-developed characters (even among Peter Parker’s classmates), witty banter, wall-to-wall action, and inspired plotting. In fact, its flaws notwithstanding, a good argument could be made that this represented the best animated Spider-Man series to date. Unfortunately, the series became an unfortunate bystander in Marvel’s sale to Disney in 2009; since it was produced predominantly by Sony (who owns the film rights), Disney was forced to share a large part of the show’s proceeds. After the sale of Marvel was completed and primary animation rights reverted to Disney, they cancelled the show after only 26 episodes, opting to create their own series that they would completely own and control: Ultimate Spider-Man.
Spidey-Fact: Like the previous two animated series, Spectacular Spider-Man boasted a very strong voice cast; all three series, however, shared one major constant: Ed Asner, who voiced a recurring police officer in the MTV series, J. Jonah Jameson in the 1990s series, and Peter’s Uncle Ben in The Spectacular Spider-Man.
Ultimate Spider-Man (2012- )
Loosely derived from the series of the same name, Ultimate Spider-Man represents the first Spider-Man animated series produced under Disney’s auspices, and they’re not off to an especially great start. Though still reasonably faithful to the Spider-Man character, and very similar in its overall story-arc to Spectacular Spider-Man, this series tells of a young teenage Spidey joining up with SHIELD at the behest of Nick Fury to learn how to become a better, more disciplined superhero. To that end, Fury puts him with a team of other nascent superheroes – Iron Fist, Powerman AKA Luke Cage, Nova, and White Tiger (two of whom I’d actually heard of before) – who, of course, all end up as his high school classmates under Principal Coulson (voiced by Clark Gregg, reprising his Agent Coulson character from the Marvel films).
In all, the series is pretty much a Marvel team-up show, spotlighting characters and especially brands, like SHIELD, that Marvel actually owns complete control over (unlike Spider-Man). Again, using Spider-Man as a marketing device to push and spotlight other characters is a big part of his character’s legacy in the comics, but here it feels totally overdone – not to mention really, really corporate. To me, Spider-Man works best as an unaffiliated loner, so essentially putting him with “the man,” i.e. SHIELD, kind of works against his everyman appeal. None of this is really helped by the fact that the show is much too jokey, with Spider-Man constantly breaking the fourth wall and the series stylistically cutting away to continuous visual non-sequiturs, making the series seem almost like a knock-off Family Guy for the Elementary School crowd.
Spider-Fact: Spider-Man co-creator (of record) Stan Lee has a recurring role in the series as Stanley, the janitor at Peter Parker’s high school. Since the early 1980s, Stan Lee has had a vocal presence in every Spider-Man cartoon: he served as a periodic narrator on the 1980s Spider-Man and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and he had voice cameos in the 1990s series, the MTV series, and The Spectacular Spider-Man. In addition, Lee’s wife of now 65 years, Joan, also provided the voice of the character Madame Web in the 1990s series.
As this overview demonstrates, Spidey hasn’t always had an easy time of it when getting translated to other media, mainly because he can be a very tough character to pull off; besides being very internalized in the comics, the character and his world are also deceptively nuanced. To do Spider-Man correctly requires the right balance of sadness, excitement, humor, and drama along with just the right touch of verisimilitude. When he’s done right, Spider-Man represents the “hero in all of us;” the innate good person most of us hope to be, who does the right thing when it’s easiest to do nothing. To Spider-Man, his antithesis isn’t evil, but apathy. It’s an important distinction, and when it’s not made properly, Spidey becomes just another boring, kiddie superhero fighting the bad guys because he’s supposed to, and not the noble, timeless, ageless hero fighting for the greater good because it’s simply the right and responsible thing to do…