In celebration of everyone’s favorite web-head, July is Spectacular Spider-Month at AiPT!. We have a series of amazing articles in store for the month. Movies, television, gaming, and of course comics will all be covered with great responsibility as we honor one of comics’ greatest heroes.
“Tell me there’s something better.”
These are the first words spoken on the animated series The Spectacular Spider-Man as the eponymous hero swings his way through the high buildings of New York and easily takes down two crooks at the end of the summer. As the new school year starts, Peter hopes that things have changed with his new powers and life will be easier. Unfortunately, Peter still gets bullied by Flash Thompson, his beloved aunt May is in financial troubles, and then a supervillain targets the father of Peter’s best friend. All this happens in the first episode and these are some of the many problems that Peter goes through in all two seasons of this great show.
First aired on March 2008, Spider-Man went through an interesting period. Sam Raimi’s film trilogy concluded with Spider-Man 3, which remains the highest-grossing Spider-Man movie to date. Ironically, it is arguably the worst installment in the franchise, with overloaded storylines and subplots involving three separate villains. Sony was planning a fourth film during the Tobey Maguire era never happened. Instead, the franchise was rebooted in 2012. Iron Man was also released in 2008. The movie featured a B-list superhero and launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a hugely successful film franchise that Spider-Man would become a part of eight years later.
There have been animated televised versions of Spider-Man since 1967 from the good (Spider-Man: The Animated Series) to the bad (Spider-Man: Unlimited). But when Gargoyles creator Greg Weisman and Hellboy Animated director Victor Cook got to collaborate on developing a new Spider-Man show for Sony, they were aiming for something higher. Unlike The Animated Series where Spider-Man interacted with the wider Marvel universe, such as the X-Men, Iron Man and Captain America, Weisman and Cook explored the very essence of the web-slinger. The show looked to the past at the character’s comics history, principally on the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko/John Romita Sr. runs on The Amazing Spider-Man. Although it also tends to use material from all eras of the comic’s run and other sources such as Raimi’s trilogy and Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man comics, the show dealt greatly into the teen soap opera within the high school setting, which played a big part in the Ditko run.
Since superhero comic books deal with long-form storytelling, some of the best TV shows based on these properties often respect this approach. Having worked in comics and television, Greg Weisman has embraced this throughout all his shows that are more ambitious than the average kids’ program. Balancing action, drama and comedy, Weisman trusts in the intelligence of his audience to keep up with the show’s overarching arcs of the numerous relationships and recurring antagonists. This is true whether it is the mysterious Big Man of Crime or devoting four episodes to the symbiote’s debut. This is apparent in the second season where the writers get to experiment with the format with a long narrative thread that builds up to the opening of Midtown High School’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s not often you see a Saturday morning cartoon quoting Shakespeare.
As fun as it is to see some Spider-action, the many relationships among the youthful cast are just as compelling. For starters, this show features the best reinvention of Gwen Stacy, who in the comics was the romantic interest that sadly got the short end of the stick as she got killed off so that Peter can later be with Mary Jane. Although Mary Jane does appear here as the cool girl that Peter has a crush on, the show gives Gwen her own distinct personality. She makes a perfect match for our young hero, most notably “the look”. There is so much heart in their relationship and you’re dying for these two to get together. Throughout the show, there are more romantic entanglements that complicate the situation, as if Peter’s life can’t get even more complicated.
Going back to relationships, let’s talk about the villains. Spider-Man has the best rogues gallery in Marvel comics and given that the show takes a more classical influence, the developers do cherry-pick villains from the numerous decades. Although many episodes are very much “Villain-of-the-Week”, the show takes their time in establishing some of the baddies. For example, the two muggers that appeared in the first episode eventually become Sandman and Rhino. From the tragic origin of Doctor Octopus to the ongoing mystery over the identity of the Green Goblin, Spectacular takes the core essence of the long-existing villains and make them feel fresh. That said, not every villain gets to shine from Kraven the Hunter not getting the best cosmetic job, to Eddie Brock, who is presented as Peter’s “bro” from the beginning to jumping through some big hoops to become Venom, a character who can never shake off his ’90s aesthetic as proven in his solo movie last year.
From main characters to the tiniest roles, there’s a good chance that everyone existed before in the Spider-Man comics, such as classmates Sally Avril and Hobie Brown who become Bluebird and the Prowler in the source material. However, perhaps the greatest villain Spidey has ever faced… is J. Jonah Jameson. There have been great versions of the Daily Bugle editor-in-chief in the past, from Ed Asner’s vocals in The Animated Series to J.K. Simmons’ scene-stealing turn in the Raimi trilogy. Voiced by Daran Norris, this JJJ isn’t quite as successful as those, but he displays a level of hyperactivity whilst his frustration with everyone on Earth, especially Spider-Man, is just hilarious. You do get the sense that he is behaving like he’s on another show, but you can’t have a Spidey without a JJJ; it’s like they were meant to be.
In terms of the animation itself, initially it doesn’t look appealing. Based on stills alone the character designs look simplified and there’s not much detail in the backgrounds. However, once you start watching, you adjust to it. Other superhero cartoons that put a lot of detail on characters to look more like they do in comics – especially in those 90s shows like X-Men – that have not aged well. Taking a cue from Bruce Timm’s work from Batman: The Animated Series, Spectacular’s simplistic design adds more fluidity in the action, whether it is the web-swinging or the many battles Spidey has. When you reach the episode “Gangland” in the second season, it features one of the greatest pieces of superhero action as the web-head fights three villains at the same time during a night at the opera. Before Into the Spider-Verse, this was the best thing to happen to Spider-Man in animation.
What about Peter Parker himself? There have been some great performances in both live-action and animation of the character, but when it comes to voice-over work, Josh Keaton best encapsulates the youthful nature of Peter. Peter has some of the funniest quips and define’s Spidey’s wit, even in the face of danger. Going back to the high school setting, the show is about Peter learning the meaning of the words that his uncle Ben gave to him before he died: “with great power, there must also come great responsibility.” Despite the tragedy that Peter went through in the origin story – as explored in Season 1’s penultimate episode “Intervention” – as well as the many mistakes he makes throughout the show, Peter will never give up, not just in his role as Spider-Man, but the people that made him who he is.
Despite The Spectacular Spider-Man being released to critical acclaim, it is a shame that Weisman never reach his original plan of 65 episodes. After two seasons, the show was cancelled after Disney acquired Marvel in December 2009, and then later a new series loosely based on the Ultimate Spider-Man comics would air on Disney XD. Whatever your thoughts on the subsequent Spider-Man cartoons in which the demographic was at a much younger audience, we at least got 26 episodes of a show that was doing some of the best Spidey storytelling outside of comics, with a near-perfect adaptation of Peter Parker and his world that anyone of any age can enjoy.
“Tell me there’s something better. Go ahead, try.”
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