TV GEMS: Spider-Man (1994-1998)

Is this the best screen version of the webslinger’s exploits? 

It’s funny to contemplate now, but just before Marvel reasserted their cinematic credibility with the adult Blade (1998), they had somewhat of a dodgy history on the big (and small) screens. A flurry of animated series in the mid-to-late 90s looked set to undo the horrors of the past, including 1990’s unfathomably awful live-action Captain America and 1994’s UNRELEASED Fantastic Four. Surely, the cartoon medium – where’d they’d been having some success since the 60s – was the way to really push their characters. However, next to the largely phenomenal X-Men (’92-’97), the only one that came close in quality was Spider-Man, which began a wildly-successful run in ’94 and ran for five seasons over four years. It is certainly better than the same era’s Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and the little-seen Silver Surfer. It’s also, dare I say it, my favourite screen iteration of the wall-crawler to date.

This is probably because The Amazing Spider-Man comics, to me, are the definitive version of the character’s history. That’s not to be mistaken with the recent (and now-defunct) film universe, as they were very much taking their cues from the modern Ultimate ‘verse with bits of Amazing thrown in. No, I’m talking about the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko tales from the 60s, which Sam Raimi certainly plundered for his particular movie trilogy. Those stories of a teen Peter Parker trying to get by in the world whilst looking after his doting Aunt May and battling the forces of evil were known for their pathos, humour, creativity, and sheer geekiness, and this show certainly brings the spirit of those early strips to the table. This certainly isn’t the dark and self-serious world of Marc Webb’s cinematic letdowns. Look! Colours!

Perhaps wisely, the very first episode – “Night of the Lizard” – doesn’t need to waste time explaining why Pete (voiced enthusiastically by Christopher Daniel Barnes) is Spider-Man. Even kids back then knew through osmosis. We’re thrown straight into the thick of things with the titular nemesis – the good-natured Dr. Curt Connors (Joseph Campanella) – being turned into a reptilian freak against his will after an experiment to regrow his missing arm goes awry. Not only does it do more justice to this particular “villain” in twenty-minutes than Webb’s film managed, but producer/story editor John Semper, Jr. sets out the key tenets of Parker’s universe with the least amount of fuss.

The world Lee and Ditko (well, mostly Ditko) envisioned is slowly peeled back pleasingly. Yes, there’s old Aunt May (Linda Gary) giving him grief unintentionally every chance she gets, old Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (a spot-on Edward Asner) treating his photographic skills with little regard, and Flash Thompson (Patrick Labyorteaux) causing issues at school.  If you know the fundamentals about Spidey’s existence, then you’ll sink into this show with ease once you’ve gotten over the dated theme music by Aerosmith’s Joe Perry (it doesn’t touch the iconic 60s original, but few cartoon themes do). And, yeah, Mary Jane Watson (Sara Ballantine) competes for his affections with Felicia Hardy (Jennifer Hale), and they’re always left wondering why Pete doesn’t have time for them. Don’t worry, the soap moments are secondary to spinning webs any size…

Spider-Man was the first production for Marvel Films Animation, so they had a lot to prove with Saban doing such a wonderful job with their mutants. “Night of the Lizard” was a true test on not just a creative level but a technical one, too. And considering this series is now over twenty-years-old, the visuals (bar the odd CGI shot of New York City) are still first-rate. Detail and colour is fantastic, really bringing a vibrancy to the events that never seems too hindered by budget. They also pull-off the hero in a way that truly brings the comic book panels to life. He moves and acts exactly like the comic Spidey and you have to imagine the set-pieces have inspired everything to come since choreographically. As a cartoon experience, this Spider-Man still ranks among Marvel’s best animated works.

The stories are also numerous and occasionally epic in scope, making full use of the character’s long publication history. Pete has to fend-off recurring villain and crime magnate Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk (Roscoe Lee Brown); face the wrath of another misunderstood scientist in the the form of Dr. Otto Octavius (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.); deal with his best friend Harry Osborn (Gary Imhoff) replacing his father’s mantle as the sinister Green Goblin; and even suffer the consequences of an alien symbiote replicating his suit and twisting his mind. Indeed, “The Alien Costume” parts one, two and three provide a much better rendering of the iconic Venom (Hank Azaria) than Raimi ever did. Every baddie and story arc you expect to see from the original comics are recreated faithfully and often wonderfully.

If that doesn’t convince you to give it a go, how about the fact that these sixty-five episodes also include appearances from the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Iron Man, Daredevil, Captain America, Nick Fury, The Punisher, Blade, and Doctor Strange? Yeah, I thought that would do it! And they’re not just slotted in to appease the fanbase – all have interesting roles to play in their stories and make this feel far more Marvel than any of the live-action Spidey offerings.

Faults? Well, it’s possible I’m blinded by nostalgia, but the only things to really let this show down looking back are Peter’s clunky inner-monologues, the occasionally stilted dialogue, and the infrequent computer-rendered imagery. Taken purely as an adaptation of early Amazing Spider-Man strips, this one is the closest to getting it just right. It seems that Disney agreed; their XD channel ran repeats to promote The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I’m happy to confirm that it is an interpretation of Marvel’s mascot that deserves its lofty place in the pantheon. Give it a spin.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • By the time the Spider-man series came on, there was a lot of censorship at Fox and they were very nervous about violence. Fox had very strict rules about violence and language in the show, including: “When Spider-Man lands on the rooftop, be sure that he doesn’t harm any pigeons.”
  • Spider-Man only throws a punch three times in this series, once at the Scorpion in the Season 2 finale (“The Final Nightmare”), then again at the Spot in Season 3 (“The Spot”) and once again at the Green Goblin (“Turning Point”). Other than those episodes, Spider-Man never punches his enemies, nor does anyone fire a single gun that doesn’t fire a beam or projectile instead of bullets.
  • The entire X-Men team were supposed to be included in “Secret Wars”, but they were ultimately cut because, according to John Semper, it would have been too expensive to get the cast to fly from Canada to Los Angeles to record their dialog for the show. However, Storm was the only one able to appear because Iona Morris was the only X-Men cast member based in California.
  • A mini-series was actually supposed to take place after the series finale, in which Spider-Man journeys with Madame Web backwards through time to find the missing Mary Jane Watson. He would have ultimately found her in Victorian England with amnesia and she would have been hunted by Carnage, who was also trapped in that time period and was impersonating Jack the Ripper. Once Spider-Man had stopped Carnage and had left with Madame Web and Mary Jane back to the present, Mary Jane would have regained her memory and ultimately admitted to Spider-Man that she had always known he was Peter Parker, which had been hinted at throughout several episodes of the animated series.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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