Animation Wednesday: The Spectacular Spider-Man
This post is part of the Animation Wednesday series, a regular column which looks at animated TV series and movies of the past, present and future.
Sometimes I think about doing a kind of a backwards version of Animation Wednesday, where I list terrible cartoons of the past, present and future and explain why they suck. I do a rundown of a couple of notably bad ones in the future, but generally I try to focus on stuff I like, so people who are interested in animation have some good recommendations. But for this post, I have to focus on something pretty bad to lead into something really good.
The Spider-Man animated series on FOX during the 90s was a pretty important part of my childhood. It introduced me to the basic premise of Spider-Man and helped me form opinions on a number of characters. I still associate angsty electric guitar music with the webhead. But looking back, that show actually wasn’t very good. It wasn’t entirely the staff’s fault. It ran just prior to Batman: The Animated Series, which revolutionized the way superhero cartoons work by developing styles suited for animation and movement, as opposed to slavishly copying comic art style. But there was still a distinctly 90s vibe about it, with a focus on relatively obscure characters who happened to be big at the time, like Madame Web. The stories didn’t always make sense, and were often adaptations of bigger event comics which happened to involve Spider-Man. Long story short, this show was fine as an elementary schooler, but doesn’t really hold up over time.
It was followed by the completely insane Spider-Man Unlimited series, where Spider-Man, Venom and Carnage (of course) traveled to an alternative universe where Wolverine was an actual mutated wolverine, among other things. There was also a short-lived CGI series on MTV, but it lacked the production values to do the characters justice. So I was relieved when The Spectacular Spider-Man premiered in 2008, finally giving us the animated series Spidey’s always deserved.
Spectacular Spider-Man has an impressive staff behind it. Head writer Greg Weisman was the creator of the underrated Gargoyles animated series, and has always had an eye for engaging, layered storytelling. Character designer Sean “Cheeks” Galloway’s art style, while much more angular and pointed than Bruce Timm’s blocky designs, provide a clear shorthand for character types and distinctive takes and silhouettes. The vocal acting and score are understated and subtle, with occasional over-the-top bits thrown in, like the theme song.
Spectacular Spider-Man also has a much better pool of stories to draw from. It’s primarily inspired by early Lee/Ditko bombast, but it works in elements of the film trilogy, as well as updates from the recent Ultimate reimagining. The show focuses on Peter in high school, with story arcs about on everything from Green Goblin to the Symbiote suit to a gang war. Plots are introduced and resolved relatively quickly, avoiding the season-long soap opera arcs of the 90s series. Characters are generally true to their comic book counterparts, but when they deviate (most memorably in their takes on the Shocker and Silver Sable), they inject fresh ideas into characters who never really worked on the comic page (for me, at least.)
Like all good things, Spectacular Spider-Man had to come to an end, ushered off after two seasons in make room for the Paul Dini-helmed Ultimate Spider-man. I haven’t watched it yet, but the premise, that Spider-Man is recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D. to train with other rookie heroes, looks interesting. Still, Spectacular Spider-Man is, in my mind, the most perfect adaptation of the Spider-Man mythos, up to and including the films. The main solace we can take from its cancellation is that they managed to work through most of the classic characters and plots by the end. Most of the series is available on DVD, although there unfortunately hasn’t been a complete collection yet.
(And a quick note on Amazing Spider-Man: I think overall, it looks great, but I’m a little put off by the “secret of your parents” malarkey in the trailers. Spider-Man probably has the best, cleanest origin story in comics, there’s no need to muddle it up with twist reveals.)