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"The Spectacular Spider-Man" Is Pretty Much That

by on March 13, 2008

Spider-Man is Marvel Comics’ icon. In the past decade alone, he’s starred in three live action movies, over a dozen video games, and countless comic books. Those ten years have also put him in three animated series; if you go back to the beginning, The Spectacular Spider-Man is the sixth (or even seventh, depending on how you count Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends) cartoon show to star the webslinger. Spider-Man’s popularity with the general public has, arguably, never been greater. It’s no surprise he’s been given a new animated program.

The last Spider-Man series to come our way, MTV’s Spider-Man: The New Animated Series, rolled out after the first movie and followed its continuity closely. Viewers were expected to know about such things as Harry’s hatred of Spider-Man; Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane also tracked the movie’s portrayal. Perhaps because it made such presumptions, it lasted only thirteen episodes.

The Spectacular Spider-Man, though, doesn’t depend upon the same connections, even though it appears shortly after the release of the third movie. If anything, it draws its biggest inspiration from the early Spider-Man comic books of the 60’s, even going so far as to credit Stan Lee and Steve Ditko as the creators in its introduction. This makes the new series approachable to new fans while also giving it a back-to-basics feel.

That’s not to say that the show follows Lee and Dikto’s original strictly. It borrows many story elements, and such villains as The Big Man, the Enforcers, and the Vulture, from the early Spider-Man comics of the 1960’s, but it also introduces elements that weren’t in the original stories. It shows Peter as friends with Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacy, for instance, even though, in the comic books, he didn’t meet them until he entered college. It also depicts a long-standing friendship between Peter and an older Eddie Brock, an idea that has only been used by Brian Michael Bendis in Ultimate Spider-Man. It’s refreshing to see an adaptation that borrows from other interpretations while simultaneously creating its own continuity.

The first episode, “Survival of the Fittest,” briskly introduces the character and his environment. Peter Parker is a high school junior who became Spider-Man over the summer—a quick flashback shows him being bitten in Curt Connors’s lab—and he thinks his life is going to change. His Uncle Ben has recently died, leaving him and his Aunt May in a financial bind. So he wants to help out Aunt May, date a popular girl, and land a part-time, paying job. None of these work out the way he plans, but by the end of the episode he’s still optimistic about his life. As Spider-Man, he reveals himself to the police, J. Jonah Jameson of the Daily Bugle, and the public in general. This attracts the attention of potential enemies: After he thwarts a robbery attempt by future Sandman Flint Marko, a local crime boss called The Big Man sends a team of specialists called the Enforcers to put an end to him. Spider-Man has to avoid their assaults while also saving the father of his best friend from a bitter ex-employee who dons a mechanized suit and calls himself the Vulture.

The voice cast has an impressive first outing. Josh Keaton brings to the role the charged exuberance one would expect from a young Spider-Man. James Arnold Taylor delivers a wise-cracking Harry Osborn, and Lacey Chabert’s Gwen Stacy is both soft-spoken and intelligent. Darran Norris voices J. Jonah Jameson, whose quick-paced rants are reminiscent of the movies’ J. K. Simmons. Gargoyles fans will recognize Keith David as the voice of the mysterious and menacing Big Man. The show’s opening theme, accompanied by a catchy theme song, is bright and fun.

The character models may take some getting used to. Their simple, kid-friendly appearance, complete with colorful, pupil-less eyes may put off some viewers who expect superhero cartoons to be more detailed. However, the uncomplicated designs lend themselves to smooth animation. Spider-Man slings his webs in the blink of an eye while accompanied by swift and fluid movements. The Spectacular Spider-Man also has its own style, complete with scene-changes engendered by spiders crawling across the screen and unique establishing shots around Manhattan. There’s even a familiar-looking stone statue or two. The show is filled with homages to original Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko. In one scene, Spider-Man’s mask flashes over half of Peter Parker’s face, and the episode ends with Spider-Man’s red visage filling the sky above the Parker household. In an early scene, Aunt May is talking to her friend Anna, who we don’t see, which might foreshadow an upcoming appearance by a certain niece whose face wasn’t shown in the comics until after her first on-panel appearance.

Although there is a lot about the show to immediately like, there are obvious places where one can hope for more. It’s clear that several future conflicts are being set up, but early episodes that consist of simple Spider-Man vs. a super villain plots may become formulaic and wear thin. Also, when dealing with Spider-Man, one expects to see serious problems come Peter’s way. Seeing him lose his shoes is fun, but older fans are going to want to see him deal with the really tough situations he’s known for facing in his personal life. Many of the characters we meet in this first episode either turn on Peter or meet unfortunate fates in the comics. These are stories that, if adapted, shouldn’t be taken as lightly as the conflicts given in “Survival of the Fittest.” Viewers who are willing to stick with the show will be looking for—and will deserve—a payoff down the line when the plots are fully developed.

The Spectacular Spider-Man is not a show that asks to be compared to its predecessors. Nor should it be. It establishes its own identity while maintaining a balance between its exciting action, humorous scenarios, engaging subplots, and wise-cracking hero. If you liked previous Spider-Man cartoons, movies, or comic books, this is something you will enjoy. Even if those aren’t quite to your taste, you should give The Spectacular Spider-Man a shot, as you might just be pleasantly surprised.

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