Spider-Man In Animation - A Retrospective

Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Part Four - Part Five - Part Six

Spider-Man arrived on NBC in 1981, but due to the network’s insistence, he wasn’t alone. No, Spider-Man was to be joined by Iceman, and a newly created character called Firestar, with the intention of making a superhero show with 3 best friends fighting crime that kids could relate to. Whilst some Spidey nerds would no doubt balk at the idea of Spidey being in a team (I’ll go on record and say I think Spidey joining The New Avengers is one of Marvel’s stupidest ideas ever - no small feat, I might add) but the team worked. The show was all about having fun as was typical in the 1980’s. There’s a few silly things to be found here, for example, the crew had some sophisticated computers in there apartment which they never, ever used and an annoying comedy dog named Ms. Lions was added into due to the networks insistence. In fact, it’s since been proven that the damn dog was the only reason NBC decided to do the show in the first place!

The show ran for 3 seasons, and is fondly remember by those who watched it back in the day. The characters proved to be more interesting than the stories they were placed in more often than not, as there was quite a bit of romance to be found between the 3 of them, with both Spidey and Iceman being fond of Firestar but afraid to do anything in case it jeopardised their friendships with each other and the hints of Firestar’s attraction towards Peter. It’s also worth noting that Iceman often comes across as a loveable dumb ass, and to this day, has put every other version of the character to shame. His banter with Spidey is the stuff of legend and ol’ webhead wasn’t short of the wise cracks himself. The show was all about fun, and this show is truly considered the holy grail of 80’s animation on DVD. In short Disney, there’s a hell of a lot of demand for this show to be released. 80’s animation DVDs have proven to be strong sellers, and this would be no exception. Get off your ass and get it made. Now!

Due to the 80’s cartoon market having little use for superheroes and Marvel not really interested in investing much money in animation, it would a long time before Spidey returned to Saturday mornings, with the eagerly anticipated Spider-Man: The Animated Series following in the footsteps of Batman: The Animated Series and Marvel’s own X-Men animated series.

With the success of the cheaply made X-Men, Marvel ventured into animation with an all-new Spider-Man show. Both Stan Lee and Avi Arad wanted a better-looking show, and TMS, one of the finest animation studios available, was chosen as the animation house to handle the show. The show was also one of the first to be digitally coloured, rather than using traditional cel shading.

Predicated as a monster hit, the show had a lot of trouble behind the scenes due to conflicting opinions from those in charge and a previous story editor who was dismissed. The network had inflicted harsh censorship on the who from day one, due to a negative backlash they suffered from Batman: The Animated Series and the retarded live action show, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. It was made abundantly clear that Spider-Man was not to fight villains with his fists, children were not to be jeopardised and the show was not to be violent in any way, so even the youngest of children could watch it without a hoard of soccer moms complaining about the show’s content.

John Semper replaced Martin Pasko due to Stan Lee’s insistence, and in November 1994, a special sneak preview of Night Of The Lizard aired to unprecedented ratings and critical acclaim.

Featuring some of TMS’ best animation ever, the episode was easily comparable to Batman: The Animated Series. It had just about everything one could ask for in a superhero cartoon – great visuals, interesting characters full of wit and charm and villain with motivation and depth. Even the fight scenes were well done, despite the lack of violence and punching. It all seemed to be going so well for Spidey and his new show. The ratings were great, the toys were selling and most fans were happy with the series. But would it last?

Spider-Man: The Animated Series began airing in the February of 1995, with the first part of The Spider Slayers airing. It’s immediately noticeable that the show doesn’t look quite as dark as it did during Night Of The Lizard, but the gorgeous TMS animation is still present. The first season is probably the best of all 5, as it’s actually has very high production quality, which simply became laughable as time went on afterwards. Interesting enough, this show was the first to fully utilise Peter Parker’s supporting characters. Harry Osborn makes his animated debut and Felicia Hardy, Flash Thompson and Mary Jane are upgraded to full supporting characters instead of one shot deals. Jonah and Robbie are also featured prominently, as is Peter’s Aunt May.

Unfortunately, this show’s version of Peter Parker isn’t really all that interesting - he had an absolutely hideous design, and his main supporting cast Harry and MJ are both highly annoying. Harry is turned into a whiney little runt, and MJ is a more like a ditzy 12-year-old fashion disaster rather than the sexy red head from the Lee/Romita days. It’s unfortunate, because everyone else was at least mildly interesting, if not thoroughly entertaining. Robbie was great, Flash was likeable as the bully and J. Jonah Jameson was at his finest, thanks in no small part to the brilliant performances of Ed Asner. The rest of the casting is stellar if not spectacular, particularly Christopher Daniel Barnes as Spidey, Mark Hamill as The Hobgoblin and Roscoe Lee Brown as The Kingpin of Crime.

The first season is very much a villain of the week scenario, but it managed to avoid the rather clichéd pattern that most followed by adding in several 2 and 3 part stories and spending an unusual amount of time focusing on Peter’s romantic dilemmas. The unusual aspect about it all was that Peter wasn’t just trying to get cosy with one girl out of his league – no, Parker was trying to juggle two different relationships with two girls, the blue collar Mary Jane Watson and society snob Felicia Hardy. Ironically enough, the snob proved to be more likeable than the red head and they’re relationship was much more interesting. I’m not entirely sure if it was because Peter seemed more interested in Felicia, who was playing hard to get or because Mary Jane seemed to like Peter more than Felicia did, but he ended up with the least interesting of the two.

The villains here are all much better than the previous versions – bright, colourful designs with motivation and actual depth barely found in the preceding cartoons. No squeaky voice acting or stupid plans here, these villains were some of the best to ever grace Saturday morning TV. Bitter scientists, utter psychopaths and crime lords were all fair game in Spider-Man. Keeping closer to the comics than the other Spidey cartoons, the likes of Doc Ock, Mysterio and The Scorpion appeared once again, and Venom, The Hobgoblin and Alister Smythe made their debuts.

The most daring of all the stories however was the introduction of Venom. He had only been in the comic for a few years at this point, but had quickly become Spider-Man’s most popular villain and fans were demanding his presence on the small screen. In the comics, the symbiote was brought to Earth from Battleworld but that storyline was too cosmic for this show and would’ve taken too long so the decision to have the alien come from John Jameson’s shuttle was made and the writers began the long and painful process of telling Venom’s origin.

Stan Berkowitz told Marvel Animation Age; “Everybody -- producers, network, writers, artists had a different conception of the Venom story; it took a half-day-long meeting with everyone -- Avi, Stan, the network rep, the supervising producer (Bob Richardson), John and me, before a storyline could be settled upon -- and that was just for the first half hour of the three-parter.

In fairness, I should note that it's been my experience that writing a three parter isn't three times as hard as writing a one-parter; it's NINE times as hard. And one other thing: it's easier to get things done when you're working for one person with bad taste than four with good taste -- although the end product probably won't be as good.”

Undoubtedly the coolest part of the storyline was Spider-Man’s time in the black suit. With the suit turning him into an angrier, edgier person it was an interesting constant to see him become more of a bad ass. Plus, the black suit was absolutely stunning to look at! Venom himself was a little disappointing compared to the previous two episodes building him up, if only because Brock himself didn’t look anywhere near as cool in the suit as Spidey did. This was the first time bad colouring had an adverse effect on the quality of the show, but unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last.