Spectacular, Spectacular Spider-Man!
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All good things must come to an end, but “The Spectacular Spider-Man” ended too quickly, after only two seasons. In April 2010 Marvel effectively pulled the plug on the acclaimed series, long on hiatus. A couple of weeks later, Sony released the eighth and final disc in the series, bringing the story to a satisfying yet not fully resolved conclusion.
For awhile there, “Spectacular Spider-Man” was perhaps the most exciting entertainment for family audiences to come from the small screen in a very long time. When it wrapped up its second season, it was still getting better, still building to a crescendo.
The series caught my attention early on for its sharp dialogue, clever plotting, humor and thoughtful moral vision. Watching those early episodes, I laughed with delight when Peter Parker responded to a remark about the irascible Mr. Jameson being a decent man “deep down” by asking doubtfully, “Are we talking Marianas Trench deep or Dante’s ninth circle deep?” Think about the two disparate frames of reference in that throwaway line. I’m pretty sure the cartoon characters I grew up with never said anything remotely that erudite.
Well-drawn characterizations and relationships give the series immediate appeal. Peter himself, who starts season 1 as a high-school junior new to superhero-dom, is far more complex and interesting than the big-screen movies have allowed him to be: likable, compassionate, conflicted, and actually exhibiting the science smarts the movies only talked about. Aunt May isn’t just sweet and and decent, but actively and even strictly involved in Peter’s life; she keeps him on a curfew, and makes him stay in touch via cell phone when he’s out late (which leads to very funny moments during action scenes).
Some characters are reimagined from previous incarnations; others are pretty much as we've always known them. Peter’s closest friends, Gwen Stacy and Harry Osbourne, are fellow nerds. Traditionally blonde Liz Allen is now a Latina, J. Jonah Jameson is a very funny if rather manic caricature. Mary Jane is an free-spirited but empathetic siren. Green Goblin is a Joker-like wag in the mold of Mark Hamill’s Joker from “Batman: The Animated Series.” The creators are clearly familiar with multiple versions of the Spider-Man mythos, from the original comics to Sam Raimi’s films and Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man series, and manage to balance Spider-Man’s varied history into something at once fresh and familiar.
I’ve been consistently impressed with the thought put into the action scenes. Series creators Greg Weisman and Victor Cook never settled for having Spider-Man simply beat the bad guys — there always had to be something clever and inventive about it. Thus, in an early episode featuring the monstrous Lizard, who takes refuge in the heated alligator house at the Bronx Zoo, Spider-Man hits on maneuvering his reptilian foe into the polar bear pool, where the frigid water slows the cold-blooded creature’s metabolism. In another episode, Spider-Man battles a newly minted Doctor Octopus in a way I never thought of: by running down the battery powering his mechanical arms.
The stylized, anime-influenced visual design is simple but vigorous and appealing, and carefully worked-out action choreography is highly enjoyable in a Jackie Chan sort of way. In one bravura first-season stunt, Spider-Man detects a hidden bomb in a large ballroom only seconds before it explodes. What happens next I can’t do justice to in words; it’s worth watching and rewinding and watching again.
Multi-episode story-arcs are well-crafted, and established storylines and characters, particularly villains and their origins, are elegantly dovetailed into a compact new continuity. As a serious Spider-Man geek, I find this take on my hero and his world enormously satisfying — the best screen incarnation of the character to date — and I’m happy for my kids to get to know Spider-Man this way.
The writing isn’t perfect. Among other things, this version of Eddie Brock is too decent in early episodes, and too affectionate toward Peter, to credibly become the villainous Venom as easily as he does. But the series’ overall decency is also a key strength. Friendship, responsibility and love are important themes. The late Uncle Ben, seen in a fantasy/flashback sequence recapping Spider-Man’s origins, represents Pete’s moral compass during an inner battle with the alien parasite that turns Brock into Venom, helping Pete draw on his greatest resources — the love of his family and friends — to overcome its destructive influence.
As strong as season 1 is, the show picks up steam in season 2, becoming literally operatic and even Shakespearean. Yes, literally. One episode, with a gangland war set in an opera house during a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, is scored to the opera itself (as well as other diegetic or onscreen music). There was a season 1 episode with Spider-Man battling the Sinister Six in a shopping mall at Christmastime with the canned strains of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite in the background, but this is better.
Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream becomes a multi-episode structuring device as Pete’s classmates try out for the school play — tryouts that add wry commentary on the main action. (This device comes to a climax in the next disc to come, Vol. 8, as Spider-Man’s battle the entire population of a prison is intercut with the live performance of Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare and Spider-Man: What’s better than that?
These artful allusions aren’t just conceits. The opera episode, “Gangland,” is Godfather-esque in its intrigues, with an elegance in the conflicting visions of the warring parties. Silvermane, the old mob boss, is territorial: New York is his family’s fiefdom. Tombstone, the professional, rejects this as old-school thinking: Organized crime should be run like a business, not made personal. No, not a business, counters Doctor Octopus, but a science. But they’re all wrong: Crime is warfare, and only one person at the table knows it.
As the series developed, Peter emerged as an admirable but lovably imperfect hero, capable of insight and maturity but also thoughtlessness and insensitivity, particularly regarding gal pal Gwen. One funny exchange has MJ trying to cue Peter to Gwen’s feelings, but Peter’s too distracted by MJ herself to listen. Moral thoughtfulness continues, as when one character’s gambling problem and another’s history with drugs prompts apt remarks about addiction and recovery.
The series’ strengths are there in spades in the final three episodes. “Subtext,” with Liz Allan’s brother Mark as a reimagined Molten Man, emphasizes the moral and character dimensions that made the series more emotionally resonant than most televised family fare, as when one characterís gambling problem and anotherís history with drugs prompts apt remarks about addiction and recovery. The writers’ sense of humor and perspective remains in evidence, too; in a pitched battle with the fiery Molten Man in a pool hall, with flames raging everywhere, Spider-Man pauses to query the manager, “Couldn’t spring for a sprinkler system, huh?”
The penultimate episode, “Opening Night,” features the grand payoff of the high-school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as an epic prison battle Spider-Man versus nearly everyone — plus the return of the Black Cat, plus new revelations about a cardinal episode in Peter’s life. The writers never forget Peter’s “power and responsibility” mantra; it’s a running theme and a defining element of Peter’s character.
The final episode, the presciently named “Final Curtain,” is a knockout, featuring the return of the Green Goblin and upending a great deal of what we thought we knew, in the process eliminating one of my previous critical objections to what I considered a writing mistake in past episodes. There’s an electric sense of discovery about this unofficial finale that makes you realize that Weisman and Cook were just getting warmed up.
They wanted to go 65 episodes, five seasons. They only got to 26. Why? Disney, which owns Marvel, wanted to develop a new “Ultimate Spider-Man” series to air on Disney XD. Why cancel a successful show with a loyal fan base in order to replace it with an unknown quantity? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and all that. Had “The Spectacular Spider-Man” continued, who knows what heights it might have reached?
Even so, it’s a pleasure to revisit the two seasons we have. Most of all, perhaps, I love the wit of the dialogue. A Cyrano de Bergerac subplot has dumb jock Flash Thompson desperately turning to Peter to coach him in wooing a brainy beauty: “She likes smartness! And, like, integrity and stuff.”