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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Static Thoughts - History of Spider-Man TV Shows

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In case you’re unaware, today marks the fourth season finale of Marvel’s ongoing Ultimate Spider-Man animated series.  The show is one of four ongoing Marvel animated productions running through their Disney connection alongside Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Hulk & the Agents of SMASH, and Guardians of the Galaxy.  

The show has become pretty widely popular with kids, introducing a wide supporting cast of Marvel mainstays while also blending its elements with the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also featuring great comic shout outs, like the debut of fan favorite Miles Morales as played by Donald Glover.  We’ll see if it persists now that Marvel has an onscreen Spider-Man as well but for now, I figured we could celebrate with a look back at Spider-Man’s long, storied history on television as Marvel’s #1 franchise. 

SPIDER-MAN (1967-1970)
This is one of a handful of Spider-Man shows that everyone is more or less aware of, albeit in a very strange fashion.  See, in the mid ‘60s Marvel was blowing up the world as the new comic company on the block and had already made a pretty huge splash by licensing their premiere heroes, the Fantastic Four, to Hanna-Barbera to be made into a show. 

Unfortunately for Marvel, Hanna-Barbera was only interested in the one property for adaptation and ended up dropping their Marvel deal pretty quickly to pursue their own superhero characters.  As such, Marvel chose to return to a previous animation studio, Grantray-Lawrence Animations, to produce a series out of their other hit comic Spider-Man. 

If you know this Spider-Man series at all it’s probably thanks to the bizarre cadre of memes that it’s somehow spawned.  Seriously, I have no idea how or why the Internet decided this singular show should be the topic of its memetic obsession but whatever the reason it’s kept the ‘60s Spider-Man cartoon relatively in the public consciousness shockingly well. 

The show itself is only really so-so, hampered pretty heavily by the limitations of TV animation at the time and the fact that most of the best Spider-Man stories come from the ‘70s rather than the ‘60s.  Still, the focus on comedy and bizarre action scenes does work and ends up making the show a pretty surreal and funny watch in its own way. 

Here’s a weird one; in the ‘70s superheroes were just starting to break through into the margins of popular entertainment.  They’d come to dominate the comics medium in the ‘60s and were popular with younger audiences but for the most part, aside from Superman and the Adam West Batman show most folks didn’t know anything about superheroes. 

However, the ‘70s saw a superhero invasion over the airwaves with shows like 6 Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, and Shazam bringing these heroes into people’s living rooms for the first time.  Desperate to continue their market dominance and expand to new mediums, Marvel green lit a ton of TV projects at the time including 2 Captain America pilots, a Dr. Strange pilot, a Hulk show that was a huge hit, and The Amazing Spider-Man.

The show was a weird creature and one thoroughly informed by the urban focus of a lot of CBS programming in the ‘70s.  It didn’t feature any super villains and the visual design of the hero was exceedingly odd, emphasizing big doofy goggle eyes for some reason. 

The show was like something out of a spoof as it focused on Spider-Man solving various mysteries with his urban set family with very little action or stunt budget.  Even if the show was actually any good CBS apparently screwed the series over by constantly shifting the air time around to try and stay competitive. 

SPIDER-MAN (1978-1979)
This show used to be a cult series that only a few folks knew about but thanks to the Internet’s obsession with forgotten geek relics and minutia I think a lot more people are aware of it now.  See, as far back as the ‘60s American superheroes proved to be a point of fascination for Japanese audiences in a neat bit of inversion of the American taste for Japanese giant monster movies. 

This gave rise to the Bat Manga in the ‘60s, a series of unlicensed Japanese comics inspired by old issues of Batman and the Adam West TV show, but in the ‘70s they took it one step further and launched their own Spider-Man show.  Producer in collaboration with Japanese heavyweight Toei, the show is really only about Spider-Man in name only.  The hero of the show may dress like Spider-Man but he also has a giant robot and weird supernatural powers granted him to fight aliens and demons and all manner of other weirdness. 

The show was a cult curiosity and, apparently, quite beloved by the Marvel stable of writers at the time but it never really took off the way some folks might’ve hoped.  Marvel’s always cherished it, to the point that author Dan Slott even developed a comics canon version of the show’s Spider-Man in recent years. 

Interestingly, the basic outline of the show would go on to inspire Toei’s next endeavor, a superhero series that featured giant robots fighting giant monsters and people in colorful spandex with wrist weapons called Super Sentai.  Later, Israeli American entrepreneur Haim Saban would use repackaged footage from Super Sentai to create the immensely popular franchise Power Rangers; thanks Spider-Man. 

SPIDER-MAN (1981-1982)
Here’s a strange little footnote in the history of Spider-Man’s TV appearances.  By the time the ‘80s rolled around Marvel was, more or less, in second place in terms of cultural impact.  They had some good stuff out there but DC had just put out Superman in 1978 and would launch 4 additional Superman movies that decade along with a TV show.  In an effort to retain their market share, Marvel chose to diversify their portfolio by launching Marvel Productions, an animation studio that worked on a number of their own shows in addition to outside films and series. 

They handled Robocop, Dino-Riders, The Transformers: The Movie, and G.I. Joe: The Movie among others.  On the in-house side, they produced an animated Hulk show to run in parallel with the hit Lou Ferrigno series of the time and made this Spider-Man show.

This series is the first one where Spider-Man and his world actually came to resemble that in the comics, featuring a number of recognizable villains from across Marvel’s sable of characters and even a handful of cameos from folks like Captain America and Ka-Zar.  

However, the series proved short lived and ended up eclipsed by another Spider-Man series that was released at the exact same time by the exact same studio.  It’s unclear how connected the two were meant to be at first but after this series cancellation its sister show would reuse clips from it in the form of flashbacks, implying that this series and its fellow, entitled Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, were indeed connected. 

One of the major hurdles for Marvel in the ‘80s was that networks were far less inclined to let them adapt characters that weren’t really well known.  This was pretty much a product of the time.  Even though Superman had been a big hit he was still an icon unto himself outside of simply being a superhero and the last time Marvel had tried to push the heroes they thought would be successful they were left with 4 flops to their one hit.  

As such, if they wanted to slip characters into their adaptations that weren’t pre-existing hit makers like Hulk or Spider-Man they had to make them cameos or supporting characters.  That weird bit of shenanigans is how you get shows like Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends.

The series’ titular friends were Ice Man of the X-Men and Firestar, a new character created to fill in for the Human Torch who was unavailable due to licensing issues.  That set up certainly makes sense as Ice Man and Human Torch were Marvel’s two other hip teen heroes so packaging them all as one for this series was a good call.  

What’s more, the show also included team-ups with Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the X-Men.  Though not terribly long lived the series did prove thoroughly popular and a serious hit for Marvel, even though their in-house production studio ended up tapering out by the end of the next decade.  However, this show’s success and a few other factors would pave the way for what came next. 

SPIDER-MAN (1994-1996)
If you’re near my age bracket this is the Spider-Man show you probably grew up watching.  If you’re unfamiliar with it or its adjacent family of shows here’s the deal.  In 1989, Warner Brothers produced Batman, a massive blockbuster comic book movie that cemented the idea superheroes could make money without needing to be universal icons.  

Marvel jumped on this and the blossoming mega-success of the X-Men franchise to 1992’s X-Men animated series.  That show was a huge hit and prompted Marvel to produce a whole universe of animated shows of the time including Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and this Spider-Man show.  The whole thing was a major cap in Marvel’s feather, even as they spent the decade languishing on the live action movie front.

Given all that prestige you’d probably think this show would be better but it’s really not.  Honestly, the most impressive thing about Spider-Man’s history on TV is that he really lacks any one, definitive TV adaptation.  Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends has a joy and energy that’s infectious but can’t overcome the limited animation, same with the whackiness of the ‘60s animated series and ‘70s Toei show, and this show’s own ambitions rarely make up for its incoherence. 

Just for a basic example, in this series it’s eventually revealed Mary Jane had been secretly replaced with a duplicate made of living water by Hydro Man.  Hell, the ending of the series deals with a Spider-Man multiverse where an evil clone of Peter combined with Carnage to be an omni-dimensional threat: it was all pretty nonsensical even if its commitment to that nonsense was charming in its own way. 

This is such a strange approach to Spider-Man I’m honestly surprised this series isn’t better remembered.  I’ve read it was “overshadowed” by the rise of Pokemon and Digimon, which certainly sounds possible as I don’t remember watching it just reading the thoroughly bizarre comics of the time.  

For reasons that I’ve been unable to determine, the show is based around a weird techno version of Spider-Man operating on a planet known as Counter Earth.  I think this was part of an attempt to ape the popularity of Spider-Man 2099 without getting into the drug addiction and limiting nature of the future setting but honestly I couldn’t tell you. 

If you’re not a comics fan, Counter Earth actually does exist outside of this show as a weird alternate version of Earth created by the supremely powerful space being known as the High Evolutionary.  High Evolutionary ends up the villain of the show, using an army of beast men as his knights to keep the society under heal.  

In the show, Spider-Man gets to Counter Earth when Venom and Carnage try to sabotage a space launch and all three, along with John Jameson, J.J.’s kid, ended up trapped on Counter Earth.  There, Spider-Man adopts a new costume and fights to free the populous while accruing a number of allies made up of heroic versions of notorious super villains like Green Goblin.  In the end, I think this show was just too weird to ever really catch on. 

Fun, weird, fact about this show: it was originally aired on MTV.  Yeah, people forget this now but for a time there MTV actually had a number of animated series in its stable, of course this was also back in the waning days of MTV standing for music television so a lot of things do tend to get lost in the cracks.  

Anyway, Spider-Man: The New Animated Series, aside from having a terrible name, was apparently intended to be a continuation of the hit Sam Raimi movie that had debuted a year prior.  That’s part of why it was produced by Adelaide Productions, the last name in film-to-TV animated adaptations. 

In the late ‘90s Adelaide was behind pretty much every movie adaptation of the airwaves such as Jumanji, Men in Black, Godzilla, and Extreme Ghostbusters and while they did less work in the 2000s they never really went away.  This series ended up a landmark for them as it was the first, and to my knowledge only, Spider-Man show to be done with CGI and rendered in cel shading.  

That ends up a detriment really as the show is absolutely butt ugly and none of the characters look remotely recognizable.  This was still in the early days of CGI before we really knew what we were doing and you can really tell.  Ultimately, the only real thing of note about this series was that Neil Patrick Harris was the voice of Spider-Man.

And so we come to the last hurrah for Adelaide Productions as well as the final Spider-Man series prior to Ultimate Spider-Man.  Incidentally, if you think I’m being too hard on Adelaide also know that they produced some pretty good entries too like the very popular Dragon Tales, the super fun Jackie Chan Adventures, and the acclaimed Adult Swim series The Boondocks.  However, their movie adaptations really left a lot to be desire and I’m fairly certain that’s what Spectacular Spider-Man was intended to be in its own bizarre way. 

Let me take you back here to 2007; Sony’s just put out Spider-Man 3 and it’s their biggest Spider-Man hit yet, unfortunately the goofier elements and compromised nature of the plot left the Spider-Man brand in cultural trouble.  People may have turned out to see the film but they left turned off by its weirdness and lack of emotional through-line.  Suddenly, Sony’s left with a franchise that lacks a popular face to push its massive merchandising arm.  

Eventually this would lead them to scuttle Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4 but in the mean time they produced Spectacular Spider-Man in an attempt to regain a foothold with audiences.  Even though Spectacular Spider-Man didn’t take off for Sony it did inform their future attempts with Spider-Man as its set-up of dropping Spidey back in High School and emphasizing his relationship with Gwen Stacy, both of which were reworkings Sony would co-opt when they returned to the Spider-Man well in 2012 with Amazing Spider-Man. 

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