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Tuesday, 14 September 2010


The best cartoons don't treat children like idiots, and THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN is definitely one of the very best. An episode in Season 2 has a fight scene juxtaposed with opera, for crying out loud! You don't see that in Scooby-Doo!

Spider-Man is probably the most adapted superhero, cartoon-wise, seeing as there's been absolutely tons, from the old 'motion comic' style one to Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, to the (also brilliant) 90's animated series. MTV made a short-lived cartoon, too, and there was even a bizarre 'Unlimited' version in which Spidey travels to an alternate Earth...so what is it that makes THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN quite possibly the very best? I've already told you - it doesn't treat the audience like idiots. Seesh, pay attention sometime, okay?

Superhero cartoons came of age to some degree with the 90's Batman animated series - here was a cartoon that actually showed BLOOD for one thing, and occasionally had PG rated episodes. You never saw anyone die onscreen (one of the director commentaries in the Season One box set tells how they could show people falling from great heights...as long as they landed in water) but the shadow of fear hung over many of the episodes, thanks in part to the wonderful design of Gotham, and the spot-on portrayal of big hitters like The Joker and Clayface (incidentally, his origin/initial defeat story is definitely in my top 5 list of 'best cartoon episodes ever')...and of course Batman. The show's writers never let you forget that Batman was driven by vengeance and an insatiable need for justice the same way most cars HAVE to run on petrol. The mythos took an interesting - and thoroughly worthwhile - detour into the future when Batman: Beyond appeared on the scene/small screen.

But SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN doesn't have blood, or a gothic backdrop, or PG rated episodes (I don't think) so how can it compare to the 90's BATMAN? Simple answer: it gets the character (and perhaps even more importantly, the supporting cast) absolutely spot-on. It follows the comics faithfully (in a sort of 3 parts original Spider-Man to 1 parts Ultimate Spidey) whilst putting neat (and sensible) spins on existing/known characters.

When Season One starts, Peter Parker is already Spider-Man has been for a little while. He's doing well at school and even lands an internship at a lab run by Dr Curt Connors. He's best mates with son-of-a-millionaire Harry Osborn and 'geekette' Gwen Stacy. Everything's going pretty well. Except his Aunt May is really struggling to pay bills now her husband Ben - Peter's uncle - is dead. So, Peter attempts to win a photography competition at the Daily Bugle in order to get some cash. This forms a nice progression to the early episodes as Peter works at being a better photographer whilst simultaneously trying to beat up bad guys and get home before his 10pm curfew (there's a smart running gag in which Peter, as Spidey, gets interrupted mid-fight by Aunt May calling to find out why he's running late).

Ah yes, the bad guys. The thing is, with someone like Spider-Man easily taking out all the usual thugs, crooks and robbers, New York's crime boss (known only as "Big Man") realises that he's going to need a better class of criminal. Superpowered ones. Cue a steady stream of new villains, including old favourites like Sandman, Rhino and Doctor Octopus. And less interesting ones like Vulture. Oh well, you can't have everything. Sandman's origin experiment is particularly cool as his skin ruptures and then dissolves. Normon Osborn looks on and basically says "Never mind. Plenty more test subjects where he came from" only for the pile of sand that used to be Flint Marko to steadily reform itself into a human form. Cue the first proper supervillain of the season!
There is actually a strong undercurrent of realism throughout the show, which helps give certain moments that extra emotional heft, whether it be to illicit sympathy for a character or raise a few wry chuckles (Spidey's quips are brilliant, although he doesn't get ALL the best lines). Apart from the "real men take care of their responsibilities" theme (given to Spidey by a villain, interestingly) there's the good old teenage love drama going on, as Peter realises he fancies Gwen, but gets introduced to Mary Jane Watson (another brilliant lead-up/pay-off bit), and then ends up with a cheerleader for a girlfriend. Add to the mix the fact that his duties as Spider-Man are helping give Peter Parker a reputation as an unreliable jerk and the ingredients are there for disaster and tragedy.

The first, or rather main, casualty of this unwelcome downside comes in the form of Eddie Brock. Oh yes. Working as a lab assistant in Dr Connor's lab, he's a surrogate big brother to Peter (they grew up together and their parents both died in the same plane crash) who starts to resent him after seeing the way he (unwittingly) treats those around him, seemingly abandoning those who depend on him most. Of course the irony isn't lost on Peter but when he tries to explain himself his pleas fall on deaf ears. And when a mysterious black substance hitches a ride on a space shuttle and then ends up in the lab...if you're a fan you know where this is going, don't you? Yep, VENOM is due an appearance!

The "Anti-Spider-Man" is more powerful and dangerous than any other foe our friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler's come up against, and what makes it worse is that it's one of his best friends behind the slavering jaws of the monster. The resolution (and later reappearance/repercussions) of dealing with Venom/Eddie is neat and well-managed, and not without a few surprises.

There really is much more to adore about the show: J. Jonah Jamesons's fantastic personality (everything he says has a time limit and is generally shouted), the character progression of school football star Flash Thompson (he starts off as a jerk but we soon come to realise he's a deeply honest young man who always stands up for what's right), the integration of Mary Jane Watson, the background details (the same mother and daughter are shown as recurring extras throughout both seasons, and a young couple who Spidey saves and inadvertently brings together in season one end up getting married in the second season). The list is as long as my arm, and right now my arm's very long indeed.

So the bottom line is, if you're like me (in your early thirties) and don't think cartoons are just for kids, and/or you like superheroes, then do yourself a favour and watch THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN. It's a prime example of how, not only a superhero cartoon, but an animation, can stand head and shoulders above its peers (and many similar live action superhero shows *cough smallville cough*). And then subsequently get axed by a network who have no idea what they've got on their hands. It came out in 2008, and a third season has so far not appeared. Will it? That's anyone's guess, as suggested by THIS INTERVIEW with one of the show's creators. Maybe if enough people buy copies of the DVDs that'll change, but for now you can watch every single episode HERE. And if you like it, track it down on DVD. I know I'm going to, because I want to marry the bloody show and have its babies.

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