How 'Spider-Man: The Animated Series' Got It All Right
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Fox Kids' 1994 Spider-Man: The Animated Series made some choices that were … yeah … Among others, it made Peter Parker a handsome college student, opened with an intro featuring CGI that aged about as well as a cheese sandwich on the floor of a prison shower, and in its final episode mouth-hugged Stan Lee so hard, the series had to be legally classified as hentai for its Japanese release. (Okay, not really, but given his lifelong obsession with smut, that would have been on-brand for Stan.)
My point is, I completely understand if you have no love for this show. But if you somehow manage to look past all of that, you will find that this nearly 30-year-old cartoon (pause for a futile scream into the void about the unavoidable passage of time) not only did a lot of things right, it did them better than any other Spider-Man movie or show out there …
It Really Took Its Time With The Green Goblin
The Green Goblin (Or GreG for short) is Spider-Man's greatest villain, the Claudius to his Hamlet, the Joker to his Batman, the manager at the All You Can Eat buffet who said they're going to make their first-ever exception for me to … some guy. You don't know him. He goes to a different school. In Canada. Anyway, the rivalry between Spidey and Greg is so classic that Raimi's first movie had to have the Goblin as the main villain, introducing Norman Osborn around the five-minute mark and waiting a whole 10 minutes before showing his steps towards transformation. Spider-Man: TAS, on the other hand, knows a little something about the long game.
Most of the show's first 13-episode season was spent introducing Spidey's villains. In what episode do you know think The Green Goblin shows up? *Bzzt* Trick question. He never shows up in Season 1. Not even in Season 2. It took 31 episodes, or nearly halfway through the entire show, for the Spider-Man cartoon to show us Greg in "Enter the Green Goblin." However, Norman Osborn was there since the second episode. This gave us plenty of time to get to know the man behind the puke-green Sphynx cat mask first and therefore give a little bit of a crap about him becoming more deranged than whoever came up with the story where Norman impregnates Gwen Stacy.
"Enter the Green Goblin" is just an all-around great episode. For one, Norman's motivation for working on his super-soldier gas isn't to save his company. It's to save his son Harry, whom Kingpin threatened to kill unless Norman gets him a canister of green Captain America farts. In the Raimi movie, Norman Osborn was driven by his desire to stay a billionaire. In the "silly" kids' cartoon, he does it out of love for his child (in the only way he knew how after neglecting him for years).
The episode also has a great J. Jonah Jameson moment where he reports on Norman's company's weapons tests and badly damages its reputation despite being a shareholder in Oscorp because, in his own words, he is a journalist first. What is it with the Green Goblin bringing out the best qualities in the guy with the Hitler 'stache…?
The Show Did The Spider-Verse Before Into The Spider-Verse
Into the Spider-Verse is easily the best Spider-Man film out there, so it must say something great about Spider-Man: TAS that its two final episodes, "I Really, Really Hate Clones" and "Farewell, Spider-Man," almost look like an early blueprint for the Oscar-winning film. I'm not saying that ISV directly lifted ideas from the show, but if I found out that the movie's writers had someone reenact the two episodes' plot for them using saucy sock-puppets while they were working on the script, I honestly wouldn't be surprised.
Just as a quick reminder, Into the Spider-Verse told the story of a supervillain driven by grief who tries to open a portal to parallel dimensions while multiverse versions of Spider-Man try to stop him from blowing up the universe. Pretty much the exact same thing happens in "I Really, Really Hate Clones" and "Farewell, Spider-Man," only the supervillain is Peter Parker bonded with the Carnage Symbiote who wants to blow up all of reality after losing too many people in his life. The cartoon's multi-Spideys weren't as colorful as the movie's, but they were still cool, including a Doc Ock version, a mutating six-armed Spider-Man, the Scarlet Spider, and an Iron Man Spider-Man (complete with the megalomania and, though they never showed it, probably a bourbon-boofing apparatus built into the armor.)
Also, I think I may actually like the ending of the animated series better than Into the Spider-Verse's.
The ISV ending was great for what the film was trying to do: tell the story of Miles Morales becoming Spider-Man, so the finale was understandably and justifiably action-packed. Spider-Man: TAS went a different route. Instead of punching Spider-Carnage in whatever passes for the junk on a symbiote (I still say it's the tongues), the Peter Parker from our reality jumps a few dimensions and brings with him an Uncle Ben who lived to remind Spider Carnage of the good person he used to be. This helps him snap out of his Symbiote-enhanced rage long enough to commit suicide and save the world.
And then the show probably cut to a Fruity Pebbles commercial because you still can't legally sue people for emotional whiplash.
Spider-Man: The Animated Series Still Has The Best Kingpin Origin Ever
Despite looking like three guys in Eddie Murphian fat-suits squeezed into another, fatter fat-suit, the origin of Kingpin in the comics and even the Netflix series is pretty thin. Basically, when he was young, he wanted to do crime, so he studied how to do crime really well and went on to crime enough crime to become the king of crime. Now, here's what the Spider-Man cartoon gave us instead.
In the Season 3 episode "The Man Without Fear," we learn that Wilson Fisk started out as Wilson Moriarty, a bullied, overweight kid who just wanted to impress his dad, a small-time hoodlum with dreams of becoming a made guy in the mob. Yearning for his father's acceptance, the lonely Willie became a criminal like his father. But because his dad's supervillain name would be the Large Intestine Man due to his ability to turn everything into crap, Willie got left behind by his dad during a botched robbery and spent years in prison because even after everything, he still couldn't bring himself to rat out his father. Prison would soon toughen him up.
By the time he got out, the proto-Kingpin had acquired all the knowledge necessary to build his criminal empire, eventually erasing all traces of Wilson Moriarty from government databases, taking on the name "Fisk," and becoming a philanthropist in the eyes of the public. But there was one more link to his past life: his father. So, with absolutely zero traces of that once timid, scared kid left in him, the fully formed Kingpin had his father brought to him so he could personally watch his men execute him. For a Saturday morning cartoon, this was gloriously messed-up. Kingpin wanted to look his father in the eyes as he died with the knowledge that his own son ordered his murder. Ice cold (but enough about his dad's corpse.)
No Other Show Or Movie Portrayed Peter's Corruption By The Symbiote Better Than The Cartoon
We all knew this was coming, so let's just get it out of the way.
Can we get it IN the way of a speeding truck …?
This was "evil" Peter in Spider-Man 3 when he was taken over and "corrupted" by the alien Symbiote (which might be where the Tom Hardy Venom movie got the idea to make the black Symbiote "a loser" among his kind.) Then again, hey, props to Raimi since this downfall of Peter Parker was incredibly hard to watch, but maybe not for the reasons he was hoping for. In comparison, the animated show that wasn't allowed to show blood, or guns shooting bullets, etc., somehow made the Symbiote-possessed Peter a bit scary.
During the three-part "The Alien Costume" storyline from Season 1, the black Symbiote arrives on Earth aboard a space shuttle that crashes into the George Washington Bridge, mowing down eight lanes of cars in a high-tense action scene that would give Roland Emmerich at least a half-chub. In comparison, when the Symbiote landed on Earth in Spider-Man 3, it was about as big and impactful as farting in a Jacuzzi.
It only got better from there on in the animated series. Despite saving the two astronauts from the shuttle, Peter was labeled a thief because of Eddie Brock's lies and had to hear his Aunt May talk crap about Spider-Man. That night, the Symbiote latched onto his (let's be honest, totally justified) negativity and fought a beautiful, dialogue-less battle with Peter's psyche, represented by Peter being torn between the black alien goo and his original costume.
In the end, he loses while the audience wins because we get to see Peter in his kick-ass black costume as he slowly succumbs to the darkness and comes thiiis close to bludgeoning Rhino to death with a metal door. Peter caught himself before he could cold-panini Rhino's face, but the Symbiote storyline didn't end there. Double-P still kept wearing the costume and continued to become more and more aggressive until, during his fight with Shocker, he ended up yelling at the zentai-fetishist that he was going to "tear him limb from limb." Christopher Daniel Barnes' voice-acting truly sells that line, dripping with viciousness from a previously jolly, smart-mouthed character.
In a way, it reminded me of a line from Deadpool when Reynolds' character tells his nemesis Francis: "I hope they blocked pain to your every last nerve 'cause I'm a go lookin'!" It was unnerving because it sort of looks like a comedic line on paper but is said with so much anger that it didn't come off as funny. And when Deadpool or Spider-Man stop being funny, stuff gets real scary, real fast. Though, admittedly, that entire arc was kind of hard to take seriously once we saw Petey shoot web out of his butt.
The Series Had Some Legitimately Tragic, Tear-Jerking Moments
In the show's Season 3 finale, "Turning Point," Peter battles the Green Goblin and loses Mary Jane when she is sucked into a dimensional portal, which was the cartoon doing a PG version of Gwen Stacy's death. It was still a highly emotional scene featuring Peter completely losing it and being ready to die with Greg in order to make him pay for killing the woman he loved. I mean, technically, she was alive somewhere, but here's the thing about that: we never see MJ again on the show. In the last episode, Peter supposedly locates her, but it's never shown to us, which is a pity because I wanted to see him explain to MJ how he cheated on her … with herself.
In "The Return of the Green Goblin," MJ seemingly reappears, and she and Peter end up getting married the next season! And, no, despite that title, it doesn't turn out that it was actually Norman Osborn wearing an ultra-realistic MJ mask over his Goblin mask. (Still a better Spider-Man story than "One More Day.”) Although, yeah, it wasn't the real MJ. In "The Return of Hydro-Man, Part 2," it turns out that Peter's wife is a clone made from Hydro-Man's DNA, but not too well, unfortunately, which causes her molecular structure to disintegrate, forcing Peter to watch helplessly as the woman he loves literally evaporates before his eyes.
Again, the voice acting by Christopher Daniel Barnes (aka Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid) really helps sell the scene as the actor makes you feel every ounce of Peter's pain in his anguished yells. And then we get a real heart-punch of a line from the dying MJ clone about how, if she's anything like the original, then the "real" MJ loves Peter Parker because that's how the clone feels about him. And then she dies, as does the audience, but on the inside where no one can see it, so it doesn't really count.
And because I'd hate to finish this article on such a down note, here's that butt-web screenshot again.
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Top image: Marvel Animation
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