A Spectacular Anniversary

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Marking another ten-year anniversary today, albeit a much happier one than last time. Again, I’m just a tad late, but March 8 of this year marked the tenth anniversary of the premiere of the Spectacular Spider-Man animated series. You heard me right—ten years. TEN. YEARS.

TEN!!

And I can’t think of a better way to get started than this (be sure to crank the volume before giving it a click):

…Yeah, I know, I’ve posted the song before, but c’mon—it never gets old.

Naturally, I tried to get in touch with series producer Greg Weisman for an interview but, unfortunately, I was unsuccessful. So I’m taking a look back without the benefit of his insights… but should he respond to one of my queries at some point down the line, I will certainly try to get some questions to him and publish his answers in a fresh post.

Let me also offer a heads up to everyone that my look back at the series will be fairly spoilerish. You have been warned.

 

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What was so great about this series? Well first off, there was this general love for Spider-Man that you could just feel in every scene. And the creators were almost religiously inclusive, attempting to squeeze in characters from every era of Spidey; every iteration of the character. For example, they added Kenny “Kong” McFarlane to the supporting cast even though Kenny never existed in the “regular” Marvel Universe—the character was actually a product of the Ultimate Spider-Man series. They also had a “Big Man” crime figure, a designation that was born all the way back in Amazing Spider-Man #10 (Mar. 1964). Only instead of the Big Man being Frederick Foswell in the classic Picasso-art mask, their Big Man turned out to be Tombstone—a villain who joined Spidey’s rogue’s gallery in the very late 80s. (But their version of Foswell did make use of his later “Patch” identity, which goes all the way back to ASM #25. Not as far back as ASM #10, but close!) So there was a lot of blending of classic Lee-Ditko-Romita Spidey with more modern Spidey. But when classic clashed with modern, they usually went with classic.

One conceit I loved was using the Spidey mask design in abstract fashion in the closing shot of most episodes. This was a clear callback to how Ditko often closed classic issues of ASM. To wit:

More generally, episodes were breathlessly action packed and a ton of fun. The animation was well done and, by and large, I liked the character designs.

Without getting into too many episode specifics (because I don’t want this to turn into a giant recap), let me make note of a few more of my favorite things about this series.

The Green Goblin

Let me get this one super-spoiler regarding the Green Goblin’s secret identity out of the way—ready?

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Norman Osborn is the Green Goblin in this series.

Now some of you might be wondering how this is some great spoiler since Normy was the original Green Goblin in the comics. Well first off, he wasn’t the only Goblin in the old comics; and secondly, the series works REALLY hard to convince you that it’s not Norman. I mean, to the point where you can still enjoy the mystery of it all even with my having revealed the answer. Seriously, there’s a scene in the first season where we see Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin together in the same place at the same time. How can this be? The explanation could be viewed as a bit of a cheat, but if you go back and re-watch the episodes a second time and pay very close attention (and taking notes wouldn’t hurt), you’ll find the clues were all there.

But Good Golly Miss Molly, did they ever do a great job of misdirection.

I loved the series so much that I was fairly sure, in my heart, that Norman would be outed as the Goblin by the end (because anyone else being the Goblin would be stupid, and this series was simply too good to make such a mistake), but my brain was spinning in that last episode with all of the false reveals. It gets to the point where the bigger mystery isn’t the Goblin’s identity, but how the hell are they going to get from here to there? Then at last, we come to the unmasking, which proved tremendously dramatic.

And my heart leapt. This was such a satisfying resolution when it finally happened. And once again, all this echoed the extraordinary drama of the original comics (where the mystery of the Goblin went on for two years) while still being very much its own thing.

Venom

The series’ treatment of Venom is the biggest change from the comics, as they rewrite the character’s backstory completely. They do preserve the character design, though.

The new backstory is that Venom/Eddie Brock lost his parents in the same plane crash that took the lives of Pete’s parents. In fact the two couples were good friends, as all of them were scientists working together on the same project when they died. Pete and Eddie even refer to one another as “bro.” Eventually the two take on “opposite number” roles and Eddie/Venom comes to represent the darkest side of Pete/Spidey. This opens the door to some wonderful character exploration for both, all of which culminates in the thirteenth and final episode of the first season, “Nature vs. Nurture.” At one point, Venom’s dialogue spells it all out for us. “Our parents may have died together, but you had your precious aunt and uncle. We had no one. We’ve always been alone. Until now.”

I think the suggestion here is that Eddie/Venom is who Pete/Spidey may have become had it not been for Pete’s loving support system in the form of his aunt, uncle, and friends. Could Pete really have become embittered and hateful like Eddie/Venom under different circumstances? Could Venom be providing a glimpse at his potential-future self? It’s a fascinating question. Let’s not forget that he was a rather selfish person before his uncle’s death led to a moral awakening. And even after this he remained something of a misanthrope—but this has never really been explored in any great depth; not really anything beyond “well, Spidey’s a loner” whenever the possibility of him joining the Avengers came up back in the old days. Perhaps the series would have gotten deeper into these waters had it continued, which could have been very interesting.

But the best thing about Venom in this series, for me, is the reveal he facilitates in this episode in one simple line, setting up the teenage soap opera that is to come in season two:

“We know who you love the most.”

Gwen

As the de facto patroness saint of this blog, Gwen Stacy’s name has been dropped more than a few times around these parts over the years, so you know how much I would value her appearance in this series. Now at the beginning, when we had Gwen but no Mary Jane, I wasn’t sure what to think. Was Gwen just an Easter Egg? A bone thrown to aging, hardcore fans like me? Would she be any kind of love interest for Pete, or would they (ugh) pair her off with someone else? Would she even stick around at all long term, or be quickly shuffled off once MJ inevitably showed up?

Keep in mind this is 2008 we’re talking about, several years before Spider-Gwen and the whole Gwenaissance. As a property, Gwen Stacy was dead both literally and figuratively. There was certainly no commercial motive for including her in this series, yet here she is. The only explanation for it is a pure love and reverence for the character and/or the original, classic Spidey comics.

Now you know why I absolutely loved this series.

Over the course of my comics-reading life, I have given much thought as to what I might do (or would like to see) if I had some creative control over Spider-Man and his supporting cast. Incredibly enough, this show does almost everything in regards to Gwen Stacy’s background that I would have done if given the chance. As outlined in my thesis paper on Gwen, there are several facets of her background that were just barely touched upon and never really explored in the comics; as well as other details that I imagined because I felt it would add to her connection with Pete.

In the latter category was the idea that Gwen was a late bloomer much like Peter had been—that before she was a beautiful college co-ed, there was this phase as a shy, awkward geek-type. In fact, I had even pictured her with glasses, much like the ones Pete wore in the beginning. So what did this show give us?

It was like they had read my mind.

Of course, she eventually blossoms into the totally va-va-voom chick we all know and love by the end of season two.

Then there’s Gwen’s interest in science—always criminally underserved in the original comics, but given a fair amount of attention here.

More than anything else though, it’s the portrayal of Gwen as Pete’s one true soulmate that rates this show an A+ from yours truly. Even after Mary Jane does show up (and they make great use of her as well, by the way), you already know there’s no stopping the Pete-Gwen train.

So a Happy Tenth Anniversary to The Spectacular Spider-Man! The whole series is available in one bluray set, or you can find smaller DVD sets (featuring less episodes) at Target and similar outlets. Please, in the name of humanity, and all that is good and holy and just and right, do check it out if you get the chance.

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