As difficult as it is to believe for someone who so vividly remembers watching the first episode, 25 years ago today, Spider-Man: The Animated Series was here. On Nov. 19, 1994 ... the show was here. It wasn’t the first animated Spider-Man show, it certainly won’t be the last Spider-Man show, but it will arguably go down as the most memorable Spider-Man cartoon. The show remains just as relevant and popular then as it does 25 years later. In fact, the reaction to the show being part of the Disney+ streaming service was met with the same utter excitement as new episodes for most current cartoons. That says much about the shows legacy.
Turning back time to 1994, things were rocking on Fox Kids. The revered Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men: The Animated Series were ratings hits and the moment a new Spider-Man cartoon was announced, expectations were lofty. FOX expected another ratings winner, Avi Arad wanted a 22-minute toy advert and to gain some traction for Marvel to move into live-action movies (the definition of a pipe dream at the time, as ridiculous as that sounds now) and Producer/Story editor John Semper simply wanted to make a great show, like the Spider-Man comics he read as a kid. There was also a potentially massive Spider-Man movie in pre-production written and directed by James Cameron, following the massive success of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. A lot was riding on this show, a flop would’ve been devastating for all parties.
The show had a troubled pre-production, the likes of which I honestly cannot say I’ve seen before or since. The original story editor was dismissed a few months after being hired and Semper was brought into to get the show back on track. This created a nearly immediate creative backlog and problems that seemed to ripple out from there on all levels. Plus, as the series continued and grew more complicated with its storylines, it faced animation and production values that dropped to occasionally comical levels, hindering storytelling efforts. The scale of the stories told on the 65-episode series exploded from the scale of the earlier seasons. The series started with Spider-Man bemoaning his fortune in the premiere, the superlative "Night Of The Lizard," as he is stuck in a smelly, slimy sewer instead of being a galaxy-hopping Superhero alongside The Avengers, The Defenders and The Fantastic Four, many of whom he would actually team with in the penultimate story of the series, "Secret Wars." Along the way unleashed a plethora of Spidey villains, from the classic Kingpins, Doc Ocks and Green Goblins of the world, to more modern and then incredibly popular Venom, Carnages and Hobgoblins.
The villains weren’t the only characters who made their way over from Spidey’s four-coloured roots. Mary-Jane Watson, Debra Whitman and Felicia Hardy made their way over to complicate Parker’s life, bringing in the kind of drama Stan Lee thrived upon back in the swinging '60s. It was rare in these days for a cartoon to feature romance so heavily in its storylines, but if the show was anything, it was ambitious.
Such ambitions did eventually contributed to the shows downfalls as the carried on. The beautiful, complex models from the first season became a burden to the animators, primarily due to the budgetary issues, and the show became a shadow of its former self visually. Combined with the harsh censorship the show was hindered with due to the then-current outrage over the violence in Saturday morning cartoons, the show occasionally caused one to cringe.I feel I will never be able to hear the world "plasma" without ever feeling a bit bemused.
However, to this day, I feel the good far outweighs the bad. And as a Spidey fanboy? A Spidey fanboy as a result of this show, I might add? There is still so much to love here.
Finally seeing the likes of Norman Osborn, Eddie Brock and Felicia Hardy introduced before they became The Green Goblin, Venom and Black Cat? Check! Fully fleshed-out supporting characters from the comics including an iconic spin on J. Jonah Jameson, the tragic Curt Connors and dear Aunt May? Check! Not to mention the various guest stars finally given the likes of Daredevil, Nick Fury and Captain America on the small screen. Plus, one can't dismiss the awesome crossover appearance of the X-Men ripped right from their own spectacular show! The show was a fan's dream come true at the time. It's amazing how so much has changed since then!
Fanboy nods aside, the show utilized a daring serialized storyline format for its second season with an excellent "Neogenic Nightmare (Six-arm Spider-Man!)" and then expanded upon that first from season three to the finale with another long-running storyline which saw Madame Web training Spider-Man to battle a "horror beyond belief," which turned out to be his own self-doubt (but kinda in the form of Spider-Carnage). We all thought "Secret Wars" was the end-game arc. Nice twist, <I>Spider-Man: The Animated Series!</i> Along the way there were plenty surprises and turns including an adaptation of "Turning Point" with Mary-Jane substituting for Gwen Stacey and that character's infamous comic book demise ... sort of. Still, it was not something I imagine anyone saw coming! Long running storylines were far from the norm at the time the show aired, but have since become a staple in animation, and for the better.
Peter would eventually face and overcome his own personal fears in an emotional finale, which included some beautifully-written appearances from Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacey and even the late, great Stan Lee himself. Lee's appearance in the series has taken a whole new meaning in recent times, and one can't help but smile and tear up as his appearance plays out. Back to the show, tt’s a shame it wasn't picked up beyond its initial 65 episode order so Spidey could eventually be reunited with Mary-Jane, but alas, 65 episodes is a lot more than most other Spidey shows mustered at the time and Semper himself believed Peter reached the end of his journey in the show's final moments. He's content with himself, who he is and role in the universe. Now, it's off to the great unknown of time and space to find his true love! Galaxy-hopping superhero? Check!
The show's impact on Spider-Man lore cannot be ignored, either. It inadvertently paved the way for the massive Spider-Man movie in 2002, which ignited the superhero craze which is still thoroughly dominating Hollywood. Spider-Man 2 featured a backstory for Doc Ock which pulled elements from Spider-Man: The Animated Series and Spider-Man 3 is more or less an adaption of "The Alien Costume" ... just nowhere near as good. Even the bungled The Amazing Spider-Man reboot is simply a retelling of the first Spider-Man movie mixed in with the Spider-Man: The Animated Series episode "Night of The Lizard" thrown in there. And despite what The Amazing Spider-Man comic series writer Dan Slott once said, the utterly sensational Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse clearly owes some its origins to the series. It's finale had Spider-Man teaming up with Spider-Men from other dimensions to stop a multi-verse-destroying threat. Sound familiar?
Special mention must also go to Christopher Daniel Barnes, who led the series' incredible cast. He's still the voice countless fans here when cracking open a Spider-Man comic. Who else remembers the uproar of approval when it was announced he'd be playing Spider-Man again for the first time in 12 years in the Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions? Fans love the guy, and with good reason.
Thankfully, for longtime fans of this show such as myself, it's encouraging to see the series hasn't been ignored despite its age. While it is unfathomable that arguably one of the most popular superhero cartoons of the 1990s was never properly released to DVD during the prime of the format's life - especially when the equally popular Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men: The Animated Series did - it's was fantastic to see it included as a major launch title for the Disney+ streaming service. Not only will fans get to revisit the show whenever they want to, but the potential to reach millions of new fans is reassuring and kind-of heartwarming. The fact a 25-year-old cartoon made was Twitter's most mentioned show when Disney+ was announced - before the service was even releases - tells you that there is still demand for this series 25 years later. To those who worked on this show, that must feel amazing.
The current success of the Spider-Man franchise today can definitely be traced back, on some levels, to Spider-Man: The Animated Series. We were all there at the start of something much bigger and we didn't even know it. Looking back now, though, it seems clear. I can't help but wondering about something. 25 years, five other Spider-Man cartoons and 10 live-action film appearances later, I wonder how much of that would've happened if this show flopped all those years ago. Could you image? Let's be thankful that it didn't and, because of this series, Spider-Man is the icon he is today.
And now, 25 years later, the show can be binged from beginning to end just as John Semper intended all those years ago when he first made Spider-Man: The Animated Series. He's not wrong, too. Binging this series in large chunks actually makes the big strides and leaps in story-telling the show was aiming for all the more impressive. And, honestly, the show just works better watched in massive chunks. While I doubt we’ll ever see the continuation we wanted (sorry everyone, Spider-Man: Unlimited doesn't count!), it's reassuring to know that new generations will get to experience the great Spider-Man: The Animated Series from start to finish as it was meant to be seen. It actually feels appropriate this coincides with the series' 25th anniversary. Being able to watch any episode of the series whenever I want? That's a great way to celebrate the occasion!
Happy 25th, Spider-Man: The Animated Series!