The Spectacular Spider-Man snuck up on me. I knew that a new Spider-Man cartoon was coming, but it’d been five years since the previous one, which came out five years after the one before that. It can get a little tiring keeping track, especially when they tweak the character too much. But the guiding idea—and the welcome surprise—behind The Spectacular Spider-Man is its return to the character’s comic book roots. Who would have thought that to make a great Spider-Man cartoon you only had to give viewers a high school-age Peter Parker adjusting to his new role as Spider-Man? The thirteen episodes that make up season one found the heart of the character and created a unique and entertaining show.
The Spectacular Spider-Man quickly struck an appropriate balance between the serious and the fun. It had drama, but disdained melodrama. Peter Parker made tough choices that required a certain amount of sacrifice, but he never wallowed in misery (which is very easy to have the character do). The series wants us to have fun with the character, and in one episode Spider-Man even comments that his audience expects him to make jokes.
The first season of any show is going to be heavy on the introductions, and this one had to introduce Peter Parker’s supporting characters and Spider-Man’s villains. More than half the episodes were driven by a new villain: Vulture, Electro, Lizard, Rhino, Dr. Octopus, and Chameleon all got single episodes to themselves. The rest of the season then built up bigger villains that are a constant threat to Spider-Man. All the enemies, with the exceptions of Tombstone and Venom, were from the early years of his publication history. I liked how the show would introduce a character first and then turn them into a super villain in a later episode. A couple of classic villains even debuted this season without yet donning their costumes and showing their full abilities.
The rest of the episodes built mysteries around the Green Goblin and the Big Man, and set up Eddie Brock as a major foe. It did a great job by throwing in clues and red herrings that would confuse both new views and fans well-versed in Spider-Man lore. The only downside was that in some cases, such as the revelation of who the Green Goblin is, it still felt like the complete story hadn’t been laid out yet and we’ll have to see it unfold in future seasons. The Venom angle isn’t played as a mystery, but all of Eddie Brock’s appearances work well at showing the deterioration of his friendship with Peter. The man who once viewed Peter Parker as a brother sees both Peter and Spider-Man as enemies and then gains the power to torment him.
The supporting characters drove the story and conflict almost as much as the villains. Between Aunt May, his classmates, and his Daily Bugle co-workers, Peter Parker has over a dozen supporting characters, each with their own unique voice and personality. It was great to see how his relationships evolved, and it suggested that many of the characters, particularly Flash Thompson, have depths to them that are yet to be explored. Then there’s Harry Osborn, who went through a hell of a lot during this season. The show went so far as to pay homage to the controversial drug abuse storyline of the 1960s.
Several supporting characters also served as love interests: “love triangle” doesn’t even begin to describe the kind of thing Peter Parker found himself in. Throughout the season, he made many attempts at getting closer to various girls, including Liz Allan, Betty Brant, and even the Black Cat. Popular love interest Mary Jane Watson was introduced at the end of the sixth episode and was eventually included in the opening credits. Having both MJ and Gwen Stacy in supporting roles makes Peter’s love life more of a journey with different possibilities (where other interpretations usually make Mary Jane the primary and obvious love interest). By the season finale, Peter did make romantic progress with one girl in a moment that’s a little surprising and very natural.
Each episode always went deeper than the main fight with the bad guy. Homages to past Spider-Man writers and artists popped up here and there, and supporting characters from the Spider-Man comics that will become important later had cameos. Every episode is worth a re-watch to see what’s important or how things have progressed. The symbiote, for instance, which Spider-Man wears for a time, changes his costume in small ways. It’s not talked about, but it makes for a great visual to go along with the story. It’s interesting to note that the episodes are named after terms associated with evolution, economics, natural science, and psychology. The world of Spider-Man isn’t driven solely by super-powered beings. When you get right down to it, it’s about human behavior and how man, as a reasoning animal, relates to himself and his environment.
As good as season one was, there is still room for improvement. The show does a great job of building up plotlines and giving stories the time they need to develop, but this also makes it essential to watch the episodes in order. Also, juggling around a large cast means some plots and characters are going to be less interesting than others. The Glory/Kenny relationship was nice to watch, and it did have an impact on Harry, but it may not have been necessary. The cast is still growing, and that will inevitably mean shoving some other characters to the side. A little more focus on plots that directly involve Peter or Spider-Man would help to make the story less cluttered.
But there’s plenty to enjoy. Although the flashback origin sequence borrowed heavily from the Spider-Man movies (and it’s painfully obvious in some moments), I thought it was a well-done episode that used a unique framing devise and gave us the essential back story of the Peter Parker we’ve been watching all season, finally showing what kind of an influence Uncle Ben had on him. I also greatly enjoyed the debut of the Sinister Six. When dealing with any group of characters, it’s easy to lose sight of their individuality, but in “Group Therapy”, the Sinister Six all had distinct motivations and personalities, and it was a lot of fun watching them play off one another
If season one is any indication, we’re in store for one of the greatest Spider-Man cartoons of all time. It hasn’t taken long at all for it to find a unique voice that fits well with the character of Spider-Man. There’s also a certain uniqueness to the simplicity of the character designs. Momentum builds with each episode, making Spider-Man’s world deeper and richer. I like to be more forgiving of most shows their first season if I think it’s struggling but the material has potential. With Spectacular Spider-Man, I don’t even need to worry about whether or not this series is going to be good. It’s done quite a lot in thirteen episodes. The show’s already taken off.