Posted in Art & Animation, Video

The Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon – Rediscovering a favorite

I recently purchased the blu ray of the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon. It contains the full series which consists of two seasons on 4 discs. Although I was aware of the introduction of some Asian characters in the show, I totally had no idea how some of the most important crew behind the scenes were actually half Asian and/or Asian American until I watched the special features. Victor Cook is half Korean and was a supervising producer (with Greg Weisman) and supervising director. Sean “Cheeks” Galloway is half Taiwanese and was the lead character designer and supervisor. Myra Owyang was the assistant editor. Mako Sujishi was a music mixer. In the voice cast, Asian Canadian Andrew Kishino voiced Ned Lee and Kenny Kong. Kelly Hu voiced Sha Shan Nguyen.

Now that I’ve justified the existence of this post, I’m just going to talk about why I like this series so much.

I am a Spider-Man fan although I haven’t bought comics (aka floppies) in a long time and only buy the occasional book reprint these days. In the past, I was buying Spider-Man comics regularly during part of Ben Reilly’s tenure as Spider-Man and then for maybe a year or so after his death when Peter Parker returned to take the mantle. Yeah I’m pro Ben Reilly but not necessarily pro Clone Saga. I also went back and bought some back issues & tpbs and became familiar with all the Lee/Ditko comics and some of the more iconic storylines from the past. I’d say my favorite Spider-Man storyline is Kraven’s Last Hunt.

I’ve watched some of the old Fox Spider-Man cartoons and enjoyed them when I was younger but I remember trying to watch them again a few years back and could barely stand them. The Fox series really does not hold up well today. I was somewhat fearful this might happen with Spectacular Spider-Man but instead I ended up binge watching the episodes over the span of 3 days and thoroughly enjoyed every episode. I can’t think of a single episode that I disliked. Any complaints I had were always minor at best. It is sad that the show was cut short as it managed to set up lots of interesting threads but it actually managed to accomplish quite a lot in two seasons.

When I first saw the art style of this show, like many, I was not a fan but I got used to it quickly. The simplicity and smooth animation allowed for exciting and action packed scenes and I quickly came to appreciate the style. The fights and Spidey acrobats are so well staged and dynamic, particularly when Spidey faces off against many foes at the same time like the Sinister Six.

Characters are handled expertly and most of them get some sort of arc often by amalgamating certain characters and events. Their desire to add more diversity by turning some white characters into non-white characters was also admirable. The most prominent was Liz Allan (and her brother) being Hispanic. Ned Lee and Kenny Kong are Asian versions of Ned Leeds and Kenny McFarlane. The strongest is aspect is how many of these characters get some development. Arguably Liz Allan goes through the most changes during the series and goes from being a mean to sympathetic who is still somewhat socially manipulative. Flash also gets some development too. Early on he’s portrayed as the bully but does grow and show some positive qualities. Peter Parker is portrayed really well as he struggles to balance his school life with his Spidey life. The show does a great job of showing how much of an adverse effect Spidey has on his social life. He makes mistakes but tries to do his best.

In the comics Harry & Gwen become friends with Flash and meet Peter in university. They initially dislike Peter because he seems to ignore them when he’s really worrying about his Aunt May. In the cartoon Harry & Gwen go to the same high school as Peter and they are all friends who are considered geeks. I always found it odd how in the comics despite not liking Peter, Gwen still pays a lot of attention to him. It seemed pretty forced to me. But in the context of the cartoon, Gwen’s attraction to Peter is more believable. She shows more interest in science and looks out for her friends. Harry is portrayed in a multi-layered manner at first being sincere but susceptible to neglecting his friends when trying to get into the “cool” crowd with hints of him going bad. Mary Jane also transfers to Peter’s high school whereas in the comics, she meets him during his university years. She possesses the same carefree attitude and flirtatious tendencies as her comic counterpart but rather than being a romantic rival she gives advice to Gwen on how to get Peter’s attention. Overall, I really like the cartoon’s take on Spidey’s supporting cast (particularly Gwen) and I think it’s one of the strongest aspects of Spectacular Spider-Man.

Aunt May is perhaps less prominent in the second season than the first but she does set some rules for Peter while also amusingly meddling a bit in his love life. She’s a bit younger but similar to the comic book version. Gwen’s father George Stacy appears more in the second season and seems to be quite similar to his comic book counterpart. But I’m not particularly familiar with the Stacey era of Spidey comics.

Eddie Brock is also recast as an older friend of Peter’s (similar his reimagining in Ultimate Spider-Man) who works in the science lab for Dr. Connors. He’s well integrated into the story and makes for a mean Venom. He’s shown as a pretty good guy who eventually becomes bad and this is done gradually over the course of season 1.  The turning point is when Peter takes photos of the Dr. Connors as the Lizard and Eddie feels more betrayed by this than even Connors himself. His resentment builds as he notices Peter’s bad attitude (due to the symbiote). I would’ve liked to have seen a more serious reason for his resentment. In the comics, Eddie was a rival photographer and his hatred was due to Peter exposing his faked photos. A similar situation could have been done where Peter discovers some faked lab results from Eddie, which causes him to get fired.

The Daily Bugle characters except for JJJ get somewhat less screen time. This is somewhat understandable due to Peter now actually having friends in high school. In the original comics, he was a loner in high school with only Flash to pick on him and Liz who mostly shunned him except for a random moment of interest. Instead of Gwen, Betty, secretary at the Daily Bugle, was the other member of the “love” triangle. Betty also had a brother with a gambling problem which in the cartoon was transferred to Liz’s brother Mark. In the cartoon and unfortunately in most other adaptations, Betty takes a back seat.

Black Cat also has some fun appearances, in fact, I believe she gives Peter’s first kiss in this adaptation, which I find appropriate. How her father relates to the burglar who killed Peter’s Uncle Ben, I have mixed feelings about mainly because I think it’s unnecessary that every part of Peter’s life be linked to some other part. However it did add another dimension to the Spidey & Cat dynamic, which is unfortunately left hanging and likely would’ve been explored in season 3.

Most of Spider-Man’s classic villains appear in this series like the Vulture, Doctor Octopus, Rhino, Sandman, Green Goblin, Lizard, Mysterio, Kraven, Electro, Chameleon, Molten Man and the Enforcers (with one of them becoming the Shocker later on). Venom is introduced earlier as well as mobsters like Tombstone, Hammerhead and Silvermane. Silver Sable also appears as an antagonist (she’s more an ally or antihero in the comics) but is made to be related to Silvermane. The only notable missing villains are Scorpion, Kingpin, Hobgoblin (but Roderick Kingsley does appear), Carnage and the Jackal (but Miles Warren does appear). Not a huge loss but it would’ve been interesting. The way in which Spidey beats the villains is not all brawn and often he uses his brain to defeat his foes. The villains adapt too so that Spidey is forced to find new ways to beat them. The reveal of the Green Goblin’s identity in the cartoon was brilliantly orchestrated and made for a satisfying season 2 finale that manages to be an unintentional if adequate series finale.

Many of the episodes do hold up well as stand alone stories but generally 3 to 4 episodes make up a full story arc. The arcs were really well planned, as some events from older stories end up being catalysts for events in newer stories. The attention to detail in all aspects of the show, particularly the continuity, makes it a very strong and cohesive interpretation of Spider-Man. It mixes and matches ideas from many different adaptations but adds its own fresh ideas. It is also very respectful of the original source material. The Spectacular Spider-Man team really distilled the essence of Peter Parker, Spider-Man and his world of friends and enemies.

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Author:

Longtime fan of East Asian films. Former "movie reporter" on the music radio show / podcast "Beats From The East" broadcasted on Concordia University's CJLO 1690AM radio station in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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