Everyone’s Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man was created back in 1962 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and with decades of incredible adventures under his belt it’s not surprising that he became the flagship character for Marvel Comics, but how tumultuous was his career and how has he fared in other mediums outside the four colour pages? Today we look back across those years to examine the many faces of Spidey.
Who wants to see a teen-age superhero? The answer to which of course turned out to be millions of young readers, but at that time when comic book shelves were full of scientists and adult superhero teams the decision to create a comic book starring a high school kid was a bit of a risk. Peter Parker was to be no kid sidekick but a hero in his own right. He was not a millionaire playboy or a super soldier but just a guy with the same kind of problems we all face, well maybe a few extra ones. Stan Lee created a character that most of his readers could really relate to and what also cannot be understated is the importance of Steve Ditko’s costume design which was eye-catching and iconic.
The classic red and blue webbed suit would remain virtually unchanged for decades with only slight alterations by varying artists with probably the only change of note in those early years was the removing of the webs from under Spider-Man’s armpits.
The most startling change was in 1984 when Spider-Man and slew of other heroes and villains were whisked away to fight in the Secret Wars for a godlike being called The Beyonder. His traditional red and blue suit was damaged and when he attempted to have it repaired by one of the mysterious machines provided he unknowingly exchanged his costume for a shape-shifting alien symbiote that would eventually become one of his greatest enemies.
In 1992 writer Peter David and artist Rick Leonardi re-imagined a futuristic wall-crawler taking place in the year 2099 where brilliant geneticist Miguel O’Hara, while trying to replicate the powers of the original Spider-Man, has a lab accident that once again results in the creation of another super powered crime fighter. You’ve got to love science!
Now of course Spidey’s look and even story structure has had many more adjustments over the years whether in the numerous comic book titles bearing his name or in his eventual leap to the big screen but his first foray off the pages of his comic was in the late sixties…
This cartoon was jointly produced by Canada and the United States with Canada providing the voice work while the USofA did the animation, and with the second and third season being produced by notable animation legend Ralph Bakshi this was one fantastic cartoon. Not only did it include a host of Spidey’s top villains but it had simply the best theme song to date.
Actor Paul Soles did excellent work providing both Peter Parker and Spider-Man’s with distinctive voices and until J.K. Simmons came along in the Sam Raimi trilogy Paul Kligman was the definitive J. Jonah Jameson. The show did suffer from budgetary problems and at times lifted entire animated sections from Rocket Robin Hood but it was still a fantastically fun show and a major part of my childhood. Though even as a kid I occasionally wondered what the hell Spider-Man’s web lines were attached to as he swung above the New York Skyline.
In 1977 CBS gave us the first attempt at bringing a live action Spider-Man to the world and to say their results were poorly conceived is being a bit generous. Nicholas Hammond played Peter Parker/Spider-Man a university student bitten by a radioactive spider and who occasional battled thugs. Not one super-villain from the comics ever made an appearance on this show; the closest we got was when he fought a ninja and a Spider-Man clone. The effects were laughable at the best of times and never approached convincing. His wall climbing consisted of a stuntman in a Spidey suit being dragged up the side of a building while waving his arms about and his webs were thick white ropes that either wrapped around the villains with the aid of reverse photography or formed into net that was lamely tossed over the hapless foe.
Worse is that they couldn’t even get his powers right. In the comics his Spider-Sense warns him of danger while in this show when arriving at a murder scene Peter receives a flashback of the crime being committed the night before. So basically this Spider-Man has some bullshit psychic abilities. Despite the show having surprisingly decent ratings it was cancelled by CBS because they were starting to be labeled the “Super Hero Network” as they had such shows as The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman as well as other failed attempts like Captain America and Doctor Strange. Why this bothered them when it was making them money is beyond me. True fans of Spider-Man were certainly not saddened by this early cancellation of this incarnation.
I’m sure some of you readers knew of the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man series and maybe even had seen an episode or two but one incarnation of Spider-man you may not have come across was in production at roughly the same time and surprisingly of much higher quality, only it took place in the magical faraway land of Japan.
Supaidāman was a live action Japanese series produced by the Toie Company and dealt with a young motorcycle racer Takuya Yamashiro (Shinji Todō) who got his powers from the last survivor of Planet Spider who had been hunting the Iron Cross Army across the known universe. This is a bit of a departure from the Marvel Comics version and aside from the awesome Spider-Man costume and a few Spiderlike abilities such as wall crawling and Spider-Sense there isn’t a single thing from this show that comes from the comic. This Spider-Man often calls upon the alien spacecraft Marveller that can also turn into a giant robot called Leopardon to defeat his enemies.
This show was the result of a three year licensing agreement between Marvel and the Toie Company that allowed them to use each other’s properties however they wanted and though this show is nothing like the Marvel Comic it was badass incredible to say the least. The stunt work was simply fantastic and for the first time we see an athletic Spidey doing “Amazing” and “Spectacular” things as he leapt and swung into combat against insurmountable odds. That Spider-Man would eventually hop into a giant robot to finish of his foes may put off some purists but this show was just too fun not to love.
Now I’m sure some of you are thinking “Hey, Nicholas Hammond and Shinji Todō were not the first live action Spider-Men, what about The Spidey Super Stories on The Electric Company?”
Yes, in 1974 the PBS children’s show The Electric Company aired various skits to help kids learn to read and one of them starred a Spider-Man that only spoke in word balloons as he thwarted petty crimes. Spider-Man (Danny Seagren) faced off against such foes as Dr. Fly, The Spoiler and Count Dracula and many featured actor Morgan Freeman known at the time as Easy Reader. As silly and low budget as these skits were they actually put to shame some of the stuff from the Nicholas Hammond version.
The Eighties saw some decent Spidey action in various cartoons; Spider-Man (1981-1982) and then Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981-1986) which had Peter Parker rooming with Iceman and Firestar in a cool tricked out pad that could instantly transform into a crime fighting base. Later the show was paired up with the Hulk and became The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man.
There doesn’t seem a time now when there wasn’t a Spider-Man cartoon being aired and with the popularity of the live action movies we ended up getting some really excellent Spidey stories; 2003 saw MTV give us Spider-Man: The New Animated Series starring Neil Patrick Harris as Spidey which was treated as loose sequel to the Sam Raimi movies. Speaking of which…
Aside from Blade in 1998 and Bryan Singer’s X-Men movie in 2000 Marvel hadn’t had much luck with their live action properties but that was all to change with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. He may have altered some aspects of the comic such as organic web shooters but Tobey Maguire really nailed the Peter Parker character and add to that the visual wizardry of John Dykstra you finally had a Spider-Man a wide general audience could get behind. A 100 million dollars first weekend certainly got everyone in Hollywood’s attention.
Spider-Man 2 was even better with a much more interesting villain than Power Ranger clad Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), this time Spidey faced off against Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and their battle atop the elevated train still holds up today as one of the best superhero fights in cinema history.
Sadly the trilogy curse struck the series when Sam Raimi was forced to incorporate Venom into the movie, a character he had numerously stated he had no interest in using, but studios eager to satiate a rabid fan base forced this issue and Raimi eventually caved in. The result of course was a train wreck of Emo Peter Parker dealing with a vengeful Harry Osborne (James Franco) the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) trying to get money for his sick kid, and Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) who would become a discount Venom.
When will producers realize that stuffing multiple villains into one movie does not make it more exciting? You would think that after the disastrous 1997 Batman & Robin they would have got the message. One last note on the Sam Raimi Spider-Man Trilogy is on Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson who I think was miscast from the get-go. She just didn’t seem to me like the vivacious Mary Jane from the comics and then each successive movie she was treated more and more like a whiny git. When Bryce Dallas Howard appeared in the third film as Gwen Stacey one couldn’t help but wonder how the series would have looked if they’d had her from the start. To be clear I blame the writers and producers for this and not poor Kirsten Dunst who was given a thankless role.
Only running two seasons Greg Weisman and Victor Cook developed what I believe to be the best adaptation of Spider-Man to date. The biggest missing element from the Raimi movies was Spidey’s trademark banter and in this cartoon you got that it in spades, his quips and jibes while battling his foes were pitch perfect. Though not slavishly accurate to characters from the comic book this show captured the feel and fun one associated with Spider-Man. As of this writing it is still my favorite adaptation of Spider-Man.
In 2012 director Marc Webb rebooted the Spider-Man franchise with Andrew Garfield as The Amazing Spider-Man and though the effects for his web swinging were markedly improved what was missing was the Peter Parker we knew and loved. Garfield’s version was just a pompous git who deserved to get his head shoved in a toilet, Spider-Man’s persona is supposed to be the cocky and brash one while Peter is the shy nerd, but in this movie there was no real difference as both were arrogant jerks. And don’t get me started on that basketball material he called a costume.
In the sequel things got even worse as Peter is even more of a dick as he constantly jerks Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) around while once again fending off three villains. Seriously people, what the fuck is wrong with having just one villain? The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a cluttered mess from the start and doesn’t come close to earning the pathos of Gwen’s death in the end. In the comics Peter is not responsible for her death but in this movie when he breaks the promise he gave dying Captain Stacey to nolonger date Gwen it lays her death clearly on his shoulders. Though the person with the most guilt on his hands would be Marc Webb for wasting such talented actors as Jamie Foxx and Paul Giamatti on such dreck. On the plus side the costume is better, the web swinging even more impressive, and the use of 3D actually warranted at times.
Special mention must go out to one of the most “interesting” attempts at a live action version of Spider-Man, and by interesting I mean so balls to the walls crazy that it resulted in several performers being hospitalized.
Music by Bono and The Edge and directed by Julie Taymor Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark may go down in the annals of Broadway history as one of the most disastrous productions ever. Described as “the most technically complex show ever on Broadway” with amazing aerial stunts the show certainly sounded promising but with numerous delays and costly overruns the production was troubled from the start, and with a script that weaved in elements of the 2002 movie with that of the Greek mythological story of Arachne it certainly had a lot to overcome.
Watching clips and seeing photos of the costumes from this production I really wish I’d been able to land tickets as it looked gloriously goofy.
With the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicking butt in every aspect Sony Pictures eventually struck a deal with Marvel Studios so that they could include Spidey in Captain America: Civil War even let them running creative control over a Sony produced Spider-Man. This version of Spider-Man also brings us the youngest actor to play the part in the form of Tom Holland and his youthful exuberance and “gosh-gee” excitement about being allowed to play with the big boys made his cameo in this film a treat.
So let’s hope the upcoming Spider-Man movie Homecoming will get us our best Spider-Man movie yet, but while your waiting you can check out an even more comprehensive look at the Many Faces of Spider-Man with Superior Spider-Talk which takes on a different version of Spider-Man each month.
Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.