Originally airing from 2008 to 2009 for two seasons, The Spectacular Spider-Mancartoon series’ end was a result of Disney’s purchase of Marvel Comics. But with characterization true to the spirit of the comics, incredibly intelligent storytelling, and fantastic action, this is quite simply one of the greatest interpretations of everyone’s favorite wall-crawling superhero and the strongest in any medium outside of comic books. This is the type of series that proves both the power of the character of Spider-Man and the unique strengths of animated series in the realm of superheroes.
Created by Greg Weisman and Victor Cook, this is a series that simply gets what is special about Spider-Man and his world. As a whole, The Spectacular Spider-Mandraws its influences from the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era of Spider-Man comics, which introduced the hero and focused heavily on his time as a high schooler balancing school life, relationships, and heroism. That wide-eyed sense of discovery blends with the burden of responsibility to create a Peter Parker that evokes what has been loved about the character for more than 50 years. Voiced here by Josh Keaton, Peter really feels like the character has jumped off the comic page and is swinging across your TV screen in animated form. He has all of his strengths and weaknesses, charisma, and depth, which makes him an endearing character to all ages of viewers.
While the series tracks the early days of the hero, it doesn’t waste precious time redoing an origin that everyone knows by heart already, although it is touched on in flashback near the end of Season 1. Instead, the series leaps into action with Peter already patrolling New York as the Wall-Crawler and then introduces his villains one by one, even bringing some into the series far before they become super powered in order to give them more history and personality. Every villain and supporting character that longtime fans love are here, including Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborne, Mary Jane Watson, Doctor Octopus, Venom, Green Goblin, Sandman, Rhino, and many more. But despite that vast supporting cast, The Spectacular Spider-Man knows how to balance its focus for continuously satisfying storytelling and variety in focus.
With Great Power …
The lasting appeal of Spider-Man is based upon the character’s relatability and inspirational qualities. Peter Parker has ups and downs in his personal, professional, and superhero lives, with many of his struggles based in the same issues that affect his viewers or readers. But he’s also a very good person, using his gifts to make the world a better place and living out the mantra that his late Uncle Ben taught him, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
All of those elements are alive and well here in The Spectacular Spider-Man, with the team behind the series not only crafting compelling stories in both the superhero and personal sides of Peter’s life, but combining them to tell a cohesive narrative that excites and even frustrates in the best ways. As a result, this is the most complete interpretation of Spidey ever put on screen, surpassing even the Sam Raimi movies as the defining version of the character thanks to the amount of time given to the series, which allows for a far more thorough exploration of the character and his supporting cast.
Using a flatter art style for the series, The Spectacular Spider-Man has a more youthful look to it that may sit strangely at first for viewers not accustomed to the visual style. But this not only helps to differentiate the series from any other, but also highlights the heightened and comic book-inspired nature of the show. The use of bright colors and more cartoonish features for characters helps images to pop off the screen in a dynamic and exciting manner. In addition, tons of awesome fights fill the series, with Spidey’s iconic wit, speed, and strength on display during his many battles. Among the many throughout the series, Spider-Man’s fights with The Sinister Six, Venom, and a four-way battle with Doc Ock, Tombstone, and Silvermane are the true highlights, each with their own unique styles and stakes.
The Parker Luck
Season by season, The Spectacular Spider-Man is structured into three episode-long story arcs that make up a larger season-long narrative. While each individual episode comprises a satisfying story on its own, the three episodes combine into a stronger cohesive whole, complete with its own themes and structure. This sense of continuity adds greater meaning to each development, with many seeds being planted over the course of the series that don’t come to fruition until much later. That being said, each episode is incredibly strong on its own, feeling like a miniature movie. As the villains and challenges pile up, Spider-Man must grow and learn to balance each aspect of his life.
But there are enough tweaks to the formula to keep surprising audiences, as well. Just when you think the plotline is headed in one direction, it zags in a different way to keep you on your toes while not creating any “jump the shark” moments with its changes. Some villain identities are changed, Peter’s relationships take new turns, and old characters bounce off one another in new ways to keep the narrative consistently fresh. And it’s all done with an energy, honesty, and sense of fun. With a first season that focuses on the rise of Spider-Man’s supervillains, their formation of The Sinister Six, and the arrival of Venom, all the classic Spider-Man stories are tackled in an exciting manner.
If there is a weak point within the series, it’s in the depiction of Venom. Not in Eddie Brock’s motivations, or the stories that surround him, but the appearance and feel of the monstrous villain himself. Most likely a byproduct of the series’ animation style (which works wonderfully for most characters throughout), Venom lacks the creepiness and menace of his depictions within comic books, films, and other TV series. Here, he’s a bulky and toothy version of Spider-Man, which just doesn’t quite work when making the villain into a legitimate threat. But beyond that, the Venom storylines work great.
In its second season, Spectacular started to play with its formula more and more, resulting in episodes like “Growing Pains,” which juxtaposed Shakespearean recitals whose content reflected the main story of Venom’s return. It’s these choices that elevated the series from being a wonderful cartoon telling of Spider-Man’s story to a unique and risky series that only got better and better. By taking chances, the series added on new layers that only enhanced its classic sense of storytelling and superhero adventure. Those breaks from the formula helped to differentiate The Spectacular Spider-Man from the many straightforward superhero cartoons that came before, as well as the many that have come after, which are most often highly forgettable.
It’s the type of smart storytelling and commitment to a style that helped to define Batman: The Animated Series and much of the DC Animated Universe as must-see faire for comic book fans. It’s a shame that the series abruptly ended when it did, as there was still so much strong material to explore. But the frustration over what could have been is well worth the joy the series brings. Simply put, The Spectacular Spider-Man is a quintessential show for any fan of the character.