Spider-Man: The Animated Series: Looking back at Spidey’s 90s adventures
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Matthew Turner | On 10, Apr 2022
Produced by lead writer John Semper, Spider-Man (also known as Spider-Man: The Animated Series) ran for five seasons and 65 episodes, from November 1994 to January 1998. Immensely popular at the time, the series holds up remarkably well today, serving as an excellent introduction to the character and his comics history for newcomers, while delivering pleasurable nostalgia hits for older viewers.
After being hand-picked for the show by Stan Lee himself, Semper threw himself headlong into the research, immersing himself in 30 years’ worth of comics history. Accordingly, the series is extremely faithful to the source material, with many stories drawn from classic Spider-Man comics. In addition, the show frequently recreated images from classic Spider-Man comics covers, such as Spider-Man being hand-cuffed to J Jonah Jameson with a ticking time bomb or the Scorpion smashing up a water tower.
Semper’s intimate familiarity with the comics clearly served him well, because the series gets everything right, perfectly capturing the character of Peter Parker / Spider-Man and getting to the heart of what makes him tick. To that end, Semper’s scripts do justice to both Peter’s tangled social life – all the supporting characters from the comics are present and correct – and Spider-Man’s eminently colourful rogues gallery, which includes the likes of Doctor Octopus, Kraven the Hunter, the Green Goblin, Venom and Kingpin.
Throughout the series, the action is engaging and fun, delivering all the wall-crawling and web-slinging you could hope for, punctuated with Spidey’s trademark wisecracks. The storytelling also benefits from Semper’s insistence on season-long arcs – according to Semper, he was expressly forbidden to do season-long stories but went ahead and did them anyway, nearly getting fired in the process. (Fortunately, Marvel were too busy dealing with their near-bankruptcy issues at the time, so he was ultimately left well alone.)
Although it’s extremely faithful in the most part, the show does make a couple of interesting changes, most notably Electro being created by the Red Skull and speaking with a German accent (apparently because the rights to Electro were tied up in a proposed James Cameron movie at the time – Sandman is conspicuous by his absence for the same reason), Hydro-Man being reinvented as Mary-Jane’s possessive ex-boyfriend (which doesn’t really work) and the Black Cat having a weird image-altering power (via Captain America’s super soldier serum, no less) that protects her secret identity.
The scripts also made a couple of minor improvements on the source material – Peter’s classmate, Debra Whitman, is treated better here than she is in the comics (maybe because she never goes out with Peter in the first place), while Detective Terri Lee, who was created for the show, is such a great character that it’s a shame she never ended up with a comics counterpart.
The voice casting is excellent across the board. Christopher Daniel Barnes and the brilliantly named Saratoga Ballentine are note-perfect as Peter and MJ, TV legend Ed Asner makes a great J Jonah Jameson and there are fun turns from seasoned voice actors Mark Hamill (as Hobgoblin) and Hank Azaria (as Eddie Brock / Venom). There are some nice personal touches in the casting too – Stan Lee’s wife Joan voices Madame Web, and somebody in production was obviously a Star Trek fan, because Majel Barrett (Anna Watson), George Takei (Wong) and Nichelle Nichols (Vampire Queen!) all appear as guest voices.
There are a number of standout episodes, but highlights include: the Venom storyline, which condenses the alien costume saga and Venom’s origin into a satisfying, nicely handled three-parter, having introduced the character of Eddie Brock early on; the Goblin Wars storyline, involving both Hobgoblin and Green Goblin, with Norman Osborne learning Peter’s secret identity (another classic comics moment); and the show’s iteration of the Sinister Six, renamed the Insidious Six after studio objection. There are also several great team-ups with other Marvel heroes, including Daredevil (another standout run of episodes), Doctor Strange, Captain America, War Machine and the Punisher, as well as a crossover with super-successful sister show X-Men, featuring the same voice cast. There’s a bit too much Morbius, though – if anything, that’s the one storyline that’s dragged out too long. (Morebius? Should have been Lessbius.)
Although Semper insists that the show ran for its designated 65 episodes rather than being cancelled prematurely, the crazily ambitious final few episodes feel like Semper cramming in as many stories as possible, with multiple ideas that could easily have sustained entire seasons. These include: Mary-Jane turning out to be a clone (who marries Peter), while her real self is trapped in another dimension; a cut-down version of the classic Secret Wars story (involving multiple other heroes) and, most impressively, the first ever instance of the Spider-Verse (which subsequently influenced both the comics and the movies), with Peter meeting versions of himself from different universes.
In fact, that Spider-Verse story ends up giving the series the perfect ending, as one of the alternate universe Spider-Men is an actor who brings Spider-Man into “our” universe, where he meets his creator, Stan Lee (voiced by Stan Lee) and takes him for a web-swing around the block. It’s a lovely, joyous moment that gives the series – and Stan Lee himself – the most fitting send-off imaginable. Excelsior!