Few superheroes have had as many animated incarnations as Spider-Man. Since his first solo series -- appropriately titled Spider-Man -- in 1967, he's headlined seven TV cartoons, some good (the mid '90s Spider-Man, the recently concluded, wildly underrated The Spectacular Spider-Man), some mediocre (the cheesy but fun '80s team-up Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends) and some terrible (MTV's unwatchable CGI version).
But it's that original '67 series -- which celebrates its 45th anniversary this year -- that remains the most well-known and, arguably, widely-liked small-screen version of the wall-crawler's adventures. There are a number of reasons why it continues to endure, among them its long run in syndication, the lengthy memories of nostalgic grown-up geeks who foist it on their young ones and, of course, that insanely catchy theme song that even non-comic book fans know. But none of that would matter if the show itself weren't enjoyable on its own terms. And despite the somewhat primitive animation style (Spider-Man swings past the same four or five backdrops multiple times during an average episode) and dated story elements (the oh-so-'60s ideas presentation of science is always good for a hearty chuckle), Spider-Man is still a very enjoyable superhero cartoon that spins fun stories with plenty of Spidey action. (Just don't go in expecting a lot of narrative complexity; as per most comics at that time, these are mostly one-shot, villain-of-the-week adventures. Check out the '90s series to see a more serialized storytelling approach.) And unlike some '60s superhero shows (ahem, Batman), the series is readily available on DVD and via Netflix Instant. So if you're planning a rewatch or want to see it for the first time, here are the five key episodes to look out for:
5. "The Power of Dr. Octopus/Sub-Zero for Spidey" (Season 1, Episode 1)
While not a particularly distinguished half-hour of TV, Spider-Man's inaugural episode is worth watching to get a sense of the kind of tradition it emerged from before morphing into its own unique thing. Like the Marvel Super Heroes cartoon serial that premiered a year earlier, Spider-Man's first batch of episodes consisted of standalone segments (two 12-to-15-minute adventures as opposed to the three seven-minute Marvel Super Heroes outings) where Spider-Man was faced with a rampaging bad guy -- in this case Dr. Octopus and then a gang of ice creatures from Pluto (the planet, not the Disney dog) -- and, after a few skirmishes, managed to defeat him. No mention is made of Spider-Man's origin or even his personal life. Peter Parker is little more than a set of clothes he changes into when he's not saving the world as Spider-Man. Much of this would change in Season 2, when the two-segment structure was jettisoned in favor of a single story and Peter's personal dramas became a more significant, though still relatively minor, part of the show.
4. "Menace from the Bottom of the World" (Season 2, Episode 25)
Beyond the structural changes, Spider-Man's second season also started to send the hero on adventures that took him out of his normal urban milieu into more fantastical realms. (This was no doubt in part due to the involvement of animator Ralph Bakshi, who took over the creative reins of the show in Season 2.) In this half-hour, for example, Spider-Man ventures beneath the Earth to track down a group of subterranean, ape-like bank robbers who live in an underground city straight out of Jules Verne or Zion from The Matrix. While the sight of Spidey swinging his way through underground caverns is a tad strange (wouldn't crawling be easier?), it's fun to see him out of his element and hints at some of the wilder adventures he'll experience down the line.
3. "The Origin of Spider-Man" (Season 2, Episode 21)
Continuing the notion that Season 2 was effectively a creative reboot of the show, the sophomore year commenced with the story of Peter Parker's transformation from dweeby bookworm into your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. While essentially a cut-and-paste version of the story presented in Amazing Fantasy #15, the episode is still an effective reminder of the simple power of Spider-Man's origin story. And for some Spider-Man fans (myself included), this was probably their first exposure to the whole "With great power comes great responsibility" concept that's a cornerstone of his character. I know I saw this episode well before I picked up my first Spider-Man comic.
2. "Revolt in the Fifth Dimension" (Season 3, Episode 49)
The weirdness that started with "Menace From the Bottom of the World" culminated in this Season 3 episode, which never aired during the show's original run. It's not hard to see why; Spider-Man is almost a background player in this hallucinogenic headtrip (which recycled some material from Bakshi's other animated series Rocket Robin Hood) in which an alien from another galaxy flees to Earth from the planet Gorth pursued by the villainous bug-like Infinata. Landing in Manhattan, he encounters Spidey, who subsequently gets dragged off the whacked-out realm of Dementia Five, filled with psychedelic backgrounds and strange imagery. Eventually, the web-head wins the day by realizing these creatures are only projections of his own fears and manages to wake himself up in mid-fall literally seconds before becoming street pizza. Beyond the "too hot for TV" hook, it's also a blast to see Bakshi -- who would go on to make such risqué and surreal animated entertainments as Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic -- imprint his own interests over what was supposedly a kiddie superhero show.
1. "King Pinned" (Season 2, Episode 22)
On the other hand, if '60s psychedelia isn't your thing and you just want a straightforward Spider-Man adventure with a formidable villain and a good story, the second episode of Season 2 fits the bill nicely. There are no flights of fancy here, just Spider-Man confronting one of the best members of his Rogue's Gallery and dealing with real life hassles (like needing a job to pay for your sick aunt's medication) when he's out of the suit as Peter Parker. This episode absolutely captures the essence of Spider-Man's lasting appeal: he's an ordinary guy doing his best in the face of extraordinary circumstances.
What's your favorite episode of the Spider-Man animated series? Nominate your picks below.
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