In the year 2017, if a kid wants to see a live-action Spider-Man, the young miss or master can choose from six movies (seven if you include Captain America: Civil War) starring three different actors. They can opt for the comic-book charm and screwball comedy of the Tobey Maguire trilogy, the YA romance and “special destiny” tropes of the Andrew Garfield movies, or Tom Holland’s new, crowdpleasing teenage hijinks.
When I was growing up in the ’90s, the world technically offered three options for a live-action Spider-Man as well, but they didn’t show Electric Company re-runs or the Japanese show where I lived. All I had, available on VHS from the video store and occasionally airing on the Sci-Fi Channel (you can go straight to hell, “Syfy”), was the Amazing Spider-Man TV show starring Nicholas Hammond. And watch it I did. Because, as I was saying last week, I was desperate to see Spider-Man come to life. To this end, I diligently sat through every episode multiple times, even though they were, to be perfectly honest, boring as hell.
I will say, the actual scenes with Spider-Man in them are kind of cool, in their way. Stuntman Fred Waugh really is dangling from a helicopter in the pilot movie. Watching him carefully swing from one building to an adjacent building on a webline might not give you the same rush as a modern CGI Spidey hurdling through the canyons of the city, but it’s still impressive from a technical standpoint. Spider-Man crawls up walls, and it’s clear he’s being pulled up by a line, but hey, the guy is still out there on the side of a twenty-story building. And I’m even fond of the costume. It’s vaguely unsettling—I showed my son a clip of the show when he was three years old and it made him cry—and there’s something strangely alien about the eyes, but it makes for an interesting counterpoint to the impeccably smooth and impossibly expensive modern Spidey suits. If you saw Spider-Man in the real world, he probably would look creepy and weird and thrown-together on a budget. Maybe it’s more real this way.
If you are an aficionado of television and film music from the ’70s, the show is also a lot of fun. The first-season theme song is one of my favorite pieces of superhero music, and I think it’s genuinely thrilling.
But for the most part, it’s much like any other generic ’70s action show, except Spider-Man wanders in from time to time. Rather than Doctor Octopus, Mysterio, and the Vulture, he generally fights your standard TV bad guys: terrorists, cults, martial artists, that sort of thing. There is an episode with a clone Spider-Man* but it is very much an outlier, and even then, it’s not much more compelling.
I think it would be possible, despite all that, to make a charming show: one that has heart but is let down by the realities of a television budget. But The Amazing Spider-Man is not even elevated by one’s love of Spider-Man and his world because the show is remarkably unfaithful to the source material, from a modern perspective. Don’t get me wrong, fans who insist on perfectly faithful adaptations get to be a pain in the ass; the people who considered it a travesty for an actor with blond hair to play James Bond and thought a black Norse god was part of an insidious liberal agenda. But I think the best superhero comic adaptations strive to be faithful to the spirit of the source material, if not always the letter. Although Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and the new Spider-Man: Homecoming are very different from each other, they are both faithful adaptations in their way.
Raimi brings what’s on the page in the Lee-Ditko originals pretty directly to the screen where possible. There are modernizations (Flash Thompson dresses like a tough kid circa 2000 and not the sweater-wearing jock of the old comics; the wrestling match has the aesthetics of the Attitude Era) and adjustments for narrative reasons (organic webshooters; making Harry Osborn and Mary Jane high school classmates), but the surface elements and themes are fairly true to the old comics: Peter Parker, a lonely loser, struggles to balance his self-appointed responsibility as Spider-Man with his own mundane personal desires. Although the Daily Bugle has been updated to more closely resemble the New York Post than the New York Times, J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson is second only to Christopher Reeve’s Superman as a flesh-and-blood replication of a four-color character.
Homecoming is more of a ground-up reimagining, but is still based very closely on the source material. It takes the concepts, themes, and relationships of the Lee-Ditko originals and totally re-examines what they would look like today. Rather than relying on the old “jock vs. nerds” stereotype, Marvel Studios considered what kind of school a 2017 Peter Parker in Queens would go to and found the Flash Thompson who might be the antagonist in his class: an academic rival and wannabe DJ from an affluent family. Sweet old grandmotherly Aunt May with her fretting and fussing was a familiar archetype of the day; today we find a harried working woman freaked out by the responsibility of raising a child alone a little more relevant. We haven’t seen J. Jonah Jameson in the MCU yet, but I suspect he would run the Daily Bugle as a Drudge Report-style website or possibly even a talking-heads show on a cable news network.
By contrast, the Amazing Spider-Man TV show is a Spider-Man story in which Uncle Ben doesn’t even exist.
Peter Parker, here, is a very earnest college student. Nicholas Hammond infuses him with a sort of endearing naiveté; Clark Kent for real. He gets his spider bite and then just…does the Spider-Man thing without much motivation. He goes out, he stops bad guys, he takes pictures for J. Jonah Jameson. But Jameson is pretty much the standard “tough newspaper editor” character you see on TV from this time period; he’s gruff but not apoplectic, and there’s no obsessive crusade against Spider-Man. Jameson’s hatred of Spidey is mostly transferred to a new character, Captain Barbera of the NYPD, who is pretty much the standard “grouchy desk-job cop” character (although he is responsible for one of the few endearing aspects of the show: his obvious annoyance with goody-two-shoes Parker). Jameson’s secretary, Rita,** is pretty much the standard “streetwise young black co-worker.” Eventually the series introduces Julie Masters, a fellow photographer who (say it with me) is pretty much the standard “flirtatious rival” love interest.
Aunt May appears only occasionally and is not consistently played by the same actress.
You see what I’m getting at here. Nothing about this show indicates any interest in the source material. I don’t know much about the behind-the-scenes production of the show (other than that the producer and Stan Lee fought a lot, apparently), but it’s pretty tempting to assume how it all went down: someone bought the rights to Spider-Man because “Spider-Man” is a name people recognize, and they simply built a generic 1970s action show around the elevator pitch of “College student gets powers from a radioactive spider bite and takes pictures of himself in action to sell to a newspaper” and populated it with stock characters.
And that’s one way to do it. There is no roadmap for success with superhero media at this time, and this is far from the only show of its vintage to use little more than the name of the hero as a jumping-off point. 1974’s first attempt at a Wonder Woman pilot had a blonde Cathy Lee Crosby as a government agent in a zip-up suit and no super powers. 1979’s Captain America TV movie had Reb Brown as the son of the original Cap, slinging a partially transparent shield and receiving his FLAG (“Full Latent Ability Gain”) super-soldier serum only after a near-fatal accident. The Amazing Spider-Man at least replicates the basic costume and setup, however loosely. We see in these television adaptations almost a compulsion to tinker with the “kids stuff” source material, whether due to ego or embarrassment or fear.
But…this show did get me through until 2002’s Spider-Man.
NEXT WEEK: We’ll look at what I contend is the best superhero movie ever made, but rather than just write “Gushing Tribute to Superman: The Movie #8,319,” I’d like to look at some of the movie’s perceived flaws and how the movie might be different if made today.
- 12/4: Superman: The Movie (1978)
- 12/11: The Fantastic Four (1994)
- 12/18: The Rocketeer (1991)
- 12/25: CHRISTMAS BREAK
* – Despite the fact that the initial Spider-Man clone story had occurred just a few years earlier, the clone episode bears no real resemblance to it, and I assume it was just a coincidence.
** – It’s strange that this character is called Rita and not Glory Grant. I wonder if the show’s creators knew of this character but changed the name to be less “comic-booky” (in the same way Bruce Banner became David Banner) or if, like the clone episode, it is just a total coincidence and they came up with “Jameson has a hip secretary” independently.