Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Forgotten Spider-man

As the release date of the highly anticipated Spider-man 3 approaches, I find myself reminiscing about some of my favorite memories associated with the web-slinger (somewhere around here I have a photo of myself, at aged 3 or 4, being hoisted up on Spidey's shoulders at a fair, but I don't know where it is). As I wrote in "They Don't Make Superheroes Like They Used To," Spider-man has always been among my top three favorite superheroes (the other two being Batman and Superman). Whoever occupied the #1 spot at any given moment depended on what "phase" of my life I was going through at the time. I realize I am advertising my hopeless geekiness with this post. I don't care.

Many of us can recall at least one cartoon series featuring Spider-man (be it from the 60's, the 80's, the 90's or the recent computer-animated program), but one particular incarnation of Spider-man that usually seems to get lost in the shuffle, and unfairly so in my opinion, is the short-lived late 70's series. I used to love this show when I was a kid. I have no doubt that were I to watch it again now it would seem (at best) quaint, but at the time it filled that much needed void for a live-action version of Marvel's most popular hero.

I seem to remember that the show wasn't necessarily very "faithful" the comics. There was no Mary Jane Watson, no Gwen Stacy, no super-villians and not even an Uncle Ben. Robbie Robertson appeared only in the pilot whereas J. Jonah Jameson was a regular character (though not nearly the "enemy" of Spider-man he was supposed to be; just more of a grump) and Aunt May appeared only rarely. Peter was still a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle and he still received his powers from a radioactive spider bite, but Peter was no longer a nerdy high school kid. Instead he was a college student in his early-mid twenties and was played by actor Nicholas Hammond (who was actually in his late twenties at the time). Hammond is perhaps most well-known as Frederich Von Trapp from The Sound of Music but he made his film debut in Peter Brook's 1963 Lord of the Flies (television enthusiasts might also recognize him as Doug Simpson, the shallow hunk who turns down a date with Marcia Brady for her "nose" problem). Furthermore, Hammond rarely spoke when he wore the mask. Unlike the comics, there were no "John McClaine-like" wisecracks, no making fun of the "in-over-his-head" situation he often found himself in. He was, for the most part, a "mute" Spider-man. At least his words didn't appear in a little bubble over his head (like in the Electric Company).

One thing the show did get right though, which even the recent films have not, is the fact that Peter's web-shooting is not a talent he picked up from the funky spider (unlike his speed, strength and ability to climb walls) but rather a technological invention of Peter's. Needless to say, this is a change that (like the "raised" webs on the new costume) doesn't bother me. Spidey was also seen frequently wearing a utilty belt. I guess he was taking his cue from Batman in those days. For all its flaws, though, the show was quite cool. I remember loving the climbing scenes specifically. Though they pale in comparison to the aeronautic acrobatics that Raimi's CGI Spider-man can perform, they still had one advantage: they were real. A real guy in a real spider-man costume risked his own real life climbing up a real bulding with the help of a real cable. If somethig went really wrong he could've really fallen to his own real death. There's something about the "reality" of that which I miss in the new films.

Since only 9 episodes and three full-length TV movies were made, there is a misconception that the show was cancelled due to poor ratings. In fact, the show did rather well. It was pulled because CBS (which already had The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman) didn't want to be known as the "superhero network." Shame, because the show was, as I remember, pretty good. Again, nowadays it might seem awfully lame (particularly to today's youth), but I would like to see these shows released on DVD so that I, along with others like me, can relive a pleasant part of our childhood. As much as I am looking forward to the third Spider-man feature (I loved the first two), it would a shame to forget this chapter in Spidey's past.... no matter how "embarassing" it might seem now.


Piper said...

I was wrong Damian.

You're 100% pimply faced fanboy.

You geek.

I kid. I kid.

Damian said...

I told you. ;)

Ross Ruediger said...

I've been meaning to come back and respond to this for the past few days...

Damian, like you I'm a Spidey devotee (although he easily grabs my #1 superhero spot), and I remember tuning in to the first episode/TV movie of this series when I was about 6 years old. I ~loved~ it, but then again most of my prior Spidey exposure was courtesy of The Electric Company.

Of course it had nothing to do with Spidey of the comics. His adversaries were usually drug dealers and Chinese tongs. But Spidey looked pretty cool, and as you point out, his wall-crawling looked pretty decent given the time period. And Nicholas Hammond was very good as Peter Parker. I bet if the show had lasted, Mary Jane would've shown up sooner or later. Given how popular popular Spidey is these days, it does seem a no brainer to throw out a DVD set with this material.

It's interesting that of the three CBS superhero series, SPIDER-MAN -- the strongest property of the three -- was canned first, although given how weakly the concept was reenvisioned, it probably deserved to be. I checked out some WONDER WOMAN on DVD a few years back and it did not hold up for me at all.

Which leaves THE INCREDIBLE HULK -- more "amazing" than Spider-Man is that the Hulk series worked at all, and yet it was genuinely great TV that holds up very well, even today, mostly due to the talent and conviction of Bill Bixby. I oddly just watched the pilot movie on Saturday afternoon and was quite moved by the whole thing. It's stunning that a simple concept that worked so well for years on TV was so bizarrely executed for the big screen by Ang Lee. I liked Lee's HULK when I saw it, but have never bothered to see it since, which is telling.

Also, there were two terrible CAPTAIN AMERICA made-for-TV movies back in '79. (Thought I'd throw that in for completion's sake.)

Ross Ruediger said...

Speaking of Spidey on The Electric Company, does anybody else remember the "Spider-Man Vs. The Wall" installment?

Damian said...

Thanks for the comments, Ross. Like you, my first exposure to Spider-man (before even the cartoons) was via The Electric Company. I have to admit that I don't remember the Spidey vs. The Wall installment, but I do remember Spidey vs. the Prankster. I also recall that The Electric Company had a magazine which always included a short Spidey comic in it. That was my favorite publication for a long time as a kid.

I also liked The Incredible Hulk show (gotta love that sad piano theme) as well as the made-for-TV movies they did in the late 80's/early 90's (one of which had Thor and another which featured Daredevil). I admit I didn't care for Ang Lee's film, outside of the really cool comic-like trasnitions between shots/scenes.

OMG! I forgot about the Captain America TV movies. I know I watched them but I hardly remember anything about them (other than an image of Cap riding his motorcycle). I have little doubt that they probably were pretty bad, but they couldn't possibly be worse than the Captain America movie they made later. That film was horrible. Worse than the Dolph Lundgren Punisher.

Ross Ruediger said...

Damian -

Right after I posted that, I too headed to YouTube. Head to the Morgue at your convenience.

Captain America, as I recall, wore a motorcycle helmet with wings painted on the sides.

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