In the ever-insulated world of comics the big-name superheroes run upon a never-ending treadmill. Even with yearly shakeups, endless creative reorganization, and ventures into other media, it’s imperative these characters remain essentially the same because that’s what the fans want, and fans mean profits. Running in place all these years, these characters—Batman, Superman, Spider-Man—haven’t really covered any new ground; they just keep covering the same terrain. So why do fans keep coming back?
Superheroes are part of our modern mythology, and retelling their most famous exploits taps into that narrative craving within each of us, satisfying a quasi-religious interest in the heroic ideal. Though we don’t worship superheroes, our entertainment dollars certainly account for a kind of tithe, particularly at the box office, and in return we get reboots of our favorite characters every generation, allowing more fans into that insulated world and sustaining the characters in an evolving entertainment market.
Spider-Man was born in the ‘60s, grew up in the ‘70s, peaked in the ‘80s, and virtually died in the ‘90s (along with the rest of the comics industry). Along the way he appeared sporadically in cartoons and TV shows, but he was born anew in 2002 with Sam Raimi’s film, reaching an huge new audience, many of whom had no memory of The Electric Company. Now, after a trilogy of wildly successful films and countless product tie-ins, Spider-Man has returned to the small screen to hold court over the magical land of Saturday morning.
That hallowed day may not be the same as you remember it, but in The Spectacular Spider-Man: Attack of the Lizard, it’s the same ol’ Spidey. The show takes the essential elements of the Spider-Man mythos—the struggle between power and responsibility, Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, etc.—and roots every story in them, creating basic, by-the-numbers Spider-Man stories. There’s no tacky computer animation, no emo-Peter Parker and no clones in sight. Though we’re spared a complete rehash of Spider-Man’s origin, that nagging mantra “with great power comes great responsibility” is present in every decision our hero makes both as Spider-Man and as Peter Parker. By approaching the character as simply as possible, this show manages two things. First, it pleases the fan community whose message board tirades could sink the show. By doing this, the show also fails to take any chances, further perpetuating the treadmill in another medium.
This DVD, featuring episodes from the Kids’ WB series mashed together into a 70-minute feature, serves as an introduction to several of Spider-Man’s deadly foes, including the titular Lizard. Rather than dump the villains on top of Spider-Man one by one, the show’s creators have nicely paired the villains together, tying their origins to one another. The Vulture takes his flying apparatus to Norman Osborn, the future Green Goblin; Electro is born when handyman Max Dillon is involved in Dr. Curt Connors’ (Lizard) lab. This coupling strengthens the fabric of Spider-Man’s world by making the stakes between the villains personal, giving greater dimension to what might otherwise have been flat characterizations.
Despite the onslaught of villains, Spider-Man’s most compelling when he’s his own worst enemy. In his early comic book days, Spider-Man was perhaps the first superhero to whine about things not going his way both in and out of costume. It’s this quality that has always suited Spider-Man best, and what better place for a guy to feel like the world’s against him than high school? The show’s best scenes feature the timeless struggle of nerds versus jocks, with Peter warding off bullies, trying to hide his secret identity, and trying to date girls who hate him.
In action, Spider-Man is fun, but formula wears thin. Spider-Man contorts his body into impossible positions and swings around New York in death-defying swoops, but the punch-kick-chase of the fights lacks flair and imagination. These scenes seem to drag on and on despite their frenzied pace.
As with its content, the show’s animation is simple, with no frills. With the exception of the villains, the characters are all virtually interchangeable and lack the dynamic design of the films and the comics. The villains, and Spider-Man himself, are all rendered nicely, with slight updates to their classic designs.
Buildings and backdrops simply sit flat on the screen as in old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, leaving empty impressions of Spider-Man’s home and haunts.
This show hits many of the right notes for the character, but as a story it feels like the mash-up it is. Each villain/story match-up is a quick succession of intro-fight-epilogue, with Peter struggling to make curfew thrown in for pathos. Separately, these elements would work while enjoying a bowl of Fruity Pebbles, but all together they are overkill.
A bonus music video featuring clips from the show’s theme (which repeats the word ‘spectacular’ 400 times) does little to add to the overall presentation. This lack of frills perfectly sums up the show’s approach to the character, but perhaps they’ve kept it too simple. Myths and legends of old didn’t stay the same in their retellings; they were altered and changed over time by those who saw something else in the stories. Costume changes and new haircuts don’t make our superheroes better, even if they do sell more action figures and video games. We already have great stories; we just have to find new ways of telling them.