The Ultimate Symbiote Saga kicks off with “The Alien Costume” part 1!
Story By: Stan Lee and Avi Arad
Written By: Len Wein , Meg McLaughlin, Stan Berkowitz and John Semper
Music Composed By: Shuki Levy and Kussa Mahchi
Animation Services By: Toyko Movie Shinsha (TMS)
THE PLOT: Colonel John Jameson’s latest trip into space ends in disaster as he’s forced to crash land his shuttle after being accosted by the mysterious Promethium X ooze! Despite Spider-Man’s heroic rescue of Jameson, he’s blamed for the extraterrestrial artifact’s roberry and a million dollar bounty is put out on his head. With no one else to turn to, our hero finds a most unlikely ally in a mysterious black costume…
LONG STORY SHORT: To Peter’s delight, the costume amplifies his strength ten fold and provides him with handy-dandy camouflage! But what is the suit doing to his mind…?
MY THOUGHTS: As was said in my Season 2 review of the Spectacular Spider-Man’s Venom episode, this was awesome. Scratch that, this IS awesome. It always has been and it always will be. This is the reason the comics have now seemingly retconned that the alien Symbiote gave Peter enhanced strength. This is where the third movie got it’s Venom plot from. This is what stuck in the minds of fellow five year olds like myself whenever we thought of Venom and the Symbiote. “The Alien Costume” as a three parter does so much right with the characters, pacing and tone of each episode that it just stays with you for years to come. It’s quite appropriate considering the context at the time. In 1994, Venom was still a money making machine at Marvel Comics, and was seen as Spider-Man’s #1 premiere villain. Foregoing the convoluted backstories with both Battleworld and the Sin Eater sagas from said comics, Len Wein, Meg McLaughlin, Stan Berkowitz and John Semper tell a simple story of straight up duality, drama and psychosis that remains to this day the best representation of Venom in my eyes. Spectacular Spidey comes close, but this episode has that beat in several respects.
First and foremost, the beginning thirteen minutes of the episode were absolutely perfect. The opening introduced all of the main key players from Colonel Jameson and his co-pilot to Kingpin and Smythe. Going from that, the sense of peril that was felt by all of the characters concerned with the Shuttle’s condition was very palpable. This is quite possibly the most harrowing, dead-serious the show ever got. Nothing is short of suspenseful in the shutte crash scene, where you feel the life-or-death stakes happening on-screen. The idea of seeing the cockpit of a shuttle lose control as black ooze fills the screen (As an aside, I did not know filming would occur during attempts at re-entry, but nevermind) is really quite horrifying, and Ed Asner’s feeling of utter desperation comes through in his performance as J. Jonah Jameson. Even with Peter’s dramatic change to Spider-Man, there’s not a false sense of humor or cheer during this opening scene. The situation warrants it certainly. A space shuttle is about to crash into the George Washington bridge, and people are going to die.
At least they would if they didn’t abandon their cars, which gave the go-ahead for an awesome crash sequence when the shuttle hits the bridge. It’s here that the animation is back on form from “Night of the Lizard” and “Doc Ock: Armed and Dangerous”. Spidey swinging into action continues the sense of precise control with his super human movements. Even moreso is the Rhino, who has an interesting introduction in that we see him answer the phone in what I can only assume is his apartment already dressed in his costume. That was funny. But him effortlessly tossing the cars and beating up Spider-Man were more examples of great animation from TMS.
The idea of Spider-Man expecting praise for saving Jameson’s astronaut son and the result being a bounty on his head is very remniscent to the conclusion of Amazing Spider-Man #1. Both times Peter exibits the same reaction of total incredulity and frustration, and both times are totally justified. By this point in the series, we’ve not seen Spider-Man get thrown under the bus so badly to the point where Peter has no where to turn. Again, there’s the sense that Peter has been Spider-Man for several years and he as much as says that it’s the typical response for whenever he tries to do the right thing. A great shot that I unfortunately couldn’t find was the close up of Peter’s eyes when he sees Jameson declare his bounty on Spider-Man.
“I don’t believe this. How could they get it so wrong? That’s the Spider-Man Justice System. Guilty until proven innocent.”
Aunt May inadvertantly rubbing it in his face was also a great touch.
This is where the episode truly feels like a Spider-Man comic to me. New York, the Daily Bugle, the criminal underworld, and Spidey getting flamed for doing the right thing. What makes this all apparent is how seamless it all comes together. Everyone in the city all had their eyes on the shuttle’s crash, and the aftermath pretty much destroys the life of one man, who happens to be our hero. To have all that happen without it feeling forced or overtly intentional is a serious credit to the writing. Keep in mind again that this was the 90s. Peter in the comics had been married for seven years, been buried alive, become Captain Universe, lost his best friend, and was told his parents were still alive only to be told that they were actually robots the entire time sent to mess with him by said late best friend. He was also about to go through the epic Clone Saga. It must have been refreshing to turn on the television and see the character go through the usual tropes that he had gone through during simpler times such as the 80s. In fact, with the black costume, the 80s are what I was reminded by the most while watching this episode.
The dream sequence, with the concept of his two costumes fighting over him taken from Amazing Spider-Man #258, says something about Peter in this that I honestly never figured until now. He goes to sleep angry, miserable and frustrated over how things have turned out. He wakes up a new man figuratively speaking in that he’s in downtown dressed in the Black Costume. Peter’s turn from being an excited super hero fawning over his new alien threads to “Not-so-Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man” actually makes a lot of sense. It must be said, again, that his personality never changes in the original comics. That was an invention of this show. But if you think about it, this serves as a callback to Peter’s first reaction to getting his Spider-Powers. He’s excited at his new abilites which he demonstrates at school, and he then immediately indulges his less flattering personality traits, which is demonstrated when he accost Flash Thompson. It’s very subtle, but it really does read the same way. It also reiterates an aspect of Peter’s persona in that while he is our hero and he strives to take responsibility at all times, he still can be not only thick headed but a straight up jerk at times. What makes this better than what they did on the Spectacular Spider-Man is that Peter’s action are more focused on things he would have done already if he hadn’t gotten the alien Symbiote. It’s how he handles what he does and how he goes about it that the noticable differences come through. He didn’t go to Rhino and ask who he was working for so he could get the same job like he did in Spec Spidey. He went to stop Rhino but ended up wanting revenge for practically curb-stomping him when they first met. He also wanted to know where the Promethium X was taken to. It’s how Peter’s characterized that makes his (for a lack of a more appropriate term) change into darkness easier to swallow. He’s not evil, he’s just human. By saying “human”, I mean that he isn’t representing the positive aspect of the word as he is the negative aspect that people tend shy away from when using it. It would be easier to kill the Rhino, so he won’t rob anyone else again. Why should he let Flash Thompson push him around when he could always flatten him with his thumb? It’s that kind of thinking that resonates because it’s familiar thinking that the audience has to have had in their heads at one point or another in their lives.
It’s also represented in the physical and visual aspect of the black costume. Obviously black has a negative connotation thematically, but the simplicity of it’s design (which, again left in the comics wasn’t infuenced by Jessica Drew’s costume) serves as a visual key for the simplicity of Peter’s decisions, or at least how he sees them. Before the end, he can’t think of why anyone would have a problem with him, regardless if he’s Spider-Man or not. This goes back to when the symbiote first jumped on him in his sleep, when his thought process was inlfuenced by his emotions. This is better than in the Spectacular Spider-Man when the suit seemed to literally turn him evil because…just because. This version makes the choices understandable and reasonable, while still making them clear enough for the audience to recognize that Peter is wrong and is acting up. In the dinner scene with Aunt May, he didn’t toss the table out of the window or was even that harsh to Aunt May. He just got annoyed and went upstairs. A lesser set of writers would have had a more indulgent scene of self reflection that would beat the audience over the head that Peter was now a different person. We follow his thought process and view his actions without seeing his character sacrificed for cheap drama. It’s showing, not telling, and frankly this version of the Symbiote saga beats of the Spectacular Spider-Man’s version all hollow. In my opinion of course.
It must be obvious by now how much I’ve always loved this episode. The animation, the directing, the superb voice acting by Christopher Daniel Barnes who embodies a slightly sinister Spider-Man not by intention in octaves, but by emotions and attitude. This episode has it all, and along with the rest of the three parter is definitely one of the best episodes the series ever did. I would be surprised to find episodes that matched the quality, let alone surpassed it.
Absolute 5 “MARY JAAANE!!!”s/5
Best Quote Contender:
Felicia: “What’s with you?”
Peter: “Just being myself.”
all images taken from marvel.toonzone.net