The Amazing Spider-Man returned to the small screen in 2003 with a computer animated series shown on the MTV Network. How does the series hold up nearly a decade later? Join me for the next 13 weeks as we find out for ourselves!
Written by Morgan Grendel
Directed by Tim Elrad
THE PLOT: Protests on the ESU campus concerning dorm eviction receive a visit from a high tech thief who calls himself Turbo Jet. Although Spider-Man tries to stop him, public opinion quickly turns against the web-slinger in favor of the techno-crook. Sentiment also relates towards the feelings of Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson and Harry Osborn, whom the protests have affected in more ways than one.
LONG STORY SHORT: Harry, who was approached by the Oscorp Board of Directors to promote the eviction, publically changes his mind in favor of letting both sides present their argument. As that happens, Turbo Jet strikes again but Spidey manages to foil him. All’s well that ends well, with a kiss to Peter from Mary Jane!
MY THOUGHTS: Well…this was sure…interesting to watch.
Okay, a brief bit a of preamble. This series came out in the year between the first and second Spider-Man movies. At the time I was 14, about to enter high school, and more into Spider-Man at that time than ever before. I vividly remember my brother and I very excited for the fact that not only was there a new Spider-Man cartoon out but also that the show would premiere on M(usic)TV, which even by that time in 2003 had become known as the misnomer channel. It wasn’t the fact that the show was going to go by the continuity of the Sam Raimi films, or that MTV would inherently legitimize the series as making Spider-Man cool (because Spidey is cool and MTV isn’t). My idea at the time was that this would be a show which would treat the comic book concepts and characters as they were presented in the comics and not bog down the series with BSandP notes about how to make it for children. Spidey could curse, hit people, and be around women dressed less…conservatively that in the 90s show. Not that I wanted Spider-Man to be unappealing for kids, but when you’re a young comic book fan there is a definite yearning for mainstream recognition for the things you like to be seen as sophisticated and not solely made for juvenile audiences. So I watched the show all the way through and enjoyed it for what it was. I never had any real investment in its storylines or characters, and that’s really the most damning thing to say about the series. For a show about Spider-Man, viewer investment in Spider-Man should be priority number one. That’s not to say that Spider-Man wasn’t the central character, but the focus we got into the mind of Peter Parker paled in comparison to the 1994 Spider-Man series. There was always something not quite right with the show, and it went beyond the vexingly dated MTV sensibilities or the at times awkward animation. What was the show really about?
Let’s start with the characters. Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson and Harry Osborn are our three protagonists, judging by the stylish and quick-cut intro (which I’ve really liked to this day.) . Their group dynamic is divided into three parts: the main protagonist/hero, the love interest and the secondary male protagonist/best friend. Because of the nature of the show having to deal with not only the comic book relation but continuity towards the movie, these characters have to reflect several different aspects of each person while still appealing to an MTV crowd.
Let’s begin with Mary Jane, played by Lisa Loeb. She’s the character the production team would assume was the easiest to write for, but her personality in this show is…puzzling. Her first appearance in this episode makes her come off a lot like the Lee/Romita MJ of the 1960s updated for modern times, which I really enjoyed seeing. She was animated, sexy and seemed smarter than she let on…at first. It soon becomes apparent that all she’s meant to do in this series is give Peter romantic angst, and not in the way that she did in the Raimi movie either. Pretty much every scene she shares with Peter has her throwing herself at him in ways that just perplex me. Given that this is off the heels of the end to the first Spider-Man movie, it does make sense that MJ in this series would try to convince Peter that they should hook up. The rub comes from the fact that an average viewer would never know that had they not watched the first Spider-Man movie. Without that knowledge, MJ comes off as an intense flirt at best, a sycophant at worst. Peter made it clear at the end that he wasn’t interested in her (which granted was an obvious lie, but still) so MJ’s move is to constantly throw herself at him? It doesn’t really ring true towards the Kirsten Dunst performance either, as she was a bit more subtle in her display of affection. Again, this series only has the first movie to go on, so one can understand this mindset of portraying Mary Jane like this. But in the context of the show itself, she comes off looking really bad and embarrassing. Two scenes at the end underline this. When she tries to tell Spider-Man that she’s found someone else to crush on after he saves her life again, the way in which she tells him comes off as incredibly awkward and forced. Granted, she’s talking to a super hero, but both acknowledge that they had nothing to go on before beside nearly hooking up in a rainy alley. Unless we’re to assume that Mary Jane has telepathy and knows he’s Peter Parker, why should she think Spider-Man would care? I suppose that too would fall in line with the 2002 movie’s ending, but again, in the context of this series it’s out of the blue. Same goes for her kissing Peter at the end, in front of Harry while watching the news. It’s too random of a scene to fully explicate properly, but there’s no reason for it other than to end the episode on a happy note. Very very odd. Lisa Loeb does an okay job with the voice acting. I could hear her MJ voice in the comics. However the stuff she’s been given to work with doesn’t make the character come off nearly as deep as the original source material, or even the movie version. She’s the epitome of the girlfriend/love interest/damsel in distress character.
Ian Ziering’s Harry Osborn is given a bit more depth, but only slightly. Like I said before, he’s meant to play several different narrative roles, i.e. the best friend, the potential enemy, the rich kid and the college guy. At times he portrays all aspects fine, but it conflicts the story and his relationship to Peter when the character is a balancing act. In this episode, I don’t get the sense that he and Peter are as good of friends as they were shown to be in the movie. They’re just sort of subsumed with each other. I guess the popularity of the first movie guaranteed the audience to be stemming off of that film’s continuity, but again it’s really hard for this show to stand on its own when it’s dependent on such continuity, especially after only the first film. By that mindset, when it does try to connect the two mythologies it isn’t handled well.
Peter: “Harry, I know you think Spider-Man killed your father…”
Harry: “You mean, on account of he did..?”
This isn’t a wallet that Spider-Man supposedly took from Harry we’re talking about here. The guy honestly believes Spider-Man murdered his father. Yet with dialogue and the Voice Direction, you wouldn’t get a proper sense of the gravitas of the situation, nor the sense of how deeply that affected Harry psychologically. He’s basically just a Spider-Man naysayer as opposed to someone who actively hates him judging by this episode. Such pathos is utterly mishandled by MTV, which brings us to our main player…
As Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Neil Patrick Harris does a perfectly serviceable job. He gets the humor, sense of responsibility and the inner angst of the character down pretty well. His voice has a creek of depth in it, which to me harkens back to the original 1967 cartoon. There are other touches that are reminiscent to that series, such as Spidey’s constantly shifting eye size, and the fact that much of the action takes place at night. Unfortunately, the tradeoff with the similarities of the show give this series its inherent flaw. While we do get some of Spider-Man’s/Peter’s inner monologue, it pales in comparison to what had come before and what would come after. Peter’s perspective doesn’t drive the narrative of the story as it did in the 1994 series or the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon which would come 5 years later. Spider-Man’s presence in the story is directly relative to the goings on of ESU and New York to the point that he’s nothing more than an everyday do-gooder. While it can be argued that he was always that sort of construct for storytelling, the adventures don’t necessarily affect him or shape his outlook on things in his personal life.
It’s evidenced by the shallow way in which the “Hero-Villain” aspect of the episode’s plot is handled. Spidey feels stressed because he’s a legitimate do-gooder, while Turbo Jet is clearly a bad guy, yet the public has it twisted. This gives us reasons for the scenes in which Spidey complains to himself, but we don’t see it have any effect throughout the rest of his day. It basically comes down to “Well this sucks…oh well.” Part of the problem has to do with the weak plot, and it really is a weak plot. The villain is thoroughly two dimensional, and the story is relative to typical college campus crap. On the one hand, it harkens back to the Conway era where there was a protest in New York every five issues, but that was in the 1970s at a time when it was realistic to see protests everywhere in New York. I’m not suggesting that the college campus protest plot is unrealistic, but it’s shallow in presentation. The protesters are portrayed as dopey, unthinking sheep (and Mary Jane along with them) and their plight is undermined by an utter clod of a villain. If anything, it’s a callback to the Steve Ditko era (his last issue in fact) in that the protesters that represent the goings-on of America at the time are made to be pretentious hipster meat heads who represent no one but the cartoonish stereotype of the writer that hates them. It’s a tricky writing problem that can’t be solved in a 22 minute cartoon, but the fact that it wasn’t handled well still applies.
I suppose I should comment more on the animation of the series. It’s easier in nine years hindsight to see how unpolished it is in comparison to types of shows and games with the same type of animation, but it has a lot of good qualities to it as well. I’ve always loved how Spider-Man moved in this show, from the web-swinging to the wall-crawling. The shifty eye thing I’ve always found fun, and the cel-shaded CGI actually the reflective, shiny webbing look good. What I feel doesn’t work for this show is that most of the characters are over six feet tall. Spider-Man I don’t have a problem with as I’ve always liked the tall, elongated and muscular Spider-Man of the MacFarlene, Bagley, Larsen and Deodato Jr. days. The thing about it is that when every character looks to be about the same height, it can come off as disconcerting to the eyes. That and the fact that the animation with each person’s facial expressions are never quite fluid. Scratch that, they’re fluid-but they move at a set speed which makes the facial muscles resemble a game of tetris in that they never slow down until the dialogue they’re saying finishes. It’s not a wholly distracting aspect, but it is something to notice after you see it for the first time in a while.
Overall this first episode was about as basic as it could possibly get, and did a fairly weak job of establishing the character past what the narrative demands of them. I know that the characterization will improve at least a little bit down the line, but as it stands with was a very mixed beginning to what I still currently feel is a very mixed show.
2.5/5 music videos
*Best Quote Contender
Turbo Jet: “I just do what needs to be done. If people want to call me a hero, it’s just because they’re too stupid to do anything for themselves.
All images taken from Marvel.toonzone.net