Tell me there’s something better. Go ahead; try.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” was pretty good, but I wouldn’t call it the best adaptation of everyone’s favorite web-slinging superhero. Nor would I give that title to Sam Raimi’s groundbreaking trilogy of films starring Tobey Maguire. I haven’t seen Marc Webb’s two Amazing Spider-Man films, but nothing I’ve heard about them promises anything amazing.
No, for my money, the best Spider-Man is a short-lived, small-screen animated series called “The Spectacular Spider-Man,” a stylized and stylish superhero cartoon that ran from 2008 to 2009 before a shift in character rights killed it after two seasons. The show ranks with “Batman: the Animated Series,” “X-Men,” and “Justice League” as one of the best superhero cartoons out there.
Like those shows, “Spectacular Spider-Man” boasts engaging writing, complex characterization, and sophisticated ideas. It’s faithful to its roots without being rigid, and original without being overdone. Most importantly, it nails its protagonist.
The Peter Parker of ‘Spectacular Spider-Man’
The Peter Parker we meet in this show is a high-school junior still relatively new to superheroics. We skip over the origin story until a later episode and pick up with Peter just as his friendly neighborhood Spider-Man routine begins to take a turn for the dangerous. So far he’s been acting as a one-man neighborhood watch, stopping crime, helping people in need, and so on.
Now, however, he’s caught the attention of a fearsome mob-boss known as Tombstone (who poses as a wealthy philanthropist in public, mirroring Peter’s secret identity). At the same time, he meets his first serious threat in the form of Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. the Vulture, who is out for revenge on industrialist Norman Osborne for stealing his invention.
From then on, the show portrays an escalating crime war as more and more supervillains take to the streets, competing gangs vie for power, and Spider-Man tries to keep a lid on things—while also trying to honor his responsibilities to his aunt, school, and friends. Peter hasn’t given up on being an ordinary kid. He cares about being popular at school, dating, getting good grades, holding down a job to support his widowed Aunt May, and so on.
Of course, the secret hero trying to balance the two halves of his life is nothing new, but here it’s given some particularly clever twists. For instance, Peter’s Aunt May wonders why he so often stays out late. She does what any involved and caring parent would: puts him on a curfew and makes him call and let her know if he’s going to be late. So poor Peter has to field calls from his aunt in the middle of epic showdowns with supervillains.
Actions Have Consequences
The show is also creative in how it handles the villains. Rather than an increasingly ridiculous series of accidents and coincidences, we have one accidental event (Electro), which directly leads to another (the electricity discharged during Electro’s rampage gives Doctor Connors’s Lizard formula an unexpected boost, sending it into overdrive), which then makes Tombstone realize that if Spider-Man is busy fighting supervillains, he’ll be too preoccupied to go after his crime empire.
So he hires Osborne to start making more, which gives Osborne funding and test subjects for his more “questionable” experiments. The show therefore quickly brings a large portion of Spidey’s excellent rogues’ gallery into play while continuing to tell a seamlessly coherent story, developing the already established characters, and without placing undue stress on the audience’s credulity.
That brings me to another aspect of the writing: it flows marvelously well from one episode to another. Actions and events have real consequences that may not come into play for several episodes down the line, meaning that everything the characters do has real weight. A thoughtless decision on Peter’s part in an early episode starts a chain reaction of events that continues to affect the story until the very end. When characters have to make hard choices on this show, we’re completely invested because we know it could affect the whole course of the story.
All this leads into the show’s main theme, which is the nature of responsibility. Of course, Spider-Man is all about great power coming with great responsibility, a line repeated a few times here (usually in a humorous context), but this show really explores that idea, showing Peter’s struggle to balance his various obligations, while also trying to have a life of his own. Whenever he shirks his responsibilities, even for understandable reason, serious consequences result.
The episode introducing the Sandman, for instance, has Peter giving into the temptation to use his spider powers to try out for the football team. Meanwhile, the show cuts back and forth between Peter having fun on the football field and Sandman committing an uninterrupted series of robberies. The point is clear: Peter’s being irresponsible, and people are suffering for it.
Teaching Viewers Complex Moral Philosophy
That’s one of the least of Peter’s mistakes. Future episodes see an apparently justified moral lapse involving a certain alien symbiote that Peter kinda-sorta accidentally steals so he can use it to help more people. He does indeed help people with it: people whom he maybe wouldn’t have been able to help without it. But he also begins to lose himself as the alien being starts to affect his mind.
In sequences like this the show points to the flaws of consequentialism (doing evil that good may result) and the need to adhere to a moral code based on clear and simple truths like “don’t steal” rather than appealing to an apparent “greater good.” Peter always has good intentions, but he doesn’t have all the information and can’t predict how his choice today might affect things tomorrow. He’s also a fallible human being who, like all of us, is apt to give himself more leeway than he probably should.
This makes Peter sound like a selfish delinquent. On the contrary, he’s a thoroughly good kid: intelligent, respectful, and eager to help. He works hard to help support his elderly aunt, does well in school, and is outgoing and friendly to just about everyone he meets, the only exception being bullies and bad guys. Most of the time, when confronted with a moral dilemma, he makes the right choice, and when he makes mistakes he owns up to it and tries to make amends. That’s what separates him from his enemies.
Unlike Peter, who is imperfectly striving to honor his responsibilities, the bad guys are almost to a man thoroughly selfish individuals who think that great power means being able to take and do what they want, ranging from thugs Sandman and Rhino to arrogant intellectuals like Doctor Octopus and the Vulture. None accepts that they have any responsibility to the world around them, nor that they bear any responsibility for their own behavior. Electro in particular blames Doctor Connors for the accident that ruined his life, even though it was his own carelessness that caused it while Connors was only indirectly involved.
Gaining Power Reveals One’s True Character
Doctor Connors does own up and accept responsibility for the Lizard episode. In fact, accepting responsibility for one’s actions is almost the mark of heroic characters, while failing to accept responsibility foreshadows trouble. Peter’s boss, J. Jonah Jamison, for instance, is an irascible jerk, but he also takes it upon himself to shield Peter at the risk of his own life when the Rhino comes looking for him. Meanwhile, Peter’s friend Harry seems like a nice enough guy, but never seems to accept responsibility for his own actions or their consequences, hinting that he might not be as nice as he seems.
This leads into the show’s other major theme; the difference between people’s public face and their interior personality. Or, as the Green Goblin puts it, “We all wear masks, but which one is real? The one that covers your face, or the one that is your face?”
Just about everyone in the show is playing a part of some kind, the only question being whether they’ll be revealed to be better or worse than they seem. Some characters who seem irredeemable turn out to have fundamentally decent, even heroic instincts, while others who seem perfectly friendly are hiding dark desires just waiting for the chance to emerge and twist them into something awful.
Superpowers, the show seems to be saying, don’t introduce anything new to a person’s character; they only bring to light what was already there. Meek little Otto Octavius seemed like a harmless, absentminded scientist who wouldn’t hurt a fly. After his mechanical arms are fused to his body, however, he suddenly gains the confidence to act out the power fantasies he had been secretly nursing.
Likewise, when small-time crook Flint Marko is transformed into the Sandman, he becomes one of the most powerful bad guys around, yet he still uses it to knock over convenience stores and the like (something even Spider-Man calls out as being kind of pathetic) because he’s a fundamentally small-minded man. On the other hand, Peter became Spider-Man because, in many ways, he already was Spider-Man. He was already a fun-loving, good-hearted kid who knew what it was like to be bullied, and who had experienced the pain of losing loved ones, but whose sufferings left him empathetic instead of embittered. His powers give him the ability to do what he would have wanted to do anyway: help others while having a lot of fun.
The show itself is like that. It has a lot of fun, while being an edifying and well-done piece of family entertainment. It’s one of those special shows that are accessible to kids, but also smart enough for discerning adults. Go check it out and see just how good Spider-Man can be.