Tuesday, June 17, 2008


When the Spectacular Spider-Man began we took note, and as the first season has drawn to a close, we felt it important to return and reflect, to consider what we've seen and what we've learned.

Dwelling too long on the design seems pointless, so we will mention now, in passing, that it doesn't do a great deal for us. It isn't bad, per se, but neither is it particularly good. Let us say that it manages to convey the story well enough, and it is really the writing, directing, and voice work that shine.

It is assumed that those of you visiting The Middle Room are familiar with this program, and that it is therefore safe to discuss openly and honestly without fear of upsetting our guests. If this is not the case, if you have yet to see the program and are planning on watching it in repeat or purchasing the DVDs, then we will pause for a moment. Should you prefer to avoid information about the program, what the crass and simpleminded often call "spoilers," then you may want to leave the room for a few moments. Or, at the very least, scroll down to our review of The Incredible Hulk, which is relatively free of specifics.

Every episode of The Spectacular Spider-Man has been, at the very least, good. In fact, it would not be hyperbole to suggest that the worst episodes were VERY good, so we shall do so now.

There were many episodes, however, that did not live up to our initial expectations. Those expectations were set by the pilot, which, for a time, was our favorite episode. The next few fell a little short, but not so far as one might fear. Once the series got going, though, it started to lose momentum. Episodes featuring villains like the Sandman and the Rhino began to fall into a rut.

The changes made to the Green Goblin storyline were more distressing. Do not mistake us: there was a great deal to like in these episodes, but the identity of the original Goblin shifted from Norman Osbourn to his son, Harry. While they managed to tie this nicely to a famous story about Harry's drug addiction, the end result was strained. It was less of a surprise than a disappointment, though we are interested to see where they take the characters next.

Likewise, the ever expanding cast of characters became dizzying as the show went on: is it really necessary, we found ourselves asking, to introduce every major love interest of Peter Parker's life in thirteen episodes? For those keeping track, we counted five contenders for Parker's affections.

Ladies: he's only one arachnid.

The writers were juggling a lot, and we expected them to stumble. But then something magical happened. The last two episodes may have been even stronger than the first, bringing together the most important threads of the season.

The last fourth of the season revolves around the symbiote suit, Eddie Brock, and Venom. Many liberties were taken with this plot line. Brock has been completely reimagined to fit the new show. But, somehow, the changes all worked out for the best. He is more than a friend to Peter at the beginning of the season: they act like brothers. And in Eddie's mind, Peter's the closest thing he has to family. Their parents were killed in the same plane crash, and while Peter was raised by his aunt and uncle, Eddie wasn't so lucky. So when he sees Peter betray him in the third episode, it is taken personally.

The symbiote plays into this divide. It attempts to separate Peter from his friends and family, and, to some extent, it succeeds. In Peter's darkest moment, it is Flash Thompson who confronts him and wakes him up. If you doubts the brilliance of this show, look no further than this scene. Here, Flash Thompson is a well rounded character. What's more, they accomplish this without sacrificing any of what makes him work. The same can said, incidentally, of their portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson, whose hatred of Spider-Man is fueled by a desire to reserve the title "hero" for men like his son.

In the second to last episode, Peter finds himself fighting with the symbiote for control. The symbiote attacks Peter with memories of his darkest hour, when he lost his uncle. But the memories turn against the alien, and a battle rages in Spider-Man's mind. Alone, Spider-Man could not hope to win, but he isn't truly alone: his uncle is with him so long as he remembers. This should have been hokey and melodramatic, and certainly would have been in less capable hands. Here, it works and works well.

Peter is strengthened by his ties, both to his family and to his friends. This is a weapon Eddie Brock does not have, and it is what Peter is later able to use against Venom to win. The season explores the importance of friends and family. Likewise it considers the meaning of responsibility. It is not enough to use your abilities responsibly for the world: Spider-Man needs to realize that he is responsible to his friends, as well.

In his battle as a superhero, Peter has failed in his responsibilities to those closest to him. He realizes this in time to fix his relationships. And none of it could have happened without Flash Thompson.

This incarnation of Spider-Man is only thirteen episodes in. Like all cartoon series, it has been uneven. But we would not hesitate to defend the assertion that it is the best animated portrayal of the web-crawler to date.

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