Case Study 51: Spider-Man (1967), Episode 19–“To Catch A Spider”/“Double Identity”

Original Airdate: January 13th, 1968 on ABC

Previously in this space we discussed an episode of the Iron Man cartoon from 1996, and the gold standard in DC and Marvel animated series’ are 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, respectively, so the Snake People among us would be forgiven for thinking that the 1990s invented cartoons based on comic books. Nope, the Boomers can take credit for this one—both DC and Marvel have had cartoons based on their libraries as far back as the 1960s. Spider-Man is one of the more iconic examples, if only for its fun and oft-parodied theme song. I’ve actually spent a decent amount of time lately catching up on prehistoric Marvel comics and for long stretches of time in the 60s Peter Parker was the best thing going. The show takes many cues from the comics, but like the comics, it is far from perfect. Heavens, no.

Strengths

  • Classic comic book plots. So each episode of Spider-Man is divided into two ten minute segments, which are either parts one and two of a longer story or are two discrete entities. This flexibility is smart—it means that the writers aren’t stuck stretching out a thin plot into an entire half-hour and can be more judicious about pacing. Here, we get two separate stories. The first features four established bad guys teaming up to tackle Spider-Man (Paul Soles, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer) and the second centers on a two-bit actor with the groan-worthy name Charles Cameo (Carl Banas, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.) Cameo uses his impersonation and disguise skills to steal precious baubles and at various points he takes on the guise of Spider-Man, Peter Parker and J. Jonah Jameson (Paul Kligman.) The “supervillains combine their forces” and the “someone is out there doing a defamatory impersonation of our hero” are standard comic book tropes for perfectly good reasons. It’d be uncharitable to dismiss them as mere cliches, because it makes perfect sense that the various bad guys would at some point get the idea to combine forces, and identity theft is a natural outgrowth of a masked public figure with a mysterious background and questionable motivations. The show does reasonably interesting things with these tropes, too—Spider-Man can’t defeat his rogues gallery on sheer physical strength because they have him outnumbered, so he manipulates them and plays them against one another to foster infighting, and Cameo capitalizes on the paranoid Jameson’s ever-present Spider-Panic to the point where Jameson gets the cops involved. Not bad for a low-budget kids show, especially considering the actual comics from the period handled some of these things in a more clumsy manner. For instance, when six villains team up against Spidey in the 1964 Spider-Man Annual, for some dumb reason they all fight Spider-Man individually in a Chamber Of Secrets style gauntlet. Of course he beats them all, because he beat them all before one-on-one and why would anything be different now just because they formed an LLC? I dunno, maybe Stan Lee created an artificially low bar for spider-related excellence here.
  • J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson’s fun. He’s a big windbag with a Hitler mustache who likes to work himself up into hysterics, yelling and waving his arms around. Spiderman always outsmarts him. His employees crack jokes at his expense. In that same issue I just talked about, you can see him yelling at an actual spider. As usual, Spider-Man makes him look like an asshole here when it turns out that Cameo was the bad guy all along and Jameson’s back to square one on his lifelong quest to prove that Spider-Man is the Ayatollah. As Dolly Parton would say, he’s as mad as an old wet hen.

Weaknesses

  • The bad kind of camp. Look, camp is always going to be something of a bugbear, and there was no hope that any superhero property anywhere in the temporal vicinity of the 1966 live-action Batman was not going to be dripping with camp. However, it never reaches quite the level of art that ends with Batman getting into a surfing contest with The Joker. If you’re going to be campy, you damn well better lean into it. We can’t just settle for a visual of Spider-Man web-slinging through the suburbs, shooting webs up into the empty night sky and swinging around like there were skyscrapers instead of two-story rowhouses. I won’t be soothed by the sight of The Vulture (Soles) somehow producing missiles and explosives from between the feathers on his wings mid-air. It’s not even good enough to have Cameo escaping Spider-Man’s clutches by squirting him with tubes of paint until he becomes all flustered and painted. No, you really have to step up your game if you’re coming for Cesar Romero.
  • The Green Goblin. So The Green Goblin (Len Carlson, The Racoons) is one of Spider-Man’s more iconic nemeses, and I’m sure over the years various artists and writers have done interesting things with him, but for this reviewer he’s corny as hell. But he killed Gwen Stacy! Yeah, he also throws pumpkin shaped bombs. He buys his outfits at the pop-up Halloween superstore where the old Sears used to be. He looks like an off-brand garden gnome. He drives a shitty little sky scooter. I’m not buying it. It doesn’t help that Carlson’s voice acting makes him sound like the Wicked Witch in a theatrical production of Hansel & Gretel for pre-schoolers.
  • Under-explained plot points. At one point Jameson needs to deliver a “police memorial statue” to the police, and he needs to go pick it up at the artist’s studio. This gives Cameo an opportunity to impersonate Jameson, but what the hell is a “police memorial statue” and why is the editor of the local newspaper responsible for ferrying it across town?  And it’s not like this was the only way to get Jameson involved—a few scenes later he’s checking out a local antique show as advance publicity, but this time Cameo’s disguised as the antique dealer. Is there some reason Jameson needs to be integral to all of Cameo’s plots, even when it doesn’t make any goddamned sense whatsoever?
  • Doubling down on the theme song. Sure, everyone loves it. Listen, bud. He’s got radioactive blood. Sure. I’ve heard it all before—literally, because once we’re out of things to do in the second segment and still have a minute left to go, they run out the clock by showing us another 30 seconds of miscellaneous Spidey hijinks while we enjoy an encore performance of the theme song. Look, I get that there’s only so many ways we can watch Cameo steal stuff, but pacing is important because otherwise you get embarrassing shit like this.

Final Judgment: 3/10. Regardless of how catchy the song is, I really can’t recommend that you watch the 1960s version of Spider-Man. Paul Soles is no Tobey Maguire. He’s not even Andrew Garfield.

NEXT TIME: I’ll review the controversial German World War II miniseries, Generation War! Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be back to watching ridiculous cartoons for undiscriminating children soon.

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Case Study 51: Spider-Man (1967), Episode 19–“To Catch A Spider”/“Double Identity”