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”

Case Study 29: Iron Man, Episode 24–“Hulk Buster”

Original Airdate: February 10th, 1996 on first-run syndication

Since I’ve already covered multiple varieties of off-brand superhero cartoons as well as a key entry in the DC animated universe, it was only a matter of time before I got around to Marvel. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become inescapable in pop culture circles over the last eight years, and the Iron Man franchise has been a key component. In addition to more than 50 years of Iron Man comics, the metal-plated hero has appeared in five MCU movies and was the headliner in three. The 1990s animated series is not the only television credit for Iron Man—he’s also the star of offerings from 2009 and 2011, plus countless appearances in various versions of The Avengers on the small screen. 1992’s X-Men comes in for almost as much critical praise today as Batman: The Animated Series so theoretically, other 90s Marvel offerings could be just as good. How does Iron Man fare?

Strengths

  • The Hulk. As the name implies, this episode of Iron Man features another signature Marvel character—The Hulk (Ron Perlman, Hellboy.) In fact, if you’ve seen Avengers: Age of Ultron, you’re already familiar with Iron Man’s special suit of Hulk Buster armor, which was only a relatively recent innovation in the comics at the time this episode aired. Let’s lay our cards on the table here–The Hulk is fucking awesome, both thematically and on a practical level. The Hulk represents the duality between the analytical, scientific mind of his alter ego Bruce Banner and the unchecked, raging id of his persona as The Hulk. The Hulk’s capacity for reason and restraint is very small and Banner is a geeky scientist incapable of smashing through walls like the Kool-Aid Man, though the show manages to shit in the Hulk duality punchbowl at a couple points, as I’ll point out below. The saving grace is that even badly written Hulk is pretty damn entertaining, and while the fights between Iron Man (Robert Hays, Airplane!) and The Hulk in this episode don’t compare to the jaw-dropping cinematics of the fight in Ultron, it’s always an amusing twist when the heroes have to spend as much time fighting their nominal colleague as they do the Monster Of The Week. The Hulk is also put to reasonably good use in other respects. Much of the episode hinges on his atomic origins and thanks to time travel Iron Man gets a front row seat. He gets the chance to save Bruce Banner from a life consigned to monstrousness, which is something we know Banner would want—but The Hulk stops Iron Man out of self-preservation. It has implications on the constant tug of war between intellectual misery and idiotic selfishness, though I doubt “Hulk Buster” is making a sally into arguments about the nature of happiness.

Weaknesses

  • Voice acting. Look, I love Airplane! as much as the next guy, but either Robert Hays is phoning it in like he’s Ma Bell or else he wasn’t cut out for this line of work in the first place. Especially when compared with Robert Downey Jr., Hays’ Iron Man has all the charisma of one of those damp, lonely socks you see lying in the gutter. It’s not just a Hays problem, though—outside of Perlman everyone delivers a pretty lackluster performance. For instance, Iron Man’s pal James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Dorian Harewood, Full Metal Jacket) manages to muster only mild concern upon seeing that Bruce Banner has suddenly turned the color of Ecto Cooler in the backseat of the chopper that Rhodes is flying. But, hey, it’s a kids’ superhero cartoon—I can kind of see why no one brought their A-game.
  • Lazy writing. Iron Man makes no effort to avoid even the most careworn of cliches, and it manages to make them seem even stupider in the execution. Some of this can be attributed to one of the pitfalls of adaptation. The villain of this particular episode of Iron Man is a guy who calls himself The Leader (Matt Frewer, Max Headroom.) Now, it’s Marvel universe canon that The Leader’s origin story entails an accident at a nuclear waste disposal facility—specifically, an entire barrel of nuclear waste gets dumped on the poor guy headfirst in a rather comical fashion. This is a pretty damn stupid origin story. It was lazy in 1964 and it’s lazy now. The comics are married to fifty years of history and can’t fix that without retconning, but this show was a fresh slate and anyone out there who would get themselves up in arms about this cartoon rewriting The Leader’s history is too nerdy to function. This was an opportunity to improve, and it was a missed opportunity. This story fits into a plot arc about The Mandarin’s (Robert Ito, Quincy M.E.) quest to regain the ten magical rings which will give him unspeakable powers but which were previously scattered around the Earth. Again, the quest for a complete set of magical McGuffins spread to the four winds is another hoary cliche and it doesn’t speak to great storytelling ability. This is also true to the comics, though, which brings us to another law of adaptation—when you’re doing an adaptation, you have the power to fix bad writing in the source text and it’s on you if you instead decide to mindlessly reproduce it. As I said above, the writers also manage to fuck up the classic Hulk duality. For one thing, Banner is inexplicably beefy, which sort of undercuts the whole scrawny nerd bit. For another, The Leader’s entire evil plan is predicated on travelling back in time so that he can get the fateful blast of gamma radiation that led to Banner’s transformation into The Hulk, on the logic that then he’ll have super-intelligence AND super-strength. Maybe the problem here is that The Leader is more of an idiot than he realizes, because as I said, the whole point of The Hulk is that he’s intelligent as Banner and strong as The Hulk but he doesn’t get to be both at the same time. So the whole affair doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense and just seems like a big waste of time.

Motivation: Power. The Leader wants that sweet, sweet gamma so he can be more effective at supervillainy.

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. This is a pretty mediocre and lifeless outing, but chances are your kid and/or slavering, unwashed fanboy will stare blankly at it for 22 minutes and it won’t annoy the pants off of you, so you could do worse.

NEXT TIME: We pick up our long-neglected nonfiction coverage by flying into the heart of Mayday!

Case Study 29: Iron Man, Episode 24–“Hulk Buster”