Judge Jeff Andreasen learned a long time ago... the hard way... that men don't stick to walls, you can swing only so far on a flimsy string, you don't step on Superman's cape... and you don't mess around with Jim.
Impersonating a great animated series.
Back in 1992, after Batman Returns hit the big screen, Batman: The Animated Series hit the small screen. It redefined superhero animation, harking back to the glory days of the Fleischer Studio's Superman cartoons of the early 1940s and auguring a more mature, though still kid-friendly, manner of storytelling. Gone were the days of the rather static, uninspiring animation of Marvel's 1960s efforts, the Superfriends era, and the kiddish, though underappreciated, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Batman succeeded in bringing justice to the animated arena, garnering Emmy nominations and hardware before fading away in the later 1990s. But with the advent of the Superman cartoon and the Justice League animated series, the new style of animation seemed to have taken hold.
Only Marvel didn't get the memo.
In 1994, Marvel Studios, hoping to cash in on the success of Batman: The Animated Series, debuted a new Spider-Man cartoon. It was closer in spirit to the original comics than were any of the versions that had come before, and the series endured until 1997. Like Batman, Spider-Man attracted a number of heavy-hitting voice talent, like Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant), Hank Azaria (The Simpsons, The Bird Cage), Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible, Space: 1999, Ed Wood), and the Joker himself, Mark Hamill (Star Wars). The series did a commendable job altering storylines originally written for the ongoing comic book titles to become self-contained tales within the cartoon universe created for the show. This is especially important for "The Venom Saga."
The incredibly formidable and ingenious black costume that would eventually become the arch-criminal Venom was originally introduced in the woefully contrived and incredibly lame Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars comic book series in 1984 as a new costume for Spider-Man. Spidey eventually decides that black isn't his color and gets rid of it, with the help of Reed Richards and a church bell. In Amazing Spider-Man 300, the suit decides it doesn't like being rejected, and pulls a Lindsay Lohan/Britney Spears, hissing and clawing and taking up with another man. Unlike Lohan and Spears, the alien costume can dish out a little more than hissing and clawing through the media, and soon becomes the major villain in the Spider-Man universe.
The Spider-Man animated series does a good job of revamping Venom's origin to fit the less-convoluted universe of the cartoon show. Here, Daily Bugle Publisher J. Jonah Jameson's son John, an astronaut, inadvertently picks the alien creature up along with a highly explosive new element called Promethium X from an asteroid in deep space and returns with it to Earth. His space shuttle crash lands on the George Washington Bridge (I know, I know…but remember, it's a cartoon) and the goofy criminal Rhino arrives to steal the Promethium X. Spidey saves the astronauts, but all he has to show for his troubles are photos taken by a hack photojournalist that will suggest it was he who stole the unique element…and a viscous black stain on his classic threads.
Jonah Jameson, the original Spidey-hater in both comics and cartoons, offers a million simoleans to whoever brings in the wall crawler, and Spider-Man soon finds himself on the run from the law and from vigilantes eager to collect the reward. But the black stain has overtaken his entire body and reveals its powers: it can become any article of clothing Spidey's alter ego, Peter Parker, can dream up and it augments his strength and natural powers, making him practically invincible. Unbeknownst to Peter, however, it also heightens his aggression and he soon finds himself beating superpunks to a pulp and behaving in a very unheroic fashion. He finally manages to divest himself of his alien duds the same way he did in the comics, by standing next to a gigantic church bell and letting the intense sound, the only thing against which the alien has no defense, do its job and shoo it away. Enter Eddie Brock, the photojournalist who snapped the pictures that wrongfully incriminated our hero. Exposed for the fraud he is, Brock was fired by Jameson and now wants some payback against Spider-Man for having ruined his life…just like in the comics! The alien costume finds Brock, melds with him, and a new villain is created to harass and harangue Spider-Man for years to come…Venom!
The rest of the DVD entails Spidey's efforts against Venom as well as a two-parter wherein Venom's equally extraterrestrial offspring bonds with a goofily giddy maniac and the two become the new villain Carnage, a being so chaotically evil it forces Venom and Spidey to team up to stop it. Iron Man guest stars as the webheads clash with Carnage and all winds up smelling like roses for Peter Parker.
I never got into the Spider-Man animated series. I liked the way it brought in all kinds of villains from the comics and actually used stories from issues I loved, but the style of animation was only a grade or two up from Superfriends and the distracting use of computer-generated backgrounds in some frames but not all turned me off. There was little attention paid to uniformity in the appearance of many of the characters, so in one minute you'd have Spider-Man looking svelte and athletic, and in another looking like the Hulk in red and blue (or black) spandex. Aunt May would look haggard and worn in one scene and like Florence Henderson in the next. And Peter Parker never really looked like the Peter Parker Spidey fans knew and loved. In short, this wasn't the gorgeous new quality of Batman: The Animated Series, but just another superhero cartoon in the old mold.
That didn't stop it from being a hit with the demographic it was intended for. Kids liked it so much that Marvel spawned a number of uninspired knock-offs, including Hulk, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, and X-Men. All were similarly animated and many used the same voice talents. The writing was usually quite good, especially when adapting stories from the original comics, but the animation never evolved.
This DVD is a decent collection, though when considering that Batman: The Animated Series is being released in 28-episode bundles for 45 bucks and this disc of five episodes goes for 20, it seems a bit overpriced. Though parts one through three ("The Alien Costume") are not contiguous with episodes four ("Venom Returns") and five ("Carnage"), there is no sense whatsoever that you're missing out on information that might have been included in episodes not present in this collection.
The extras in this set are pretty good for the money. There is an extended interview with Spidey (and, in a very real sense, Marvel) creator Stan Lee called "Stan Lee's Soapbox" where he waxes eloquent on a variety of comic and non-comic topics with his usual amiable loquaciousness. There are also episode introductions by The Man, although they are little more than synopses of the episodes he precedes.
There is also "The Venomous Web," a point-and-click collage wherein Venom creator David Michelinie not only provides the proper pronunciation of his name, but also gives a lot of background on the Venom character as he was created for the comic books. This is interesting when juxtaposed against the amended version presented in the animated show. It's also interesting to hear Michelinie claim that Spider-Man was the work he was most proud of during his years at Marvel. I thought his Iron Man was far superior to his Spidey work, but then he didn't claim his Spidey was better, just his favorite.
All in all, this is a good disc for Spidey diehards and fans of the animated show. For Spidey enthusiasts curious about the animated series and how it compares to the comics, consider your curiosity assuaged, save your 20 bucks and put it to better use on MTV's Spiderman collection, which is a far superior and far more interesting experiment in animation than the generic stuff presented here.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
• "Stan Lee's Soapbox"
Review content copyright © 2005 Jeff Andreasen; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.