With great power comes great responsibility
Marvel Comics has been dogged for years by less than stellar attempts at animating their characters. I introduce into evidence, Exhibit A: Fantastic Four with Herbie the robot. Need I say more? From the cardboard cutout, Clutch Cargo-esque attempts of the 1960s through the cartoonish, dumbed-down series of the 1990s, none were ever able to do justice to these fascinating heroes and their rich histories. Certainly not to the extent the Distinguished Competition has been achieved with their characters in partnership with Warner Brothers Animation. Here we are shown yet another pale attempt at a marvelous character, Spider-man, but with a glimmer of hope for the future, courtesy of a flash from the past. It's now up to the jury to decide.
Facts of the Case
Capitalizing on the release of the record breaking, Sam Raimi live-action blockbuster Spider-Man, Buena Vista presents four episodes from one of the most recent incarnations of Spidey, the1993-97 Fox Kids series. This series, while a favorite among some circles of fans, attempted to modernize the characters and compress nearly 35 years of comic book storylines into a cohesive, soap opera driven universe.
The four episodes comprising this disc are from the series' third season (1995-96), showcased under the storyline titled "Sins of the Fathers." Episode 1 ("Make a Wish"—"Chapter 2 of 14") tells the origins of Spider-man, as explained by Spidey to an adoring fan. Episode 2 ("Attack of the Octo-bot," or "Chapter 3") is a battle between Spidey and Doctor Octopus, who is now working with the Kingpin. Episode 3 ("Enter the Green Goblin," or "Chapter 4") shows the origins of Spidey's greatest nemesis and former surrogate father Norman Osborn. And finally Episode 4 ("Rocket Racer," or "Chapter 5") gives us the origin story of a little known Marvel teen skateboarding hero.
Let me preface the following exposition by stating my longtime appreciation of Spider-man, dating back to his days on public broadcasting's Electric Company. My knowledge of the character is grounded in 30+ years of comic book stories and my disdain for much of his animated incarnations will become quickly evident. That being said, let us begin.
Of the nearly 200 animated adventures Buena Vista had to choose from for this disc, it is beyond my mortal comprehension why they chose these four. This is the fourth animated series for our favorite wall-crawler and in my opinion, one of the weakest in terms of storytelling. Granted, showcasing the origins of Spidey and battles with some of his greatest enemies (Green Goblin, Doc Oc) is justifiable and marketable. However, there are better versions of these tales that could have been selected.
Case in point 1: These episodes lack cohesiveness and heart. In "Make a Wish" when Peter decides it's no longer worth the trouble of being Spider-man, you would expect to feel some type of connection and compassion for the character. Instead, you're thinking about the 100 other things you should be doing instead of watching TV.
Case in point 2: I'm bothered by the revisionist history being used to update these stories. In "Enter the Green Goblin," Norman Osborn's accident and transformation into Spidey's greatest foe took place years before the mercenary Hobgoblin came into being. In fact, it was the discovery of Green Goblin's costumes and weapons that gave birth to the character and not the other way around.
Case in point 3: Rocket Racer?! Come on…Spider-man has one of the best rogue's galleries in comic book history—Electro, Rhino, Scorpion, Sandman, Mysterio, Lizard, Vulture, Kraven the Hunter, and the list goes on and on. Why waste the celluloid to tell the story of a teenage skateboard hero?
Poor storytelling aside, the animation style is too busy for my liking and the perspectives are often less than realistic. The CGI backgrounds do not mesh with the traditional hand drawn animation of the characters and become distracting at times. In short, these episodes pale in comparison to their comic book animated contemporaries (Batman, Superman).
The disc itself is better than its core content. The animated menus provide depth and energy to the package. The picture is clean and crisp, perhaps too much so, as at times it becomes obvious where animation short cuts are being used. The colors are vibrant. The 2.0 surround sound is great, bringing forth a richness in all of the effects. The full frame format is a given, preserving its original aspect ratio.
On the positive side, the bonus features save this disc from a long prison sentence. "Stan Lee's Soapbox" is an in-depth conversation with Spidey creator and Marvel legend Stan "The Man" Lee. Anyone who has had the privilege of hearing or speaking with Stan knows how passionate and engaging he is. For fans, this is a wonderful insight into the creation and development of the character, as well as other Marvel heroes and villains, from their early beginnings through today. An Interactive Rogue's Gallery provides you with a cursor driven hunt through the shadows for 12 of Spider-man's animated enemies. Text bios are vocalized and include comments from Stan Lee, video clips from specific episodes, and comic book historical insights.
The real gem of the DVD is the "Origins of Spider-man" from the original 1967-69 Bakshi animated series. While I admit the nostalgia factor is off the charts here, the show holds up surprisingly well. From the theme song and background score to the somewhat stilted illustrative character designs and psychedelic backgrounds, this is still, in my humble opinion, the best animated Spider-man to date.
Despite my negativity, for Spidey fans I recommend buying this disc, if only to watch the 1967 episode and the interview with Stan Lee. Those two things alone are worth the $19.98 price tag. The rest of the content you can skip.
While I hereby absolve Buena Vista Home Entertainment of any criminal wrongdoing, they have not shown responsible use of their power. Therefore, I am placing them on probation and ordering them to pay respect to the original 1967-69 Spider-man series by releasing a top notch, complete box set of all 70+ episodes with special features. This court now stands in recess.
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