Hello, all! Welcome to my latest blog segment, which I would love to dedicate my childhood and my fondest television memories to. This one’s all about past TV shows – specifically those with serialized elements – and how they fared as a series overall. Like most shows I covered, I will be doing single episode reviews with a bit of in-depth analysis wherever I feel is most necessary (sometimes I’ll even do it strictly out of pure passion!), along with some extra thoughts at the end of them from time to time. I hope to branch this out into separate categories of old TV shows, and maybe into more segments related to these classic series. At least for now, however, it’s a nostalgia trip that should be a fun and educational experience for myself, you all as readers, and those who maybe didn’t get a chance to watch the particular show that I’m covering. Anyways: Enjoy!
I still remember the scrutiny and the uncertainty that once swirled around Spectacular Spider-Man at the time of conception. Despite the tantalizing focus on Peter Parker’s high school life juxtaposed with his superhero persona, many feared that the simplified animation and low budget would hurt the series’ chances of winning over loyal fans and uninitiated children alike. In addition, it was taking on a Kids WB viewership that was in steep decline, with the original kids network mantra being renamed into The CW4KIDS amidst an internal transitional phase and the emergence of Saturday morning cable television programming. Even from what you can now (unfortunately) consider pure retrospect, the show was all but doomed regardless of whether or not it subverted expectations.
The great thing about retrospect, however, is that sometimes it’s a wonderful thing to look back on what was instead of lamenting over what could have been. That’s most definitely the case here with Spectacular Spider-Man, as it immediately established itself as a worthy standout title in a sea of depreciating cartoon series. Also, personally, the greatest thing about “Survival of the Fittest” is the retrospect factor it provides through a second viewing. For a first episode in a prematurely axed pot of gold, it almost never gets any better than the deliciously comic book-faithful display we got by director/writer Victor Cook and co-writer Greg Weissman.
Josh Keaton’s turn as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is the heart of gold that beats incessantly throughout the show’s 2-season run, and right off the bat he absolutely owns the role. Like Tom Holland’s live-action spin on the character in last summer’s Homecoming, Keaton sells the wisecracking, overly-ambitious ego of the superhero with the vulnerability and humanity of the high school super-nerd. Peter’s use of spidey-sense, web-slingling and wall-crawling are all vital tools that helped build up his superhero reputation all summer long – the very first scene in this series is a beautifully-animated romp that exhibits the skills he’s discovered within that time – but he also acknowledges the responsibility that comes with those very same attributes. What Keaton does here that’s so special is make it all incredibly arresting stuff. Peter sneaking in on Aunt May’s disclosed conversation with a neighborhood friend about finances while he fakes his steps downstairs for breakfast, for example, goes a long way toward testing Keaton’s versatility, and in that instance he immerses the viewer into the protagonist’s plight. He just sounds like Peter Parker here as he thinks to himself how he’ll manage to help provide alongside his guardian, and even for those who have read hundreds of different Spider-Man comics beforehand, it’s simply one of those really cool moments where the show decides to invest in character progression and voice over transparency as much as its overwhelming world-building.
Much of the episode’s title is in reference to Adrian Toomes and his first sinister run on the show as the Vulture. Even here, in merely less than a minute of screentime, do we get an absolutely fantastic bit of both backstory and exposition as Norman Osbourne finesses Toomes out of the picture of his latest flight technology just in time to sweep up all the credits for it. It not only fuels the Toomes revenge story that follows, but also introduces us to the slimy, patronizing figure Osbourne generally represents in the comics. To make things even more exciting, the episode pairs this internal struggle for Peter (since, after all, Harry is both his best friend and Norman’s son) with an underground task force (the Destroyers, if I’m not mistaken) that happens to ambush Spider-Man via helicopter. Vulture’s plot remains in the center of the action, but it also blends nicely with the duality of Peter’s current position: after spending all summer fighting crime, he gets his first true test of responsibility (saving Norman from mere peril) at the same time a hidden villain emerges to “squash the bug”.
The swift transition to Peter’s high school life introduces a complete flurry of characters I came to love almost on sight. Harry Osbourne and Gwen Stacy are exceptionally well-grounded teenagers who share an amazing chemistry with Peter, and both James Arnold Taylor and Lacey Chabert bring these historical comic book figures to life. The brief moment of introduction for Eddie Brock gives us a world of history between him and Peter with brevity, while the already-deteriorating presence of Dr. Curt Connors is pleasantly teased. We even get to see the surrogate father/son dynamic between Peter and Norman manifest before Norman dumbs down his own son in disgust. Jonah Jameson’s hilarious encounter with Peter also shines as a reminder over the “Park financial struggles” subplot.
Lastly, the animation here, while simplified, looked great at the time and still holds up today. Spectacular Spider-Man easily has some of the best fighting scenes in the history of American comic book cartoons, and we got an early taste of the series’ brilliance with a sprawling finale atop the hefty Manhattan skies. Character models are most certainly exaggerated in comparison to the grittier aesthetic of the comic books, but everyone here still looks true to form, while both Spider-Man and his rogue’s gallery (Vulture for this episode) are given a contemporary touch infused with spirited elements derived from their comic book origins. All in all, this is a very pretty show to watch.
“Survival of the Fittest” is a great debut for any show, but at the time it couldn’t have been more necessary for the legacy of Spectacular Spider-Man. It’s a brisk 23 minutes of entertainment that throws a whole world of comic book lore and origins at you, while somehow maintaining a fast pace and establishing an original story all at once. I was hooked when I first began the series, and I simply can’t wait to watch it all over again.