With the upcoming Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse on the horizon, it’s time to take a look at one of the webhead’s finest hours on television.
Simply titled Spider-Man, later labeled Spider-Man: The Animated Series to differentiate it from the other Spider-Man television series, was one of Marvel’s key ’90s animated series alongside X-Men. You might be thinking of the theme song as you read this, so here it is for your listening pleasure. Premiering in 1994 on the Fox Kids block, the show follows the adventures of the titular character in storylines influenced by ‘70s Spider-Man comics, with touches of ‘80s and ‘90s Spider-Man comics.
The series was my earliest exposure to Spider-Man and the Marvel universe, having watched the series’ episodes many times on a VHS tape named the “Ultimate Villain Showdown”. The series’ comic-faithful animation and writing that chronicle the web head’s adventures successfully come together to make one of Spidey’s most iconic adaptations. Spider-Man: The Animated Series is definitely a product of the toyetic Saturday-morning cartoon craze of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that’s partly why it still holds up.
The Men Behind The Series
Marvel in the ‘90s was one of their most important periods that led to their modern multimedia successes. Marvel executive and later film producer Avi Arad would become a notable figure in making Spider-Man’s adaptations a reality. Arad had a background as a toy designer for ToyBiz before his time at Marvel, developing toys like “Baby Wanna Talk”. ToyBiz’s Spider-Man toy line would last the show’s entire run, with different kinds of characters not even appearing in the show.
I didn’t own any of the toys as I was literally born months after the show finished its run, but the amount of them on record is a testament to how the show made the toy line a hit.
Arad worked with a writer named John Semper Jr. to develop the series. Semper’s reverence for the comics made itself apparent in the series’ writing. Besides perfectly capturing the heart of the Stan Lee/John Romita Sr. era, Semper’s approach was great at building up storylines that would be paid off episodes later. In Season 3, a machine named the Time Dilation Accelerator with the ability to transcend space and time into other dimensions is a plot point. This plot point reaches a natural conclusion in Season 5 during the “Spider-Wars” arc.
While interconnectivity and a strong sense of continuity are common elements of modern superhero media, it’s nice to see an earlier comic adaptation adopt this before them. Semper’s usage of continuity along with the comic-accurate animation makes the series feel closer to comic-book-style storytelling. Semper clearly intended the show to have an eye toward older audiences due to many pop culture references and some plot points.
The show’s attempts to work around censorship and rules regarding children’s programming at the time is a major part of its charm. Despite contemporary shows like Batman: The Animated Series being fairly dark, Spider-Man: The Animated Series couldn’t have characters say words like “kill”, “die” or “blood”, all firearms couldn’t shoot bullets and Spider-Man couldn’t throw a punch. Some of these rules would be occasionally broken, depending on which episode you’re watching. The writing team’s attempts to work around these censorship rules led to great moments like Season 2’s minimalist take on The Punisher’s origin.
Spidey’s Definitive Voice Actor
The show was host to voice acting talent like The Joker himself, Mark Hamill as Hobgoblin. The show wouldn’t have stood the test of time without an actor voicing Spider-Man who nailed his characterization. The key to getting Spider-Man’s voice is to understand that while “man” is literally in his name, the voice needs to sound younger and not overtly heroic like Superman.
Christopher Daniel Barnes’s vocal performance as the character definitely understood this, melding Peter Parker’s youthfulness with Spider-Man’s pathos. The effectiveness of Barnes’ performance is especially apparent in many of the crossover episodes with other Marvel characters like Captain America and Daredevil, whose voice actors go for deeper vocal deliveries. Barnes’ performance is also commendable for selling silly dialogue with earnest conviction.
While Barnes does great work in Season 1’s “The Alien Costume”, some of his strongest work is in Season 3’s finale, “Turning Point”. The episode adapted issues of The Amazing Spider-Man that focused on Peter’s battles with the Green Goblin and the death of Gwen Stacy. Even while subbing Mary Jane in for Gwen and replacing death with interdimensional travel, Barnes’ voice perfectly captures Peter’s anguish when he believes the inevitable happens. His voice even gets deep when he argues with Madame Web about Mary Jane’s fate.
It’s just a great display of Parker’s tragedy. Barnes shows intense dramatic range so many times in the series that it didn’t surprise me when recent adaptations like Ultimate Spider-Man had him voice Electro.
The Template For Marvel’s Cinematic Success
Watching the show again made me realize many episodes influenced movie adaptations featuring Spider-Man and other Marvel heroes more than the comics ever did. Season 1’s “The Alien Costume” and Season 3’s multiple Green Goblin episodes (influenced Spider-Man 3 and Spider-Man respectively) are the easiest that comes to mind, but there are more with an even greater impact.
The series finale two-parter known as “Spider-Wars” was basically Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse around two decades before the film was conceptualized. It also predates other swings towards the idea like the 2010 video game, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions.
The episodes focus on different spider-men being recruited to stop Spider-Carnage, an evil variant bent on destroying the multiverse. A notable difference in these episodes compared to the later iterations of the idea are the different spider-men being all explicitly Peter Parker variants. A nice moment is when the main Spider-Man meets Stan Lee in our reality, definitely one of the more touching of Lee’s cameos in Marvel media.
The series also laid the groundwork for Marvel’s movie slate in the 2000s. Based on Arad’s film producer career, it’s likely he had movie adaptations on his mind when working on the series. The episodes were probably used to pitch Marvel characters to prospective filmmakers.
The Season 2 two-parter with Blade featured Whistler, two years before he would make his live-action debut in the Blade movie with Wesley Snipes. For context, Whistler is a character specifically created for that movie who is Blade’s mentor. Someone at Marvel must’ve liked the idea of him enough to include him in something else beforehand.
The show’s depiction of Daredevil’s origin story had to have inspired the way it’s told in the Daredevil movie. It’s roughly the same, between Matt finding his father beating up someone and then encountering barrels leaking chemicals, emphasized by Kingpin’s involvement in his father’s murder.
Hopes For Across The Spider-Verse
This past January marked 25 years since the series completed its run, finishing with Madame Web guiding Spider-Man to find Mary Jane. Multiple clips from the series have enjoyed memetic potential from the comic book fandom community. Marvel has continued to honor the legacy of the series through merchandise like Funkos, comic book variant covers, and shirts.
Semper’s still working on superhero animation projects, with his latest work being the DC Comics animated film, Green Lantern: Beware My Power. Arad has produced other Spider-Man animated series and films, including the upcoming Across the Spider-Verse.
I’m confident Across The Spider-Verse or Beyond The Spider-Verse will reference Spider-Man: The Animated Series by having Barnes reprise his role as the Spider-Man of the series’ universe. An allusion to the series’ ending would be a long shot, but it would be great to give Barnes’ Spider-Man more closure. It’s possible since spider-men like Spider-Man Unlimited are confirmed to appear in the film.
Even after other Spider-Man series like Spectacular Spider-Man have swung around since Spider-Man: The Animated Series concluded, the charm of Spider-Man: The Animated Series ensures it will be web-slinging around for generations to come.