Around six years ago, the latest animated series in Marvel’s top web-crawling wonder’s repertoire, the Spectacular-Spider Man, started its run in the ending line-up of the Kids WB! Saturday morning fair. Not too long after the first season aired, repeats of it and later the already-commissioned second season would appear on Disney XD. While a third season was never ordered and another Spider-Man series would be made shortly after, this is considered by many to be the best of its kind. Sony, who produced the series, has recently released the entire show on a reasonably priced Blu-Ray set, and in celebration of this, I hope to look over and write about each of the show’s 26 episodes, delving into not only why fans admire it so much, but also its ties to the character’s vast comic book history.
Now before I start, I just want to give a shout out to Sony’s home video division on a job well done. Putting the Blu on was almost like seeing this again for the first time, bringing me back to a slightly agitated self who woke up early to see if Greg Weisman’s take on the character would be worth the investment.
It doesn’t even take a minute for Weisman’s structural skills and personal admiration for Spider-Man to shine. Just as back on that Saturday morning, I was hooked.
“Survival of the Fittest” is a kitchen sink pilot, in that it throws a substantial amount of characters and potential storylines right onto the table with little shame. Granted, not every character who will matter, but already, we have a Midtown High scene, a Daily Bugle scene, a reunion of Peter and Eddie Brock at Dr. Connors’ lab, an Oscorp scene… it’s actually pretty refreshing to start off with a majority of the most important daily players in Spider-Man’s life.
It is debatable that some scenes, like Peter’s attempts to solve his Aunt May’s financial woes, could have been saved for a later episode in lieu of more time with Spider-Man in action or even some insight into Pete’s school life, it’s hardly something to fault Weisman and director Victor Cook too much for. after all, it wasn’t uncommon to see Peter in class between bargaining for a good offer on his pictures with Jameson, only for him to put on the suit and fight the day’s villain.
On the other hand, if there is a problem with the episode, it is a fair argument to say that the pacing isn’t completely there. There’s nothing wrong with jumping from scene to scene, and while there is breathing room, it’s rare for a scene to last for longer than 2 minutes. That can be a problem, as atmosphere building is an important part of a pilot, which is hard to accomplish if not enough time is spent in one specific place. I think back to some of the series I’ve looked over on the blog before, like the Powerpuff Girls and Ed, Edd n’ Eddy, which, without sacrificing plot or character, were able to take their audiences into some of their settings and spent time building identity and location-specific atmosphere.
But even location isn’t as much of an issue as the editing, which is arguably too rapid-fire here. This is especially true with some of the fight sequences in the episode, particularly a helicopter attack that Spidey dodges. The scene is still cool, but is a strangely disappointing contrast to the more exciting traditional action our hero dishes out in the rest of the episode, and almost unnecessary, since Spider-Man and the Vulture were capable enough of holding an episode.
That’s about it in terms of complaints for the episode, since everything else works. The character introductions are entirely effective, including the episode’s introduction, which shows Spider-Man swinging through a dark Manhattan night. Any issues with the show’s art design are almost instantly thrown away as Adelaide Productions’ efforts bring the web-slinger to life fluidly. And while I will talk about most of the characters present later in the article, it should come as no surprise that Weisman gets the cast down right away. It almost feels as if one of Stan Lee’s best unused Jameson quips is being ripped straight from his files to screen, as well as perfectly portraying Norman Osborn’s conniving side, while making him (somewhat) likable for less aware viewers.
Another thing Weisman gets right is Spidey’s sense of humor, something that I’m eternally thankful for. Sam Raimi had a lot of fun with his trilogy, but forgot to give Spider-Man any good lines, which is one thing that has never sat well with comic fans. Andrew Garfield is an improvement in this department, but the screenplays for his movies haven’t given him fantastic stuff. To give an example of what this Spider-Man has to dish out inbetween punches, he only just “rents” the sky. I know that I botched up the line, but Josh Keaton’s vocal inflections can make
just about anything pop, and that’s the difference. Right away, Keaton gets his role and knocks it out of the park, as both Spider-Man and Peter Park. Even Kevin Conroy didn’t start off perfect.
Speaking of voice acting, let’s just take this moment to celebrate Keith David as the Big Man. The mystery of who called up the Enforcers will be revealed later on as the season rolls, but we only hear the voice of Goliath and Dr. Facilier this once, as David was given the opportunity to play Oberon for Shakespeare in the Park at the same time, and when the Bard calls… well, I’ll just point out that it’s perfectly ironic that the play David went to perform was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Still, the delightfully silky voice of Keith David’s is always welcomed, and he does a killer job as the potential Big Bad here.
But enough about the voice acting and other technical aspects. Besides some pacing problems, how is the story? As an introduction to Spider-Man’s daily responsibilities, it’s a strong one. Rather than repeat the origin again, “Survival of the Fittest” skips to not too long after the events, with a brief reminder of how Peter Parker gained his powers for the uninitiated. Uncle Ben isn’t forgotten either, as Peter remembers the effects of losing his father figure and tries to make sure that Harry has to suffer that same loss as he rescues Norman from the Vulture. It’s a welcome change of pace to get straight into the action, which especially seems fresh after the first Andrew Garfield movie repeated the details. Weisman and Cook just where to start.
And for the villain of the week, the Vulture has a strong debut. Toomes has never been one of Spidey’s most fascinating rogues, which makes his failures a little enjoyable, yet at the same time, he always has some amount of sympathetic qualities. It’s also a nice call to pick an aviary villain for the show’s first episode, with a finish that almost functions as a callback to the flight sequence in Batman: TAS‘ iconic debut. Ultimately though, while the Vulture was a capable scientist, it’s obvious that he was never quite smart or tough enough to hold his own, as evidenced by getting Norman Osborn’s insult confused earlier in the episode, and by his general failure to compete with Spidey on his own.
Overall, just about every aspect of “Survival of the Fittest” works. There’s room for improvement in some aspects, but this remains a great pilot and a strong episode anyway, as much now as it was back in 2008. But if memory serves, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Inside the Comics:
Well, as mentioned before, this episode skips the fabled origin story originally published in Amazing Fantasy #15 to fast forward a little later in Spider-Man’s crime fighting life. We got to meet Spidey and Aunt May in that iconic origin, neither of which don’t require an introduction. Yikes, there’s a lot of first-time appearances here, and very few seem to parallel their comic likelihood.
In terms of the lead villains (not counting a couple of pre-powered appearances), we have the Vulture, the cover baddie of Spidey’s very second comic book. The differences between their debuts is pretty staggering. In the comics, precious little is learned about the Vulture, as he just uses his power of flight to obtain riches. A big difference from Spectacular, where Adrian Toomes just wants vengeance against Osborn after getting canned. Of course, the Vulture was never one of the strongest bad guys Spidey faces, his age being a reason for that, so it’s no surprise that he fails here.
Meanwhile, the unrevealed Big Man calls out upon Hammerhead, a big-headed toughie whose comic run gave him a history with Doc Ock, and the Enforcers, a group of specific baddies originally called upon from the Green Goblin to fight Spider-Man. In terms of portrayals, they work well here anyway.
For references to other comics, not so much so far. I hope to update this section later on though!