Welcome back to another Friday Flashback here at Crave Online! Each week we bring you the good, the bad and the really ugly from TV history.
A few weeks back, we featured "M.A.N.T.I.S." as our flashback of the week to parallel NBC’s "The Cape," which is certain to go down as one of the worst superhero series of all time.
But the Hollywood original superheroes aren’t alone in their lack of quality. And that brings us to "The Amazing Spider-Man," a short lived series based on the Marvel comic that aired on CBS for two seasons.
If you never knew that "Spider-Man" had a live-action series from 1977 to 1979, there’s a good reason for that. Marvel and Sony/Columbia have done their best to make sure that the series never resurfaces. It’s not available on DVD and it’s very, very rarely seen on TV. Marvel and Sony seem to hope that we’ll forget all about it, and for the most part, it’s working.
Nicholas Hammond — whose previous claim to fame was appearing as one of the von Trapp children in "The Sound of Music" — was the first live-action Peter Parker/Spider-Man… outside of "The Electric Company." And there are a few times when he’s not bad in the role, even with that ridiculous ’70s hair.
Good lord, that’s crazy hair.
J. Jonah Jameson was one of the few characters to carry over from the "Spider-Man" comics, with David White playing the part in the pilot and Robert F. Simon in subsequent episodes. Now, Jameson is famous for his over-the-top temper and his hatred of Spider-Man. But in the series he was… nice and even tempered. Therefore, he must have been replaced by a skrull at some point in the past. Because that’s not the JJJ we know and love.
I have a theory as to why the producers didn’t feel the need to stick very closely to the "Spider-Man" comics. At that point, Spider-Man had only been around 14 years and he wasn’t as big of an icon as he is today. There are also indications that CBS wanted to shy away from the superhero origins of the character. Which is crazy, because he’s one of the greatest superheroes ever. And Spidey had a great supporting cast too, including Mary Jane Watson, Gwen Stacy, Flash Thompson and Harry Osborn… none of whom appear in this series.
Instead we got Chip Fields as Rita Conway, who until today I was certain was actually Glory Grant from the "Spider-Man" comics. And Peter also had a rival female reporter named Julie Masters (Ellen Bry), who actually fit into the series kind of nicely. She’s basically his Lois Lane and it took a while before the Spider-Man comics even thought to bring in someone like Norah Winters to fill that role.
There’s also something else missing in this show: villains! Not one of Spidey’s rogues gallery appears. There’s no Doctor Octopus, no Green Goblin, not even the Kingpin, and he’s a just a big fat guy in a suit! Again, I think CBS is to blame for that. All of the villains are very human, though Spidey still seems to have trouble taking out even normal goons with his incredibly net-like webbing.
Before we dive into the rest of the flashback, let’s check out the opening credits sequence. The "Spider-Man" movies were fortunate to have a great theme by Danny Elfman and everyone knows the ’60s "Spider-Man" song. This theme is great too… if you like ’70s porn music.
To brush up on the series, I watched two episodes: "The Captive Tower" and "Deadly Dust."
"The Captive Tower" is basically very similar to the plot of "Die Hard." A band of thieves take over a high tech building and trap several hostages inside, including Peter Parker, Julie Masters and J. Jonah Jameson. Naturally it’s up to Spidey to save the day without blowing his secret identity.
The thing that struck me when I was watching this is how badly shot it is. All of the action looks like it’s filmed with one camera at a time, as opposed to the multiple angles we’ve become used to. Before CGI became big, most TV series and movies had to rely on practical effects. And for "The Amazing Spider-Man," all of the wall crawling shots are stuntmen on wires, usually shot from a distance. Let’s just say it’s not very convincing.
And then there’s the pacing, which was just agonizing to sit through. In static shots, we get long takes of people waiting for an elevator or crooks setting up their intricate devices on the roof in the most uninteresting way possible.
"Deadly Dust" is a little bit better. But just a little.
It was the second and third episodes of the series, which were combined together as a TV movie dubbed "Spider-Man Strikes Back." Which you know, is completely accurate if by "Strikes Back" they meant "appears in costume for approximately 10 minutes of screen time."
Since this was a pre-Julie Masters episode, Peter’s sidekick/rival reporter is Gale Hoffman (JoAnna Cameron), another Lois Lane knockoff who even guesses that Peter may be Spider-Man and then seems to forget to bring it back up ever again!
Anyway, the plot of this is that some college students thought it would be terrific to build an atomic bomb on campus to demonstrate the dangers of nuclear power, only for an arms dealer named Mr. White (Robert Alda) and his endless army of henchmen to steal it, bring it to Los Angeles and attempt to detonate it during a speech by President Jimmy Carter.
The story is pretty by the numbers, but there’s a crazy moment late in the second half in which Mr. White kidnaps Gale, brings her back to his estate and forces her to wear a white bikini and shades.
And why, she asks? Just ’cause. He likes girls in bikinis and he says that he wanted to make sure that she had no place to hide any weapons.
Ah… the ’70s.
Then Spider-Man shows up to fight White’s main henchman, who looks like the love child of the Bluto from Popeye and the Bluto from "Animal House."
Followed by Gale telling the rest of the exposition to Spidey.
And there it is, ladies and gents. The only exciting scene in the entire episode. And possibly the series too.
Aside from the fact that the series seems to go out of its way to be different from the "Spider-Man" comics, the reason it doesn’t have a fan following is that it never embraces its sheer ridiculousness. People still talk about the Adam West "Batman" because it was freaking crazy, all of the time; with scenes like Batman trying to out surf the Joker or doing the Batusi for King Tut. And it was funny!
There’s no real humor in "The Amazing Spider-Man." Not in the way that it could have had.
But here’s the thing… the series was actually a big hit in its first season, cracking the top 20 on TV. It could have had a long run if CBS had gotten behind it. But most reports indicate that CBS shed the series because it wanted to shake its superhero stigma. It was also airing "The Incredible Hulk" and "Wonder Woman" at the time.
This would probably never happen, but I’d actually like to see a new Spider-Man live-action series, just to give Marvel another chance to get it right.
However, we’ll probably see a "Howard The Duck" remake before that happens.
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