Thoughts on Spider-Man TAS
Given I’ve just finished my sixth FbF review of the 90s Spider-Man cartoon I thought talk about it in general. Give some of my thoughts and opinions on it when I’m not making fun of it. I’ll run down my history with the show as well as saying some good things about it. Which I’m sure will be shocking to some people.
To start off with I in fact don’t hate the show. I don’t think I’m physically capable of hating this show. That doesn’t mean I think the show is good, dear lord is this show not good, but I can’t hate it. When the show can out I was a kid and while this wasn’t my first exposure to the character, that was either the comics or a combination of the 60s/Amazing Friends cartoons, it was my first proper exposure to Spider-Man’s world. It’s where I properly got a feel for Peter’s supporting cast, one of the main high points of the character. There’s a mix of his school, Daily Bugle, and home lives that were never really shown in the older shows. The conflict between Peter’s life and his Spider-Man career is actually like the comics. Even the live action series from the 70s, which one would think would be doing more mature stories than the cartoons, didn’t do anything like it.
This show was the first to try and be like the comics rather than just doing silly stock 80s cartoon plots with the characters. There were stories where things didn’t work out for Peter, I think for most of the show, especially from season 2 onwards, things rarely worked out for him. The ending of season 3 in particular adapted the Death of Gwen Stacy story “Turning Point”, except swapping out Gwen for MJ and replacing “Death” will “fell into a portal”, and there was no happy ending. Our hero’s world had been shattered and there was no upside, there was no laugh track ending that ruins all the drama (like the ending of Hobgoblin part 2). I have to give them credit there because there was no reset button pushed at the beginning of the next season. We saw the aftermath of that event play out with Peter putting himself back together and it was about two-thirds of the season before MJ came back, sort-of. That was probably the high point of the show before it got dragged into some very weird and unSpider-Man areas.
All that being said the execution was a mess. The stories had a lot of problems with plot holes and just plain nonsensical bits added in for no reason. Random things happened and characters were idiots in order to drive the plot forward. Things like having the Chameleon, the master of disguise, break in instead of trying to sneak in under another identity. Or when Daredevil guest starred he’d fought Spidey because he thought he was in league with the bad guys, even though they already established he can tell when someone’s lying so there’s no reason for them to fight. It had a lot of writing problems that needed to be red penned in the drafting process. Such as the fact that they were going to use Gwen in this show but felt like everything with they could do with her lead to her death. So they pretty much turned MJ into Gwen in this show to the point of using her for Gwen’s death. That’s such a head scratching moment of irony. As I mentioned there were good ideas but how things turned out doesn’t hold up.
The animation was just awful. Because they kept getting back bad animation they “fixed” that by reusing anything decent from early episodes. This lead to some stupid moments where things didn’t line up with what was meant to be happening. Like Spidey going through an escape tunnel, but they reused shots of him crawling through a sewer in ways that would make it impossible for it to be an escape tunnel. There’s also moment where he lost his powers and was fighting Doc Ock, but they reused a shot of him dodging tentacles on wooden crates, so they added in dialogue of “well at least I still have some of my spider agility” to try and cover this up. All of that is the problem with the artstyle itself in that it was too detailed so more lines had to be drawn and therefore more mistakes to be made in animating.
About two years before the show came on a little show called Batman The Animated Series came out and revolutionised TV cartoons. They decided to screw conventions and simplify the artstyle so they’d get back cleaner, and less mistake ridden, animation. They also pushed for more mature stories and storytelling. Both of which broke the mould of standard action cartoons and why we get cartoons with mature stories and good animation to this day. However the producers on Spider-Man “were determined not to copy Batman” so they opted for a more “real” artstyle because “Spider-Man was more reality based than the Batman.” Which was a mistake because if you see something that works then you look at why it works and make it your own. This was a big mistake and this realism strategy hurt the production. To quote Bob Richardson, the supervising producer:
Spider-Man would be designed to be more realistic than Batman and in an environment that was more authentic and as contemporary as possible. Consequently, it was a lot harder to achieve, because doing reality in animation on TV budgets is no easy problem. The drawing and design skill as well as the animation expertise is very demanding with less room for error. We also did quite a bit of research to make sure that New York City was as accurate as we could make it.
In addition, to make the show have a dramatic edge and work better for animation, I was always pushing for exaggeration of that “reality” in any and every way we could. Exaggeration is what makes animation work best, even when you’re trying to achieve a live-action reality. That is also why we attempted to add CGI backgrounds to the show at a time when it was unheard of for a children’s television show, because of the cost and where the technology was at the time. But, we felt if Spidey could actually swing around buildings in three dimension it would push the reality of the series even further. Unfortunately, we had to limit what we did with this, because we had a very small, you might say microscopic, budget for it. We also attempted to give the show a live-action film quality to further enhance the “realism” that we were looking for and treat each episode almost like a mini-movie.
So they knew trying to achieve a realistic looking cartoon would be costly, then they added in further cost of the CGI backgrounds which dated the show and made it look even worse. I’ve seen fans try to excuse the terrible animation because of the time it was made, that ‘of course it looks crappy now; it’s a cartoon from 1994. They didn’t have access to the modern tech that makes current cartoons look so good.’ But the producers knew the artstlye would be hard and expensive to animate, and more likely to get animation errors sent back to them, yet they chose to do it anyway. So both the good and bad of the show lies at their feet, no fansplaining around it.
The artstyle also came with the problem of increased censorship from Broadcast Standards & Practices. In addition to being a post-Power Rangers censorship age because Spider-Man looked “more real” it had tighter censorship:
I think we had a tougher time with BS&P because of the realistic design style that we decided to use for Spider-Man, as opposed to the more stylized Batman series. I was told by BS&P that Batman was a cartoonier show; therefore the restrictions were a little more liberal. Batman was also considered a period piece, because of the style, so they got away with fewer restrictions because it was felt that you were watching something from another era.
So in Batman they could get away with things like guns, people getting shot, death, drugs, and the like somehow due to it looking more “cartoonier.” Whereas in Spider-Man everyone said “destroy” not kill or death, everyone had lasers that couldn’t really hurt anyone, and the Sinister Six had to be renamed the Insidious Six. I don’t particularly understand BS&P logic, I’m not even sure there’s logic involved, but that’s what happened.
All that being said this show has a legacy and has influenced not only Spider-Man lore but also the entire line of modern superhero movies we have now. Avi Arad, one of the Executive Producers and essentially owned a toy company which is why he’s responsible with all the toy commercial we got, is the man who’s responsible for that. In the 90s he was pitching a lot of Marvel properties to get them made into movies, one of which was a Blade movie. That was because they used Blade in this show and Arad took that idea and made it into a movie. To the point where Blade’s backstory and mentor Whistler (who was created just for this show) were lifted verbatim. Because of that film it started the superhero movie boom and we got the X-Men and Spider-Man films, which cemented our modern superhero movie culture. In the Spider-Man Sam Raimi films, which Arad was also a producer, we got things from this show like Green Goblin’s split personality where Norman’s a weakling, or the black costume making Peter more aggressive. I’m sure there were more things taken from the show, but I don’t want to make a big list out of it.
So while I can’t hate this show because of my nostalgia, same as why I can’t hate the G1 Transformers even though that show’s terrible, I still say this show was awful in its execution. It had some good ideas and I will give it credit on certain things, but overall it wasn’t a good show. It did however have an impact being the first Spider-Man show that captured the feel of the comics and I don’t think we would’ve had the current crop of great films without it. I do wish this show wasn’t on a pedestal with some fans because it isn’t worth some of the reverence it gets. But given how many bad Marvel cartoons there are, which the majority of them are, fans seem to think being one of the least bad ones means it was good. That’s my general thoughts on the matter at least.