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"Heroes and Villains," "Royal Scam," "Law of the Jungle," "Sword of Shikata," "Keeping Secrets," "Tight Squeeze," "Head Over Heals," "The Party," "Flash Memory," "Spider-Man Dis-Abled," "When Sparks Fly," "Mind Games: Part One," "Mind Games: Part Two"
by Walter Chaw Taking place right where the Sam Raimi feature film leaves off, with Peter Parker, Mary Jane, and Harry Osborn off to college (Peter perplexed, MJ clueless, Harry seething), MTV's "Spider-Man: The Animated Series" is a completely CGI creation that has a pretty tough time finding a pulse in among all the whiz-bang. In truth, it took me a long time to thaw to the look of the series, so much like a nifty video game that I caught my thumbs twitching in unconscious sympathy with the gyrations of the coloured .gifs. And even when it stopped actively bugging me, I never completely bought into the piece as any kind of drama--the suspension of disbelief impossible when thoughts of the size of the mainframe, the insane processor rates, and how neat a video game all this was going to make one day keep running through the brain like a stock ticker. Worse, even if the look of the thing were not super-distracting, the voice acting by lead Neil Patrick Harris is more smug than the intended wry, sounding an awful lot like not only Doogie Howser (natch), but also Screech from "Saved by the Bell". Popstress Lisa Loeb is pretty much non-descript as Mary Jane, her absence from all the collection's voluminous special features conspicuous but probably due either to her being busy with a cooking show on the Food Network with boyfriend Dweezil Zappa or not feeling very confident about the series.
"Spider-Man: The Animated Series" introduces new-old figures into the arch-nemesis pantheon: Electro (Ethan Embry) gets a fraternity hazing mishap origin, The Lizard (Rob Zombie) is slain for the first of doubtless many times depending on whether the series gets renewed, and The Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan, in a little Daredevil cross-marketing) weighs in with a rather weak espionage plot. In truth, most of the plots in the first season are weak, a result probably of a cadre of generally inexperienced comic book writers trying to deviate from the Marvel storylines while remaining faithful to the same. It's a balancing act I don't envy them and the results of their labours are mixed at best. I'm not saying that there aren't a few nice moments in here, I'm saying that there aren't that many.
1:1 Heroes and Villains - Introduced to the series' main setting on an urban campus in the middle of a New York-cum-Tron, Spidey is seen as an evil vigilante by the cops and idiot newsie J. Jonah Jameson as he attempts to thwart African-American baddie Turbo Jet. Badly paced, badly plotted, with a villain every bit as lukewarm as a preachy latter-day inner city Robin Hood sounds (see also: Green Arrow), the episode is an inauspicious beginning at the least--which isn't a terrible idea, come to think of it, because it gives people time to acclimate themselves to the look of the thing if they're going to. My main beef? All that processing power and there aren't enough horses in there to change the main characters' freakin' outfits.
1:2 Royal Scam - Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. The Kingpin, tricks Spidey into stealing a microchip and then Spidey steals it back. It's a yawner with a fight sequence in the middle almost as boring as the chase sequence at the beginning. Without real weight, there's no real peril--and even in a cartoon, there needs to be a sense of peril.
1:3 Law of the Jungle - Doomed Doc Connors does a little of the Jekyll and Hyde with some reptile DNA in an ill-advised quest to re-grow his arm. On the bright side: mission accomplished. The dialogue in this episode is slightly better than in the inaugural episodes, while the interiors begin to take on something of a moody distinctiveness. A scene where Connors, now The Lizard, conceals his identity from favourite student Parker in a darkened classroom is the first, possibly only, moment in the season one that feels genuinely cinematic.
1:4 Sword of Shikata - As it introduces a unique villain in the body of a hot Asian assassin, the problem with a lack of peril is addressed in a couple of pretty good fights here, one of which results in Spidey getting sort of a nasty slash. Unfortunately, MJ is reduced to the kind of squealing eye-candy/hostage that grows wearisome to anyone not still living at home. The weakness of the show's writing swims to the fore again in a conclusion that needed better set-up lest it be seen as the worst kind of deus ex machina--but I did admire the level of violence indulged in by what's desperately trying to distinguish itself from typical kiddie fare.
1:5 Keeping Secrets - Honouring the idea that anyone who befriends Peter is doomed to have their lives ruined as opportunities for Spidey to be a hero, best pal Harry dates a pretty purple girl who happens to be an athletic super-thief. The problem with the animation swims to the fore in this episode as the main characters indulge in various acrobatics, and yet there still seems to be a definite weightlessness to the thing. Without a distinct and pleasing visual style (say, like with the new, fabulous "Justice League" cartoon), there needs at least to be a visceral thud to the proceedings.
1:6 Tight Squeeze - A completely forgettable exercise that takes a swipe at the defunct KGB, episode six feels like filler. Less than halfway through the first season, "Spider-Man" is already starting to feel weak and repetitive.
1:7 Head Over Heals - A creepy stalker riff with a Spidey admirer screwing up her brain with electricity and believing that it's her duty to off MJ, we return to the idea of MJ as a victim and Spidey as the white knight. It's puerile, made doubly so by the casting of Spidey as the idol of worship for two beautiful gamines. Accepting that, Head Over Heals doesn't really work all that well either--Doogie's voice acting is particularly painful when he attempts "confusion" and confusion's tricky sister "trepidation."
1:8 The Party - Electro gets a makeover in an Animal House-gone-awry initiation rite to lend the series that air of hip topicality that MTV so desires. Now a blue-body-suited guy with "Sandman" hair and peepers, Electro faces off with a tediously empathetic Spidey, who by now really needs to stop being such a liberal bumper sticker snag of a mensch and start evolving into a man. I mean seriously, Peter, grow a pair. As it happens, there were a couple of times during the episode where I thought to myself that an old Spider-Man game I played on the Sega Genesis console had a more exciting Electro.
1:9 Flash Memory - Football player Flash gets an injection of the smarts and, so as not to lose them, Flowers for Algernon-style, tricks Spider-Man into being a guinea pig for the requisite evil scientist. "Spider-Man: The Animated Series"' constant parade of tepid baddies and worn scenarios is really sort of fatiguing. The continuing storylines of Peter and MJ flirting around flirting around and Harry and the rest of the authorities constantly mistaking Spidey's heroism for wrongdoing get pretty old, too--couple all that with the barren animation style and awful voice acting and you get a recipe for tedium at best.
1:10 Spider-Man Dis-Abled - Silver Sable makes an appearance in what followers of the series might justifiably call "Sword of Shikata 2."
1:11 When Sparks Fly - Electro makes an appearance in what followers of the series might, with its stalker subtext gender skewed, call "Head Over Heals 2."
1:12 Mind Games: Part One - Finally, an interesting episode as telekinetic twins à la The Fury make a security guard kill his partner before making Spider-Man believe that Kraven the Hunter has killed Mary Jane. A great cliffhanger, some tight scripting, and a pair of unusual villains combine to go an amazingly long way towards covering up the voice-acting and animation.
1:13 Mind Games: Part Two - Ending the wildly uneven, mostly disappointing debut season of the series with a bang, Spidey's inability to get the best of the telekinetic Gaines Twins results in the death of a major character, inspiring Peter to seriously ponder retiring his alter ego. With a cemetery resolution that is an obvious ripper of the film that inspired this series, the fact that the show will take the chance and kill off a major character (even if they'd already written themselves into a corner with said character) is a bit of the "ER" courage that, were it more a part of the equation in the future, could justify another thirteen passes.
Packed onto two discs, Columbia Tri-Star presents "Spider-Man: The Animated Series" on DVD in a consistently brilliant 1.78:1 transfer that is predictably bright, mastered as it is from a HiDef source. The DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes are booming--atmospherics give an auditorium feeling to the production, especially where the latter is concerned. The creative team and, occasionally, Doogie and Stan Lee weigh in on optional episode commentaries that are heavy on the jargon when it's the techies, heavy on the white child actor doing ghetto slang (see also: Eliza Dushku) when it's the Doog, and heavy on the deluded when it's Lee. (In Lee's defense, he seems to be able to make fun of his peculiar brand of megalomania, if his appearance on "The Simpsons" is any indication.) A subtitle "pop-up" fact track is available and not very interesting (this shot is taken from Gone with the Wind, that line of dialogue is taken from Marlowe); production artwork, cast/crew filmographies, and a DVD-ROM "character modeller" round out the first platter.
The second disc also features commentaries by the same assortment of participants and "Spider-Facts" for every episode, but fewer episodes here (five instead of eight) means more extra features. These coalesce in the form of four medium-lengthy featurettes:
"The Making of Spider-Man" (22 mins.)
Anchored by a lengthy interview with director and co-executive producer Audu Paden and soundbites from Stan Lee and Neil Patrick Harris, the piece discusses in brief the history of the comic before flinging itself headlong into the same sort of conversation that dominates the technically-minded commentaries: how to layer images, how to edit and lock-down, sending it to music, working with voice actors, and so on--dry stuff not much helped by a constantly moving psychedelic background. It appears the creators are having fun and it seems like they're super-competent, but that doesn't go that far towards preventing the series from looking like "Space Ghost Coast to Coast".
"Spider-Man Tech: Creating the Models" (12 mins.)
Interviews with director/animator/techies Gordon Farrell, Jim Su, and Johnny Darrell anchor a look at how the character models were created and how, with a combination of whimsy and motion capture, they're animated. Chief revelation: MJ is cute even when she's angry, confirming the idea that this is all some sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy for guys glued to their hardware.
"Spider-Man Tech: Animating Performance" (13 mins.)
Chief Animator Robin Shea walks us through matching performance to dialogue in what must be the least helpful segment amongst not terribly helpful segments. "Try to make them look like they're saying what they're saying" isn't really terribly edifying. Lisa Loeb, again, fails to make an appearance.
"Spider-Man Music: The Composers" (7 mins.)
John Digweed and Nick Muir (DJ and musician/programmer of Trainspotting fame) weigh in on how they like movies and how they collaborated on the series' score. Because the interviews aren't that interesting, we get little "Spidey-Facts" throughout that tell us all about John and Nick's favourite soundtracks and albums (Blade Runner, Pink Floyd's The Wall).
Also on board: "Building with Layers," a demonstration of how the animation is built in layers (your "angle" button fills in the gaps for a 30-second reel); "Initial Mainframe Pitch," the original audition piece that the series animators used to land the gig (strange to say that it looks better than the series itself); "Abandoned Spidey-Sense Test" (exactly what it sounds like); and a "Rough Animation"--essentially a brief animated storyboard. A minute-long outtakes reel (three in total followed by a credits list) is the sort of thing that Pixar popularized--I dare say perfected--and then promptly made obsolete; it rounds out the second platter. Both discs are packaged in a single-width keepcase with swinging-door flap so as not to stand out and immediately embarrass you when people who appreciate good things peruse your collection. Originally published: February 12, 2004.