August 1, 1962 (60 years ago today) marked the first appearance of the Marvel character Spiderman in Amazing Fantasy #15.
This isn’t a comics blog, nor one that pays special attention to the MCU franchise, but it is a pop culture history blog, and so over the course of the past dozen years and 7000 posts, we have had occasion to chime in about a handful of major comic book superhero phenomena, especially as they touch upon other mass media such as radio, tv and film. Today’s anniversary is such a benchmark. I’m still not sure I would have done such a post, however, if the major movie studios hadn’t gone a bit crazy with the reboots in the 21st century. As with a goodly swath of content on Travalanche, my secret agenda is to get something I consider vague and confusing down in black and white, so that I can keep it all straight in my head. It will seem like kindergarten to some die-hard superhero movie fans. For some of us, a little Spider-Man 101 might be welcome.
To be my age is to have grown up with Marvel’s Spiderman as experienced primarily in comic books and a daily newspaper strip. I was almost 40 before the character began appearing on the big screen, a long way from the level of interest that might have consumed me if I’d been, say, 13. Prior to 2002, there were some minor TV versions, almost laughably modest in retrospect.
The first motion picture adaptation of the comic book, the ABC animated series Spider-Man debuted in 1967, when the character was but five years old. It aired on Saturday mornings through 1970, and then was shown in syndicated reruns (usually in afterschool slots) for years afterwards, which is how and where I would have seen it. The most memorable part of the show was the snazzy jazzy theme song, which those of us of a certain age associate with the character above all else: “Spiderman, Spiderman/ Does whatever a spider can/ Spins a web, any size/ Catches thieves, just like flies/ Look out! here comes the Spider Man!”
The first live action representation of the character came in five minute segments on the PBS kids’ tv show The Electric Company called “Spidey Super Stories”, which ran from 1974 to 1977, many of them narrated by Morgan Freeman. It was very simple stuff, done in a tv studio with very basic sets, and green screens for effects. Dialogue was represented visually with speech and thought balloons. It was almost like an educational pantomime, In fact, I think it WAS one. This one also had a memorable them song, funkier, with the lyrics “Spider Man, where are you coming from? Nobody-knows-who-you-are!”
From 1977 to 1979, CBS broadcast a prime time live action series called The Amazing Spiderman. It was a bit of a blip, there were only 13 episodes. I’d actually forgotten it existed, so it was clearly less memorable than the various live action superhero shows up ’til then: Batman, The Green Hornet, Shazam!, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, et al. Nicholas Hammond, a former child actor from such films as Lord of the Flies (1963) and The Sound of Music (1965) played Peter Parker/Spiderman.
It would be over 20 years before audiences would see a live action Spiderman again (and did they get more than they bargained for!) Meanwhile, there were more animated kids’ series in 1981, 1994, and 1999
In 2002 (40 years after the character’s advent) came the first big screen adaptation, directed by Sam Raimi of the Evil Dead franchise, and starring Tobey Maguire, already well known from a long list of hit movies. I remember it being an event of sorts. By the turn of the 21st century, the Christopher Reeve Superman movie series and Tim Burton Batman films had demonstrated the efficacy of superheroes at the contemporary box office. Marvel had begun to dip their toe in the water with X Men in 2000. At the time, there was a lot of flack about Tobey Maguire being too puny and scrawny for a superhero, which was pretty moronic, given that the whole point was that he was a nebbishy teenager, and his superpowers came from a radioactive spider bite. Think about it, if your strength is artificial, do you need to work out? The all-star prestige cast also included Kristen Dunst, James Franco, Willem Dafoe, Cliff Robertson, and Rosemary Harris. I enjoyed the movie at the cinema upon its initial release, and thought they did a sensitive job of telling the character’s origin story. Produced and released by Sony, it was successful enough for sequels in 2004 and 2007.
In 2011 came Julie Taymor’s controversial Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, with music by Bono and The Edge of U2. Superheroes had been on Broadway before, the most notable occasion being It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman in 1966. The Spiderman musical was controversial not on account of its content, but on account the absurd number of injuries that occurred during rehearsals and early previews (and the unprecedented number of previews prior to official opening). All were amazed when the show managed to come together and remain open for three years. You’d think that would be a good run for show, but the economics of Broadway have changed. A show this expensive takes a long time to pull itself into the black. It took a big loss.
In 2012 came Columbia Pictures’ reboot of the franchise. Coming so close to the previous trilogy (which had been planning its own sequels as recently as 2011), this caused no end of confusion to casual observers like this reporter, though that was nothing compared to what was to come. Star Andrew Garfield was then best known for being in things like Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) and The Social Network (2010) and is experiencing quite a career peak at the moment as the result of The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021), Tick, Tick…Boom! (2001) and Under the Banner of Heaven (2022). Another prestige cast graced this second series, which also included Emma Stone, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Martin Sheen, and Sally Field. A sequel was released in 2014. Additional films were planned in this series, but in the meantime…
The MCU multi-studio juggernaut was unleashed in 2008 with Iron Man. After making an appearance in Captain America: Civil War (2016), yet another British actor Tom Holland debuted as the webhead in Spider-man: Homecoming (2017). he has since appeared in two Avengers films, and Spiderman sequels in 2019 and 2021, the latter of which also features Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, just to heighten the Spiderman glut insanity.
Meanwhile there were additional animated TV series in 2003, 2008, 2012, 2017, 2021, and more in the works.
At any rate, I managed to answer my own questions this morning, and hopefully this will be of some use to you. As to where and when it is appropriate to insert a hyphen between the words “spider” and “man”? Don’t care, never cared, certainly didn’t care when I wrote this post, and never will care, so feel free to work that out on your own if it matters to you.