Saturday, December 04, 2010

Saturday Spectacle

I grew up as a Marvel Comics fan rather than a DC Comics fan. Oh, I came to DC eventually, and I never really had a block against them. Some of my favorite comics from my childhood were from DC (phrases like "The Composite Superman" and "Adams and O'Neill" warm the hackles of my geeky little heart). But Marvel had a formula that got people hooked. They had a through narrative from comic to comic that had the same addictive property one finds in soap operas. That's something that has been missing from most of Marvel's projects in other media, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that their 2008 cartoon series, The Spectacular Spider-Man, reproduces exactly that hook. For that matter, I was surprised at this late date to find a Saturday cartoon series that's worth a damn at all, let alone one that bears favorable comparison the The Batman Animated Series and its descendants, which is the gold standard for cartoon superheroics. And it does it without aping that series, too.

By and large, The Spectacular Spider-Man comes the closest to reproducing the glory days of Silver Age Marvel of anything I've ever seen. This show is infused with a loving respect for the work of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and Lee and John Romita Sr., even when it's presenting the Black Suit story and Venom. And it does this while beginning in media res. It skips the origin story. Spidey is already Spidey at the outset, and about to meet his first super villains (it saves the origin story for a particular purpose near the end of the first season). It even gets the chronology mostly right, while throwing in some bones for long time fans. It's an elegant balancing act.

Obviously, there are elements borrowed from the Raimi movies, though that's not a bad thing. It picks those elements very carefully. The depiction of the staff of The Daily Bugle, particularly J. Jonah Jameson, seems plucked directly from the movies, and since to my mind, J. K. Simmons's portrayal of JJJ is the highlight of the films, this is all to the good. Unlike the Raimi movies, though, it fully fleshes out the cast of characters to include Spidey's friends and girlfriends (other than Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy). Hence, we get interesting depictions of Flash Thompson (Peter Parker's high school bête noire), Liz Allan, Rand Robertson, and Glory Grant, in addition to Gwen (who appropriately has the lead girlfriend role) and Harry Osborne. Some of the personal story of Peter Parker is drawn directly from the comics, including the way the series orchestrates the arrival of Mary Jane Watson, which is lifted almost note for note from the comics).

Still, the series isn't slavishly devoted to the comics. It contains some surprises. Its depiction of The Green Goblin, for one instance, is designed to subvert viewer expectations, while it recreates the character of Eddie Brock/Venom from whole cloth. The series' explanation of the alien symbiont is considerably more elegant than the Raimi explanation. Venom is a villain I've never particularly liked, but the show actually manages a tolerable version. It's a nice surprise. Also a nice touch is the presence of The Enforcers and The Sinister Six. In the former case, the show takes its cues from the comic that bears the actual title, "The Spectacular Spider-Man," which is unexpected--there are obviously Spidey scholars among the film's writing staff. In the latter case, you get the ultimate Spidey villain showdown presented in a way that had me grooving on the show the way I used to groove on the comics.

If I have a complaint with the series, it's found in the animation. Oh, the animation during the actions scenes is excellent. It has the kinetic appeal of some of the better anime, from which it obviously draws inspiration. The character designs, on the other hand, are occasionally ugly--J. Jonah Jameson is particularly grotesque--and in the case of the MILF-ish Aunt May, completely wrong headed. Aunt May has an egregious case of what animator John K. describes as "animation hair," which comes off as particularly ridiculous here. Much the same can be said of Gwen Stacy's design. I'll be damned if I can figure out the anatomy of Peter Parker's nose. In all, the villains come off best, but even some of the villains--I'm thinking specifically of The Lizard--seem slightly off, too. Fortunately, none of this is a deal-breaker, though it's disappointing.

Seriously, guys. WTF?

What The Spectacular Spider-Man really does, though, is remind me of why I loved Spider-Man in the first place, a feeling I haven't gotten from the Raimi movies, any previous cartoon version, or, indeed the comics in a very long time (don't get me started on the state of the comics these days). Not only that, but it does so in a way that is bright and fun, but not pandering. The show is made for kids, obviously, but it won't insult an adult sensibility. It's the "bright and fun" part that I find really appealing. I'm getting too old to be a cynic about these things.

As a side note, Sony is releasing this series in a particularly heinous manner. Look for whole seasons, if you're buying, because the other DVD presentations are a complete rip-off. Buyer beware.

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