Airing on Fox Kids from 1994-98, Spider-Man: The Animated Series was
the longest running cartoon based on the webslinger’s adventures to date. Unlike
previous Spidey toons, it took a more serious
approach to its subject without sacrificing any of the character’s
trademark humor along the way. Across five seasons that were broken into ambitious story arcs, viewers watched
as Spider-Man evolved from a college student uncertain of his
powers to a true hero who helped save all of existence from destruction.
Part of the appeal of the series was Christopher Daniel Barnes’
voiceover work as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Although the actor is best
known for his work as Greg Brady in The Brady Bunch theatrical
films, he brought a mix of vulnerability and good old-fashioned
sarcasm to the table that was more memorable than Paul Soles’ work
from the 1967 series or Josh Keaton’s from the subsequent, though also
completely worthy of your time, The Spectacular Spider-Man. (Others providing voices included Ed Asner, George Takei and Mark Hamill, in full Joker mode, as the Hobgoblin).
On the flip side, the show received criticism due to its tendency to focus on
second-rate villains, how it deviated from the source
material and the toning down of violence in order to make it more
kid-friendly. These are valid complaints, yet it’s easy to forgive the
series’ shortcomings given how fun it ultimately was.
Although once a cornerstone of the Fox Kids lineup, the show is largely overlooked today. (It never even has been given a proper U.S. DVD release, although
it is available overseas and is currently streaming on Nextflix). In an
effort to provide a balanced retrospective of the series, today’s Daily List
will examine the five best and five worst episodes it had to offer. My apologies in advance if the show’s horrible theme song gets stuck in your head as a result of reading this…
5) The Menace of Mysterio What’s it about: When Mysterio begins committing crimes disguised as Spidey, our hero races to clear his name. Why it’s so good: Not to be confused with the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon episode of the same name, this first season installment featured everybody’s favorite fishbowl-headed villain wreaking havoc against ol’ webhead in an adventure that superbly captured the spirit of the Lee/Ditko comics. Most notably, Spider-Man’s police contact/confidant Detective Terry Lee makes her debut here. Built on mutual respect and concern for each other, their relationship would endure throughout the entire series… even, as you’ll see later in this list, when Lee was turning a blind eye to Spider-Man’s problems while trying to hook up with a certain vampire hunter (hint: It’s not Buffy).
4) Enter the Green Goblin What it’s about: While working for gastric bypass surgery candidate the Kingpin, Norman Osborn is injured in an explosion, subsequently goes completely nuts, throws on a wicked green mask and tights and begins making life miserable for everyone he knows. Business as usual in the Marvel Universe really. Why it’s so good: One of the biggest (and most valid) complaints that people have about Spider-Man: The Animated Series is that it took until the third season for the Green Goblin to arrive while lesser characters were already given their chance to shine. So when Gobby did finally appear, it was in an episode that felt like it had real menace. This is due to a great script and the vocal work of Neil Ross as Osborn/Green Goblin. Ross had previously portrayed the characters on both the 1981 Spider-Man toon as well as Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, so he knew how to make the Goblin suitably Batshit. In fact, if there’s a problem to be found here it’s that the episode’s title sounds like the sequel to Spider-Man XXX.
3) Farewell, Spider-Man What it’s about: Madame Web teams Spider-Man up with some Spider-Men from other dimensions in order to save all of existence. No pressure. Why it’s so good: The series concluded with this fan-wanking episode that has Spidey collaborating with his doppelgangers to save the world, having a poignant reunion with Uncle Ben (who oddly advocates the suicide of Spider-Carnage), traveling to our universe to meet Stan Lee and, finally, being led by Madame Web to his long-awaited — and sadly off screen — reunion with Mary Jane. There’s much that needed to be wrapped up here, so the short shrift given to the alt Spideys is completely understandable. Or maybe I’m just being overly easy on this one because of the joy that comes from watching Stan Lee swinging with Spider-Man. 2) Day of the Chameleon What it’s about: With the Chameleon plotting to disrupt a peace conference, Spidey partners with Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. to stop him. Why it’s so good: Remember how the tagline for Point Break was “100% Pure Adrenaline?” That applies here too. Boasting wall-to-wall action and a Dum Dum Dugan cameo, this surprising violent episode gives Jameson more to do than just shout “Parker!” non-stop as he becomes integral to the plot. So if you’ll willing to overlook the fact that Spidey could have saved the day a hell of a lot earlier if he just kept his eyes peeled for the Chameleon’s disco belt, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. 1) The Alien Costume What it’s about: Spidey gets some stylish new black threads that come at quite a price. Why it’s so good: Ever since those infamous black duds were introduced back in Secret Wars, fans had longed to see that suit in action on the big or small screen. We finally got our chance with this three-part condensationof the alien costume/Venom saga. Admittedly, liberties were taken to adapt the lengthy arc, but don’t let this sway you — this is still the best version of the storyline outside of the comics themselves (with apologies to the Spider-Man 3 fans out there… all two of you). Hit the jump for the worst Spider-Man: The Animated Series episodes ever made.
5) Enter the Punisher
What it’s about: As Spidey tries to help cure Michael Morbius of his vampirism, a surprisingly family friendly Frank Castle rides into townto stop what he feels is a wave of criminal activity from our web-shooting hero. Why it’s so bad: First and foremost is the Morbius factor. The character appeared on the series more than the Green Goblin, Mysterio, Electro, and the rest of, you know, Spidey’s actually interesting villains. Any way you look at it, that is nothing short of unacceptable. Watching the cartoon these days the character seems more like a plasma-craving parody of Parks and Recreation‘s Jean-Ralphio than an actual threat (and you thought this video was uncanny). Clearly the production staff was just ahead of the curve on the whole complicated/reluctant vampire trend, evidenced by the Morbius storyline and his love affair with Felicia Hardy that pre-dated Twilight. Eurotrash bloodsuckers aside, a larger problem is emasculation of the Punisher. Even with addressing the weirdness of having a trigger-happy vigilante pop up on a Saturday morning cartoon — Frank Castle vows to use non-lethal weapons “just this once” — the appearance was more about selling Toy Biz figures that furthering the already ponderous Neogenic Nightmare arc.Bummer.
4) The Immortal Vampire
What it’s about: Blade teams up with Spider-Man to stop a plot to turn every New Yorker into a vampire. The mastermind of this demented scheme? Morbius. Yep, him again. Ugh. Why it’s so bad:The Morbius issues mentioned above are all still in play with this episode, this time around compounded by an out-of-nowhere plot development in which Terri Lee falls madly in love with Blade five minutes after they meet. Furthering the tedium, Aunt May is placed in danger yet again by a supervillain. You’d think after the first time that happened Peter would take up wrestling again just to earn enough coin to put her in a nursing home somewhere safe.
3) Rocket Racer
What it’s about: Gifted science student Robert Farrell has been spending his days getting tutored by Peter Parker and working in his mother’s bodega. After the store is robbed by a gang of rejects from The Warriors, Robert decides that life on the other side of the law may be the solution to his problems. Thus he decides to swipe some technology from a gang of gyroscope-obsessed crooks in order to commit crimes that will help his financially and physically ailing mother. Calling himself the “Rocket Racer” he uses his turbo-charged skateboard to assist in a poorly thought out jewelry store robbery before he realizes the error of his ways… to the extreme!
Why it’s so bad:Whoa. “Rocket Racer” is so proactive and in viewers faces that it is a wonder that Spidey didn’t team up with Poochie to give Farrell a lesson about how stealing is bad (although Spidey does once embarrass himself and the home audience by declaring “I always wanted to hang with the homeboys”). It’s hard to fault the positive message here, but the way in which it was presented was so heavy handed and incongruous with the rest of the series that the episode felt more Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue than Spider-Man. 2) The Spot What it’s about: When one of his experiments goes awry, scientist Dr. Jonathan Ohnn is given the ability to create portals that can allow him to jump across distances. Instead of just acting cool about being the only person alive who is a living transporter, Ohnn takes the dick route and becomes a criminal mastermind known as the Spot (because the portals that have latched onto him look like spots, you see). But when one of the vortexes threatens to destroy New York, he proves he’s not such a bad guy after all as he sacrifices himself to save the day. Whatevs. Why it’s so bad:Spidey’s array of foes are so impressive that even they can temporarily brighten up the otherwise dreary Spider-Man: Turn of the Dark. But the Spot wasn’t invited to be a part of that rogues gallery on Broadway. Simply put, he was too lame to even appear in the pop culture clusterfuck of the decade. So clearly if that was the case then an episode that revolves around the flip-flopping villain who possesses the demeanor of a Victorian era chimney sweep was never going to win viewers hearts. In the end all that “The Spot” achieved was to give the character a reputation as a sort of special needs Rorschach.
1) Hydro-Man What it’s about: Mary Jane gets stalked by her ex-boyfriend… WHO IS MADE OF WATER! Why it’s so bad: Remember how the 1978 Fantastic Four cartoon used H.E.R.B.I.E. because the legal rights to the Human Torch were unavailable? For the same complicated sort of reason understood only by lawyers and the most self-hating of animation historians, Sandman was linked to the then in pre-production Spidey feature film. As such, Hydro-Man had to fill in for Flint Marko on the cartoon. Unfortunately, even in the comics the character seemed like a no-frills version of Sandman and TV only amplified what a drip he was. Um, okay, I think we are done here.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.