2002’s Spider-Man was a box office spectacle that took decades to assemble on screen. Before Sam Raimi’s massive hit, James Cameron had spent most of the ‘90s trying to put his version together, with repeated attempts by Cannon Films in the ‘80s with names like Tobe Hooper and Joseph Zito attached. But even before all of those attempts, the character had already made his live-action debut in the CBS series The Amazing Spider-Man.
Now, Spidey also appeared in shows like The Electric Company at the time, but that wasn’t anything approaching an actual attempt to tell the Spider-Man story as Marvel fans were familiar with it. And as loose as it might have been, Amazing Spider-Man actually was. It was the story of mild-mannered photographer Peter Parker, his job at the Daily Bugle, his doting Aunt May, and his adjustment to his new powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. To even try to do that on the budget of a 1970s primetime network series is admirable on its own.
Amazing Spider-Man had just about the budget for a spandex costume and, for the most part, that was kind of it. No villains from the comics ever appeared. Uncle Ben was only alluded to and had no direct tie into Peter’s origin as Spider-Man. Shots of Spidey crawling walls were badly superimposed and on the rare occasion you ever got to see him swing from a web, it was a stunt man swinging from a rope off the side of a building. I’m well aware that none of that, by itself, sounds remotely appealing.
Which is going to make it stranger when I explain why I love this show so much, especially as someone who loves and grew up with the character and his comic book world. There’s very little of that in the show, but every little thing that’s there, I embraced. I lived for the occasional times this show would get play on the Sci-Fi Channel. Before Raimi’s Spider-Man finally made it to the big screen, this show was the only way to see my favorite superhero in live action. I had a VHS tape of the pilot movie that I practically wore out.
From the beginning, the series was a gamble. Marvel had struck gold with The Incredible Hulk. They had managed to reinterpret a classic comic book story in a way that would make sense for the time and for their budgetary limitations. The concept lent itself perfectly to the television format of the time. Banner—renamed David, here, instead of Bruce—would be going from place to place, always in search of finding a way to rid himself of the beast within. Each episode would be a variation on the same plot, all major beats would happen at the same intervals. It was a crucial part of telling a story in ‘70s television and Hulk lent itself perfectly to that sort of evolving repetition.
But Marvel had trouble finding another series that would work with the same kind of formula. Spider-Man was their flagship hero, however, and if anyone could make the successful leap to live-action it would have to be him.
And in terms of the ratings, it did. The pilot movie scored CBS’s highest ratings for that year. But even as cheap as it was, it was expensive to produce. On top of that, there was the matter of who exactly the audience was for a show like this. As an hour-long crime drama, it was considered a little too mature for children, yet it never quite managed to capture the older demographic.
Amazing Spider-Man has to sacrifice a lot for the sake of its budget, but in doing so it becomes its interesting own little slice of the character’s history. As an episodic procedural, it plays like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, but with a healthy dose of spandex. This is more-or-less the story we’re all familiar with. Peter’s position as a photographer for the Daily Bugle allows him to easily drop into the action and also allows for new and exciting crime from week to week. This is pure ‘70s television, from the music down to the story beats. It’s a time capsule and, as such, an unforgettable moment in Spider-Man’s history.
But, if the show’s such a departure from the comics, what exactly makes it worth watching?
It’s a good question. But when I sat back and thought about it, I thought about all the ridiculous moments throughout this short 13 episode run that brought a smile to my face. The quirky, semi-serious tone is a good lead in, but without a doubt the stunts are what sell this show. With limited resources, the series had to get inventive to make its set pieces exciting—and usually at its own risk. There’s a practical component to the show that’s undeniably impressive. Sure, Spider-Man might look like he’s swinging from a rope but that’s because he’s actually swinging from a rope off the side of a building.
There are fire stunts, huge leaps, falls, there’s a scene where Spider-Man fights a goddamn bear and there’s one sequence where he can be found dangling from a helicopter hundreds of feet in the air and it’s all real, in-camera and tangible. In our current era of superhero entertainment built on foundations of CGI, there’s an undeniable appeal to that.
The casting for this show is pretty great, too. It makes the most out of its grouchy old men, with Robert F. Simon’s J. Jonah Jameson and Michael Pataki’s police chief being the biggest standouts. Nicholas Hammond has grown up from The Sound of Music to play a little too self-assured but otherwise pretty believable Peter Parker. He’s not as quippy, but that’s mostly due to Spider-Man actually having very few lines when in the costume.
On top of that, the guest stars are insane and maybe worth watching the show for on their own. Veteran villain Andrew Robinson plays the heavy in a prison-themed episode. Ted Danson appears in two episodes. Geoffrey Lewis, Morgan Fairchild, Gavan O’Herlihy and many more all put in appearances as well.
Amazing Spider-Man is also shockingly inconsistent and while that doesn’t sound like a compliment, it actually might be a selling point for the show. The differences are jarring from episode to episode, but spotting them is absolutely part of the fun. For example, Spider-Man’s spider sense changes a handful of times in terms of the way it’s depicted, with the show ultimately settling for having Peter’s eyes flash white & freeze framing in a way that was sure to traumatize kids at the time. The web shooters rotate from being on the inside of the costume to the outside and back again. And, perhaps best of all, Aunt May is played by a different actress every single time she appears.
It’s barely worth mentioning that Amazing Spider-Man has more flaws than you can shake a web at, as that’s probably clear to anyone who’s even heard of the show. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun on its own. It actually kind of is. There’s an allure to it that shines through both in spite of and because of its haphazard cheapness. In an age where we’re seeing some of the best, most faithful Spidey content we could ever imagine on the screen, it’s a great time to take a look back at what came before and truly appreciate the steps it took in getting us to this point.