Around ten years ago, The Spectacular Spider-Man made its debut, and within about six episodes, it solidified itself as the greatest Spider-Man cartoon of all time. And by its end, you could make the argument that it was not only the best superhero cartoon ever, but also the best representation of the Spider-Man character in any form of media - comics, TV, movies, or otherwise.
And so, to honor its tenth anniversary, I've decided to rank all 26 of its episodes. And what makes this especially hard is the fact that it has more than a few great episodes. In fact, I'd say that about half are truly great, a few are really good, a few more are quite decent, and only one or two left me wishing for more.
So, let's dive in to the adventures of Peter Parker and his friends and enemies, and look at the best and worst parts of a show that was cancelled way too soon.
Season 2, Episode 1: Blueprints
I don't like "Blueprints." I'm sorry. I don't like the little self aware goblins. I don't really dig Mysterio. I don't like Stan Lee's "Are we being punked?" joke, which references a show that hadn't been popular in a few years. I just don't dig it.
The fights between Spider-Man and Mysterio are okay, though. I'm always down for robot clones. Put that on my tombstone. "He Was Always Down For Robots Clones." Don't think I'm joking.
Season 1, Episode 10: Persona
The Black Cat and the black alien suit both make their first appearance in "Persona," and while the episode is fun, it's one of my least favorites. I dig Black Cat, but she was never used enough to make a true impact on the show. Honestly, the best part of the episode is Chameleon pretending to be Spider-Man and getting the name of one of Spider-Man's powers wrong: "MY INSECT EARLY WARNING SYSTEM IS TINGLING."
Season 1, Episode 2: Interactions
Along with giving the supporting cast a spotlight, this episode actually makes Electro interesting, whereas he's usually just a dude with a ridiculously terrible fashion sense that can throw lightning bolts. Here, when he becomes Electro, Max Dillion loses out on a chance for a normal life. There's a sense of loss. Maybe having a family and a regular job is actually better than being an untouchable, unlovable, walking power cord, ya know?
That said, I always liked Electro more as the absurdly devoted assistant to Doctor Octopus later in the series than as a villain acting by himself. So it's not a terrible episode, but comparing this to later ones is like comparing a good sandwich to a better sandwich.
Season 2, Episode 3: Reinforcement
It only took 5 episodes for the Sinister Six to come back, and it's decent fun. The big fights don't have the impact of the ones in "Group Therapy," but here, Spider-Man isn't fighting them all at once, and there's also a bigger emphasis on humor. Also, this show's pretty funny. I feel like I should mention that. A lot of times in modern Spider-Man stuff, the character is played like Deadpool-lite. Here, he's got his own sense of humor, and while it doesn't work one hundred percent of the time, I don't begrudge the show for it. I'm gonna be making a few jokes in this article and you're lying if you say that they're all pieces of A material.
Season 2, Episode 6: Growing Pains
J. Jonah Jameson is a character that has been beloved in the comics for years, and beloved in movies since 2002 when J.K. Simmons started giving the greatest superhero movie performance of all time. And his portrayal in Spectacular lives up to that legacy. He's the angry, penny pinching, lovable father of the Daily Bugle and its employees, and you find yourself waiting for him to come back on screen. His son, John Jameson, on the other hand is... just kind of a big dude.
In "Growing Pains," John Jameson gets transformed into "Colonel Jupiter," and after getting tricked by Venom, attacks Spider-Man. The whole thing is decent, but it lacks the emotional punch that it needs to become a memorable episode. It also doesn't help that it's followed by "Identity Crisis," which is basically one awesome fight.
Season 2, Episode 2: Destructive Testing
One of my favorite Spider-Man villains is here, Kraven, and then...he's a cat person. Kraven seems to spend remarkably little time as a human here, as he gets trounced by Spider-Man and immediately decided that genetic tampering is the way to go. But I can't really blame him. If I based my entire reputation on being able to hunt anything and a skinny teenage spider person kicked my ass, I'd probably be like "Yes, turn me into a lemur or an alligator or something. Whatever helps me punch better."
This episode is an improvement over the one that preceded it "Blueprints," but it still feels a little clunky. There's a Master Planner arc going on in the background, but it never really gets the attention that it needs. It plays less like an actual story arc and more like someone reminding you that there's supposed to be an arc here somewhere.
Season 2, Episode 12: Opening Night
I'm not going to lie, I had forgotten about "Opening Night" when it started playing on my BluRay player. How could I? In it, Spidey confronts the guy that killed his Uncle Ben, a guy that's also Black Cat's father. However, the multiple villains thing is done better in stuff like "Gangland" and "Group Therapy," and with the Green Goblin finale on the way, "Opening Night" feels like a pitstop. A meaningful pitstop, but a pitstop.
Season 1, Episode 12: Intervention
"Intervention" shows us Uncle Ben, a character that had only been referenced so far in the show, and gives us a look into Spider-Man's origin. As it turns out, not much has changed from all the other times that we've seen Spider-Man's origin. However, the whole thing is bolstered by Ed Asner's performance as Ben. Asner, who you probably remember from playing Carl Fredricksen in UP is the perfect Ben - good humored, down to earth, and wise. But wise in a way that good, supportive family members can be, rather than wise in an annoying "Listen to the riddles, Pettteerrrr" way.
Season 1, Episode 1: Survival Of The Fittest
Sometimes pilot episodes can drag when it comes to set-up. You end up getting a lot of "Oh, have you met Adam? He's the husband of Jessica, who is over there, and he's the top researcher at Biocorp, where we're at right now, and he's currently having trouble with..." conversations. They feel less like actual TV episodes and more like portions of the show's Wikipedia page.
The first episode of The Spectacular Spider-Man does open up a bunch of plot threads and introduce a bunch of characters, but it does so ridiculously smoothly. Rather than toss Peter Parker and his peers and enemies out on the floor like action figures and say "Well, here they are!", The Spectacular Spider-Man actually builds a foundation.
Season 2, Episode 9: Probable Cause
Oh, man. The Enforcers are back and they have...new power suits? That's neat. Shocker is neat. "Probable Cause" is neat.
Season 1, Episode 8: Reaction
Doctor Octopus fascinates me because it always feels like he thinks he's too good to be a Spider-Man villain. Surrounded by monosyllabic thugs that were turned into rhinos and sand, the whole thing seems to be beneath him. Voice actor Peter MacNicol (who I always liked as Kirk Langstrom/Man-Bat in The Batman) does an incredible job with him, with the highlight in this episode being the truly disturbing screams that he emits as the mechanical arms are fused with Dr. Octavius' body.
It's not a perfect episode, though. The Peter Parker/Liz Allen montage kind of drags, and doesn't really tease me on their prospective relationship as well as it should. However, this isn't that big of a deal, as it's immediately followed by Doctor Octopus rampaging through Coney Island. And as someone that went to Coney Island a few times during his tenure in NYC, seeing a Spider-Man villain walk through a cartoon version of it is a joy.
Season 1, Episode 5: Competition
On one hand, "Peter Parker tries out for the football team" sounds like a blueprint for awfulness. After creating a high school environment with multiple complicated relationships, we were now going to grind all of that to a halt so that Peter Parker could faux fumble his way through sports. It felt like an extended version of a lot of the sequences in the original Stan Lee comics where Peter and "Flash" Thompson would engage in some sort of athletic contest, and Peter would fail on purpose because, apparently, completing a single push up would indicate to the world that he was Spider-Man.
But this episode improves upon those scenes in a way that fleshes out the main cast and the background characters. Along with the introduction of Sandman, whose powers were tailor made to be showcased on a cartoon with such smooth animation, you have one of the most purely fun episodes of the entire thing.
Season 2, Episode 11: Subtext
"Subtext" doesn't do a lot for Spider-Man, or Molten Man, who is making his animated debut here. However, it does a ton for the relationships between the female characters on the show, in particular Liz Allen, who is Molten Man's sister, and Mary Jane Watson, who was dating Molten Man before he got that "Molten" addition to his name. Liz Allen got an arc that proved that she wasn't the ditzy cheerleader that her classmates thought she was, but Mary Jane always seemed on the cusp of something much more meaningful. There were way more stories to be told with her, and it sucks that we'll likely never get them. Oh well. Just enjoy what we have, I guess.
Season 1, Episode 4: Market Forces
A recurring plot point in the superhero genre is the hero learning a moral that the villain has refused to learn, be it courage or kindness or not taking too long in the self checkout lane at Target. But in "Market Forces," Peter Parker sort of learns a lesson about responsibility from the Shocker (formerly the cowboy themed Enforcers member Montana,) who is always up to deliver a colloquialism. A big theme of the series is "the education of Peter Parker," and it's cool to see that those lessons don't just come from Aunt May, but from a country-western man that can blast shock waves out of his wrists.
Also, kudos on turning Montana into Shocker. First of all, Montana's main power has classically been using a lasso really well and that's it, which is an immensely useless fighting skill in 2008, and a vaguely pathetic one back when he was first introduced in 1964's Amazing Spider-Man #10. Second, it's good for villains to evolve, especially as Spider-Man becomes more skilled and better at his job. Using a lasso can be great for tricks, but isn't so great for multiple encounters with a radioactive spider person who would see your rope a second time and just strangle you with it.
Season 2, Episode 7: Identity Crisis
"Identity Crisis" is the "The Raid" of Spectacular Spider-Man episodes as it mostly concerns Venom and Spider-Man punching and throwing each other through a single location, this location being Midtown High School. It doesn't leave a lot of room for things to go wrong, with the exception of Aunt May repeating the "Am I being punked?" joke from "Blueprints," a joke so good that they had to repeat it twice in one season, apparently.
Season 1, Episode 6: The Invisible Hand
Plenty of shows have a moment when the introductions are mostly done, and the plot takes off running. For this show, "The Invisible Hand" is that moment. After an exhausting battle with the Rhino, Spider-Man faces (and gets the crap beaten out of him by) "The Big Man" Tombstone, who reveals that the game that Spider-Man is playing is just one level of a much broader scheme. He isn't just facing a random assortment of disconnected villains. He's facing multiple criminal empires that either want him dead, or want to manipulate him for their benefit. In "The Invisible Hand," shit, as they say, gets real.
Season 1, Episode 7: Catalysts
The reveal of a larger criminal network in "The Invisible Hand" goes one step further here by showing us that not all of these criminal masterminds really enjoy each other's company. Here, the Green Goblin (voiced by legend Steve Blum) crashes Tombstone's party, and Tombstone uses Spider-Man to take care of the problem. So, yeah, that's rad.
Also rad? The full introduction to Mary Jane Watson, who shows up in the last few seconds of "The Invisible Hand" and is amazing here. The series never got the chance to put her in a real relationship with Peter, but I kind of like it better that way. There were plenty of people on the show that spent a ton of time frowning over Peter Parker flaking out on dates and events. Free-spirited yet trustworthy Mary Jane was a necessary balance.
Season 1, Episode 13: Nature vs. Nurture
Venom has his ups and downs (I never quite get used to Venom calling Spider-Man "Bro," even though that was Eddie Brock's favorite word,) but he does make for a great fight scene. In a sea of awesome throwdowns, the parade fight at the end of "Nature vs. Nurture" is especially memorable, mainly because the punches and kicks feel brutal. This fight has been building all season long, and it pays off with the feeling that "Oh, man. Spider-Man might die, ...bro."
The surprise Gwen Stacy/Peter Parker kiss at the end is a beautiful moment, too, mainly because you know what comes next in the Marvel lore. Gwen Stacy gets thrown off a bridge and killed, and while the show never got that far (and probably never planned to go that far) there is a sense of impending tragedy to it. They're two characters that are perfect for one another, and the union is practically cosmically fated to end poorly.
Season 2, Episode 13: Final Curtain
Here it is. The ending. Does The Spectacular Spider-Man go out with a bang like it's always deserved, or does it follow the same path as many shows that were cancelled before their time and leave us disappointed? Well, both. The finale is grand and explosive and wonderful, and the "death" of Norman Osborn, with all of his pumpkin bombs screeching, is pretty haunting. But it sucks because, when it's over, you can't help but be desperate for more. I would never say that a show is "too good" to end, but The Spectacular Spider-Man got damn close.
Season 2, Episode 5: First Steps
"First Steps" is the last appearance of the Sandman in the show, and seeing as Spectacular will probably never get more episodes, it's a great send off. Surrounded by the truly manipulative and evil, Sandman was always kind of a regular dude who just wanted to make money and beat up Spider-Man. Those aren't the worst goals. He never tried to kill all of New York or torture Spider-Man and his loved ones. He was a blue collar crook, and his basic stance is explained when he finds that his actions are about to cause the deaths of an entire ship's crew "I was just in it for the bucks. I never meant for this to happen."
Season 2, Episode 10: Gangland
I'll talk more about how action can be the story in my entry on "Accomplices," but "Gangland" does so much with a mostly silent fight set to opera music, and is perfect as both a conclusion to what we saw of the Spider-Man/Tombstone rivalry, and as a beginning to the Green Goblin reclaiming power in the NYC underworld. I also got goosebumps when Tombstone, facing Spider-Man as the last two men standing, said "I assume you remember our last physical encounter," referring to "The Invisible Hand," where Tombstone stopped just short of spanking Spider-Man in a lopsided fight.
But Spider-Man has grown as a fighter since "The Invisible Hand." In that episode, Spidey attempted to web swing a cue ball at Tombstone, who caught the ball and crushed it. Here in "Gangland," as Tombstone picks up a giant chunk of concrete to smash Spidey, Spidey web swings a piece of metal at Tombstone and knocks him out, since Tombstone is unable to block it. Is this a callback to "The Invisible Hand"? Maybe. But it doesn't really matter. "Gangland" is a fantastic piece of action television.
Season 2, Episode 8: Accomplices
An important thing about fight scenes that doesn't get discussed enough is knowing where characters are at all times, especially if the fight involves more than two people. If you don't know where a character is, even if the fight is between radioactive mutants, the fight loses focus. And when it loses focus, it loses intensity. And when it loses intensity, it loses the viewer. And when it loses the viewer, the viewer goes off and plays on their phone or thinks about watching The Greatest Showman, or something equally bad. That should be the goal of every fight scene: "Do not let the viewer start watching The Greatest Showman."
Rest assured, you will never start watching The Greatest Showman during "Accomplices," because the fight between Silver Sable, Rhino, Hammerhead and Spider-Man (which follows a fight between just Sable, Hammer and Spidey) never loses focus. The actions and dynamics in the fight also help to drive the story along in a way that few cartoons ever manage to do. Too many storytellers view action scenes as a way to start or end conflicts, rather than something that can be an integral part of the meat of the story. Stuff like Spectacular Spider-Man and Mad Max: Fury Road proves that the action itself can be a story.
Season 1, Episode 3: Natural Selection
A subplot that had been building (Curt Conners injecting himself with a mysterious formula) finally erupts in "Natural Selection" as Conners transforms into the Lizard. Spider-Man does indeed stop him after a few great fights (the subway brawl is amazing, but then again, it's apparently impossible for Spider-Man to have a bad fight when he's around a train), but loses friends (and employers) when it turns out that Peter Parker sold pictures of the fight to the Daily Bugle. One of the show's greatest strengths was turning the Peter Parker/Spider-Man dynamic into something intricate and interwoven, where every decision made as Peter Parker influenced Parker's life as Spider-Man, and vice versa. It's a neat butterfly effect thing, or ....SPIDER EFFECT thing, right? No, not right.
"Natural Selection" changed the status of this show from a great cartoon to a cartoon that you NEED to check out.
Season 1, Episode 9: The Uncertainty Principle
The power dynamics in the Spectacular Spider-Man universe are really cool, mainly because you get to see just how these more established (and typical) criminals like Tombstone react when a man that throws bombs that are shaped like pumpkins barrels into their operations. The effect: They don't take it very well. Here, Tombstone and Spider-Man tackle the Green Goblin together, and the final action scene is a tour de force.
Also, the mystery of "Who is the Green Goblin?" gets a temporary conclusion here as it's revealed to be...HARRY OSBORN, Norman Osborn's beleaguered son. Harry Osborn has always been one of my favorite Spider-Man characters, mainly because while Peter used the influence of his family for good, Harry was tormented by them. Spectacular Spider-Man creates a Harry Osborn that it truly sympathetic, a kid that hates his father and all the while just wants to impress him.
Season 2, Episode 4: Shear Strength
Man, I love "Shear Strength." I love Doctor Octopus and his "EVIL GENIUS" mug. I love the fight scenes. I love the homage to Amazing Spider-Man #33 with Spidey trapped under the rubble. I love the pacing of the whole thing. It's enough to forgive the fact that the build up and finale of the Master Planner arc both seem tremendously rushed. If you want to watch one Spectacular Spider-Man episode, you shouldn't. You should watch all of them. Go watch all of them. That said, this is a great one.
Season 1, Episode 11: Group Therapy
You know what I love more than "Shear Strength"? The Sinister Six. They're a throwback to an era when the most dangerous thing to face a superhero wasn't mental trauma, or deadly, realistic pain, but all of the villains just kind of being in the same room with them. And it also gives the episode an opportunity for some sweet character interplay, which is a thing that Spectacular excelled at.
But aside from all that, the greatest gift that this show gives is the ending fight scene, a drag out, seven man brawl. I got goose bumps when Shocker yelled "DODGE THIS" and exploded his own wrist gauntlet against Spider-Man. Sure, it's not a "deep" moment, but it's the Spectacular Spider-Man moment that I most want tattooed on my bicep.