The Small Screen Evolution of Spider-Man

Denny Watkins
Comics Spider-Man
Comics Spider-Man Streaming Animation Marvel

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Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has long been the face of Marvel comics. Dating back to the the meme-friendly Spider-Man cartoon series from the 1960s, Marvel has made many attempts to animate Spider-Man for young audiences. Some are great, some show their age but are still fun, and some are just plain weird.

After the first Spider-Man cartoon aired from 1967 to 1970 (which was the re-broadcast throughout the 1970s in syndication), the next time audiences once more saw an animated Spider-Man again was on the morning of Saturday, September 22, 1979 when ABC aired the first scene of — as it turns out — Spider-Woman. At the time, Jessica Drew was a fairly new character, with her first appearance in comics in 1977, and her solo Spider-Woman series recently launched in 1978.

In her animated series, Jessica Drew is a professional journalist working at “Justice Magazine,” a publication with enough funding to afford its own jet helicopter to take her on assignments. The men she works with at the magazine are mildly chauvinistic dopes. To sneak off and change into Spider-Woman, Jessica makes Clark Kent excuses like — this is a direct quote — “I have to go home and let the cat out.” To put on her costume, Jessica spins around in a move inspired by the 1975 live action Wonder Woman series. Only 16 episodes were made, but you can watch them all now on Disney+.

Spider Woman TV
Spider-Woman (1979)

On Saturday, September 12, 1981, NBC launched not one, but two new Spider-Man cartoons: a solo Spider-Man, along with Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends where Peter Parker is joined by Iceman from the X-Men, and Firestar, a new female superhero who was created just for the series. The animation style is a little stiff, reflecting the low frame rate to save on production costs, but the drawings are detailed with fully painted backgrounds.

When the episodes premiered, comic books were already deep into what is now referred to as the Bronze Age. The writing in both Spider-Man and in Amazing Friends, however, doesn’t reflect much of the nuanced moral ambiguity the Bronze Age is famous for. Maybe that’s not surprising considering that these were Saturday morning cartoons intended for a young audience.

More recent Spider-Man adaptations, on the other hand, have managed to tell detailed serialized stories, and often put Peter Parker in a position where he is conflicted about confronting bad guys like Harry Osborn’s Green Goblin or Felicia Hardy’s Black Cat, who turn out to be people he considered friends. Mostly, the 1980s villains wanted either to be rich or “rule the world,” or both. Even when Magneto shows up, using his powers of magnetism to hold the world’s communications satellites for ransom, he only asks for $100 million and doesn’t even mention mutants. The episodes are serialized in the sense that Peter Parker will acknowledge having faced certain villains before, but they’re all self-contained stories that wrap up in under 25 minutes, and you never see any closely linked multi-episode arcs.

spider man firestar iceman amazing friends
Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends (1981)

What these early animated series do offer is the full bombast and sci-fi weirdness of the Silver Age. The bad guys may not have complex motivations, but they are far more imaginative than they are competent, dreaming up elaborate heists, scientifically dubious gadgets, and convoluted revenge plots. While trying to foil these schemes, Peter Parker mostly wants to maintain a normal life: taking college classes, occasionally going on dates, and preventing his secret life as a superhero from being discovered by his elderly Aunt May, who can’t stand “that horrible Spider-Man.” In some of the later episodes, you even hear narration from Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee in his instantly recognizable baritone. Both animated series produced about two dozen episodes each, and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was re-aired in syndication until the early 1990s.

In 1994, Marvel launched a new Spider-Man series — which you can watch now on Disney+ — following the success of the X-Men cartoon on the Fox Kids network. It included a banging theme by Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry (the lyrics “Spider blood, spider blood, radioactive spider blood” could maybe have used more work), Ed Asner as J. Jonah Jameson, and Mark Hamill as Hobgoblin. Visually, the animation style and aesthetic are very similar to the X-Men, with a realistic and fluid style.

Peter Parker Spider-Man
Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994)

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko are prominently credited, and many of the episodes closely align with their best work on The Amazing Spider-Man. The show’s producers also quickly incorporate some of the Spider-Man’s best stories from the 1980s, like the Black Spidey alien symbiote saga, leading to the introduction of Venom and Carnage. The animated series also spends plenty of time on the ebbs and flows of Peter Parker’s romantic relationship with Mary Jane Watson. Fox Kids ultimately aired 65 episodes of Spider-Man over five seasons.

Spider-Man Unlimited, which aired for just 13 episodes in 1999, features by far the most radical departure from traditional Spider-Man stories. When the series was in development, Sony and a then-bankrupt Marvel reached a deal on what would become the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie. That meant the producers of Spider-Man Unlimited were forbidden from using either the classic Spider-Man stories from the comics, or even showing Spider-Man his traditional costume.

spider man unlimited
Spider-Man Unlimited (1999)

At one point producers had planned on a closer adaptation of the Spider-Man 2099 comic book series, which is probably why Peter Parker wears a predominantly dark blue nanobot-based costume design that closely resembles Miguel O’Hara’s outfit from that futuristic setting.

Instead, Spider-Man Unlimited takes place on Counter-Earth, a distant planet where Peter Parker has chased Venom and Carnage in a warp-capable space shuttle. Counter-Earth is topographically similar to our Earth, with the major difference that anthropomorphic animal people rule the world under the leadership of the High Evolutionary, keeping humans as an oppressed minority. Spider-Man joins a rebellion of humans against the Beastials, all while Venom and Carnage are running their own world domination scheme with a hive mind of symbiotes called the Synoptic. Peter Parker also joins up with heroic versions of some of his most persistent enemies from back home, including the Vulture and the Green Goblin.

While Spider-Man Unlimited may not be directly based on any prior Spidey story or resemble anything ever portrayed on screen, it wholly reflects the extreme action and supercharged anything-goes storytelling of the late 90s Marvel era — and you can watch it now on Disney+.

After the success of Sam Raimi’s trilogy, the most recent wave of Spider-Man cartoons had no problem incorporating classic Spidey stories along with many of the characters and themes that both Sony and MCU films brought to the forefront. The first of this era was Spider-Man: The New Animated Series, which ran for 13 episodes on MTV in 2003. The story picks up immediately following the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man, with Neil Patrick Harris voicing Peter Parker, Lisa Loeb playing Mary Jane Watson, and Ian Ziering as Harry Osborn. The animation was an entirely new look for Spider-Man, with line-drawn figures that were animated in three dimensions with computer rendering. The overall effect feels similar to the visual style of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which hit theaters 15 years later.

In 2008, Gargoyles creator Greg Weisman launched The Spectacular Spider-Man, airing 26 episodes over two seasons. The first season was broadcast on The CW, while Disney XD picked up the second season. Spectacular breaks from the Sam Raimi movies, and puts Peter Parker back in high school where he is friends with Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn. The animation reflects the influence of Japanese manga and anime, with more stylized character designs than before. The villains and storylines are now more intricate and interconnected, with extensive subplots about Peter Parker’s personal life, a trend which would continue with future Spider-Man animated series.

In Ultimate Spider-Man, which launched alongside The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes on Disney XD in 2012, we again meet a younger, high-school aged Peter Parker. He’s been Spider-Man for a year at the beginning of the series, and has been close with Mary Jane Watson since he was 12. Peter is soon recruited into S.H.I.E.L.D. by a version of Nick Fury who looks like Samuel L. Jackson.

Peter Parker Miles Morales Spider-Man
Ultimate Spider-Man (2012)

Although the influence of the films is felt in terms of the look of Ultimate Spider-Man, it’s still clearly separate from the MCU. Through S.H.I.E.L.D., Spider-Man teams up with Iron First, Luke Cage, White Tiger, and Nova. A long list of celebrities add their voices to characters, including Donald Glover, J.K. Simmons, Mark Hamill (this time as Armin Zola), Terry Crews, and Stan Lee as the school janitor at Midtown High. Even Clark Gregg reprises his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson. Peter Parker frequently breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the camera, Zack Morris-style. Ultimate Spider-Man is the longest Spider-Man cartoon to date, with 104 episodes. (Watch now on Disney+) You can also check out a closely related series of motion comic shorts that follow Spider-Man getting superhero lessons from Iron Man and Black Panther, called Marvel Ultimate Comics, on Disney+.

rocket racoon groot spider-man marvel
Marvel Super-Hero Adventures (2017)

For an entry point to the MCU that’s more appropriate for very young children, you can show them Marvel Super Hero Adventures (Watch now on Disney+). The four-minute-long shorts were originally posted on YouTube beginning in 2017. The animation designs are closer to the proportions of Funko POP! figures, and you’ll see familiar MCU characters in more lighthearted stories. Ultron, for example, steals a garbage truck designed by Tony Stark to look like Iron Man armor. When Captain Marvel and Spider-Man have to save a malfunctioning space rocket carrying three astronauts, she exhorts Spidey to “be brave” and “try new things,” which he later turns around to get her to taste a grilled cheese and grape jelly sandwich.

spider-man spider-gwen stacy
Marvel's Spider-Man (2017)

The latest, and still ongoing animated series, Marvel’s Spider-Man, premiered in 2017. It reboots Ultimate Spider-Man keeping the high-school aged Peter Parker, but this time he’s only been Spider-Man for a few weeks. The series initially keeps the world of superheroes fairly small, relying less on the MCU films for its look and characterization (with the exception of the blue and red hoodie Spider-Man costume Tom Holland wears in Spider-Man: Homecoming). Peter Parker meets his usual supporting cast — Harry Osborn, Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin, Miles Morales, the Hulk, even adding Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel — but no Mary Jane (yet). In a way, the slightly stripped-down original stories and emphasis on high tech harken back to the 1980s versions of Spider-Man, but with a modern nuance and sensibility. And, yes, you can watch it now on Disney+.

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Denny Watkins
Denny Watkins has written for Vice, Scientific American, Syfy Wire, Health, Details, Maxim, Men's Health, Women's Health, Wine Enthusiast, and Chicago Athlete. He is a nerd.