The Amazing Spider-Man (1977)

Remember how it used to be, before the current comics-to-film feeding frenzy?

Remember how it used to be, before the current comics-to-film feeding frenzy? In the old days, it was pretty much a rule that the only good comic book adaptations somehow were made from DC characters like Superman or Wonder Woman, and that Marvel's generally sucked rocks (Sgt. Rocks, maybe?): Captain America (both versions), The PunisherDr. Strange... I mean, when The Incredible Hulk is your high-water mark, you know that somebody's at home crying in his beer. And it's not just a phenomenon of the '70's and '80's; the cartoon Marvel stuff couldn't hold a candle to the animated Batman or Superman series either, and Marvel's bad karma continued right through the Generation X TV-movie. It wasn't until Blade hit theaters that their losing streak finally broke, and positions suddenly reversed. Now Marvel is the source of adaptations like X-Men and Daredevil, while DC watched the Batman movie franchise die under the ministrations of Joel "Hollywood's Dr. Kevorkian" Schumacher, and now dolls out stuff like Birds of Prey.

     But even in the depths of the Marvel Curse era, nothing stopped them from trying. I mean, superheroes are more valuable as licensing commodities than as characters in their own books, so there was really nothing to do but keep putting up lightning rods and hope that eventually it struck. The Amazing Spider-Man was 1977's lightning rod, a TV-movie and ensuing series based around Marvel's most identifiable character. Unfortunately, the lightning rod wasn't made of the right material to attract much of a spark, and quickly became yet more fodder for fanboy jokes about Marvel media properties.

The origin story opens with a mysterious crime (such as would be planned by, like, a criminal mastermind!), in which a doctor and a lawyer abruptly stop what they're doing professionally, drive off together like they're in a trance, rob a bank, then head into an alley and drive straight into a brick wall. Two mysterious guys with "thug" written all over them take from the unconscious professionals the case full of stolen money, and a small lapel pin from each man. By the time they get there, there's only as wrecked car and two men in comas. The mayor gets a message from an anonymous extortionist that he will use mind control to make ten New Yorkers kill themselves in a couple of days unless the mayor forks over -- FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS. (Yes, you can do your Dr. Evil bit all you want.)

     Meanwhile, at the Daily Bugle, boy-scout-turned-grad-student Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) is trying to wheedle a photo assignment from gruff but lovable editor J. Jonah Jameson (David White from Bewitched). Alas, Pete's photos have no pizzazz, so Jameson sends him packing back to his university lab, where he and his lab buddy are doing experiments that involve radioactive spiders!

     Well, not intentionally. In an experiment that bears a disturbing resemblance to a children's museum exhibit, Peter and friend use a joysticked robot arm to dump a radioactive liquid from one beaker to another inside a pelxiglas case. Unfortunately, a big ol' spider has gotten into the case, and so gets himself a full dose of radiation. Later, when Peter is picking up his books, the spider gives him a good bite before crawling away to dia an agonizing death from radiation poisoning.

Pete's powers start to manifest almost immediately, and in ways that impact the plot, too. When he walks out of a drugstore on the way home, he wanders into the path of yet another mesmerized professional, and only escapes death in the alley by climbing straight up the wall. It's only once he gets to the top that he remembers that humans, normally, don't clamber up vertical surfaces. (Oh yeah, and he was warned about the car by his spider-sense, which manifests itself as a crackly noise and intercuts of the dangerous thing.)

     After a brief confrontation with Police Captain Barbera (Michael Partaki, doing an off-the-shelf "tough New York cop" thing), Peter goes home to the surprisingly big house he shares with Aunt May (Jeff Donnell - yes, she's a woman named "Jeff") and naps in his large attic bedroom/lab, where he dreams about all the spider stuff that's happened so far. (It seems a little early to need to recap it, until you realize that it's about a half-hour into a TV-movie, and the producers may have felt the need to explain things for viewers who had just switched the channel after Sanford Son.) On waking, he steps out his attic window to try that wall-crawling thing again, and we're treated to an abysmal superimposition of a blue-screened Nicholas Hammond crawling all over stills of the outside of his house. How bad is it? Bad enough that I half-expected him to run into a "huge" grasshopper meandering across the same still.

     He then goes downtown to try it again on a highrise. In case you haven't guessed, the wall-crawling bit is apparently the special effect that everyone was really banking on to sell the show. Too bad it's not that impressive. In the course of the movie, three basic techniques are used to make us "believe a man can crawl": blue-screens and superimposition, flat sets meant to look like the side of a building (which fail mainly because Peter scuttles along ponderously with his butt sticking in the air), and suspending a stunt man with wires against the side of a building and pulling him up while he lightly pads at the wall, being careful not to push hard enough to swing himself away from the surface he's supposed to be sticking to.

While stuck to the wall, he startles a pursesnatcher long enough for the cops to catch him, and a crowd of witnesses sees him before be clambers off. So when he next talks to Jameson (taking him pictures of the robbery crash he had barely escaped), he starts spinning what he knows about the "spider-man" until he's basically trapped himself into sewing a costume and taking pictures of himself to prove it.

     Does the goofy costume come in handy? Oh yes it does. Because the next mind-controlled robber is a professor (Ivor Francis) at the university where Peter studies, and he has a hot daughter, Judy (Lisa Eilbacher). The prof is also the only mesmerized perp who doesn't end up in a coma, so Peter both befriends the daughter and tries to get some reporting in -- and when a thug replaces the lapel pin which controls the professor and pushes him to jump out his hospital window, Peters around to change into his spider-jammies...

     ...And take for-freaking-ever to climb uuuuuup the building, run across the top, and doooooown the building to tuck the prof back into his room. Boy, the more I see it, the more I realize that wall-crawling is a real inefficient means of locomotion.

     All upset and stuff, Judy decides to turn to her father's spiritual guru, a man named Edward Byron (Thayer David). And boy, if the introduction of a guru didn't clue you in as to who the badguy is, the all doubts are confirmed when they visit his little learning center. For one thing, Thayer David is a knuckle-scraping bruiser of a man, Sydney Greenstreeting all over the place. For another, his "therapy" classes consist of him hurling invective at his students which stops just short of "your stupid minds, see? Stupid! Stupid!" (See, if he'd only have gone into talk radio...)

It comes as no surprise, then, when we find out that he uses microwaves (huh?) to program his students (Peter and Judy, as visitors, don't get to go in on the session), and the lapel pins to broadcast instructions to them. Peter manages to pick up the microwave transmissions on his handy home spectrometerish thingie (either that, or Aunt May's defrosting Lynn Wilson burritos for supper again), and traces it back to Byron's lair (wall-crawling again? Next time, TAKE THE BUS!) -- where he's confront by (get this) three Asians wielding kendo swords. Um, guys? Those aren't for-real weapons, you know; they're sporting equipment. And while they can leave a welt, they still ain't as reliable as a good ol' Louisville Slugger.

     Good thing that, in the interim, Peter's invented his incredibly unwieldy webslinger apparati, which entirely justify Sam Raimi's decision to give Spidey organic webshooters in the feature film. They work mainly by shooting silly string, or Halloween spiderwebbing in reverse footage. This gives him the edge he needs to get away, swinging between buildings (yay! some real Spidey action).

     But can he find a way to defeat Byron, and keep him from sending innocents to their deaths -- including Judy, who (for no humanly discernable reason) sees something of value in Byron's stream of New Age insults? And more, can he manage to generate enough interest to keep a TV series going?

     Whatever your guess on the first two questions, the answer to the third was "No." The following TV series lasted fifteen episodes, and the seeds of its own destruction are very visible in the pilot.

For one thing, there was just no way with 1977 FX technology to show Spider-Man's superpowers, especially not on a TV budget. By comparison, the producers of the Superman movie had it easy; all they had to do, really, was make him fly, which bluescreening makes a snap. Spider-Man's powers may not be as literally earth-moving, but they're awful hard to replicate on-screen. The wallcrawling was slow and ungainly no matter which means of fakery they used (but you've probably gotten that impression already), the webbing was so useless it always showed up as an afterthought, and swinging from building to building looks a lot more precarious than in the funnybooks.

     But we can't blame everything on the technical side; the version of Spider-Man written for us here lacks most of what made the comic book version appealing. Hammond's Peter Parker is played like a cheery, oblivious, Boy Scout nerd; he's only slightly more socially adept than Chris Reeves' Clark Kent (and that's pretty clearly the character they were trying to imitate), except that this isn't an act; he's like that even in costume.

     And as such, this Spider-Man lacks the undertone of pathos that the "real" one has. The comic character is self-consciously lighthearted and referential, but he's learned lessons about responsibility the hard way, through the death of his Uncle Ben that he could have prevented. He's also got problems in his personal life, from the time when he was a picked-on high school student, to his starving grad student days, to his marriage -- he's always had interpersonal and economic problems to the point that being Spider-Man has been his release. None of that is present in the movie; he's a character without a conflict, a cheerful dunderhead in red and blue pajamas. There's no reason to care, and as the short run of the series shows, no one did.