Before 1994 our only real animated Spider-Man fix was the 1981 series “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.” Intent on rethinking the Spider-Man mold for the nineties, FOX forked over a ton of money to New World Corporation (and then Saban) to create Spider-Man: The Animated Series. With a completely different animation style, and small uses of computer animation, “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” premiered in 1994 with the episode “Night of the Lizard” and managed to take off as a ratings boom for FOX in the wake of similar successes like “X-Men” and “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”
This time around Peter Parker was drawn to resemble Nicholas Hammond, star of the live action Spider-Man TV series from the 70s. Voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes (The Brady Bunch Movie), Peter is a young science student who is bitten by a radioactive spider and given the abilities of a spider. Building his own web shooters, he decides to fight crime when a moment of selfishness opens the door for his beloved Uncle Ben’s murder. This is rarely mentioned beyond Peter blaming himself for being so selfish and constantly vowing to make Uncle Ben proud.
We’ll get to that soon enough.
FOX’s “Spider-Man” garnered a slew of wonderful voice talent for its all-star cast of Spider-Man characters, offering up their own versions of famous Spider-Man storylines. The great Ed Asner took on the role of J. Jonah Jameson, while folks like Martin Landau, Eddie Albert, and David Warner came on for recurring roles, with the series including banner Spider-Man allies and rogues like Venom, Morbius, Doctor Octopus, Blade, Mysterio, Daredevil, Kingpin, and The Green Goblin. Looking back on it, Spider-Man: TAS is still a very beloved series, but hasn’t aged all that well.
The animation varies from mediocre to terrible, while the acting (especially from Barnes) is hammy and immensely over the top. To top it off, the series was vastly watered down from the comics, and movie that continues to baffle fans, considering how boldly the hit show Batman: The Animated Series walked the lines of violence. According to producers, the FOX censors had a field day with the series, toning it down to an immense degree (apparently a reaction to complaints from parents, thanks on Power Rangers). Some of the series most absurd guidelines included:
The term “radioactive” could not be used during the series and was replaced with the word “neogenics;” the use of the word during the lyrics are accidental.
The Sinister Six were re-named the Insidious Six, because FOX thought the word Sinister would scare children.
The words murder, death, or kill could never be mentioned.
No crashing glass was allowed on the show.
No fire was allowed on the show.
No children were allowed to be in danger.
Blood was referred to as plasma or essence.
No one was allowed to punch during the series. Hence why when Captain America battles Red Skull, they grapple like schoolyard kids.
Vampires were not allowed to suck blood
No direct reference to Uncle Ben being murdered
No direct reference at all to Punisher’s family being murdered during a shoot out
Whenever Spider-Man landed on a ledge he was not allowed to disturb or harm pigeons in any way.
Guns were not supposed to resemble guns, or sound like actual shooting guns, and could only shoot lasers or variations like darts or nets, etc.
You’d be right to assume this wasn’t the only series to feature such absurd guidelines. A “Fantastic Four” animated series removed Human Torch from the show and replaced him with a robot, because producers were afraid kids would light themselves on fire to imitate Johnny Storm’s powers. Even in spite of the intense censorship, Spider-Man: TAS flourished for five whole seasons and became a cultural touchstone for Marvel and comic book fans across the country. Marvel compensated by including guest spots from major heavyweights in the Marvel Universe with a popular crossover with the “X-Men,” and even offered a truncated version of the controversial “Secret Wars.”
In the same vein as the 1967 animated series, the storylines became much more surreal and fantasy based. Spider-Man went from battling criminals and crime lords to fighting intergalactic beings and space snakes. Most of the final season included Mary Jane returning from her “portal death” only to discover she was a water clone birthed from Hydro Man with convenient amnesia. The final few episodes left a dimension-hopping Spider-Man fighting alongside a group of Spider-Man variations (including the infamous Scarlet Spider-Man) to stop the evil Spider-Carnage.
When the show finally ended in 1998, it did so with Peter Parker traveling in to a dimension where Spider-Man exists, but only in fiction. There he discovers a man named Stan Lee (voiced by the late, great Lee himself) who informs Spider-Man that he’s a creation of the artist. By that meeting – and an awkward series of scenes featuring Stan riding on webs with Spidey – Peter and Spider-Man gain a new sense of purpose for his life as a superhero. The gimmick was pure fan service and even featured a sly in-joke when Lee marvels at the beauty of Madame Webb (Lee’s wife, Joan Lee, voiced the sentient Webb). Its hokum, sure, but still the kind of hokum fan boys loved. Toward the end of the 90s, Marvel ran into financial issues and FOX subsequently cancelled the series.
In spite of its inherent faults and downfalls in terms of production, Spider-Man: TAS remains one of the most celebrated series of the 90’s. When all is said and done, I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the series per se, but I definitely wouldn’t turn down a viewing of “Night of the Lizard” if ever offered a chance. It’s packed with nostalgia and sentimental value. Plus, it’s tough to beat that awesome theme song.