Friday, June 13, 2008

"Spectacular" series out-webs Spider-man 3

Posted By on Fri, Jun 13, 2008 at 10:29 PM

The Spectacular Spider-Man,” CW Kids’ animated series about the web-slinging superhero, ends its first season this weekend. In some ways, the kid-friendly cartoon improves on Spider-man 3, the most recent, megahit treatment of the character for the big screen.

Let me rephrase that. “The Spectacular Spider-Man” (airing at 10 a.m. Sundays in Atlanta) improves on Spider-man 3 in one way. The show might not look very promising at first: its animation has a sketchy, rudimentary look, with an anime-influence that gives the characters hilariously oversized eyes. As a kid-friendly show, it makes for safe viewing with kindergartners while blunting some of its potential edge.

However, “The Spectacular Spider-Man” unexpectedly takes advantage of a popular trend in TV shows: the drawn-out, arcing narrative. While the old 1960s “Spider-man” cartoons sometimes felt like a stretch at less than 15 minutes, “Spectacular” confidently lets subplots and character relationships build over time. Peter Parker’s relationships move gradually through highs and lows, while evil masterminds engineer outlandish villains to stop him every episodes. Over time, you notice that the writing holds up better than you’d expect.

click to enlarge spidey.jpg

“Spectacular’s” treatment of a popular Spidey villain called Venom makes for the sharpest contrast with Spider-man 3. The Tobey Maguire film drew frequent criticism for coincidences that staggered the suspension of disbelief even in committed fanboys. Early in the film, a meteorite containing a gooey alien “symbiote” just happens to land, unnoticed, only a few feet from Peter Parker. It follows him home, crawls over his body and shapes itself into that spiffy black Spider-man costume. Parker gradually realizes that the symbiote is turning him into a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, so he peels it off in a church belfry. The symbiote practically lands on the head of Parker’s rival Eddie Brock, who provides a more willing host and becomes the fanged Venom. The show even foreshadows a Brock/symbiote relationship before they "hook up."

The coincidences didn’t bother me much, since you can justify them thematically, with Brock, for instance, resembling Peter Parker’s nasty alter ego. “Spectacular,” however, finds pretexts for the plots that are consistent with the show’s comic-book setting. Brought to earth on a space shuttle, the symbiote is brought to a lab where Parker and Brock both work (they begin as friends with a mutual interest in science). Spider-man connects with the symbiote when trying to keep it from being stolen and he eventually rids himself of it in a church belfry (designed to resemble the film scene). He returns the symbiote to the lab and tries to destroy it, but Brock frees and bonds with it out of carefully-established grudges against Parker and Spider-man alike.

You could argue that the show’s Venom arc takes place over more than four episodes, giving it more leeway than the film. Maybe, but without commercials, that’s still about 90 minutes of running time, and Spider-man 3 was well over two hours long. It turns out that on “The Spectacular Spider-man,” the writing is a bigger draw than the spectacle. The movie didn't quite realize the same message.

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