Before there was any such thing as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or CGI, or Tobey Maguire, there was the Spider-Man live action TV series which ran from 1977 to 1979.
The pilot episode was released theatrically in Europe so I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at the formative age of six. It was only my second ever visit to the cinema. My first was to see Star Wars.
The live action Spider-Man blew my mind. My 49 year old self was not so impressed.
The dual roles of Peter Parker/Spider-Man are taken by Nicholas Hammond (aka Freidrich from The Sound of Music and Sam Wanamaker in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood). Here, Peter is a grad student/science enthusiast/amateur photographer who people keep addressing as “kid” even though he’s clearly pushing 30. He also spends a great deal of his screen time sneezing.
The plot concerns some sort of ‘life coach’ guy who’s taken control of the minds of his followers and is getting them to carry out robberies. It’s all part of a wider plan to extort money from the city ($50 million, to be exact). But he didn’t reckon on some “kid” getting bitten by a radioactive spider and stumbling upon his nefarious scheme.
It’s a real clunker of a story. Gone is the zippy, sparky creative energy and snappy dialogue of the original 60s comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and instead we get a dry retelling with little or no humour and some very dodgy fight scenes. Spider-Man himself doesn’t do a lot of web-slinging or swinging, preferring to scamper about on rooftops without ever standing up straight. That said, there is a memorable moment when a stuntman in Spidey costume really does swing from one building to another. However, it might just be memorable because they used the same shot in every episode of the series.
There was a famous scene which sadly doesn’t feature in the pilot in which a stuntman, again in full Spidey regalia, was winched up the side of the Empire State Building, bringing New York City to a standstill. Now THAT was impressive.
It’s also with sadness that I must report that none of Spidey’s comic book villains ever made it into the series. Obviously, budgets were never going to allow for an airborne duel with the Green Goblin or a punch-up with Doc Ock, but an appearance by the Kingpin would have been nice.
Despite all of this, I couldn’t look away. This film has a strange fascination all its own. It’s almost as if there is actually a good film in there somewhere, desperately trying to break out, so you keep on watching in the hope that it does. Mind you, it’s worth sticking with just for the enormous collars and the funky soundtrack.
Stan Lee dismissed this series, which ran for two seasons before being cancelled, as a “nightmare” and “juvenile”. You can see his point, but watching it again through the prism of a 43-year gap, it becomes a kind of historical curio, and one not without charm.
It was directed by TV stalwart EW Swackhamer (surely a name which could also lend itself to a porn star or a Confederate general). To date there has been no DVD release, but there are vintage VHS copies floating around out there and it’s available on YouTube (obvs).