Retro Review: Spider-Man (1977)
Marvel’s wall crawling hero, Spider-Man, got his first live action feature as a low-tech but fun TV movie.
As we prepare for the latest incarnation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man with Marvel’s much awaited, Spider-Man: Homecoming, it’s fun to go back to his first feature length debut. Spider-Man (1977) was a movie length pilot for what would go on to become a popular but short-lived series, The Amazing Spider-Man. Featuring Nicholas Hammond as Parker, it tweaks the mythology and the characters but manages to be entertaining. The special effects haven’t aged well, but they were pretty cool for the time. It may not sit well with Spider-Man purists, but I remember loving this series.
In the late 1970’s, super heroes were experiencing a revival on television. The craze was kicked off by Wonder Woman in 1975, starring Linda Carter. The series was eventually cancelled by ABC, but it was picked up and made popular by CBS. Capitalizing on this, CBS floated up several Marvel based trial balloons. The Incredible Hulk aired a pilot movie in 1977 that would go on to create a franchise with over 80 episodes and several TV movies. Captain America got two TV movies in 1978 and 79, and even Doctor Strange got a television movie, though neither character went on to get a series.
The first Marvel character to make it to TV, though, was Spider-Man. His first film, simply called Spider-Man, was a minor hit in the ratings and started a 13 episode series. CBS was luke-warm on the franchise, since it was mostly popular with kids but not adults, and it cost a bunch to make. Despite doing well in the ratings, they eventually cancelled the show. Several of the episodes were welded together to make movie-length features that actually played theatrically outside of the US.
College student Peter Parker is having a rough go of life. In order to support himself and his Aunt May, he works as a freelance photographer for The Daily Bugle under a short-tempered boss. One day a spider winds up getting contaminated by radiation in an experiment Peter is performing for his PhD thesis. As you guessed, it bites Parker and gives him the strength and abilities of a spider. Peter uses his wall-crawling powers to get crime photos for the Bugle and uncovers a sinister plot: a self-help guru is brainwashing affluent citizens and using them to commit crimes. Suiting up as Spider-Man, Parker tries to thwart the evil mastermind before he can cause a mass suicide of Manhattan’s most influential residents.
Cue the Theme Song:
The first thing I noticed about Spider-Man was the great soundtrack. It certainly is a product of its time, but the music is full of energy and the show doesn’t skimp on using it. Most of the great TV super hero shows were memorable for their awesome music. The Wonder Woman theme song is iconic, the groovy tunes of Adam West’s Batman were great, and the closing credits music of The Incredible Hulk was somber and unforgettable. Long after you’ve forgotten the corn-ball plots, you still remember the songs and Spider-Man is no exception.
The film takes some liberties with Spidey (which made Stan Lee pretty peeved) but he’s still recognizable. Since the studio wanted more adult viewers and less camp, we get mostly Peter Parker and less Spider-Man, but it works out because Nicholas Hammond (The Sound of Music) is likable and engaging as Parker. This Parker is energetic and inexperienced, often getting shut down by the adults around him. He comes off as a bit of a nebbish in his personal life, but is talented as a student and photographer. Hammond also conveys the wonder of Peter finding his new powers…though they’re a bit underwhelming.
Does Whatever a Spider Can…
The blue screen compositing used to stick Peter/Spidey to buildings is a kinda awful. We get a lot of re-used shots of Spider-Man moving around on all fours over surfaces and it’s a mixed bag. On the positive side, the stunt performer does a good job mimicking a bug. He stops, starts, changes directions often and casts about with his head a lot like…a fly? I can’t say I’ve seen spiders mess around when climbing, they usually just B-line to their prey.
When they put Spidey on a flat building set and just film it, a la Batman scaling walls, he looks good. When he’s super-imposed on a real building, he looks crappy. I guess building sets was cost prohibitive, because he does mostly composite shots. There is some wire-work too, but that mostly just looks like a guy getting pulled up a wall while flailing his legs.
Spin’s a Web, Any Size?
The effect that works the least is Spider-Man shooting webs. It’s a little like the scene were Mark Hamil throws his grappling hook in Star Wars; you can just tell its two different shots because the timing is wonky and it looks weird. His webs are also really big and ropey…cause they’re obviously just a rope. On the plus side, he does have a variety of tactics and when he shoots a web-net it looks decent (though the bad guys seem to get out of the net in nearly no time at all!)
The movie only uses the web swinging twice, and makes it a plot point that Peter is too poor to build his web-slingers for most of the movie. It gets to be a funny running-gag that Parker pretty much hits up everybody he meets for the 46 bucks he needs to finish his darn web-shooters.
Catches Thieves, Just Like Flies..
Besides Nicholas Hammond, the other stand out aspect of Spider-Man is the villain. The movies and show avoided big names from the comics as they would be too “cartoonish”, so the baddie here is a devious cult leader. Thayer David plays the guru, and his disdain for the wealthy socialites who plague him drips off of his every line. He says some pretty devastating things to peoples’ faces and basically says they should all just drop dead (which conveniently enough is his whole master scheme!) He’s a good villain and manages to hold his own against Spidey…with the help of some of the silliest henchmen this side of Spaceballs.
The cult’s hideout is guarded by three Japanese dudes with wooden kendo swords who chase Spider-Man around like its The Benny Hill Show. The film likes to recycle plot points as well as special effects, so Peter has to fight these knuckleheads three separate times in the exact same locations. Why they don’t have real swords and why getting socked in the kisser by a guy who’s supposedly strong enough to lift a car doesn’t settle their hash, I’ll never know. At least it gives Spidey a chance to make his only jokey banter of the film, where he basically talks them out of a third fight and ends up giving The Daily Bugle pictures of Spider-Man chumming around with the henchmen.
Look Out, Here Comes the Spider-Man!
All in all, Spider-Man 1977 is a fun film. The plot is decent and paced well, especially given that this film was made to be chopped into smaller episodes. Hammond is engaging as Peter and he gets to show off much of the traits that makes Parker likable as a character. The villain manages to be more realistic than the usual rogue’s gallery and still has enough menace to create tension. Sure, the special effects aren’t particularly special and you can see how at pains they were to limit the amount of Spider-Man-ing that goes on in the film, but it ends up being a good time. It certainly wasn’t as painful Captain America’s pilot movie!