Retro Review: Spider-Man Strikes Back (1978).
We take a another look at the short-lived Spider-Man craze of the 70’s with his second TV movie.
I had so much fun watching Spider-Man 1977 that I had to sit down for the next TV movie in the series. I was vaguely worried that the ship would run out of steam. The first movie was a pilot, so it had to be bigger and bolder, take risks and leverage its run-time. The second “movie” was welded together from two episodes instead of made as a single pilot and split into smaller chunks for TV. I expected a smaller budget, less effects, and overall less fun. Luckily I was wrong. While it’s a touch less polished, it is actually MORE ambitious than the first film and ends up being a good time.
Spider-Man Strikes Back (1978)
After his public debut, Spider-Man is the talk of the town. As we begin, we see Spidey save a woman from a high-rise ledge and hand her off to the police. The police don’t love Spider-Man, but they’ll take his help. At home, Peter Parker is making his way in the newspaper industry, becoming a full-time member of The Daily Bugle. He is joined by a hotshot reporter from Miami dead-set on interviewing Spider-Man.
Trouble starts when activist students in Peter’s physics department decide to steal a shipment of plutonium in order to show how unsafe nuclear experimentation is. A team of mercenary arms dealers then re-steal the nuclear material and threaten to detonate it in LA…unless Spider-Man can stop them.
More and Less.
Spider-Man’s second outing decides to up the stakes. This time around we get more Spider-Man and less Peter Parker, though they share a roughly 50/50 split of screen time. The producers seem much more comfortable giving Spidey time and showing his abilities off. That ends up being a mixed bag.
Nicholas Hammond is just as charming as Peter this time out, though we never get to see Aunt May. Here we’re only concerned with Peter the brilliant student and Peter the reporter. Joana Cameron plays Gale, the reporter from a tabloid from Miami, and the two have a fun cat and mouse relationship. Cameron captures the best aspects of Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane from the classic Superman series: she’s smart and dogged, and she’s way ahead of the lies Peter has to spin in order to protect his identity. Like Lois, you sense that she knows the truth and respects Peter’s reasons for being duplicitous…but she wants a story!
Cause and Effect.
The film’s use of Spider-Man is a mixed bag. We see him early and often, and it helps to us get used to his quirks. There are a few shots early of him climbing down to get the suicidal young lady, and they are much better than the first film. One aspect that I neglected in the first film is that we often get a first person perspective from Spider-Man that is refreshing (much like Hardcore Henry). This helps to make the stunts easier on the eyes and more harrowing.
In the middle we get the mandatory “Spider-Man Vs. Karate Men” segment. Instead of beating up random Kendo guards, we see him regularly face off against henchmen who wave nunchaku around and love to jump-kick. The big bad’s bodyguard is 7 feet tall and throws Spider-Man around on the regular…which is kinda ineffective when you have a hero who can jump 30 feet in the air and swing from buildings.
Up in the Air!
The big stunt sequence is a helicopter scene that is just…special. They actually fly a stuntman up in the air and let him jump, only to cut to a blue screen that is fantastically fake. Once he lassos another helicopter carrying the bomb, we get treated to a sequence of a stuntman hanging on to a rope for his dear life. I applaud the effort, but its a bit sillier than it is exciting.
The Science of Drama.
The stakes in this outing our bigger and better. We get a subplot about the dangers of nuclear weapons which is done well. The wannabe terrorists are sympathetic. The script doesn’t candy-coat the issue and one of them even winds up nearly dying from radiation sickness. Peter’s stance is nuanced and conflicted, since he ideologically agrees but won’t resort to terrorism. It is handled really well.
The final confrontation is a tad more action oriented, but likewise has real stakes and good acting. While it is Spider-Man who saves the day, it is Gale and Peter who uncover the plot and track down the villain. As a team, they’re great and I hope Gale features into the rest of the series. The film actually ends in a draw, where Spidey stops the immediate danger but cannot collar the bad guys. It sets up a sequel nicely.
Spider-Man Strikes Back is a better movie than the first film. In fact, my only big gripe is that the wonderful music of the first is nowhere to be found in this outing. Robert Janes, who wrote and produced the movie, obviously had a cinematic quality in mind. This isn’t a welded together mess, but a whole film.
The two acts of the TV movie fit nicely into a two episode format and there is enough action and story in each half to satisfy. The stunts are bigger and bolder, but don’t always deliver because of the limited budget. I still love Hammond as Peter Parker and think that this film gives him enough room to breathe as a character. I’m excited to see what the third and final movie, Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, can do.