50 years ago, Peter Parker AKA Spider-Man was introduced in an 11-page story by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The tale was featured in the final issue of Marvel Comics’ “Amazing Fantasy,” a cancelled anthology comic book series, and it took readers by storm. In 1962, the new age of a cohesive Marvel Universe was still in its infancy, with characters such as the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and Ant-Man running around. Spider-Man was a new type of hero, a teenager who was not a sidekick nor did he belong to a team of similar heroes who supported him. His personality and backstory won over many fans, prompting Marvel to give him his own series, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” in 1963.
Today, the web-slinging wonder is an iconic hero recognized around the world, featured in his own comics and as a member of the famous Avengers team. But over the past five decades, there have been many adaptations and reinterpretations of just how he got his powers and what motivated him to become a hero. To keep things as simple as possible, we won’t be delving into alternate realities such as “Spider-Man Noir” or “1602” and will be focusing on the comics that were meant to be a more official take on Peter Parker. So join CBR News on this journey through the history of the many origins of the one and only Spider-Man.
“Amazing Fantasy” #15 — 1962
The story that started it all. Peter Parker is a teenager living in Forest Hills, Queens with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May Parker. He attends a local high school inexplicably called Midtown High, where he’s a gifted science student on the fast track to a full college scholarship. Though confident enough to ask girls out on dates, he faces constant rejection since he’s seen as a nerd.
Attending a demonstration on radiation, Peter is bitten by a glowing, radioactive spider that promptly dies. Feeling ill, Peter wanders out onto the street and narrowly avoids an oncoming car by making a superhuman leap into the air. On instinct, he lands on the side of a building and clings to it. Peter discovers he has gained the “proportionate speed, strength and agility of a spider.” He can also will any part of his body to cling to surfaces, thanks to what Mr. Fantastic later calls “bio-magnetism” (an enhanced version of spiders clinging to surfaces by tiny claws and electro-static force).
Peter decides to test out his newfound powers by taking part in an amateur wrestling competition, donning a mask just in case he loses. Peter quickly beats pro wrestler Crusher Hogan and wins the competition prize money. A TV producer (later said to be a TV agent named Max Schiffman) witnesses the event and convinces Peter to perform on late night TV. He suggests Peter keep the “mask angle” since a secret identity is “great showmanship.”
To enhance his act, Peter designs a flashy costume and builds wrist-worn “web-shooters” that fire a special “liquid cement” of his own design. Later stories name the liquid cement “web-fluid” and reveal that it dissolves after about an hour. Initially, Spidey’s costume is red and black with blue highlights to give it depth. After just a few issues, the costume’s coloring uses such strong highlights that it becomes a red and blue suit.
Minutes after his television debut as the “Amazing” Spider-Man, the web-spinner sees and ignores a thief that runs past him and escapes the building. When a security guard asks why Spidey didn’t trip or grab the guy, the teenager displays newfound arrogance by proclaiming that he is no longer concerned with anyone but himself. Catching criminals isn’t what he’s paid to do.
For days (or weeks), Spider-Man continues to impress studio audiences and play to packed rooms. But one night, Peter finds police at the Parker home. They explain his Uncle Ben surprised a burglar who then shot and killed him. The burglar got away but police have cornered him at the old Acme warehouse at the waterfront. Enraged, Peter dons his Spider-Man outfit and confronts the burglar directly. After knocking the killer out, Peter sees his face and realizes in horror that it’s the same thief from the studio. Guilt-ridden that he could have prevented his uncle’s death if he hadn’t been selfish, Peter realizes that “with great power there must also come — great responsibility.”
Peter leaves his TV career behind and becomes a hero. His guilt evolves into a sense of true altruism and responsibility, and he becomes the wisecracking “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” rather than a cynical vigilante. In his next comic book appearance, “Amazing Spider-Man” #1, he displays a “spider-sense” that detects certain transmissions and warns him of incoming danger and nearby enemies. Along with his agility and reflexes, it makes him incredibly tough to hit in battle. He later even creates special “spider-tracer” homing devices that his spider-sense can detect and lock onto, helping him track down enemies.
Suspicious of Spider-Man, publisher J. Jonah Jameson begins a smear campaign. Knowing Jameson is willing to pay for photos of the web-slinger, Peter begins a second career taking photos of himself and then collecting paychecks from the same man who thinks he’s a menace. Initially, he sells photos to Jameson’s NOW Magazine, and then to his newspaper the Daily Bugle.
A few issues later, Peter loses his glasses and never replaces them. Decades later, it is said that Peter never truly needed his glasses, which were a very weak prescription, and only wore them because Aunt May feared his constant studying would strain his eyes.
The years go on. Peter dates Jameson’s secretary Betty Brant, splits with her and then attends Empire State University where he meets his two major loves: Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson. As time passes, more facts are revealed about Spidey’s backstory and origin. In 1968, “Amazing Spider-Man Annual” #5 reveals his parents Richard Laurence Parker and Mary Teresa Parker (nee Fitzpatrick) were agents for the CIA who were then killed by enemies of the U.S. A later story adds that Richard and Mary worked under Nick Fury and even encountered the mutant called Wolverine on one mission.
“Spider-Man” Animated Series (1967-70)
The first animated adaptation of Spider-Man starred Paul Soles as Peter and introduced the now-famous theme song by Bob Harris and Academy Award winner Paul Francis Webster. Although this song revealed that Spidey had “radioactive blood,” the hero’s backstory was not revealed until the second season. The episode “The Origin of Spiderman” (they forgot the hyphen) revealed a story very similar to the classic tale by Lee and Ditko, with minor differences. Peter is already in college before he gets his powers. He owns a motorcycle and doesn’t wear glasses, though otherwise he’s still the science enthusiast and mocked as a nerd.
The radiation demonstration is now actually part of a class. Peter’s own professor is conducting the demonstration and the lab is in the school. After being bitten — but before he avoids the oncoming car that prompts a superhuman leap — Peter runs into a couple of thugs and displays his new powers. A similar version of this scene is later incorporated into some comic book retellings of Peter’s origin.
In this cartoon, Peter doesn’t attend a wrestling contest and immediately decides to be a TV performer. The next few days are spent creating web-shooters and a flashy costume. Moments after he arrives at a TV studio to audition, he sees and ignores a thief being pursued. That very night, he returns home and finds police outside his home where a burglar struck with deadly results.
Another difference is that Peter does not first meet J. Jonah Jameson as an amateur photographer. Instead, he originally takes a job as a copyboy at the Daily Bugle in order to make ends meet, musing that he might become a star reporter. For reasons never explained, he switches to being a photographer. During this cartoon, Peter’s main love interest is Betty Brant, who is depicted as a redhead.
Spider-Man: The Manga (1970-71)
Initially written by Kosei Ono, with art by Ryoichi Ikegami, this manga adaptation of Spider-Man gave us Tokyo teenager Yu Komori as the main hero. Despite his youth, Yu is gifted in science and is allowed to conduct his own private experiment with radioactive materials to help study for a test (?!?). While working, Yu is bitten by a spider irradiated by his experiments. He quickly realizes his newfound abilities and then creates a costume and web-shooters seemingly just for the heck of it.
After his first battle ends with the villain’s death, Yu is guilt-ridden and wants to give up the life of a costumed hero. Time and time again, however, he dons his costume to deal with another strange menace, although his battles tend to end in more loss of life. Yu was not a wisecracking hero and was prone to periods of depression and cynical musings.
“Spider-Man” Live-Action TV Series (1977-79)
After Spidey had made numerous appearances on the live-action children’s educational program “The Electric Company,” CBS decided to try him out in his own show. A two-hour pilot starring Nicholas Hammond was broadcast in 1977, followed by eleven episodes in ’78-79, and then a two-hour special in the summer of 1979.
The pilot features Peter Parker as a college student who works part-time as a photographer for the Daily Bugle. In the college lab, Peter is conducting his own experiment when a spider wanders in and is irradiated. Thus, like Yu, Peter is indirectly responsible for his own powers when the spider then bites him. Minutes later, Peter discovers his wall-crawling ability when he narrowly dodges a car heading toward him at about 10 mph, driven by a hypnotized driver (just stay with me).
Realizing what happened, Peter experiments with his new powers, first at home and then on the side of a building in broad daylight. As you do. Several people on the street witness his blatant display of power, though he’s too far away for anyone to see his face. Later, Peter is at the Daily Bugle and claims he also saw the mysterious “Spider-Man” that people are talking about. To make the story sound more impressive and explain why he couldn’t see Spidey’s face, Peter claims the wall-crawler wears a special gymnast-like outfit that gives him great freedom of movement and protects his identity. He also gives a basic explanation of Spidey’s powers and adds that the guy can somehow even shoot webs. Jonah demands proof and Peter promises to bring in photographs that he took of the strange figure.
Peter then goes home, quickly sews a red and blue costume, and then invents a web-shooter with alarming speed, all in order to verify his earlier lies at the Bugle (obviously, he never saw a single sitcom where kids learn that fibbing only leads to further complications). His single web-shooter doesn’t shoot any kind of webbing or liquid cement so much as it seems to just fire long ropes and web-style nets. And what about the spider-sense? Rather than a buzzing or reflexive alarm to oncoming attacks and nearby foes, this show has Peter receive brief psychic visions revealing the presence and actions of nearby threats.
After making his costume and weapon, Peter discovers a plot by a new age guru who is using hypnotism to hold the city for ransom (hence the not-at-all dramatic near car collision earlier). After defeating (and then apparently befriending) the guru’s ninja warriors and stopping the criminal, Peter finds he rather likes this new double life and decides to continue as a superhero. Who needs Uncle Ben’s death as motivation, right? Uncle who?
Despite the fact that he was hired as a consultant, Stan Lee stated he did not care for this interpretation of the wall-crawler.
Toei’s Live-Action “Spider-Man” TV Series (1978-79)
Though it was broadcast in Tokyo for just under a year, this live-action series included a TV-movie and 41 episodes. Starring Shinji Todo, this show featured Takuya Yamashiro, a popular motorcycle racer in his 20s. Takuya meets the warrior Garia, last survivor of Planet Spider, a world destroyed by Prof. Monster and his evil Iron Cross army. Now, Takuya must continue the fight against the villain.
Garia injects Takuya with his blood, granting him the super-powers of a man from Spider (or a “Spider-Man,” if you will). Takuya gains spider-powers and a psychic sense keyed to warn him about the actions of his enemies, but unfortunately is now also sensitive to cold temperatures just as some spiders are. With Garia’s high-tech alien bracelet, Takuya can instantly summon his “Spider-Protector” costume. The bracelet also fires webs, summons the Spider-Machine GP-7 (a flying race car), and controls Garia’s spaceship, “Marveller,” which can also transform into the sword-wielding mecha called “Leapardon.” Because giant robots aren’t intimidating unless they also have giant swords.
As a superhero, Spidey (who sometimes introduces himself as a “messenger from Hell”) becomes quite popular among the public and inspires hit songs such as the “Spider-Man Boogie.” To ensure that no one connects him to the hero, Takuya begins acting meek, even cowardly at times. When his heroic activities lead to repeated absences from motorcycle races, he decides to earn some extra cash by assisting his girlfriend Hitomi, a freelance photographer.
“Spider-Man” Marvel Productions Animated Series (1981)
This Spider-Man animated series launched the new Marvel Productions. The cartoon starred Ted Schwartz, and displayed Peter as a college student who has also been a superhero for more three years. Peter lives with his Aunt May, balancing classes with his activities as Spider-Man and his work as a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle. J. Jonah Jameson’s secretary Betty Brant is again shown as his girlfriend. The cartoon is pretty faithful to the character personalities of the original comics, the character designs, and the nature of Spidey’s powers.
A few episodes referenced that Peter’s blood was radioactive and the hero’s backstory was given more detail in the story “Arsenic and Aunt May.” In the episode, the villain known as the Chameleon learns Spidey was a TV performer who allowed a thief to get away and then that same thief later killed a kindly old man named Ben Parker.
“Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends” (1981-83) Animated Series
Starring Dan Gilvezan (who also voiced Bumblebee in the original “Transformers” cartoon), this carton made Spidey the leader of a superhero trio. His teammates were Bobby Drake AKA Iceman (a founding member of the X-Men) and brand new character Angelica Jones AKA Firestar (whose design was based on Mary Jane Watson from the comics). The team was collectively known as the Spider-Friends and they not only worked together and attended the same college, they lived together in Aunt May’s house.
The cartoon gave Spidey greater resources. After saving the life of Tony Stark AKA Iron Man, Spidey and his pals asked the wealthy inventor to secretly outfit Aunt May’s house with high-tech crime fighting equipment and state of the art computers. Lesson: it helps to have rich friends who don’t ask too many questions.
Peter finally explained his origin to his teammates during the second season (which was convenient, since that was also when they each had episodes explaining their own backstories). He explained that he was raised by Ben and May after the loss of his parents. Similar to previous TV adaptations, this version of Peter never wore glasses and seemed a little bit older when he got his powers. The rest of the origin was nearly identical to the original Lee/Ditko story, even lifting dialogue and images from the comic.
There were still a few differences from the comics. In this animated series, the first power Peter discovers is his spider-sense, which alerts him to avoid the famous oncoming car. Another revision was Peter’s explanation that he wore a mask as a TV performer not just because of showmanship but because it helped him overcome his natural shyness. This TV show also had Norman Osborn physically transform into a green-skinned creature when he became the villainous Green Goblin, whereas the comics always had him wearing a goblin mask and costume. This transformation idea would appear again nearly two decades later in the “Ultimate Spider-Man” comic books.
“Spider-Man the Animated Series” (1994-98)
Airing on Fox following the success of the 1990s “X-Men” cartoon, the new Spider-Man animated series starred Christopher Daniel Barnes in the title role and was the first adaptation to introduce Mary Jane Watson as Peter’s love interest.
Unlike previous cartoons, this show dealt with new standards of censorship. For one thing, Spider-Man was generally not allowed to directly punch an enemy. The words “murder,” “kill,” and “death” were prohibited, so Uncle Ben’s fate now had to be implied. And when a version of the super-villain team the Sinister Six was scheduled to show up, the name had to be altered to the Insidious Six because the word “sinister” was too violent.
The new theme song (performed by Joe Perry of Aerosmith) mentioned Peter’s “radioactive spider blood,” but his origin was not addressed initially because the cartoon had been set-up to follow a live-action movie directed by James Cameron. For various reasons, that film never materialized. When we meet Peter in the show, he’s already in college, has been Spider-Man for a few months, lives with his widowed aunt, and is working as a photographer for the Daily Bugle, a division of J3 Communications.
Many of the show’s stories revolved around a device known as the neogenic recombinator, which used radiation and experimental technology to accomplish biological engineering and transgenics (transferring traits from one species to another). The machine was seen irradiating and mutating a spider during the opening theme song, the same spider that bit Peter.
The machine was the creation of Dr. Farley Stillwell, who in the comics was responsible for creating the villain Scorpion. The machine was also used in experiments by Dr. Curt Connors, who in the comics experimented on himself and became the monstrous Lizard. The cartoon’s idea that the Scorpion, the Lizard and Spider-Man all got their animal genetic traits from the same basic technology was applauded by several.
A few episodes into the first season, Peter had a flashback revealing he had been a professional wrestler before Uncle Ben’s death inspired him to be a superhero. In the show’s third season, Peter’s origin is shown in full. After attending a demonstration of the neogenic recombinator and being bitten by the mutated spider, he has a bizarre waking dream of transforming into a giant spider with a human face. After the dream passes, Peter leaps out of the way of an oncoming car, blah blah. After realizing his powers, Peter immediately makes a costume and web-shooters to become a TV performer. After his debut, he gets an offer to become a professional wrestler and takes it. Weeks later, a thief robs the wrestling arena and Spidey dismisses a chance to stop him. You know the rest.
There were several other differences from the comics. Here, the lesson “with great power comes great responsibility” is not one Peter comes up with himself but is something Ben told him. Another difference is that Peter credits his web-shooters to the spider. As he explains it, the bite not only passed on the spider’s powers but also an instinctive knowledge of how to create webs, which is how he was able to develop web-fluid so quickly.
Yeah, I think it’s weird, too.
“The Ultimate Spider-Man Anthology” (1996)
In the 1990s, a few prose anthology Marvel tie-in books were published that often had the word “ultimate” in the title. “The Ultimate Spider-Man Anthology” was a collection of prose stories based on the mainstream comic book version of Spidey that could fit into continuity if the reader desired.
The opening story was a retelling of Spider-Man’s origin by Peter David and Stan Lee. Most of the elements were familiar, but this story shows that the spider which bit Peter becomes radioactive thanks to the experiments of Dr. Otto Octavius, the very same experiment that turns him into Doctor Octopus. Doc Ock blames the spider for the explosion that fuses his metal arm harness to his body and mind, and by extension holds Spider-Man responsible.
Another change is that Peter develops his web-fluid a few years earlier in the hopes of patenting a super-adhesive, but shelves the design because he can’t prevent it from dissolving after an hour. When he later decides to become Spider-Man, this design flaw suddenly becomes an advantage.
“Spider-Man: Chapter One” (1998)
A strange attempt to modernize Spider-Man’s origin and early days, this series borrowed the idea that Spidey and Doc Ock were created in the same accident and was written and drawn by John Byrne. In this case, Peter is watching Dr. Octavius conduct a demonstration on how to control radiation. But the instruments are so sensitive that the presence of a single spider causes the entire building to explode. Dozens of people are killed or suffer permanent injuries from the blast. Octavius survies, now Dr. Octopus. Peter is alive and barely conscious as the now-radioactive spider bites him.
Peter spends weeks in the hospital recovering from his injuries. Months after the accident, Peter is walking down the street, musing on his newfound health, energy and stamina, when he narrowly dodges an oncoming car by making a superhuman leap.
The story then follows the Lee/Ditko origin, except concerning the burglar. After several weeks of being a TV performer, Spidey is leaving his bedroom window in full costume and is spied by the burglar. The criminal assumes that Spidey is casing the house, which he himself has been doing for a few weeks since meeting Ben in an electronics store. Why the burglar would jump to this conclusion and why he’s taking so long himself to rob the Parker home is not clear.
That night, after performing on live TV, the web-slinger is leaving the studio when the burglar runs past him. Apparently, the guy followed Spider-Man to the studio and took the opportunity to rob several dressing rooms. The burglar quickly greets Spidey, mentions that he is a fellow criminal, and asks the masked wall-crawler if he can help his escape. Spidey has no idea what the guy is talking about, but continues to ignore him even as a nearby police officer (not a security guard this time) yells to stop the thief. The burglar gets away at a rather leisurely pace, evidently finished with his conversation.
A few hours later, Peter comes home to the familiar scene of police outside the Parker house. But now when he confronts the burglar, the criminal once again happily greets the web-slinger, explaining that he had attempted to rob the Parker home because he saw Spidey casing the place earlier. He decided to impress our hero by robbing the house himself and then offering him half of the earnings in exchange for a partnership in crime. Spidey is consumed by guilt, realizing the true nature of power and responsibility.
This new take on Spider-Man met with a great deal of criticism. Many felt it overcomplicated the origin and diminished the impact of Spidey recognizing the burglar by having the criminal pause their confrontation to explain his actions. The “Chapter One” series made other changes to Spider-Man canon, but following its final issue it was very quickly ignored and then officially dismissed as not having a place in official continuity.
“Ultimate Spider-Man” Comic Books (2000 – Present)
The Ultimate anthologies were done. After the success of the new live-action “X-Men” film and with a live-action Spider-Man film in the works, Marvel decided to create a new fictional universe for folks who enjoyed the movies but were afraid to jump into stories that had decades of history behind them. This new parallel universe would be separate from the mainstream Marvel reality and would update and/or completely revise many characters to make them seem fresh and cutting edge. These comics were published under the Ultimate Marvel label and took place in a separate Marvel Universe than the original “616” version.
In the opening arc of “Ultimate Spider-Man,” Peter is a high school nerd with glasses and is best friends with Mary Jane, a fellow nerd and neighbor he’s known for years. He’s also pals with rich kid Harry Osborn, son of Norman Osborn, whom he didn’t meet until college in the mainstream comics.
While attending a class field trip to Osborn Industries, Peter is bitten by an escaped lab specimen, a spider injected with the strange OZ formula, Osborn’s attempt to create a new breed of super-soldier. The chemical alters the spider and its venom, giving Peter his strange powers. Peter’s spider bite is witnessed by many and Osborn fears that the boy will soon die, which could lead to the police discovering the OZ formula. He sends an assassin to kill the boy by running him over, but Peter dodges the oncoming car and Osborn realizes the teen now has super-powers.
Peter realizes his great new power. Even his vision, which was weak in this reality, is suddenly perfect. After winning an amateur wrestling competition, Peter becomes a professional wrestler as Spider-Man, never leaving to become a TV star. Like the 1990s cartoon, it is Uncle Ben who first gives the lesson about power and responsibility. Eventually Peter makes web-shooters to complete his set of spider-abilities.
In this reality, Spidey leaves the wrestling arena when he is accused of thievery. Then, in a bad mood, he allows a thief to escape even though he could easily trip the guy. A subsequent conversation with his uncle leads to an argument and Ben stating that power brings responsibility, a lesson he was told by Peter’s father Richard. Peter ignores this and leaves angrily. When he returns home, Ben is dead, having been killed by a burglar, the same thief from earlier.
In this reality, after becoming a superhero, Peter joins the Daily Bugle as a part time web-site designer and IT guy (Get it? Spidey deals with web-sites). His parents’ history is also altered. Now, Richard is a scientist whose research actually leads to the creation of Venom and to Peter’s own web-shooters.
Recently, Peter’s Ultimate Universe career as a hero ended when he was killed in battle. Young Miles Morales has become the new Spider-Man of that reality, having gained similar powers from another spider specimen of Norman Osborn’s.
Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” Movie (2002)
Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead”) directed the first feature film iteration of “Spider-Man” starring Tobey Maguire. Peter and Mary Jane are next-door neighbors who have known each other since early grade school, though MJ doesn’t consider Peter a terribly close friend. Harry is again Peter’s pal in high school. In this adaptation, Peter is a bit of a science nerd, but is nowhere near the gifted scientist he is in the comics and cartoons. He also begins his photography career early, working for the school newspaper.
A class field trip to a college lab includes a display of over a dozen genetically engineered “super-spiders.” One of these spiders, a red and blue one, escapes and bites Peter, somehow transferring its traits to him in the process. Fortunately, none of the other spiders escape to bite people and give them powers.
Peter develops familiar abilities, but with a few differences from his comic book counterpart. First, Spidey’s hands (and, presumably, his feet) have tiny, microscopic talons that allow him to cling to surfaces rather than crediting the ability to bio-magnetism. Secondly, Raimi saw the spider-sense as merely incredible awareness and reflexes rather than a psychic ability. So while Peter is able to dodge some attacks, it doesn’t warn him if an enemy is standing nearby. Finally, Raimi felt audiences would think Peter was “too smart” for them to relate to if he were intelligent enough to create web-fluid and web-shooters so the filmmakers opted to have Peter develop natural spinnerets instead.
As in the classic origin, Peter decides to test out his powers in a wrestling competition, this time against a man called Bonesaw McGraw. But in this movie, due to a technicality Peter does not get the prize money despite winning his match. Feeling cheated, he is only too happy to do nothing when a thief robs the prize money and gets away. So in this version of events, Peter ignores the thief out of a (perhaps justifiable) sense of revenge.
Leaving the wrestling arena, Peter expects to meet Uncle Ben nearby but finds that he’s been shot by a carjacker. Ben dies and Peter tracks down the criminal (now known as “the carjacker” rather than “the burglar”), whom he recognizes as the thief he allowed to escape. The killer meets an untimely end and Peter decides to become a hero. He then creates a very professional and expensive looking costume, apparently just because this is the kind of thing a superhero is supposed to wear.
In the sequel “Spider-Man 3,” it was revealed that the villain Sandman had actually been holding the gun and that his partner, the thief, had jostled him and caused Ben’s death by mistake.
MTV’S “Spider-Man, the New Animated Series” (2003)
MTV’s “Spider-Man” cartoon was a CGI series meant to follow the new live-action film by Raimi. As such, Spider-Man’s origin wasn’t explained and viewers assumed that it lined up with what they had seen in the movie with Tobey Maguire. The series starred Neil Patrick Harris as Spider-Man and Lisa Loeb as Mary Jane.
Unlike the movie, Peter regained his “psychic” abilities in the series. But while his spider-sense seemed to warn him of nearby trouble that warranted his attention, it didn’t always alert him to immediate and oncoming danger.
“The Spectacular Spider-Man” Animated Series (2008-2009)
Showrunners Greg Weisman and Victor Cook intended “The Spectacular Spider-Man” to be an updated version of the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko era with some elements and characters from later Spider-Man eras mixed in. The show starred Josh Keaton, who currently voices Hal Jordan in “Green Lantern: The Animated Series” and Jack in “Transformers Prime.” It is one of my personal favorite superhero adaptations ever.
For the first time, a cartoon series depicts Peter as a teenager in high school when he becomes Spider-Man. The show picks up three months after Uncle Ben’s death, just as Peter is about to enter his junior year. Peter’s best friends in school are Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn. Peter’s high school, Midtown, High is now actually located in Midtown Manhattan rather than Queens. It is also now called Midtown Manhattan Magnet High School, affectionately referred to by the students as “M-cubed.”
In this cartoon, Peter gains his powers during a class field trip during his sophomore year. The field trip is nearly identical to the events of the Raimi film, except that the lab is run by Dr. Curt Connors. The genetically engineered spider is part of his research into transgenics, which will later turn him into the Lizard. In this cartoon, Dr. Connors’ research also leads to the villains Electro and Kraven getting superhuman powers. So now Spidey and three of his enemies were created by the same basic science.
The penultimate season one episode “Intervention” revealed the rest of Peter’s backstory through a dream of sorts. It’s very similar to the origin in Raimi’s film, except that Peter makes web-shooters and a costume before he attends the wrestling competition against Crusher Hogan.
“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” Broadway Musical (2011-??)
Okay, there were technically two versions of this musical. During previews, constant technical difficulties and heavily negative reviews led to the show going on hiatus for a while, during which a new director and choreographer were hired and the script was reworked. It’s still the most expensive Broadway production in history.
In the first version, a Geek Chorus (not making that up) explains Spider-Man’s origin to the audience. Peter is a high school science nerd who works as a photographer for the school newspaper. While on a class trip to the labs of Dr. Norman Osborn, Peter’s bitten by a genetically altered spider that is, apparently, actually the Greek mythological figure Arachne who has chosen the boy to be her avatar.
After using his abilities to win cash in a wrestling competition, Peter returns to Queens and sees school bully Flash Thompson getting carjacked, Peter ignores the incident, figuring that Flash deserves it. But Ben Parker is nearby and runs out to stop the criminal. The carjacker starts driving, colliding with Ben. Peter looks over to his uncle, who reminds him to “rise above it all,” and then dies. The phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” is never used.
Peter blames himself for Ben’s death, as his uncle wouldn’t have gotten involved if he had stopped the carjacking himself. That night, Arachne gives him a costume, red to symbolize every innocent whose blood is shed and blue to symbolize sorrow. Peter then begins his career as Spider-Man and stops acting as a photographer for the school newspaper so he can instead sell pictures to J. Jonah Jameson.
In the second version, most of these events remain the same (except the Geek Chorus is removed). The main difference in origin occurs when Ben asks Peter to spend some time with him. The teenager refuses, determined instead to use his powers at a wrestling competition so he can cash in. After winning the prize money, Peter returns home to discover that Uncle Ben was shot and killed by a carjacker. Although Peter never meets the carjacker in this version of the story, nor did he have an opportunity to stop the criminal earlier, he does blame himself for Ben’s death. Peter thinks that if he had stayed home instead of leaving to make quick money, this death could have been averted. He makes the decision to become a hero, realizing that great power brings great responsibility.
“Ultimate Spider-Man” Animated Series (2012-??)
In the newest animated series to star the wall-crawling hero, Peter is voiced by Drake Bell, who actually played a parody character based on Spider-Man in the film “Superhero Movie.” When the series begins, Peter is in high school and has been operating on his own as Spider-Man for about a year. The first episode involves him accepting an offer to start working with the high-tech counter-terrorist organization S.H.I.E.L.D. Spidey gets training and access to S.H.I.E.L.D. resources, including a web-motorcycle and improved web-shooters. In exchange, he is also on call for various missions and lends his experience to a group of teenage superheroes who also become his new high school classmates.
The cartoon is fairly new and the first season is still airing on Disney XD, so I won’t say anything further lest I spoil you all.
On July 3, we’ll see yet another version of Spidey’s backstory and early days in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” a live-action movie reboot directed by Marc Webb. After 50 years and so many incarnations, the web-slinging wonder is showing no signs of slowing down. Here’s to the next 50 years!
Alan Kistler is the author of the “Unofficial Spider-Man Trivia Challenge” and the “Unofficial Batman Trivia Challenge,” now available in bookstores.
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