This is the thirteenth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
With the success of the Wonder Woman television series, Marvel tried to get in on the superhero television game and licensed several of their properties for television production. These productions would eventually end up on the CBS television network, the same network on which “Wonder Woman” was airing. Because of this, CBS had become to be known as the Comic Book Network for a couple of years.
The first Marvel Comics property to air on television was a pilot movie for a Spider-Man television series. The telefilm was simply called “Spider-Man” and aired on September 19, 1977. The pilot movie starred Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker and his superhero alter-ego Spider-Man, as well as David White – best known as Larry Tate from “Bewitched” – as newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson and Hillie Hicks as Joe “Robbie” Robertson. This was the first live action adaptation of a Marvel Comics property since “Captain America” in 1941.
The pilot movie told Spider-Man’s origin story, with Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and learning how to use his newfound arachnid abilities, as well as building his mechanical webshooters. Spider-Man then goes on to take down a New Age guru, who is making law-abiding citizens turn to crime through mind control.
After the pilot movie aired, CBS ordered five additional episodes, making a six episode first season. “The Deadly Dust, Part 1,” the first episode of the series proper, aired on April 5, 1978. The most notable episode from the series’ first season was loosely based on a comic book storyline from just a few years before – a storyline that would be revisited in the 1990s in the form of the infamous “Clone Saga” – and was called “Night of the Clones.” The story was significantly changed from the source material, with the idea of Spider-Man being cloned really being the only similarity.
The series proper saw the recasting of J. Jonah Jameson with character actor Robert F. Simon. The series also featured a character named Rita Conway, who – while technically being an original character created for the television series – was strikingly similar in both appearance and function as the Glory Grant character from the Spider-Man comic books. The series proper also saw the character of Robbie Robertson being dropped from the show completely.
“The Amazing Spider-Man” had decent overall ratings, finishing in the top 20 of the entire season, however CBS was reluctant to renew it for a second season. This was mostly due to the series’ expense, and the fact that it wasn’t performing as well as hoped in the adult demographic. In the end, CBS did order a second batch of episodes, but again the number was limited. A seven episode second season was produced and the title of the series was changed, simply, to “Spider-Man.”
The character of police Captain Barbera was written out of the show for the second season, and episodes were aired sporadically. The second season of Spider-Man was treated much more like a series of specials than an actual season of television. The second season was used mostly to hurt competing programs during key points within the year. As was the case with the first season as well, the second season featured no supervillains from the comics and Spider-Man fought mostly street thugs and white collar criminals.
The tone of the series was very much like every other 70s cop show, only featuring Spider-Man instead of a regular human protagonist. The show also didn’t do the special effects all that well. Spider-Man’s webs often looked like nothing more than a length of white rope shooting out from his wrists, and the wall-crawling effect was obviously a stuntman being pulled up the side of a building by a crane, pantomiming as if he were crawling.
By the standards of the time, the Spider-Man television series wasn’t terrible, however it does leave a bit lacking to modern audiences and by the standards of today. In the mid-1980s there was talk of reviving the series, teaming Spider-Man up with “The Incredible Hulk,” but this didn’t end up happening. While 12 of the 13 total episodes have been released on VHS, these VHS tapes are long out of print and at the time of this writing there have been no plans to release the series on DVD.
“There’s a web of truth woven into action of ‘Spider-Man series'”. St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, FL). Apr 5, 1978.
“TV’s worst season slowly nearing an end”. Boca Raton News (Boca Raton, FL). UPI. May 15, 1978
Richard Meyers (Oct 1978). “Return of the video Superheroes.”. Starlog Page 50-51.