Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Amazing Spider-Man (1977) - Spider-Man

Cody takes a look at the TV movie that started the late-'70s Spider-Man TV show.

Tobey Maguire. Andrew Garfield. Tom Holland. Before any of them played the superhero Spider-Man and his alter ego Peter Parker, there was a fellow named Nicholas Hammond who was slinging webs on a short-lived The Amazing Spider-Man television series that would appear sporadically on CBS from 1977 through 1979. The show wasn't handled well, and Marvel figurehead Stan Lee, who co-created the title character with Steve Ditko, was vocally displeased with it... but it is part of the Spider-Man legacy. And it all started with a feature length TV movie directed by the wonderfully named E.W. Swackhamer from a script by Alvin Boretz - which is quite a coincidence, because another guy named Alvin, Alvin Sargent, would later do script work on several of the Spider-Man films.


As the movie begins, twenty-something graduate student Peter Parker is doing unexplained work with radioactive waste in the school lab when he gets bitten by a spider that was exposed to some of the radiation. Soon enough Peter is realizing that he has enhanced strength, increased agility, and the abilities to climb walls and sense danger. Of course, once you have these powers, what better thing could there be to do with them than fight crime?

The first time Peter foils a crime, he just happens to be climbing a wall in the right place at the right time. However, he doesn't make the decision to become Spider-Man until after the editor-in-chief of the newspaper The Daily Bugle, Bewitched's David White as popular Spider-Man supporting character J. Jonah Jameson, expresses interest in seeing pictures of this rumored wallcrawler in action. Peter has been unsuccessfully trying to sell pictures of various things to Jameson, and he needs to earn $46 so he can pick up a COD package, so he makes up a description of Spider-Man on the spot and then has to go about turning it into reality.

The villain plot brings in some strangeness. Thayer David plays Edward Byron, a guru who has been hypnotizing his followers and making them pull off big money thefts for him. Not content with the cash he's getting from these robberies, the guru warns the city of New York that he has ten people under his control and he will make them commit suicide if the city doesn't give him $50 million. The guru is not a character from the comic books, which is one of the lame things about the whole series - CBS wanted to keep the show down-to-earth, so they never delved into Spider-Man's comic book rogues gallery.

Peter has become Spider-Man just in time to thwart this creep, although the thwarting doesn't come easy for him. The highlights of his endeavor to save the day are the occasions when he enters the guru's lair and ends up fighting a trio of wannabe-ninjas. The guru may not be the most exciting villain they could have put Spider-Man up against, but how could I not like a Spider-Man movie that has wannabe-ninja henchmen in it? Especially when these guys bust out flamethrowers to melt his web!

A personal element is added into the villain side of things when Peter saves the life of one of the guru's hypnotized followers and befriends the man's daughter, 10 to Midnight's Lisa Eilbacher as Judy Tyler. She may not be a Mary Jane or a Gwen Stacy, but Eilbacher has a likeable screen presence, so I enjoy watching her interactions with Hammond/Peter.

Overall, I actually find this TV movie to be quite a good, cheap '70s TV movie adaptation of the Spider-Man set-up. You have Peter Parker as a hapless, cash-strapped student, an amusingly cantankerous J. Jonah Jameson, an elderly Aunt May (Jeff Donnell) who makes sure her secretly-a-superhero nephew takes his allergy pills, and Peter having fun testing out his abilities, eventually even making webshooters so he can swing around the city. When Peter forgets to take his allergy pills, you have Spider-Man sneezing like crazy while jumping around on rooftops - driving home that Peter is still a vulnerable human being under that costume, even if he is stronger than you and I. That's pretty much all I could ask of something like this, and it delivers. All it's really missing that I would have liked to have seen in there was May's husband Uncle Ben.

This TV movie is something I used to watch from time to time when I was a kid, because a local video store (shout-out to the long-ago-demolished Harvey's Market) had a copy of it for rent on VHS. I enjoyed it well enough those decades ago, and I enjoyed it watching it again all this time later. It sets the foundation for what could have been a solid live action Spider-Man TV show. I haven't watched the episodes to confirm whether or not it is a good show for myself, but I don't hear overwhelmingly positive things. I'm about to embark on a watch-through of the complete series, and I'm looking forward to seeing how this iteration of Spider-Man holds up beyond this surprisingly entertaining TV movie.

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