Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Amazing Spider-Man (1977) - The Deadly Dust: Parts 1 & 2

Spidey strikes back and stops a nuke in the first two episodes of the '70s TV show.

The TV movie that kick-started the 1977 The Amazing Spider-Man television series was released as a theatrical feature in some territories outside the United States, and the same goes for the first two episodes of the series proper, a two-parter called The Deadly Dust. The Deadly Dust parts 1 and 2 were put together and released in theatres as Spider-Man Strikes Back.

The deadly dust of the episode title is plutonium, which a professor at the New York university attended by Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) has made the controversial decision to order a small amount of for a nuclear reactor demonstration. Peter argues with the professor about it, but a trio of his classmates decide to take action. To teach their teacher a lesson about the dangers of this stuff, the students steal the plutonium - but when their theft doesn't get enough serious attention, and when Spider-Man is blamed for it anyway after he fails to stop it, the students go a step further and use the plutonium to build a nuclear bomb.

But they're not the ones who are going to cause trouble with the bomb. The theft has been noticed by unscrupulous business man Mr. White (Robert Alda), who figures he'll take the plutonium for himself now that it's out in the open and sell it off to the highest bidder. White is another example of a plain, down-to-earth villain being created for the show, as the network CBS didn't want to go as outlandish as the villains from the comic books. Viewers probably tuned in hoping to see the likes of Green Goblin, Vulture, The Lizard, Electro, Sandman, Doctor Octopus, etc., but it wasn't to be. Some Marvel devotees online have noticed that there was a villain called Mr. White in one issue of a Namor comic book back in 1945, but that's surely a coincidence. The makers of this show weren't going to dig thirty years into the past to find a suit-wearing bad guy called Mr. White. This Mr. White isn't inspired by that comic book character any more than the Mr. White of the Daniel Craig era James Bond films was.

This Mr. White makes some nasty threats, though. Once the nuclear bomb is in his possession, he hauls it off to Los Angeles so he can try to get $1 billion not to blow it up during a visit from the President.

Peter Parker is just getting started as Spider-Man and he's already stopping nukes, thwarting a Presidential assassination, and having to travel across the country to save the day. While doing this, he also has to deal with a tag-along, JoAnna Cameron as Miami-based tabloid writer Gale Hoffman, who is working on an article about Spider-Man. She seeks out the help of Peter because he's the one who gets all those good pictures of his secret alter ego. Gale isn't the annoying character you might expect her to be, and she actually has a good interplay with Peter. Sort of like Lisa Eilbacher's character had in the TV movie; so like Eilbacher, I don't expect to see Cameron on the show beyond these episodes.

Gale might be a better journalist than the paper she works for deserves, because she develops a suspicion that Peter is Spider-Man, and even asks him point blank at one point, "Peter, are you Spider-Man?" It's sort of unfortunate that she ends up a damsel in distress, with White keeping her captive in a bikini because he likes women in bikinis.

This version of Spider-Man went through some changes during the transition from TV movie to series, starting with a cast shake-up at the Daily Bugle newspaper offices. Hilly Hicks is out as journalist Robbie Robertson, a character from the comics. Now the second most prominent character at the Bugle is secretary Rita Conway, an original character played by Chip Fields. Also out is actor David White, who was replaced in the role of editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson by Robert F. Simon - a step down, in my opinion. Especially since I had that nostalgic connection of having watched White on Bewitched during my childhood. A veteran actor with over 200 credits to his name, Simon was on Bewitched himself, but just five episodes of it. Simon's Jameson is given more to do than White's was - toward the end he even goes out into the field with Peter.

The makers of the show also made the odd decision to start representing Peter's danger-alerting "spider sense" by having his eyes flash blue and red, with blue and red lights flashing as well, as he envisions the source of looming danger in negative images.

I didn't find The Deadly Dust / Spider-Man Strikes Back, which was written by Robert Janes and directed by Ron Satlof, to be quite as enjoyable as the initial TV movie, but it's watchable and has its bright spots. The highlight for me was an action sequence where Spider-Man faces off with some martial artists (including White's hulking main henchman, who's called Angel) in the Western town section of a Hollywood backlot - seeing Spider-Man walking around "in the Old West" was a fun sight. There's a nice nod to Spidey co-creator Stan Lee during that sequence as well, with the inclusion of an Excelsior Hotel.

I would have been happy with just that, but then this show ups the ante in the stunt department with a climax that features some poor blue screen and a Spidey stuntman hanging from a helicopter as it flies high over Los Angeles. It's no wonder CBS felt this series was too expensive to produce; I didn't expect to see stunts on that level.

At another point, Peter speaks a line that I liked because it's reminiscent of the "With great power comes great responsibility" motto. Here it's a question, "What is the point of having some kind of special power if you don't use it to help people?"

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