Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Amazing Spider-Man (1977) - The Chinese Web: Parts 1 & 2

Spider-Man goes to Hong Kong.

The TV movie that kicked off the late '70s Amazing Spider-Man series got theatrical play in some territories outside the United States, and so did the first two episodes of the series - The Deadly Dust parts 1 and 2 were cut together and reached the big screen as Spider-Man Strikes Back. The same thing happened with the last two episodes of the series, with The Chinese Web parts 1 and 2 being cut together to make a feature film that was titled Spider-Man: The Dragon's Challenge.

The theatrical release of The Dragon's Challenge came two years after the Chinese Web episodes had aired on American television, and the fact that the release happened at all is a prime example of how little was expected of superhero entertainment in 1981. I can't imagine how bored and disappointed kids would be today if they went to see a Spider-Man movie in the theatre and it turned out to be Spider-Man: The Dragon's Challenge. But at that time, just having the chance to see Spider-Man on the screen, climbing stuff and maybe engaging in fights for a few seconds, brought a certain level of satisfaction. I didn't see The Dragon's Challenge (or The Chinese Web) until this year, but my live action Spider-Man when I was a little kid was the TV movie, and I enjoyed it. We made due with what we had.

The Spider-Man movie of 1981 does have something in common with the Spider-Man movie of 2019 in that it sees Peter Parker (played here by Nicholas Hammond) taking his web-slinging heroics to a different country. In this case the country is China, and even though it takes Peter/Spidey until the second episode (or about 55 minutes into the total 96 minutes) to reach China director Don McDougall made sure to shoot a ton of exteriors to prove "We're actually filming in China! We're not faking this!"

Written by Lionel E. Siegel, this story begins with Min Lo Chan (Benson Fong), China's Minister of Industrial Development, heading to New York to seek the help of his old school pal J. Jonah Jameson (Robert F. Simon), editor of the newspaper The Daily Bugle, in finding three Marines he had encountered while he was working as an agent for the Chinese Army in 1946. These Marines had offered Chan $10,000 in exchange for information on the movements of the Chinese Army, a deal Chan refused to take. Despite his refusal, Chan is now in danger of being charged for actually selling those secrets, as well as robbing and killing the schoolteacher who was the liaison between Chan and the Marines. Chan didn't do that, either. Since Daily Bugle photojournalist Peter Parker recently wrote a piece on a Marine, a pre-Cheers (and pre-Creepshow) Ted Danson who shows up very briefly, Jameson decides Peter is the person most likely to be able to connect Chan with these Marines who could clear his name.

The villainous Mr. Zeider (Richard Erdman) wants to build a steel mill in China and Chan is standing in the way of that, leaning toward giving the steel mill job to "the Canadians", so Zeider decides that Chan will need to die. He sends a team of assassins after the guy... Which means Spider-Man ends up fighting a series of assassins and other henchmen throughout the two episodes. Peter's need to run off and change into the Spider-Man costume before fighting the men trying to kill Chan doesn't earn him any points with Chan's niece Emily (Rosalind Chao), who brands him a coward - until she finds out Peter and Spider-Man are the same person near the end of The Chinese Web part 2 / the end of the film.

Eventually Peter and Emily are able to locate a Marine who met Chan in '46 and is now willing to help him, and to do that the three of them have to go to China so the Marine can testify in Chan's defense. That means Zeider's lackeys have to go after them even harder once everyone is in Hong Kong.

The first half of the story is pretty much the standard Amazing Spider-Man episode, with a lot of investigating and some quick bursts of action - one of which ends with Spider-Man getting shot in the back while running down a subway tunnel. His spider sense should have alerted him about that, but this show never was able to get a full grasp on Spidey's abilities. At least him getting shot in the back in a tunnel is better than the moment in the second half where he just stands and stares at a group of bad guys while one of them raises a rifle, aims, and fires a tranquilizer dart into him.

There is some dull travelogue stuff once Peter and company are in Hong Kong, but the China portion of the adventure also features a boat chase, the use of a "spider tracker", some helicopter surveillance, the sight of Spider-Man scaling the side of a very tall building, and of course some gratuitous martial arts. As an amusing bonus there's also a moment where Zeider's right hand man pronounces "Spiderman" as if it's the same as any average surname that ends with "-man".

The Amazing Spider-Man series ended here, but at least the show went out with a special event. The series had its ups and downs, and CBS really should have fully embraced its comic book roots, but forty years later it makes for some fun viewing - and will also make you marvel at how different these things used to be.

Hammond has said that there was some talk of bringing him back as Spider-Man in a 1984 TV movie that would have seen him (wearing the black costume from the comics of the time) crossing paths with the Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno version of The Incredible Hulk. I would have loved to see that happen, but unfortunately the project fell apart. After The Amazing Spider-Man ended, fans wouldn't see the character in another live action adventure until Sam Raimi's Spider-Man in 2002.

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