Reviews / June 6, 2019
MCKENNA: I’m not going to beat around the bush, I’m not going to play humble, I’m not going to worry about the fact that I’ve bored literally everyone who’s ever met me with this, my one true fan-slaying anecdote, an anecdote that will echo down through the ages like the Iliad or the Mabinogion—no, I’m just going to come out and tell it: I watched The Amazing Spider-Man with Gary Kurtz. Yes, that Gary Kurtz, losers.
It was 1981 and I—dressed in what my nana and I had decided was a close enough approximation of a Nostromo uniform for me to participate in the fancy dress competition—was in the Leeds hotel that was hosting Starcon, the SF convention I had—inexplicably, also possibly not legally—been allowed to attend, alone, at age ten. I strode coolly (read: rushed clumsily and hysterically, face flushed and in a state of dangerous overstimulation I hope never to reach again) into one of the projection rooms and sat down next to a bearded man who appeared to be dozing. As the titles rolled I realised it was Gary Kurtz. That Gary Kurtz. Full-mormon-LDS-pomp Gary Kurtz. The very polite Gary Kurtz who, after giving me his autograph, made an excuse so smooth I didn’t even realize it was one—before fleeing my childish yap. I’d been giving him an unsolicited, and possibly hysterical, explanation of why Yoda was rubbish, you see. I was proto-pain-in-arse-verbal-opinion-fan.
At that point, the only thing that could have maintained the level of thrill power established by my having pretty much joined the Hollywood elite was for there to be a killer superhero film showing. And Lo!, there fucking was. So, fellow Mutants, now that I’ve managed to crowbar this solipsistic yarn in at the beginning (because otherwise it would have been looming, Chris Foss-spaceship-like, in the background, dwarfing everything else), let’s investigate why the ridiculously enjoyable The Amazing Spider-Man is absolutely the greatest superhero movie of all time.
GRASSO: Richard, is it going to hurt your feelings if I say I’d never seen the 1977 Amazing Spider-Man pilot before this past weekend? Oh sure, I was familiar with the span of Marvel’s first attempt at global media domination: TV movies-cum-pilots for Marvel properties Spider-Man (’77), Doctor Strange (’78), and Captain America (’79); reruns of all three littered the cable media landscape of my late adolescence in the early 1990s, providing hours of ironic enjoyment for me and thousands of other Gen-Xers. And let us not forget Marvel’s one unmitigated media success from this period, the sublime American road movie that is Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno’s five seasons of The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982). In the late ’70s, Marvel heroes were seemingly everywhere… even the lawn of the White House!
But the Spider-Man pilot came first. I went in with exceedingly low expectations, but I’m pleased to say that by the end of the film’s run time, I was surprised at how much fun the film was. Oh sure, it suffered from that characteristic slowness of 1970s television that is jarring even to those of us old enough to remember first-hand what network TV used to be like. Likewise, I’m thoroughly familiar with the technical FX limitations of genre TV movies from this period, and despite a few moments where some very obvious primitive green screen/matte work blew my immersion, the techniques used to depict Spidey’s wall-walking were really cleverly done. I have a lot to say about the plot of the film—Peter Parker’s traditional origin story diffracted for the 1970s through a prism of terrorism, technocratic mind control, and Aquarian cults—but Kelly, given I’m yet again the young’un who doesn’t remember this pilot nor the short-lived Spider-Man series from its original broadcast, what are your memories of 1970s Spider-Man?
ROBERTS: There are a whole bunch, but let’s start with the big three: the animated Spider-Man series (1967-1970) that was in syndication throughout the ’70s, the “Spidey Super Stories” segment (1974-1977) on The Electric Company, and a 1972 LP called The Amazing Spider-Man Rockomic: From Beyond the Grave, a pretty bonkers experience combining narration and rock ‘n’ roll (one song describes our hero as a “sex machine”). Spidey was by far Marvel’s most popular character at the time: a self-doubting teenager himself, and a social outcast, he was (and is) uniquely relatable. I wasn’t reading comics at this point, although I did have some books featuring the web-slinger. What I’m trying to get at is this: the live-action feature film was a big deal, as was the subsequent series. I was not jaded yet, you have to understand. There was no Dark Knight Returns, no Watchmen, no Alan Moore-penned Swamp Thing, no Epic Comics (all titles I would buy and read with relish in the coming years). Spidey was a good guy, and he did the right thing, even though he made lots of mistakes. And I thought that was cool.
Yes, there is very little superhero action in the movie, and yes, the effects are serviceable at best, but on display is the Spider-Man I knew, though slightly older here: no money, brainy, benevolent, his “hero” designation constantly eating away at the happiness and credibility of his identity as Peter Parker. In fact, the word “superhero” is never used. When Peter is trying to explain to Jameson why Spider-Man wears a “special costume,” he has no context with which to do it. The superhero, at least on film and TV, doesn’t exist yet. The world is simply full of people. People who have no choice but to save themselves.
MCKENNA: And Christ alive, what a relief it is from what feels like the constant, deafening racket generated by this shit nowadays. In fact, now I come to think of it, it might be partly that lack of superhero-saturated context that you mention, Kelly, and that lack of haste that you mention, Mike, that make The Amazing Spider-Man so bloody enjoyable. For all its absurdity, its strangely empty, quiet world is a million miles away from the overstimulated nonsense we’re bombarded with nowadays, as well as all the stultifying critical rhetoric that comes spooling out after it.
When I was little, Spider-Man definitely seemed to hold a different place in children’s hearts than other superheroes—he felt more modern, less chained to some historical archetype, and he felt liberating in a way other superheroes didn’t. I’ve said the same thing before (possibly more than once? I don’t have that many incredibly perceptive insights in my insight quiver, if I’m honest), but The Amazing Spider-Man feels—strangely, given that it was presumably just as much a product of corporate committee-fying as its equivalents today—like play: spontaneous, vaguely repetitive, aimless, so in love with its little gracenotes that it wants to repeat them, and loose enough to allow for a bit of metaphorical leeway. It’s only a silly show for kids, of course, but it’s also oddly liberating to see a character which has been inflated out of all proportion in the zeitgeist nowadays depicted for what it is, or should be.
I’m a bit galled by the vague memories I have of Nicholas Hammond’s performance being derided at the time. In fact, I think that, primed by some negative press in Starburst magazine, I probably snorted disgustedly along with the other smart-arses in Starcon‘s secondary screening room. Watching it again it’s obvious that that’s unfair bullshit: unmacho and by turns confused and joyous, Hammond’s fucking adorable, playing Spidey more like a bright eleven-year-old than a university student, which somehow takes the edge off his actual 27 years of age, making him genuinely feel about 17. The scenes of him guilelessly responding to questions about what Spiderman is are lovely.
So Mike, what do you make of this pilot on first viewing?
GRASSO: As I said in Mutant chat while we were watching it, I really feel like you guys buried the lede on this thing. I expected a fairly pedestrian, slow-paced ’70s TV movie with wincingly-bad performances. Okay, maybe some of that is true, but there is an undeniable charm to this thing! I wasn’t really sold on Nicholas Hammond at the outset, Richard; in the first half-hour of the film, I found myself trying (and failing) to get onboard with his read on the Peter Parker character. The scenes depicting his work in both the science lab and at the offices of the Bugle effectively convey everything we need to know about Peter Parker: a young man struggling to get by in New York in the late ’70s. But it wasn’t until the plot really kicks into gear that I felt any kind of attachment to Hammond’s Peter/Spidey.
That brings me to the real appeal of this Spider-Man pilot, which is the supervillainous plot! And it is a doozy that would have been right at home on the TV screens across America in 1977: a city held hostage! The machinations of evil, mind-controlling genius Edward Byron (played by reliable heavy Thayer David in one of his final roles), with his cryptic pronouncements of imminent chaos and violence released to the newspapers of Spidey’s New York City, are reminiscent of everything from the Zodiac Killer’s teasing torment of the Bay Area in the late ’60s and early ’70s, to the .44 Caliber Killer (a.k.a. the Son of Sam), who was captured a month before this telefilm aired on CBS. Moreover, Byron himself is a cult leader, another well-worn 1970s trope! His method of ensnaring white-collar bourgeois professionals to commit crimes—enlisting them through a self-help seminar that uses “new states of consciousness,” unleashing their potential through a combination of hypnotic suggestion and emotional abuse—would have been more than familiar to an American 1970s audience surrounded by new human potential/self-help groups such as est.
As far as the performances go, I was a little disappointed in David White’s J. Jonah Jameson; he comes off less as the martinet he is in the comics and more as a fussbudget, although the inclusion of Hilly Hicks’ Robbie Robertson (created in the late ’60s by Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. to make The Amazing Spider-Man cast more diverse) was welcome. Certainly the finest of the supporting cast was NYPD detective Captain Barbera, played by one of network television’s great “That Guys,” Michael Pataki, who in his lengthy career has played everything from obnoxious Klingons to Soviet defectors. Honestly, his grumbling irascibility might have made him a better J. Jonah Jameson.
ROBERTS: There are so many little things I love about this TV film (released theatrically in a number of countries): the twitchy way Spidey moves, as if Parker becomes a different creature (do spiders twitch?) when he puts on the costume; the way Peter looks at himself in the mirror the first time he dons the costume (which is pretty slick, all things considered); the Rocky-like theme song; the fact that there are only two “fight” scenes, both of them with the cult leader’s kung-fu stick-men; the fact that the kung-fu stick-men turn on the cult leader at the end and take photos with now-celebrity Spidey. Like Richard, I love Hammond in this, and I’ve been a fan ever since: he’s the perfect combination of determination and innocence. I also thought the script very cleverly inserts references to New York City’s recent and now infamous ’70s travails, as Mike alludes to above. One of the newspaper headlines reads: “ARE YOU ONE OF THE TEN? ANXIOUS CITY AWAITS MAYOR’S DECISION.” Our supervillain, you see, has threatened to force 10 NYC citizens, via technology-driven mind control, to commit suicide at a certain time if millions of dollars aren’t delivered to a seaplane in the harbor.
The best part is that essentially it’s Parker’s scientific smarts, not Spidey’s superpowers, that save the day—another callback to the spirit of the comic. We still lived in a world that, although unquestionably corrupt, could be set aright by human intelligence and goodness.
MCKENNA: The supervillanous plot is actually surprisingly nasty, especially given the target audience, which presumably did not back then include adults of the kind who film themselves opening children’s toys. I’m also going to state for the record that, as clunky and gauche as the special effects showing Spidey going about his spidering might seem to modern eyes, to my mind they actually come far closer to capturing the surreal magic of the concept than any of the hyperkinetic versions I’ve seen since. The fact that they’re portrayed so matter-of-factly gives them an eerie beauty, like in the scene where Parker jumps out of the way of a speeding car and finds himself somehow climbing a sheer wall, the whole thing carried off with a naturalness that barely comments on the absurdity, somehow making it feel all the more strange. And the fact that many of the stunts are quite patently real gives them a high-wire electricity no CGI can match. And yes, it’s a fucking great costume (though possibly slightly less so in profile).
Right, well, I think we’ve proved conclusively that The Amazing Spider-Man is a timeless masterpiece far more worth your time than most of the bloated dross currently doing the rounds in its place. There’s an element of nostalgia in that assessment, of course, but also the acknowledgement that its blend of childlike silliness with something genuinely mysterious possesses an enduringly dreamlike power. Am I going to call The Amazing Spider-Man a triumph of visionary cinema and say it should be put up there with Judex? Probably not, but its unaffected ebullience is, to me at least, more memorable than most of what has come since. And I say that as someone who watched about fifteen seconds of it sitting next to Gary Kurtz.