Look, I’ve never been a fan of Kevin Smith’s ooooooov-rah, per se, but I will never criticize his ability to spin a bloody good yarn. He’s funny, engaging, charming, and knows his pop culture. WIRED also knows this, so when on the eve of the (apparently very good) Spider-verse movie, they called on Smith to sit down and run through every Spider-man Movie and TV Show and opinionate all over that mess. (And because Sony’s contract with the Marvel superhero is up, this might be a nice demarcation line.)
I stepped on board the Spidey-train when he appeared as a character on PBS’ The Electric Company, the educational kids show that would screen after Sesame Street. As Smith points out, this Spidey was mute, a red and blue mime who only spoke in thought balloons, some of which others could literally read as they hung above his head.
Around the same time the ‘60s cartoon was also screening, copying the rogue’s gallery of villains well known from the Steve Ditko-Stan Lee comic book. Both this and the Electric Company Spideys had the best theme songs, and they still haven’t been topped. (If you’re a Gen‑X’er, you can drop the lyrics on request, anytime).
Now, before this, there had been a few live action attempts to bring the wall-crawler to the big screen but, well, they’re as cheesy and not-good as you might expect, so for the period during the ‘90s, Spider-man stayed an animated concern. The highlight of the ’94-’98 animated series, according to Smith, is the final meta episode, where Spider-man crosses over into “our” reality and meets Stan Lee, while Lee’s wife Joan played Madame Web.
Interestingly, Smith glosses over the three other animated series that have run since then because of the beginning of live-action Spider-man films made with the power and money of the modern blockbuster. (Interesting, I say, because critics are now declaring the new animated film the best of the bunch).
Smith isn’t wild about the first Sam Raimi film in 2002. He questions the decision to cover up emotive actor Willem Dafoe with a Green Goblin mask for the final battle. However, he not only likes the sequel, but calls it “one of the greatest superhero films ever made” because it never loses sight of the man behind the Spidey mask.
He chastises Sony for the needless 2012 reboot, just five years from the final film in the Raimi trilogy. His problem: Garfield’s Spider-man is great, his Peter Parker is not. The opposite is true with McGuire.
Finally, they got it right with Tom Holland’s version in Avengers: Civil War, that mix of geeky student by day, cocky quipster by night. Plus, as Smith points out, they gave him his Queens accent back. (Marvel comics, at least the first couple of years, was always entrenched in a real New York City as background.)
“The real charm of that character…is that he’s covered from head-to-toe,” Kevin says, paraphrasing Stan Lee. “You don’t know who he is or what he is. You don’t know if he’s a boy, a girl, you don’t know what he is, what race, creed, color, anything. So any kid reading that book can see themselves as the character.”
And that leads us to the current film, which Smith can tell you about himself. It follows that universality of the character and explodes it out to a bunch of alternative universe versions of all races, genders, and genus.
“We live in such a golden era (for comic book movies),” Smith declares and even in a world of Marvel burnout, you want to believe him. Maybe the new film is the way forward: more diversity, more fun, more talking animals.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.