Spider-Man (1977)

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Directed by E. W. Swackhammer, 1977.
Starring Nicolas Hammond, Lisa Eilbacher, Thayer David, Michael Pataki, David White, Billy Hicks.
90 mins.

Strange robberies are being reported across New York, committed by seemingly-innocuous citizens who later have no memory of their actions. At the same time, a mind-controlling extortionist threatens to make ten people commit suicide unless he’s paid $50 million…and a University student is involved in a freak accident, giving him the powers of a spider…

MARVEL MASTERMIND STAN LEE describes Spider-Man as, ‘the superhero who could be you,’ an everyday Joe who still has to deal with life’s disappointments and mundanities despite his extraordinary powers. He’s no confident, all-conquering Superman, he’s a guy struggling to do his best against constant set-backs. The Man of Steel may be a modern day Hercules or Zeus, but Spidey is Sisyphus, endlessly pushing a rock up a hill only to see it roll down again.

This 1977 TV movie (pilot for a TV show and released in European cinemas) can’t compete with the spectacle or sympathetic supervillains of modern Spidey epics – but it conveys the character’s essential appeal as well as any of his recent blockbusters. 2004’s Spider-Man 2 took the Sisyphus approach to operatic extremes by presenting Peter’s life as endless noble suffering, elevating the character to messianic levels that make him harder to relate to. This TV movie instead brings him down to the random setbacks of everyday life. Forgetting to take allergy pills leaves him walking around sneezing, even in costume. He accidentally breaks important baddie-tracking gizmos. And in a scene that could have been ripped from the comic panels, an injured and money-less web-head is denied a ride by a suspicious taxi driver, and subsequently travels home in the back of a truck filled with rubbish. Like Rodney Dangerfield, Spidey don’t get no respect.

The script follows the comic accurately enough in most cases. Peter is a New York grad student struggling to sell photos to The Daily Bugle. Bitten by a radioactive spider (which here literally glows with radioactive energy), he discovers incredible powers, creates a costume and wrist-bound web-shooters, and is soon fighting crime and selling the pictures to his unenlightened editor.

The missing element of the origin – and it’s a big one – is Peter’s Uncle Ben, in other versions a father figure whose death taught a self-centred Peter he had an obligation to help others. That tragic element is a strange omission here. Instead Peter’s moral compass is bang-on from the get-go; he never attempts to enter showbiz, and he’s barely clambered up his first wall before he’s stopping purse-snatchers, rescuing suicidal citizens and hunting the nefarious extortionist.

Nicolas Hammond, a child star in The Sound of Music, doesn’t actually don the red and blue pyjamas very much – Spidey’s mainly played by stuntman Fred Waugh as a mute, head-cocking mime. Hammond is however the best Peter Parker to date; the most normal, unassuming guy in the world except for useful science skills and the requisite sense of responsibility. He’s shown casually in a science lab working alongside a very similar grad student, and Peter just happens to be the one bitten by the radioactive spider; there’s no sense of grand heroic destiny here, just pure circumstance.

A great cast of supporting characters are another hallmark of the comic, but here they are rendered all but forgettable; David White’s Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson is irritable but lacks the pomposity and humour required. Peter’s Aunt May (Jeff Donnell) is simply a fuss-pot in her fleeting screen time; and the most notable thing about Billy Hick’s Robbie Robertson is that he’s inexplicably twenty years younger than his comic namesake as Jonah’s right-hand man. Peter does have a romantic interest in Judy Tyler (Lisa Eilbacher) but his more famous girlfriends Gwen Stacy and Mary-Jane are nowhere to be seen.

It conveys the character’s essential appeal as well as any of his recent blockbusters

There are no supervillains here either. Instead Spidey throws down with a trio of porn-moustached martial artists wielding wooden swords – and later, inexplicably, flame-throwers. Their scraps are enthusiastic if stagey, backed by wonderful then-vogue kung fu movie sound effects – every ‘whack’ and ‘swish’ is deliciously emphatic. Once past them, it’s onto David Thayer’s big bad brainwasher; reasonably sinister, but more Angela Lansbury’s speed. Sadly Thayer died before the film was broadcast.

The mind-control plot itself is the sort of one-issue filler thriller occasionally seen in the comics in between bigger supervillain-based storylines. It works okay; somewhat outré but an achievable evil scheme for a low-budget production, and one steady-cam sequence of a zombified hypnosis victim about to hurl himself from a twenty story window is effectively creepy.

The special effects – achieved with stuntmen on wires and back projection – are far more low-tech than modern blockbusters, but at times have a magic that CGI will never achieve. While some shots give the game away, others are wonderfully convincing: Spidey leaps twelve feet into the air to stick to a ceiling, and jumps on and off walls during combat. The use use of POV shots during wall-crawling also create a sense of acrophobia missed in the modern movies. There is a notable lack of web-swinging, except for one key sequence actually filmed on the rooftops -a few seconds on film, it took two days to set up safely.

It’s more realistic in other ways as well. The Spidey costumes of the recent movies are expensive, perfectly-fitting and high-tech. They look great on posters but bad in context. Whereas the ropey, tangible felt and spandex togs here look exactly like something a kid with little money could throw together; he appears a bit silly and a bit sinister, and that’s exactly right.

The settings work for the film too. Golden 1970’s Los Angeles stands in for New York, and the heavy use of location work gives the film a realistic, urban feel. Spidey is a street level superhero, and over-stylised visuals and locations dilute his effectiveness. The more you an relate to him and his surroundings the better; and these are real streets, real alleyways and real skyscrapers for him to crawl up. His bright primary-coloured costume is all the more dramatic against the grey asphalt and brown fashions of the period.

Much of 1977’s Spider-Man is, inevitably, rote and by-the-numbers 70s US television. However it’s worth watching as a more down-to-earth take, boasting a great Peter Parker and some joyously literal special effects. Not to mention the whole thing is backed by a ludicrously funky jazz soundtrack full of saxophones and screeching guitar solos – you could correctly date this just by hearing a few seconds of it.

As neither this movie nor the subsequent TV show have ever been released on DVD, you’ll probably only catch it on YouTube as  a grainy transfer of a VHS tape. A shame – but at least it makes it harder to see the wires.

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Review by Ulysses Gamma-Hose

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