When a college student named Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) is bitten by a radioactive spider, he’s stunned to discover that he can now do everything that a spider can. He can climb walls. He has super strength. He has super senses. And, once he invents a sticky web serum, he can shoot webs and swing around the city! All he has to now is sew himself a red and blue costume and he’ll be ready to fight crime in New York City!
It’s not a minute too soon because New York is dealing with a crime wave that only Spider-Man can deal with. Seemingly ordinary people are suddenly going into hypnotic trances, stealing money and committing suicide. An extortionist sends words that, unless he’s paid a lot of money, he’s going to unleash a wave hypnotic chaos on the city. Could it have anything to do with a sinister New Age guru and hypnotist named Edward Byron (Thayer David)?
Though it was released theatrically in Europe, Spider-Man was produced for television and it served as the pilot for a short-lived CBS television series. Along with The Incredible Hulk, this was one of the first attempts to build a television series around one of Marvel’s characters. Unfortunately, the series only last 14 episodes before being canceled. Though it can be hard to believe nowadays with the nonstop hype around every single comic book movie, there was a time when television and film executives were actually weary about trying to bring super heroes like Spider-Man and Captain America to life. According to Stan Lee (who served as a consultant on Spider-Man), CBS wanted to distance their version of Spider-Man from its comic book origins. While both the pilot and the series features Peter Parker crawling up walls and shooting webs, there’s no Uncle Ben. There’s no talk about how with great power comes great responsibility. Worst of all, there are no members of Spider-Man’s famed rogue’s gallery. No Electro, no Sandman, no Green Goblin, and certainly no Dr. Octopus. CBS wanted the show to feature down-to-Earth villains, which is an interesting strategy for a show about a grad student who can climb walls.
The television version of Peter Parker isn’t as insecure and angsty as either the comic book version or even the movie versions. Hammond is likable and sincere in the role but he is also almost too self-assured as Parker, proof that CBS didn’t understand that a huge part of Spider-Man’s appeal was that he was never as confident as Superman or Captain America. Instead, much like many of the people who read his comic, Peter was frequently worried and consumed with self-doubt. The comic book version of Spider-Man was always wracked with guilt for not stopping the thief who eventually killed Ben. The television version was more worried about selling enough selfies to The Daily Bugle to be able to go on a date with his professor’s daughter.
At least the pilot film featured a villain who wouldn’t have felt out of place in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, though he probably would have had a cool villain name, like the Mesmerizer, if he had appeared in the comic. Thayer David played a lot of smug villains in the 70s, not to mention the fight promoter in Rocky. In Spider-Man, David goes all in as the villain and he’s got the perfect posh accent for delivering threats and sarcastic put-downs. Unfortunately, this version of Peter Parker is not the wise-cracking machine that he was in the comic books and he never really gets a chance to verbally put Byron in his place.
If you can overlook its deviations from the comic book, the pilot isn’t a bad made-for-TV adventure. Though miscast and playing a far different version of Peter Parker than we’re used to, Nicholas Hammond does his best to make Peter and his transformation credible. Thayer David, as always, is a good villain and the story, with ordinary people suddenly turning into ruthless criminals, isn’t bad. Though there are a few convincing shots of Spider-Man web-slinging, most of the special effects are lousy but they’re really not any worse than what you would expect to see in a 70s made-for-TV movie. Though the series ultimately didn’t work, the pilot is still an enjoyable precursor to what, decades later, would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe.