Spider-Man “The Spot” (part 1 of 2)
Confession time: As a kid, I was never really a fan of the much-venerated Batman: The Animated Series. That show was just a casual thing for me, enjoyable while the episode lasted, before leaving my mind completely afterward. My true fandom was reserved for the show that ran after it: Spider-Man. Here was a series not even granted the dignity of a subtitle, yet it quickly became my first-ever experience with appointment TV.
The two shows had a lot of the same strengths: They both featured characters that kids like me had known as iconic heroes and villains our whole lives. They boasted decent-to-good animation, for the time. They had great casts, whose voices a lot of people still hear when they read the comics. And probably most importantly, they both had writing that took itself seriously enough for us to care about what was happening, but still had a sense of when to cut loose and have fun.
So what made me latch onto one and not the other? Quite simply, it came down to long-form storytelling. When Spider-Man premiered in 1994, it did something completely unheard of at the time, at least in the world of Saturday morning cartoons: Instead of wrapping up its stories in single episodes, the show took advantage of its open-ended format to craft involved story arcs that could then build to climaxes, made all the more powerful thanks to how long we’d been looking forward to them. I completely ate it up, anxiously waiting to see what would happen next.
Some of my fondest memories of this period of my life involve discussing the show with other kids, all of us desperate to find out where a particular storyline was heading. Batman’s far more episodic writing simply couldn’t compare with the excitement and suspense I got from Spider-Man week to week.
The show was at its strongest in its second season, which featured Peter Parker discovering that his fateful spider bite was still causing changes in his body. At first, this simply came in the form of his powers switching off unexpectedly, which was scary enough, but he soon learned that he was turning into a mindless monster. This was pretty nightmarish stuff for eleven-year-old me; it’s not easy seeing a character you’ve grown to love over the last year slowly turn into a hideous spider creature.
Unfortunately, once Peter was cured in the season finale, the show was never quite able to regain the same level of narrative momentum. The writers tried to make up for it with smaller arcs, and the occasional callback episode, plus more and more cameos from the rest of the Marvel Universe, but it still didn’t feel the same.
Season three was hit particularly hard, having to follow up on such a strong season-long story arc. It contains what just about every fan agrees are the two worst episodes of the series: “The Rocket Racer” and “The Spot”.
In fact, there was a debate for a while over which was the worse episode. My vote always went to “The Spot”, because “Rocket Racer” may have been centered on a dull character and even duller villains, but at least that character wasn’t intensely annoying, and there were no gaping plot holes that I could see instantly, even as a kid.
Before I get to the episode, there’s a bit of background we need to get out of the way. See, unlike “The Rocket Racer”, this episode is actually tied to the ongoing season story arc, which as far as I’m concerned is another reason to dislike it even more. You can’t just forget you watched this one and move on to better episodes; you’re actually forced to keep it in mind as the season progresses.
Basically, this episode follows a two-parter that saw Spider-Man teaming up with Iron Man and War Machine. In it, Tony Stark was working on technology that could open up portals to other dimensions, but he ended up deciding it was too dangerous to continue developing.
Which brings us to “The Spot”, the single worst episode of the show simply known as Spider-Man.
We begin with the opening credits, which I always found pretty cheap and uninspired. It’s just random shots from the series set to a techno beat, while an electronic voice repeats “Spider-Man” over and over, with the occasional “radioactive!” thrown in as well. This was the one area where I always knew Batman had Spider-Man beat.
At Stark Industries, Tony Stark informs the leader of the portal project, Dr. Jonathan Ohn, that he’s shutting the project down. Ohn protests, voiced with a comically annoying high-pitched whine by an actor named Oliver Muirhead. And lucky us, we’ll get to hear quite a lot of this voice, as he’s the intensely annoying character I mentioned earlier.
Stark promises to give him a new project, but as he packs up later, Ohn says, “You’re not going to stick me on some bathroom tissue improvement team!” Um, what?
As Ohn walks down the street, a car pulls up, and he’s introduced to my favorite of the show’s villains: Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, voiced wonderfully by Roscoe Lee Browne. Yes, the Kingpin was being played by a black guy long before the Daredevil movie! And even in a script as bad as this, the character works well, getting both of this episode’s really good lines. He offers Ohn a ride, plus a new job. Yeah, nothing suspicious about this at all.
Kingpin shows Ohn his new lab, but Ohn still waffles on his acceptance. But then his prospective partner Sylvia Lopez walks in, and the power of hormones puts a big grin on Ohn’s face, and he agrees right away. And I just don’t see it; Sylvia has a nice face, but also a bizarre pointy hairdo that just screams crazy person.
Kingpin later watches Ohn and Sylvia work, while talking with his number two man Herbert Landon. Landon is a scientist who earlier in the series tried to wipe out mutants, but ended up a Two-Face style half-mutant himself. Unfortunately, once he started working for Kingpin, he lost all of that individuality and just became a generic mad scientist, and one not nearly as interesting as Kingpin’s previous assistant, Alistair Smythe.
No surprise, Kingpin hired Ohn for his knowledge of Stark’s portal technology. Kingpin spends some time daydreaming about what he could do with the portals, which includes popping out of a wall and grabbing Spider-Man. It probably sounded good on paper, but the actual image is pretty goofy.
Next, Peter’s at the carnival with Mary Jane, thinking about how it’s been so quiet lately, and how his duties as Spider-Man haven’t hurt their relationship. And you can just feel the cliché machine clunking away during that voiceover.
Also here are Peter’s former love interest Felicia Hardy, and her new boyfriend Jason, as part of a story arc that eventually revealed Jason to be the true identity of the Hobgoblin. This wasn’t what you’d call exciting, because Jason was such a minor character that the reveal lacked any real shock value, and also, he was voiced by the quite recognizable Mark Hamill, so most of us figured it out way ahead of time. Even the credits made no attempt to hide the secret, openly stating that Hamill was the voice of both Jason and Hobgoblin.
Felicia and Jason have a conversation that has nothing to do with anything in this episode, so I’ll just skip it.
Back at Kingpin’s lab, Ohn and Sylvia are making progress on their experiments, and have just succeeded in creating their first portal.
Naturally, Ohn walks right up to it. Just as he starts to explain how safe it is, he’s sucked in and it explodes, sending more portals all over the city. Brilliant. I’m so looking forward to getting to know this guy better.
One of these portals just so happens to land at the carnival, perfectly positioned to suck up a bunch of people on a rollercoaster. Peter ducks out of sight, and suddenly Spider-Man shows up to save the day, while Mary Jane just grouses. You’d think she would have noticed a pattern by this point.
After pushing the people out of harm’s way, Spider-Man is sucked into the portal, and finds himself in LSD-Land along with Ohn.
Spidey is soon swept along through more portals until he’s spat out onto a rooftop, while Ohn suddenly finds a bunch of the portals sticking to him. I’d like to care, really. But Spider-Man just whines about how his date was ruined, just like we’ve heard a hundred times before.
Sylvia is watching the news of the portals in the lab, when Ohn drops in behind her. He’s now covered with portals, which gives him a goofy polka dot look, and he can now telepathically control the portals, for no adequately explained reason.
He demonstrates his new powers by using the portals to zip around the lab, while the music desperately tries to convince us of how cool this is. But Ohn’s voice ensures it’s all in vain.
Then Ohn suddenly starts proclaiming his feelings of love for Sylvia, which he apparently developed off-screen. This is a problem with both this episode and “The Rocket Racer”; their focus on characters we’ll never see again means they have to cram a large amount of character development into a time frame that’s way too short. However, this is the one place where “The Spot” comes out on top: I’d say just one additional episode with Ohn and Sylvia as a B-plot could have accounted for them becoming so close, while the Rocket Racer is forced to go through at least half a season’s worth of development in his 20 minutes of screen time.
Sylvia thankfully spares us from more of this when she remembers what’s been on the news, and she turns the TV back on to show Ohn just how much he’s screwed the pooch. He heads out to close all those portals, talking to them like they’re naughty children. This might have been amusing, but once again, the voice wrecks it.
And for no reason at all, he leaves behind one big portal in the sky. I’ll just call this the Plot Hole, for reasons that will soon become even more apparent.
Back at the lab, Kingpin is on a viewscreen chewing out Sylvia for not keeping him informed of their progress. Just then, Ohn returns through a portal and declares, “I’ve got holes in my pocket, right where they belong!” Piece of advice: think things over before you say them, so you don’t sound like an idiot.
Ohn then starts considering keeping all this from Kingpin, just as the man himself arrives. He lifts Ohn up with one arm, but Ohn talks his way out of this, probably just by annoying Kingpin enough that he immediately wants to leave.
Once he’s gone, Ohn says he and Sylvia should open up their own lab, and to get the money for this, Ohn decides to turn to a life of crime. And then he christens himself “The Spot”, because when you look like a half-finished circus clown, you also want a name that makes you sound like a Labrador retriever.