Spider-Man’s rich history transcends comic books—as one of the most popular superheroes of all time, he has swung out of the pages of his Marvel adventures into films, games, and television—and even there, transcended the barriers of live-action and animated formats. The latter of which has perhaps provided some of the webhead’s finest stories.
To celebrate Spider-Man’s animated excellence, we decided to look back at over 50 years of animated shows to see which really nailed the great power and greater responsibility of bringing us a new, fresh take on the Spider-mythos. Don’t forget, we have at least one more on the way in 2021 with the kid-focused Spidey and His Amazing Friends.
Also, for the record, this is strictly Spidey’s animated adventures on television. If we included Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, you damn well know where it’d be on this list anyway. So, without further ado...
The first and so far only Spidey TV series to be completely CGI, The New Animated Series doesn’t exactly get by on its looks these days. It had some bold ideas—loosely borrowing continuity from Sam Raimi’s beloved movie, a solid turn from Neil Patrick Harris as Peter Parker, and an all-star supporting vocal cast—but the short-lived show never really got over its awkward aesthetic, burning out after just 13 episodes.
Not to be confused with Amazing Friends, which premiered the same year, this version of Spider-Man built off the classic animated series but didn’t really do much beyond telling some pretty basic Spidey adventures—the attention was on Amazing Friends, and it feels very much apparent watching it back.
A completely out-there spinoff that saw Spider-Man flung into the weird Marvel parallel universe known as Counter-Earth, Unlimited at the very least tried to do something radically different from what had just come before it. Not everything stuck the landing, but there were nuggets of potential there—alas, they weren’t given a chance to grow, as the show was scrapped after a single season.
At this point, Spidey’s first crack at the animated web is more internet meme than it is cartoon. The 1967 show’s evolution into an absurd online lexicon of silly gifs and reaction memes is so influential that it, in turn, inspired the texts themselves, like Into the Spider-Verse’s post-credits recreation of the Spider-Man Pointing at Spider-Man meme. Despite its renewed half-life as part of the language of the internet age, there’s a retro charm that betrays Spider-Man’s aged clunkiness—and while there’s a lot of it, there’s still fun to be had in exploring it.
Also debuting in 1981 alongside Spider-Man was Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, which shook things up by giving Spider-Man a team show dynamic: the college-aged Peter was joined by roommates/partners-in-fighting-crime Iceman and Firestar (a female heroine created for the show, after licensing issues meant the Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm couldn’t be used). The trio had an excellent dynamic that elevated Amazing beyond its sister show, and as campy as it could be, there’s a reason why it remains beloved by many.
The 2017 Disney show might have begun living in the shadow of cult loves like Ultimate and Spectacular, but its rebooted take on the Spider-Man mythos found strength not just in re-imagining Peter (albeit in the much larger shadow of the ongoing Spider-Man reboot movies), but in quickly expanding his world. The cast included young Spider-verse heroes like Miles Morales, Gwen Stacey, and Anya Corazon. It struck a delicate balance between quickly thrusting this Peter into a much bigger comic book world of heroes and villains, and creating earnest, fun drama in his non-suited life (especially the first season’s early dynamics with Harry Osborn)—both of which helped it stand out in a sea of Spider-Men.
Part of this is nostalgia—this is the Spider-Man show I grew up with, and it will forever hold a high place in my heart—but the ‘90s Spider-Man was a killer, rip-roaring adventure. It features some of Spidey’s most classic comic book story arcs and dynamics, translated into solid serialized storytelling. Rooting itself in the long saga of MJ and Peter’s relationship, it was a series that felt like it both nailed Spider-Man’s vast comic world while telling a solid, human story beyond the comic book villains and superpowered action. Oh, and then you’ve got that guitar wail in the opening credits that, once you even begin to think about it, is seared into your head.
At first, Ultimate Spider-Man’s lighter tone might have felt a bit off-putting to fans still sore at Spectacular Spider-Man’s untimely end—especially when you consider the already major sea change this zany version of Peter was the head of: a SHIELD-backed superhero team rather than really his own hero. But its goofy humor aside (which, even then, is kind of Peter Parker’s thing), Ultimate was a pretty solid Spider-Man cartoon that also happened to do absolute wonders for the Marvel animated universe around it. It brought in not just Spider-heroes but adjacent members of the Marvel universe that managed to make the series not just fun comic book action, but a world that felt expansive and truly superheroic.
Cut down before its time, Spectacular took Peter Parker back to the young highschooler dynamic that had been largely missing from his animated shows up to this point. It focused as much on the intermingling teen drama of Peter’s school life with his friends (and romantic entanglements between them) as it did his life as Spider-Man. While the show modernized the elements it lifted from the comics material, Spectacular is one of the few series that felt like it really evoked that human side of the earliest Spider-Man comics, giving it a great, human heart that was just as fascinating to explore as the superheroic fistfights. And, once again, an absolute banger of a theme song.
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(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)