There have been many Spider-Man cartoons over the years. Since 1967, when Spider-Man got his first cartoon and that theme song got stuck in the world’s collective brain, he hasn’t been off the TV screens for long. Just like TV shows in general, the evolution of the Spider-Man cartoons has brought with it better animation, better writing, and longer-lasting, more complex plot lines.
However, advancements don’t always mean the overall show is an improvement over previous incarnations. Newer doesn’t always mean better.
This first Spider-Man cartoon brought the character comic book fans loved to animated life on the small screen. Its iconic theme song about doing whatever a spider can is eternal. In this cartoon, Peter Parker gets bitten by the radioactive spider to become Spider-Man as usual. However, late 60’s TV didn’t allow for a lot of characterization and realism in its cartoons, so the episodes are a bit goofy. Spider-Man even made web swords! Then again, comics of the time were sometimes just as absurd, so it’s just a product of its time. As such, the animation is poor by today’s standards meaning the show hasn’t visually aged well. Something worth mentioning is seasons 2 and 3 were taken over by famed animator Ralph Bakshi (Fritz The Cat, Lord of The Rings) who did away with most of Spidey’s villains. If you watch an episode of season 1 then compare it to an episode in season 2 there is a definite change in the tone of the show. Regardless, it is still fun to watch.
Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981-1986)
In his largest absence from the world of animation since he began, Spider-Man didn’t come back to cartoons after 1970’s end of Spider-Man until 1981 with Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. This entry into the Spider-Man canon included Iceman and new character Firestar as the amazing friends to the wall crawler. Peter once again battles his famous foes, like Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, but the show stretched out further into the Marvel universe. Characters such as Captain America, Thor, Loki, Dr. Strange, Red Skull, Namor, and more all showed up to assist or battle Spidey when needed. The show was an improvement on the 60’s series for the story lines and animation. However, it was often still very silly placing Peter in ridiculous situations. Once, he even got trapped in a giant spiderweb by a huge spider. The dialogue wasn’t generally much better. Even so, this was a favorite of mine when I was very young.
Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994-1998)
Much like the other cartoons that included “The Animated Series” in their title, Batman and X-Men, this series took a big step up in modernizing what people could expect from cartoons, better and more complex storytelling with multi-part story arcs that didn’t dumb down the animated version of comic books. The episodes were much like the Spider-Man comics of the time. Characters that had been modernized in the comics appeared in their same modern way in the show, like The Vulture. This is one of my favorites of the various Spider-Man cartoons.
However, the dialogue is still occasionally cheesy and overly and goofily melodramatic. If you start watching it today, don’t let the silly dialogue turn you away from what is, overall, a great version of a Spider-Man cartoon.
Spider-Man: Unlimited (1999-2001)
This was a very short-lived series, running only 13 episodes. The design of the characters was a bit different than what one might expect. Spidey wasn’t wearing any of his classic costumes, and Green Goblin just looked weird rather than menacing. The story focused mostly on Peter going to a “Counter Earth” to stop Venom and Carnage. This was a decent cartoon, but since it was only thirteen episodes, it’s merely a blip in Spidey’s animated history.
Spider-Man: The New Animated Series (2003)
Here’s another very short-lived Spidey series, but this one comes with Neal Patrick Harris as the voice of Peter. Even though he and other voice actors on the show were known actors, that’s really the only highlight of this show. It could be argued this show wasn’t given time to develop since it only ran 13 episodes, but the show was trying too hard to be cool and often ended up failing. Moreover, the show made the odd choice of almost never using well-known villains. Then, there was the animation. The show tried to experiment with early computer animation, and it didn’t look the best then and has aged to look even worse now.
Spectacular Spider-Man (2008-2009)
For me, this is the best of the bunch. Spider-Man: The Animated Series is a very close second if not a tie, but this series is very fun to watch and mostly sticks close to the story lines of the comics. In it, Peter is once again back in high school dealing with school, bullies, and love interests. As the show explores Peter’s origins as Spider-Man, viewers also get to watch the origins of his huge cast of villains. In this show, that list includes Green Goblin, Venom, Mysterio, Doctor Octopus, Rhino, Shocker, Kraven, Sandman, and so many more.
The animation was fun and mixed traditional animation with computer animation. Spidey, for example, would be regular animation, but the cityscape he’d swing through would be computer animated. It made for a unique and cool look to the show. Once again, the characters were more developed, and the story lines dipped into deeper topics with more complex plots than the much older shows did. Even though there have been other shows since, this one still is the best combination of fun and closeness to the comics. Also, this series’ theme song is absolutely the catchiest Spider-Man song in existence next to that original one.
Don’t let the short, 2-season run fool you. It is my understanding that this show, while popular, suffered the same fate as the amazing Avengers: Earths’ Mightiest Heroes in that they were cut short by Disney in favor of creating shows that aligned more with the MCU movies rather than the comics. Granted, at the time, Spidey wasn’t in the MCU, but I guess a relaunch of Avengers warranted a relaunch of Spidey. Agent Coulson of the MCU showed up in the new Spider-Man series as the school principal and a Sam Jackson-like Nick Fury appeared as well.
The Ultimate Spider-Man (2012-2017)
The Ultimate Spider-Man is the MCU-aligned version of Spider-Man that tragically cut Spectacular Spider-Man’s run too early. Bitterness aside, this show was still quite good. It was also very funny. Spider-Man’s inner monologue generally appeared visually onscreen. If you’ve ever seen shows like Scrubs or Ally McBeal, Spidey’s thoughts would appear as a kind of visual daydream as it did for the characters in those shows. He also would have little Spideys giving him advice as with the traditional cartoon schtick of an angel on one shoulder giving advice while there’s a devil on the person’s other shoulder giving the opposite advice. When panicked, Peter would squeal like a chimpanzee. It was all hilarious. Aside from the hilarity, the show represented Spidey and his villains near perfectly.
The only problem I had with this series, though I liked the additional characters, was that the show focused on a team of heroes led by Spidey rather than just Spidey himself. The team consisted of Nova, White Tiger, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, all teenagers. First, they’re not meant to all be teenagers, and aren’t all typically tied to Spider-Man. Also, since Peter was essentially sequestered at SHIELD, his normal cast of side characters were most often nowhere to be seen. Guests, though, included Captain America, Moon Knight, Blade, Deadpool, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
I watched this cartoon with my young boys, and we all loved it. Peter’s antics had them cackling out loud. It was a good show, just not the best Spider-Man show.
Spider-Man (2017- )
Once again, the show was rebooted. This time, it seems to align more with the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies. However, his origin, as well as some of his villains, is once again tinkered with a bit. Most notably, Norman Osborn creates a school for geniuses that Peter gets to attend. Though not as funny as its predecessor, this cartoon still has a good amount of humor and a lot of action.
Old villains and friends show up for episodes, while characters never seen before on TV show up as well. From Iron Man to Miles Morales and Ghost Spider and Goblin to Octavius as a good guy, this show has plenty to keep it unique and modern.
Spider-Man: The Animated Series, Spectacular Spider-Man, and the new Spider-Man (2017) stick closest to the comics, but all the versions of Spider-Man that have been seen in cartoons are fun. While Spectacular is my favorite because it has all that fun, the closeness to comics, and story lines that really kept viewers coming back for more, there’s something different to love in each version. Do yourself a favor and binge watch them all, so you can choose which you think is the best.
Spider-Man Cartoons: Which is Your Favorite?
- Writing - 8/108/10
- Storyline - 8/108/10
- Acting - 8/108/10
- Music - 9/109/10
- Production - 8/108/10