Columbia Pictures released SPIDER-MAN as a theatrical feature overseas in 1978 and later in the U.S. on VHS. Aside from silent bits on the PBS kiddie show THE ELECTRIC COMPANY, this CBS pilot marks the first live-action appearance of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics creation on film. Don’t look for Spider-Man to battle any colorful supervillains, however, as the plot and those of the series that followed are interchangeable with other cop shows of its day.
Nicholas Hammond, who was one of the Von Trapp kids in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, is uninteresting as Peter Parker, a college student who is bitten by a radioactive spider in his science lab and receives superpowers, such as the ability to walk up walls. Director E.W. Swackhamer (LAW & ORDER) shows this using the laughable visual effect of Hammond crawling on a blue screen with a photo of a house superimposed on it. Later shots using a stuntman on wires are a lot better.
Jeff Donnell (IN A LONELY PLACE) is Parker’s aunt May. David White (BEWITCHED) is Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, to whom freelance photojournalist Parker reports, and Hilly Hicks (ROLL OUT) is Jameson’s assistant, Joe Robertson. They’re the only characters from the comics to make the transition to the small screen, and only Jameson continued with the series (though played by a different actor).
New York City is plagued by Edward Byron (Thayer David), a megalomaniacal New Ager who hypnotizes ordinary citizens and forces them to commit bank robberies. He threatens to force ten people to commit suicide unless the mayor pays him $50 million. Parker designs a red-and-blue costume and mechanical web shooters to investigate. Alvin Boretz (N.Y.P.D.) had been writing for television for three decades when he got this assignment, but it’s clear he didn’t have a grip on the Spider-Man character or his universe. Considering co-creator Lee was the script consultant, this is unforgivable.
There’s nothing at all “larger than life” about this film, except maybe Michael Pataki’s humorously hammy turn as Captain Barbera, a sarcastic cigar-chomping cop on the case. Even the fight scenes, which should have been the highlight—how do you screw up Spider-Man battling a trio of samurai?—are dull. Twelve months passed before CBS aired the first AMAZING SPIDER-MAN episode in 1978, a year in which it also had WONDER WOMAN and THE INCREDIBLE HULK on its prime-time schedule.