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The Animated Spider-Man DVD Extravaganza!

Quietly, we should say lucky, lucky Disney. Somehow, the company ended up with the rights to almost all of the animated Spider-Man shows. And certainly, they have all of the ones that anybody cares about, which puts them in the catbird seat in this age when other blockbusters are taking their chances with animated sequels/prequels hitting home video.

In honor of Spider-Man 2, Disney gets to take advantage with not one but two DVD packages that should get fans drooling.

The most obvious tie-in comes with Spider-Man vs. Doc Ock, the latest selection culled from the '90's cartoon that ran on Fox. Four episodes run in succession, with or without introductions from Stan Lee, depending on how you program your DVD player. The first focuses on Doctor Octopus, and strangely enough, Spider-Man 2 actually owes a lot to this animated revision of the first clash between Spider-Man and his betentacled nemesis.

But it also starts laying the groundwork for Felicia Hardy to become The Black Cat, which is where the disc ends up. Poor Dr. Octavius; he never gets the respect he so desperately craves. Maybe it's the weird buttoncap mushroom haircut.

Disney has once again organized this DVD in a haphazard fashion, pulling episodes from various points in the series' run. While it gives each disc a strong theme, it also undercuts the subplots that made the effort such a fan favorite. In the first episode on the DVD, Mary Jane doesn't rate a mention, and Peter is awkwardly courting Felicia. But the second episode comes from much later in the series, opening with Peter lamenting his problems with MJ. It also carries an episode title labeling it "Part II" of a specific storyline.

If and when Disney decides to just do boxed sets, this might annoy some fans. Even the usually fun Stan Lee interviews have lost their focus. To be honest, he's really reaching to have something new to say about the character after three or four DVDs, and the unseen/unheard interviewer has started really throwing screwballs in - Mr. Lee, what would you do if you were President for a day? If you could travel through time, who would you visit? Do I look fat in this dress?

Because they've worn Stan out on the '90's series, he only offers a brief written introduction on the real jewel for fans this week, Spider-Man - The '67 Collection. That contribution to the pamphlet is the only real extra on the set, unless you consider that it actually covers 1967 to 1969 as an extra.

The set still sparkles, because Disney cleaned up each and every episode. It's not officially digitally remastered, as there are still some occasional flaws that may speak more to the sloppiness of the original production. However, it's a major restoration that made a huge difference. Compare the episodes here to the versions thrown in as bonuses on earlier DVDs like Spider-Man: The Ultimate Villain Showdown and Spider-Man: The Return of the Green Goblin. As extras, the episodes had muddy sound and scratchy visuals. But on this six-disc set, they're sharp.

They're also pretty silly. Even when an actual comic book villain appears, or maybe especially when they appear, the plots have a cotton candy fluffiness to them that was pretty common for the time. These shows were, after all, meant for kids, but in a manner rather disrespectful to their intelligence. More often than not, the episodes (at least initially) spend more energy on establishing J. Jonah Jameson's animosity toward Spider-Man and how cool a particular villain looks than making sense.

They also feature recurring characters such as the wizened and luckily named Dr. Smarter, who sometimes knows Peter and sometimes does not, but always seems to have the solution for a particular problem. If an ice creature appears in Manhattan, Dr. Smarter intuitively grasps that it must come from Pluto. (That episode also shows up on Spider-Man vs. Doc Ock as a bonus.)

Preferring characters like Smarter, the show also eschews most of Peter Parker's supporting cast. Aunt May occasionally appears, but when Peter hangs out at school, it's with nondescript teens. One blonde keeps showing up, and one hopes it would be Gwen Stacy or at least Liz Allen. But no - it's "Susan." Instead, Grantray Animation had more interest in Peter's relationship with Betty Brant, all the better to draw comparisons to Superman.

Then during the second season, madness in the form of Ralph Bakshi seized the show. Later infamous for Fritz The Cat, Heavy Traffic, Wizards and a half-finished Lord of the Rings, the young animator had no more budget, time or indeed any resources than the previous regime at Grantray. But he did have more vision.

Though the episodes don't necessarily make more sense, they're trippier and more daring. Bakshi integrated background art more in line with commercial advertising, giving the show a specific look in keeping with the culture, rather than the nondescript look of the first season.

He also clearly didn't understand the character very well. For some reason, the show didn't get around to doing Spider-Man's origin until Bakshi's reign, and there's a darkness to Peter's personality that just doesn't jibe with the work of Lee and Ditko - but does with Bakshi's later work.

A couple of trips to other planets and dimensions, too, foreshadow where the animator would later find his bread and butter. But they sure don't belong in Spider-Man.

Despite that, it's interesting and for the most part highly entertaining for fans. Since each episode is reproduced in its entirety, it also begs the question: can you get too much of the coolest superhero theme song in history?

No. No, you can't. So get this set.

Spider-Man - The '67 Collection (6 Volume Animated Set)

Spider-Man vs. Doc Ock (Animated Series)

Derek McCaw


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