Almost everyone knows the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon for two reasons: the “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can!” theme song and the “Spider-Man pointing” meme, an all-purpose image from the 19th episode that’s been used for everything from criticizing politicians to poking fun at professional athletes. It’s become so popular that a version of it appears in the ending of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and in a “break the internet” bit of shameless PR, Marvel recreated it with live-action Spidey performers Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland to plug Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Aside from that, the show is typically remembered for… being bad. To be fair, there are better Spider-Man cartoons out there: The low-budget animation of the 1967 show can be clunky, the character models often look warped, and every voice is played with Extreme Cartoon Energy. But there is far more to the show than earworms and meme notoriety, and the new Into the Spider-Verse sequel, Across the Spider-Verse, is the reminder. Like the two big-budget Spidey blockbusters, 1967 Spider-Man’s three seasons show how a story told by the right team of artists can push a character as iconic as Spider-Man through a full spectrum of comic book fantasy.
Much of the first season of the show is deeply indebted to the work of Spider-Man’s original co-creator team, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Early-episode stories like “Where Crawls the Lizard,” “Never Step on a Scorpion,” and “Captured by J. Jonah Jameson” are almost direct retellings of Amazing Spider-Man issues 6, 20, and 25, respectively. Even when they stray from it, the first season is always keen to capture Lee’s bombastic plot beats and penchant for big emotional turns. When it comes to that specific era of Spider-Man, it’s likely the most comic-book-accurate show that we’ve ever gotten.
Spider-Man debuted just five years after Peter Parker made his debut in the pages of Marvel Comics, which probably helped keep most of the storytelling faithful. But films like Across the Spider-Verse suggest there’s more to the character than arriving at certain points of creative predestination. It’s how the incarnations of Spider-Man are played with and molded that lend them their staying power, and when the 1967 Spider-Man truly diverges from Lee and Ditko’s work is when it becomes special.
Marvel’s paperbacks weren’t sacrosanct to the creative team at Grantray-Lawrence Animation and ABC, which originally aired the show. The cartoon scripts excise a bit of the misery that Lee imbued Spider-Man with (Peter Parker’s life is outrageously shitty in the early comics), but the show also helps us realize how a character like Spider-Man was so immediately ripe to become Marvel’s pseudo-mascot and eventually dominate Hollywood. Tightening the framework and shaving the villains down to maniacal broad strokes is a simple process here, as most of it comes down to trimming off moments of pathos.
While it would certainly leave most characters feeling a bit more hollow (there’s no argument that the tortured Norman Osborn of the comics is a more compelling character than the one-note cackling Green Goblin of this show), they’re immediately recognizable in their consistent grandstanding. This was a show aimed at younger viewers, and successful in that way — even today, it would be a great gateway for kids to discover who Spider-Man is, and why he was tailor-made to one day have a Spider-Verse.
The multiverse can feel like a cash grab when so many blockbuster-franchise engineers have latched onto it. But the concept of infinite worlds, each with their own systems of logic and defined aesthetics but with a thematic throughline that renders some things immovable, like the appearance of a Spider-Person, is brimming with possibilities. A multiverse can be an ode to how we explore characters and how creators either restrain themselves or go wild with unique interpretations. The 1967 Spider-Man cartoon would eventually achieve the latter, thanks to the guiding hand of animation iconoclast Ralph Bakshi.
Before Bakshi directed cult films like Fritz the Cat, Wizards and 1978’s The Lord of the Rings, he was an animator and eventually director on cartoons like Deputy Dawg and Rocket Robin Hood. ABC handed Bakshi the reins on Spider-Man for the show’s second and third seasons, along with a decreased budget. His response: moody and surreal storytelling. His first outing of the second season adapts Spider-Man’s origin story with beautiful atmosphere, mining the depths of Peter Parker’s tragedy in a way that is never present in the first season. Bakshi, who grew up poor in Brooklyn, latches on to the young man’s eternal angst.
From there, Bakshi dug deeper into Peter Parker’s troubled personal life even while tossing him into surreal fantasy landscapes. Gone were the Rhino, Vulture, and Doctor Octopus. Now, Spider-Man was facing off against evil sorcerers, molemen, ancient conquerors, and aliens. He travels through time to 3,000,000 B.C. and globe-trots around to South America and Antarctica.
An expanded run time (the first season was made up of two stories per episode, while the second only used one) allowed Bakshi and his team to concoct more detailed adventures for the beleaguered hero. The first season’s format is mostly “Villain shows up and does stuff and Spider-Man tries a few times to stop them,” but here, there’s room to breathe and develop things like plot twists and supporting characters. Peter even tries to date a few times! (Very unsuccessfully, as one girlfriend turns out to be an alien masquerading as a human.)
Bakshi’s edge makes for a pretty fun season, one that tests the limits of Spider-Man’s world and abstains from any sense of revolving-door villainy that can occur when you have a collection of recurring rogues. And while the third and final season would see a more severe drop in quality (a majority of the episodes are at least partly constructed from previous footage as the budget utterly collapses), Spider-Man’s shaggier moments still work as an homage to the era of comics that made the character a superstar and a ridiculous extension of his capabilities.
Across the Spider-Verse breaks convention in the same way, albeit on a grander scale. But as outlandish as the 1967 series gets, set against the new movie, it feels like a definitive Spider-Man experience worth checking out. As Spider-Verse shows us, all adaptations and the creative choices involved are valid, including one that in 1967 promised “does whatever a spider can” and tried to deliver.