Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse has to be the most freeze-frameable movie of the year. The hit sequel is packed with Easter eggs and left-field references — especially in its second half when the plot is invaded by a whole army of alternate-universe web slingers pulled from back issues and past adaptations alike. But if the roll calls of eagle-eyed fans are to be believed (Google “all the characters in Spider-Verse” for a comprehensive count), there’s at least one Spider-Man missing from the film’s sprawling game of Where’s Waldo? He’s the one who swung onto MTV 20 years ago this summer, delivering wisecracks in the voice of Neil Patrick Harris while soaring across a blocky computer-generated Manhattan.
It’s no great mystery why Spider-Man: The New Animated Series — or just Spider-Man, as the synth-scored opening credits read — didn’t make the cameo cut. The show, which premiered in 2003 and ran just 13 episodes, is a largely forgotten chapter in Peter Parker’s journey across screens big and small. In terms of popularity, it’s vastly eclipsed by the movies and several other TV iterations, including the ’60s cartoon, the ’90s cartoon, and the similarly short-lived The Spectacular Spider-Man (which lasted two seasons instead of one, and whose premature cancellation fans still bemoan). Where’s the cult following for this gone-before-its-time iteration?
One might have expected a longer lifespan for a show of its pedigree. The New Animated Series was developed by Brian Michael Bendis, the revered comic-book writer whose Ultimate Spider-Man was selling like hotcakes at the time. (Years later, he’d co-create Miles Morales.) Besides the all-grown Doogie Howser, the cast included alt-rocker Lisa Loeb as longtime crush Mary Jane Watson and 90210 star Ian Ziering as rich-kid buddy (and future Green Goblin) Harry Osborn. The full list of guest stars, meanwhile, was stacked with character actors and Hollywood somebodies like Ed Asner, Gina Gershon, Virginia Madsen, Clancy Brown, Jeremy Piven, Star Trek‘s Michael Dorn, Rob Zombie, Eve, and more.
The show was originally conceived as an Ultimate Spider-Man adaptation. But after the monster success of Sam Raimi’s big-screen version the previous summer, it was reconfigured as a direct follow-up to the movie. Peter is still roommates with Harry, who hates Spider-Man for — by all appearances — killing his father, the original Green Goblin. Our hero still has a will-they won’t-they thing going with Mary Jane. And the three are still college students, just as they were at the end of the first film. If it was difficult to see the continuity between Raimi’s vision and this television continuation, that’s partially because Harris’ version of Parker is fitter, quippier, and way less dweeby than the space cadet Tobey Maguire turned the character into.
Across its 13 episodes, The New Animated Series split the difference between adhering to Spidey tradition and going in a new direction. There’s no Aunt May, and only a little of J. Jonah Jameson (Keith Carradine, who commits the unforgivable sin of not being J.K. Simmons). Some classic Spider-Man villains pop up, though it’s hard to shake the feeling that Sony was saving the A-tier heavies for the movies; while Kraven the Hunter, Silver Sable, and The Lizard make on-model appearances, Electro (Ethan Embry) is reconfigured into a socially inept classmate in the only episode Bendis wrote. And the late Michael Clarke Duncan reprises the role of The Kingpin he played earlier that same year in the misbegotten big-screen Daredevil, perhaps teasing a crossover that never materialized. Otherwise, the writers concocted new villains (like a tech-age Robin Hood and a magical ninja), which gave things a Batman Beyond vibe.
Looking past the references to PalmPilots, DVDs, and Johnny Knoxville, what dates The New Animated Series most is, well, the animation. The show is fully CGI, and it looks today about half cool, half hideous. A lot of the imagery — especially the New York City architecture — has the polygonal shape and scant detail of Y2K-era video game graphics. The cel-shading does give it some moody character, however. And it’s dynamically blocked all the same, with the directors offering such striking, comic-book-worthy images as Spider-Man suddenly appearing in the reflection of Kraven’s knife. If nothing else, it looks entirely unlike any other take on Spider-Man.
From a conceptual standpoint, it’s the college setting that distinguishes the series from a lot of other adaptations, which tend to either focus on Peter Parker’s high school years or his adulthood. Relatedly, this is among the more relatively mature takes on Spider-Man. Taking full advantage of its MTV residency (and the presumed older audience that guaranteed), The New Animated Series gives its characters bluer vocabularies and active sex lives; at last, Peter Parker gets laid! Spider-Man also encounters a lot more death than he ever did on Saturday morning or after school. The mix of teen melodrama and superheroics sometimes recalls Buffy the Vampire Slayer — a point of reference made explicit via a Sunnydale joke by one-time Buffy staffer Tracey Forbes.
Of course, that beloved cult favorite was always, at heart, something of a riff on the essential themes of Spider-Man. Buffy, like Peter, had to juggle the city-saving business with the demands of school, family, and personal relationships. For all its appeals to a PG-13 demographic, for all its attempts to place the superhero in a modern world, The New Animated Series was most successful when it tapped into the work-life balance conflict that’s baked into the best Spider-Man stories. This is still a Parker who’s perennially late, who saves the day but lets down his loved ones, who struggles to forge relationships because of his moonlighting secret identity. In that way, the show functioned as an agreeable stopgap between Raimi’s movies; the continuity lay in the way it kept the man part of Spider-Man in focus.
But the show was gone by the time Spider-Man 2 premiered the following summer and completely disregarded its events, even as it reflected some of them in its college-years storyline and Parker’s flirtation with setting the suit aside. Though The New Animated Series supposedly earned solid ratings on Friday night, it didn’t fit much into the MTV programming protocol, so it was dumped. One hurdle to it building a real fanbase was that the episodes aired in the wrong order. That wasn’t the end of the world in a series more episodic than serialized, two-part cliffhanger finale aside. But it did make it tough to track the romantic developments of the overarching storyline — to always follow where Peter was in the love triangle with Mary Jane and his new squeeze, fellow journalist Indira “Indy” Daimonji (Angelle Brooks).
Still, even with the airdates jumbled, The New Animated Series offered a weekly dose of classic web-slinging pleasure. The dialogue was sometimes witty, the voice-acting was always good, and the action… well, it looked spiffier then than it does now. The older fans who stumbled upon it got a darker, reasonably smart play on the Spidey fundamentals, while the younger ones got an aspirational vision of their collegiate futures filtered through the adventures of a favorite hero. Today, the show looks like a transmission from some alternate reality, branching off from the ones Bendis and Raimi previously created. It’s a lost corner of the Spider-Verse that fans might enjoy visiting if they can forgive the scenery.
Spider-Man: The New Animated Series is currently streaming on Disney+. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.