Spider-Man (1977, E.W. Swackhamer)

Someone is mindcontrolling upstanding citizens and making them commit daredevil bank robberies in broad daylight. While New York’s finest detectives–cigar-chewing Michael Pataki and his nitwit sidekick Robert Hastings–are on the case, they soon get some valuable assistance from Spider-Man!

This television movie–a pilot for a series–introduces Nicholas Hammond as the hero. He’s a vaguely annoying, wisecracking suck-up graduate student who intrudes, then gets confused when he bothers people. It’s kind of awesome, since Hammond acts obvious to his behavior. He just walks around with a goofy grin imposing on people. He doesn’t get many subplots in the movie–he’s constantly in search for forty-six dollars to get something for his attic science project, the movie never reveals what he’s making. It’s just something to give Hammond some dialogue when he’s not (ostensibly) in his red and blue longjohns climbing skyscrapers.

Alvin Boretz’s teleplay is pretty weak, but it could be a lot worse. It’s clear it could be a lot worse because Boretz’s writing is so much better than Swackhamer’s direction. With the exception of one special effects sequence, saved by Aaron Stell’s editing, Spider-Man is never visually exciting. Even though Hammond’s clearly overjoyed with his superpowers (he has a convientient dream sequence cluing him into their radioactive arachnid origins), none of that enthusiasm carries over to his cavorting around. Instead, it’s just weak composite shots and stuntmen on wires failing to appear to scramble up buildings.

There are a handful of exceptions–that sequence Stell make or when Hammond foils a purse snatching–especially since the reused effects footage does make Spider-Man, always pausing and repeating movement (the same composite at different scales apparently), seem like a spider. Sadly, none of it keeps going in the third act, which is a rough, nonsensical sequence of events, with way too much of Pataki (who has a certain charm, but not enough of it) and of Thayer David’s self-help guru who knows something about the case.

David’s an unlikable creep, which does make the part function all right. Hammond goes to him for help with ostensible love interest Lisa Eilbacher, who doesn’t receprocate Hammond’s interest. Maybe because he’s chatting her up as her father (Ivor Francis) is losing his mind and committing bank robberies.

The first half gets a lot of help from the Spider-Man origin narrative, with Hammond hanging around the Daily Bugle and David White and Hilly Hicks. White’s fun when he’s berating the grinning, obtuse Hammond, with Hicks solid as Hammond’s champion. To some degree. It’s never clear if Hicks likes Hammond or just wants him to stop hanging out at the paper and annoying them.

As Spider-Man goes on, the plot disintegrates, Swackheimer’s direction gets worse, good characters disappear from the screen, replaced with Pataki or, worse, Hastings. There’s occasional character moments, but it’s a TV movie and they barely last half a minute. I suppose the movie does wrap up pretty succiently, even if when Hammond finally gets in the last word with White he inexplicably walks away from his ride. You’d think he’d have more respect for someone getting such a good parking spot in New York.

Some of Spider-Man is shot on location in New York; a lot of it is California. The New York exteriors are solid. The California ones not so much. But, again, it’s Swackheimer’s fault. He really doesn’t have any good ideas for the movie. Especially not showing the bad guys are bad by shooting them from low angles.

Spider-Man is never really offensive, it’s just lukewarm, unambitious, and confused. Is Hammond supposed to be likable because he’s a goof or is likably goofy? If he’s so unreliable, what’s he doing running a lab and getting his Ph.D.? Why does he reference his lack of income when hitting on Eilbacher? All good questions, all ones Boretz’s script ignores.

Still, it could be a lot worse. And goofy or not, Hammond’s a perfectly solid Spider-Man.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by E.W. Swackhamer; teleplay by Alvin Boretz, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Fred Jackman Jr.; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Johnnie Spence; produced by Edward Montagne; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Nicholas Hammond (Peter Parker), Lisa Eilbacher (Judy Tyler), David White (J. Jonah Jameson), Michael Pataki (Captain Barbera), Thayer David (Edward Byron), Hilly Hicks (Robbie Robertson), Robert Hastings (Monahan), Ivor Francis (Professor Noah Tyler), Larry Anderson (Dave), and Jeff Donnell (Aunt May).


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