Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981) – 3 seasons, 24 episodes.
Running concurrent with the friendless SPIDER-MAN cartoon, AMAZING FRIENDS is the one that’s more fondly remembered. Truth be told, it’s the less consistently good cartoon, but if you could only watch one, it’s hard to argue against the one with two bonus heroes in every episode.
In my review for SPIDER-MAN, I said that watching an episode of that cartoon was like finding “a random back-issue from the late ’70s, done by fill-in artists. These are largely stand-alone adventures and largely formulaic.” AMAZING FRIENDS has a different vibe to it; where Friendless felt like a throwback comic book, FRIENDS feels very much like what it is: a Saturday morning cartoon.
As pal Patrick Barry said elsewhere in response to my review of SPIDER-MAN: “The problem I had with the Amazing Friends series was that it seemed like most of the writers (except for Don Glut) knew absolutely nothing about comic books and didn’t even understand that basic tropes of costumes, secret identities, etc. For this they substituted an impressive knowledge of small dog reaction shots. The Don Glut episodes were pretty solid, though, especially the ones with the villain who harnessed the power of video arcade games!”
What Pat said in 74 succinct words will take me closer to 1,000 and I won’t say it any better than that.
AMAZING FRIENDS isn’t a comic book brought to animated life; it works with the logic of a Saturday morning cartoon, which means it’s awesome that the kids are both broke college kids and yet live in an apartment with hidden supercomputers. All they have to do is move a sports trophy and every piece of furniture rotates out of sight to be replaced with some fancy piece of technology. And where is this super awesome, super scientific, secret lair located?
Aunt May’s house.
Of course it is.
Time and again, logic takes a back seat to whatever the producers think holds the most appeal for kids. For instance, in the season 3 episode, “The X-Men Adventure,” Spider-Man, Firestar, and Professor Xavier are riding an elevator to the top of the X-Mansion. The bad guy (a half-human, half-robot bad guy who used to be in love with Firestar when he was all human and no robot) has the cable severed, meaning the elevator is falling. Firestar burns a hole in the elevator roof, and Spidey jumps out, sticks to the wall, and catches the car with his webs. Incredibly heavy (Spidey says his webs are holding but his arms might not), Spider-Man hauls the elevator all the way up to the top floor.
Instead of, you know, just carrying Professor X to the top, since he doesn’t weigh nearly as much as the elevator, even with his wheel chair.
Of course, that’s not the “sharpest” bit of logic on display here. Spidey and the X-Men are trapped by a lame-ass named Cyberiad. Half his body is human and the other half is a robot. And when I say half, I mean this guy is literally split right down the middle. He taunts the X-Men by saying one of them knows him, but none of the X-Men or Spider-Friends do … until Firestar remembers that she used to go to college on the west coast, where she fell in love with a guy who blamed her for his lab experiment blowing up and neatly frying one half of his body.
Split right down the middle.
In fairness to Firestar, I’m sure we’ve all forgotten an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend who half blew themselves up.
I also don’t understand the logic of the three seasons of AMAZING FRIENDS. Season 1 has 13 episodes, season 2 has 3 episodes, and season 3 has 8 episodes. This may or may not have something to do with the logic of Marvel Time.
Each of the three seasons is different, however. Season 1 is the best season, featuring the most traditional superhero action. In Season 2, each of the Spider-Friends gets an origin episode, and Season 3 is … well, Season 3 they roll in bad guys like Dracula and girls from the future for Peter to fall in love with and Doctor Octopus to kidnap.
Season 1 also has the best array of guest stars, including “7 Little Superheroes,” which sees the Chameleon bring the Spider-Friends, Namor, Shanna the She-Devil, Doctor Strange, and Captain America to an island where he can take turns impersonating them. The heroes outsmart them because Firestar brought Ms. Lion along and she can always tell when a hero is really a hero, or actually the Chameleon in disguise.
It’s true. Screw Doctor Strange and his magical powers, our heroes have a precocious Lhasa Apso. Foiled again, Chameleon. Foiled again.
One recurring theme throughout the series is people trying to get with Firestar. The Spider-Friends have an inconsistent romantic arrangement. At various times in the series, Firestar/Angelica Jones will hold hands with Bobby, or go on a date with Peter, or have the two guys fight over her. Sometimes she goes out with Flash Thompson. Plus, she gets kidnapped by dudes like Kraven and Dracula, falls in love with Sunfire or has a nut job ex-boyfriend like Cyberiad show up.
There’s no consistency to any of it, because it’s a Saturday morning cartoon. Every episode just gives you whatever it wants to make you happy for that week.
The show can be maddeningly dumb at times, like when they have to drag Ms. Lion to their superhero “Seven Little Indians” plot, or when the Sandman discovers Spidey’s secret identity, so they dress the Flash up like Spider-Man and have him fight the Sandman instead of them. It’s overly complicated and dangerous but hey, it’s Flash, right? He’s a dick, so who cares if he’s not trained or prepared to fight super villains.
As Pat mentioned, the best episodes are indeed the Don Glut stories from the first season, where he writes a story of Loki impersonating Thor, and another when Modred and the Black Knight show up in modern times.
AMAZING FRIENDS does include some legendary episodes, like “Videoman,” where Electro creates, well, Videoman and ends up trapping people inside a video game. It’s not a great episode, but it does manage to be something of an iconic one. I mean, if you’re of a certain age, who doesn’t remember Videoman? There’s also a stunning episode for a Saturday morning cartoon involving the Red Skull. It’s a bit shocking to see swastikas and Nazis and “Heil Hitler!” in a kids’ cartoon when Marvel won’t let them show up in the comics or movies anymore, but here they are, fighting Hiawatha Smith, an American Indian professor at ESU.
All told, SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS is an uneven cartoon but one well-worth watching. It displays the logic and feel of a Saturday morning cartoon and not the comic books, but that’s not altogether a bad thing. If nothing else, AMAZING FRIENDS gave us Firestar, and we owe it a bit of thanks for that. (Or for Human Torch being contracted elsewhere.) Does it get frustrating that the freaking dog shows up too much? Yes. Does it insult your intelligence by having poor college kids with a super advanced hideout in Aunt May’s house? Yup. They even give us an episode in Season 3 that Stan Lee tells us is “because you demanded it” explaining how this came about – they saved Tony Stark from the Beetle. (And if you think Tony’s voice is awful in EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES, it’s even worse here.) But as frustrating as some of the aspects of this show can be, AMAZING FRIENDS is really designed as a gateway cartoon. We get heroes and villains from all over the Marvel Universe showing up, and for a kid (which I was in 1981 when NBC first aired the show), that’s pretty darn cool.
Even if we did have to put up with “The Fantastic Mr. Frump” in the process.