SPIDER-MAN Pilot (1977): That’s Another One of Those Stupid Dreams

Spider-Man Pilot (1977) – Directed by E.W. Swackhamer – Starring Nicholas Hammond, David White, Michael Pataki, Hilly Hicks, Jeff Donnell, Robert Hastings, and Thayer David.

Maybe if I’d watched the 1977 SPIDER-MAN pilot movie after watching Captain America instead of after The Incredible Hulk I’d have kinder things to say about it, but as it stands, I’m rather confident that I wouldn’t have had many good things to say about this film no matter what the context.

None of this is the fault of Nicholas Hammond, who does his best to deliver an earnest performance in a rather pedestrian script that sees a religious guru named Edward Byron (Thayer David) mind-controlling people to commit crimes for him. What kind of daring feats is Byron masterminding?

Bank robberies, mostly.

Unfortunately, much like the Captain America films, there’s not much skill involved in this adaptation. The main problem with SPIDER-MAN isn’t so much that’s it’s awful, but rather that it’s so darn boring.

Well, actually, it’s pretty awful, too.

Peter Parker (Hammond) is a college graduate student moonlighting as a photographer for The Daily Bugle. J. Jonah Jameson (David White) gives him a hard time about buying his photos because his photos are all artsy, and artsy doesn’t sell papers. Peter is desperate to get $46 because that’s how much he needs to pay the C.O.D. on some equipment for his latest science project. I’ve never known anyone who has actually used the Collect/Cash on Delivery system, but Peter doesn’t have the cash and the delivery guy won’t take a check or wait around because Peter and his pal in the Captain America t-shirt are scientists working with fancy nerd machines and fancy nerd machines are not safe to be around.

I hear you, Cash on Delivery Guy.

It’s sort of amazing to me that Cash on Delivery was ever a real delivery system, but maybe that’s because I only ever saw it mentioned on those awful 30-second TV ads for products not good enough for the shelves at Woolworths and Spag’s and K-Mart and Rich’s, and none of them were ever good enough that I could ever imagine buying them. Delivering fancy lab equipment (albeit in a small package) is not like the delivery of a pizza, is it? One is delivering something from a local business while the other seems rather impersonal.

It’s idle thoughts like this that seap into my brain throughout SPIDER-MAN because it moves so darn slowly and flatly. It’s like watching a static high school play on television. The only real action in this whole darn movie are the shots of Spidey climbing up or down the outer walls of tall buildings. Clearly the producers thought this was enough because they go to it over and over again. (And who am I to say they were wrong? Even when The Amazing Spider-Man was cancelled, it was a top 20-rated program.) It doesn’t look realistic but then, this is a 70s TV show, and the truth is that if the writing, acting, and directing were good enough, the less-than-stellar special effects wouldn’t matter.

Peter gets bit by a radioactive spider in the lab, but this pilot doesn’t much care for rehashing the original origin story. Pete gets bit, he starts doing things, he hears from Jonah and Robbie Robertson (Hilly Hicks) that people saw a “spider man” climbing on a building wall, and he goes home to make a costume and take pictures of himself.

Pete is still trying to get the $46 he needs for his lab delivery, and I think we’re supposed to think he’s a swell guy because he’s only trying to get $46 out of Jameson, but really, if Pete is the only photographer in the world with pictures of Spider-Man, why is he selling the pics at what has to be below market value? It’s not like Jameson has done anything to deserve Pete’s loyalty, so while it shows that Pete is a nice guy not trying to get rich off his superpowers, it also serves to make him look a bit naive, and that might be fine if Pete was still in high school, but he’s a freaking graduate student. He’s got plenty of bills to pay, so strike when the financial iron is hot.

Also, since he asked his lab partner for $30 to help cover the cost of the C.O.D. materials, it seems like Pete must have $16 in his wallet. So if he’s such a good guy, shouldn’t he be asking for $30 instead of $46?

A professor from Pete’s college gets hypnotized into stealing (it seems very easy to rob banks in New York City in 1977) and he’s got a cute daughter, so Pete helps them out by doing his own kind of investigating. Together, Pete and Cute Daughter go to visit Edward Byron’s New Age Feel Good Emporium (not its real name) because the prof had been going there. Byron fills everyone’s head with some guru nonsense, but only Pete seems aware that Byron is selling some bad advice. Later on, Pete ends up getting hypnotized, too, and fighting some of Byron’s hypnotized wannabe samurai. The action scenes are not, in any way good, except for a few nice POV shots when Spidey is falling or climbing, but a two-second shot isn’t enough to balance Spidey running away when confronted by dudes with staffs.

I guess mind control was big in the ’70s because that plot device seems to show up much more then than it does now, but the use of brainwashing is used in a very boring manner here. Byron has told the mayor that he wants a ton of cash or else he’s going to cause 10 people to commit suicide, but there’s no real tension in this movie. Like Captain America and The Incredible Hulk, SPIDER-MAN isn’t afraid to create its own reality instead of mimicking the comics, and while that’s an understandable move, the changes have to make for good TV, and nothing much about SPIDER-MAN is good TV.

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