To celebrate the release of Venom: Let There Be Carnage (Serkis, 2021), Sony Pictures declared September 27 “Venom Day”, a fitting date to shine the spotlight on one of my favourite anti-heroes, who made their first full debut in May 1988 and have gone on to become one of Marvel’s most iconic characters.
Air Date: 29 April 1995 to 13 May 1995
Network: Fox Kids Network
Stars: Christopher Daniel Barnes, Hank Azaria, Roscoe Lee Browne, Don Stark, Jim Cummings, and Edward Asner
Given that Marvel’s resident wall-crawling hero proved to be popular enough to receive his own self-titled comic book barely a year after his blockbuster debut, it’s perhaps no real surprise that Peter Parker/Spider-Man has featured in a number of cartoons over the years. Nowadays, it seems like Spidey gets a new cartoon every other day of the week but, when I was a kid, his 1994 to 1998 cartoon was a must-watch piece of weekly entertainment. Produced by Saban following their success with the X-Men animated series (1992 to 1997), Spider-Man (or Spider-Man: The Animated Series) was a fresh and fun adaptation of many of the web-head’s greatest adventures, even if it was a little hampered by some unnecessary censorship. Given that I was super into Venom at the time, it’s no surprise to me that the cartoon’s introduction and depiction of the character rank as some of its best episodes; so popular were Venom at the time that they were introduced in the first three-part saga of the series (and well before the creators adapted the “Secret Wars” comic) and even returned for a two-part follow-up a year later.
After rescuing astronaut Colonel John Jameson (Michael Horton) from a shuttle crash, Spider-Man (Barnes) finds his costume and abilities augmented by a mysterious black goo. When Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin (Browne) sends a number of super-powered goons to retrieve the “Promethium-X” Jameson brought back to Earth, Spidey finds his aggression and character altered by the suit, which is revealed to be a symbiotic organism! After ridding himself of it, Spidey is confronted with one of his worst foes imaginable with the symbiote bonds with disgruntled reporter Eddie Brock (Azaria) and transforms them into Venom!
The “Alien Costume” arc begins with astronaut John Jameson digging up a mysterious black rock from the surface of the Moon; after narrowly escaping a Moonquake, he makes it back to the shuttle and his return to Earth with the newly-discovered isotope, Promethium-X, attracts the attention of the Kingpin since it promises to be more powerful and valuable than Plutonium. However, John’s return is hampered when the rock secretes a seemingly-sentiment, tar-like substance that attempts to consume the astronauts and leaves the shuttle on a collision course with New York City!
Despite the imminent danger, Kingpin’s lead scientist, Alistair Smythe (Maxwell Caulfield), assures him that the shuttle will land without causing any damage to the city so he (as in the Kingpin) contacts Aleksei Sytsevich/The Rhino (Stark) to retrieve the Promethium-X once the shuttle makes its emergency landing on the George Washington Bridge. There, he comes into conflict with Spider-Man and, thanks to his superior size and strength and the shuttle’s precarious position, is able to best the wall-crawler and make off with the isotope. Although he saves John and his co-pilot, Peter is aghast when he is fingered as the one responsible for stealing the Promethium-X thanks to John’s incoherent rambling, his father J. Jonah Jameson’s (Asner) unrequited hatred for Spider-Man, and disgraced photographer Eddie Brock selling J. J. pictures that incriminate the web-head. Having been introduced in previous episodes as an embittered man desperate to regain his job at the Daily Bugle, Brock jumps at the chance to capitalise on Jameson’s hatred of Spider-Man with his photos.
This results in Jameson placing a $1 million bounty on Spider-Man’s head, forcing Peter to lay low. However, while he sleeps, the mysterious black substance from the shuttle is revealed to have attached itself to his costume and, following a harrowing nightmare, the goo overtakes Peter, who wakes to find himself garbed in a sleek black costume that dramatically augments his speed and strength. Overwhelmed at the suit’s capabilities, Spider-Man discovers he can now shoot organic webbing and change his appearance by simply thinking about it, but it quickly becomes apparent that the alien substance is also affecting his personality. Far more confident than ever before, even Spider-Man’s voice is slightly altered when he’s wearing the black suit, making him sound tougher and more aggressive than usual. Equally quick to anger, Peter threatens Eugene “Flash” Thompson (Patrick Labyorteaux), snaps at his doting Aunt May (Linda Gary), and comes close to
killing destroying the Rhino after handily dominating their rematch. Although he manages to get a hold of himself, Peter’s demeanour continues to degrade into an enraged fury as he is hounded at every turn thanks to Jameson’s bounty; his overconfidence and anger causes him to become sloppy, however, and he learns the hard and painful way that the alien costume is vulnerable to high-intensity sonic waves. Spider-Man does himself few favours when he confronts Brock and Jameson, threatening them in the Daily Bugle and driving him to visit his friend, Doctor Curt Connors (Joseph Campanella), to find out more about the suit.
As you might expect, Connors reveals that the suit is actually a living, alien symbiote that is seeking to permanently bond with Peter. Although he stresses the very real danger of the alien costume, Connors is unable to convince Spider-Man to remove to suit since he needs it to recover the Promethium-X. When John corroborates Spider-Man’s story of a guy in a rhino suit, Jameson angrily lays into Brock for lying to him, fires him, and is begrudgingly forced to withdraw his bounty on Spider-Man. Embittered by this development, Brock’s mood is further soured when he is also evicted from his apartment and when he is targeted by the Kingpin, who sends Herman Schultz/The Shocker (Cummings) after him to tie up the loose ends from the shuttle robbery. After saving Brock from being blasted into dust, Spider-Man tracks the Shocker to Smythe’s laboratory and finally recovers not only proof of his innocence from Brock’s apartment but the Promethium-X from Smythe. While the Kingpin was more concerned with selling the rock to the highest bidder, Spider-Man takes the time to properly investigate the Promethium-X and discovers that, while it is incredibly powerful and dangerous, its radioactive half-life is ridiculously small, which results in the Kingpin being left humiliated and with an inert rock in his possession.
However, Spider-Man’s tumultuous emotions are driven to the edge when Smythe lures him to a bell tower by taking John hostage in order to recover the isotope; overcome with rage, Spider-Man destroys the Shocker’s gauntlets and is seconds away from doing the same to the mercenary before memories of his beloved Uncle Ben remind him that “with great power comes great responsibility”. Guilt-ridden and desperate to be rid of the alien suit, Spider-Man frantically tries to remove the symbiote but his efforts prove useless until he takes advantage of the church bell to cause the creature enough pain to separate itself from his body. However, Brock (who followed Spider-Man in a desperate attempt to extract a measure of revenge against the well-crawler), finds himself enveloped by the injured and enraged creature as he hangs helpless beneath the church bell. The result is a muscular, embittered, monstrous union of man and symbiote, Venom, who vows to destroy Spider-Man for ruining both of their lives. Venom makes their presence known as Spider-Man is settling the score with the Shocker and the Rhino on a rooftop; Venom actually saves Spider-Man just as he’s about to be destroyed simply to have the honour for themselves. In the process, Venom proves to be far stronger than Spider-Man, immune to his spider sense, privy to his secret identity, and possessing all of his physical and superhuman abilities but augmented thanks to Brock’s rage and workout routine.
Hopelessly outmatched, Spider-Man is left physically overpowered; his attempts to appeal to Brock’s better nature fall on deaf ears and Spidey finds himself at Venom’s mercy. Venom threatens to target, and reveal Spider-Man’s identity to, Peter’s loved ones and even leaves him dangling over a rooftop without his mask on at one point! Narrowly escaping with his identity intact, Peter is stalked by Brock at every turn and starts seeing Venom everywhere; with no choice but to take the fight to his foes, Spider-Man taunts Brock with newspaper clippings of his failures and baits Venom into following him across the city to the launch of another shuttle at a military base outside of New York. There, the two have a final confrontation up the support gantry that ultimately ends with the symbiote being driven from Brock’s body when the shuttle launches. Spider-Man then webs the writhing creature to the shuttle, sending it back into space, and leaves Brock in police custody, finally free of his alien nightmare… for the time being.
As much as I enjoyed, and still enjoy, the 1994 Spider-Man cartoon, there are some elements of it that obviously haven’t aged too well. The video transfer to DVD isn’t the best and the animation can be a little jerky at times. The editing is quite rushed here and there, meaning that episodes can quickly gloss over and bounce around certain scenes despite being fully capable of telling a well-paced story at other times, and there is a bit of dodgy CGI and the music gets very repetitive. Still, these concerns are largely minor and can be said of almost any cartoon produced in the nineties (or ever, for that matter) and, for the most part, the episodes are bright, action-packed, and well animated. Fittingly, the animation and presentation benefits Spider-Man the most of all the characters in the cartoon; vibrant and athletic, Spider-Man is a very dynamic character in the cartoon and capable of many superhuman feats despite not being allowed to throw a punch. Peter, despite closely resembling Nicholas Hammond, oddly looks bigger than his web-slinging counterpart but Spider-Man is expressive and vibrant throughout. The depiction of his black suit is equally top-notch; one of the arc’s stand-out scenes is Peter’s disturbing nightmare where Kaiju-sized versions of the black and classic costumes battle over Peter’s soul and he’s left hanging upside down in the middle of the city garbed in the sleek, sexy black suit. “The Alien Costume” may also be the first instance of the symbiote augmenting Spidey’s superhuman abilities and characteristics as this didn’t really happen in the original comics (at least not to the extent as it does in other media) and the three episodes definitely set the standard for Peter’s struggles with the symbiote going forward.
Brock’s introduction is handled far better in the cartoon compared to the comic since he was actually introduced, and featured, in a handful of episodes prior to these three; angry and bitter, he’s been the victim of a string of bad luck and bad decisions that cause him to grow increasingly resentful of Spider-Man. Consequently, his transformation into Venom empowers him, driving him even more maniacal thanks to the symbiote’s power and abilities. Unlike in the comic books (at least at the time of these episodes), the symbiote is revealed to be incredibly old, well-travelled, and possessing knowledge of the wider universe and numerous worlds, indicating that it’s far more than just a near-insane parasitic lifeform. Venom looks fantastic in the cartoon, sporting their trademark fangs, talons, and long tongue as well as a hulking physique and a distorted, monstrous voice that, again, set the standard for how Venom are portrayed outside of comics. The episodes also do a pretty decent job of portraying C-grade villains like the Rhino and the Shocker as formidable threats; thanks to the influence of the black suit, Spider-Man’s anger and emotions are constantly in flux throughout the arc and are only exacerbated by the duo’s tenacity. Still, once Venom enters the picture, they make all other villains irrelevant; possessing knowledge and physical abilities that make them superior to Spider-Man in every way, Venom plays mind games with Peter, taunting and stalking him and overwhelming him both physically and emotionally. Just like in their first comic book encounter, Spider-Man is forced to use his initiative and wiles to outsmart his maniacal foes rather than trying to match them blow-for-blow. The end result is a far grander conclusion to their confrontation since Spidey utilises a shuttle launch rather than simply wielding a sonic blaster, which is a fittingly dramatic (if temporary) end to Venom’s threat as their story started in space and technically ends in space.
What did you think to the “Alien Costume” arc? Did you watch Spider-Man when it first aired or did you discover it later, perhaps on Disney+? What did you think to the depiction of Spider-Man’s black costume and how it influenced his powers and personality? What did you think to Venom’s depiction in the cartoon? What is your favourite Venom story or adaptation? How are you celebrating Venom’s dramatic debut today? Whatever your thoughts on Venom, feel free to sign up to leave them below or drop a reply on my social media.