Toy Sales Took Control Of Spider-Man: The Animated Series' Season 1 Story

These days, Spider-Man is as ubiquitous as the Marvel Cinematic Universe of which he's a part. In recent years the character has come to fully realize his potential as an everyman hero by literally appearing as a multitude of varied characters across different forms of media. From Miles Morales to the many different incarnations of Peter Parker to emerge from the multiverse, Spider-Man has truly come into his own in the 21st century.

But back when I was a kid (god, I hate that I say that at least once a week now), there was nothing like the bevy of Spidey products on offer today. In fact, if you weren't reading the comics, there wasn't really much to delve into in the early '90s. Sam Raimi was yet to make his seminal movie saga, and James Cameron couldn't get his vision for the character off the ground after Carolco, the studio behind his action classic "Terminator 2," bought the rights and then went bust.

So, when in 1994 a new animated "Spider-Man" series debuted, it felt like a big deal. Now available alongside the classic "X-Men" animated series on Disney+, "Spider-Man: The Animated Series" (or just "Spider-Man" as I remember it) originally aired on Fox Kids from November '94, lasting until January of '98 when it completed its contracted run of 65 episodes. Like Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski with their equally influential "Batman: The Animated Series," producer, head writer, and showrunner John Semper infused his "Spider-Man" show with serious themes and a general tone that felt as if it was appealing to kids without talking down to them. But it took some time to find that groove after the first season was plagued by those all-important obligations to sell toys.

'Those hideous Spider-Slayers'

Whereas from season 2 on, "Spider-Man" featured narrative arcs that often spanned entire seasons, the first run of 13 episodes were self-contained stories. Much of that helped the show to establish its world and characters, but it turns out there was more to it.

Speaking to the Marvel Animation Age (via DCAnimated), Semper revealed that he had a whole, season-long story arc prepped for the first season, only to be hindered by commercial considerations:

"I originally had planned a season-long story arc for season one, but I was prohibited from doing it because others had agendas that needed to be served first. Toys needed to be featured (those hideous Spider-Slayers), certain characters needed to be rolled out and introduced (the boring Hobgoblin) and so, in season one, I was limited in the things that I could do."

The Spider-Slayers were flying killer robots, introduced in the second episode of season 1 and sent by Norman Osborne to take out Spidey. It wasn't the most memorable storyline, although what kid isn't going to love murderous flying tech? But once you know it was all at the behest of whoever at Fox and Marvel was in charge of selling molded plastic to kids (of which I was certainly one), it starts to make a little more sense.

Once the first season was out the way, Semper was given much more control, and from season 2 on, was allowed to play out his longer narrative arcs — which often took inspiration from the comic book storylines. As Semper put it, he was given "total control over the storylines," which was, "when the real fun of the series gets going."

Setting up the Spider-Verse

It's a good thing Semper was ultimately given the control he was. Not only were the longer stories "fun," they influenced the future development of Spider-Man as a character and the course of his pop cultural journey. The final season includes several storylines which culminated in the now-famous multiversal adventures that were "Secret Wars" and "Spider Wars." These narratives introduced a whole generation to the concept of the multiverse and paved the way for today's preoccupation with the concept, especially in the form of the "Spider-Verse" movies.

That's not to say the selling toys aspect was all bad. Much of the pressure to get toys in the hands of kids seems to have stemmed from producer Avi Arad, who, before he became a controversial figure among Marvel fans, was a humble toy designer who joined the Toy Biz company in 1993 right before "Spider-Man: The Animated Series" went into production. Toy Biz, which was partially owned by Marvel, was responsible for making the action figures to accompany the show, which proved a hit when they arrived on shelves. Still, it wasn't exactly something Semper was too concerned about. He recalled "the light in Avi Arad's eyes every time he said the words 'Spidahhh-Slayahhhh!'" saying that this vision "still haunts [him] in [his] nightmares." 

But when it comes down to it, the toy line actually lasted longer than the series, remaining in production from 1994 to 2007 according to Action Figure Resource. That's just a further testament to the enduring impact of "Spider-Man: The Animated Series," which arguably couldn't have attained such significance if it wasn't for Semper being allowed to tell his longer, more serious stories. Those toys were pretty awesome, though.