A 70s collaboration between Marvel and Japanese studio Toei was central to creating the Power Rangers concept. Here’s how…
It may be a great time to be a Spider-Man fan right now, but the budgets weren’t always so big.
The still-relatively-new-in-the-run-of-things millennium has been a golden age for comic book fans, really. The Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes have made umpteen leaps to screen big and small, and their ascendancy in the entertainment firmament seems assured for a good while yet.
It wasn’t always thus, of course.
Many fans may have noticed a musical nod to a previous incarnation of Spider-Man – the 60s animated series – during the Marvel Studios sting at the start of Spider-Man Homecoming. While that show is largely fondly remembered, and its tune oft-parodied, there’s very little love shown anywhere for the 70s TV incarnation of Peter Parker that appeared on US TV. That’s probably because, unlike animation, live action ages much faster.
The late 70s was a rich time for sci-fi, of course, with the rise of Star Wars and the return of Star Trek. In superhero world, Richard Donner’s Superman had managed to bring DC’s Man of Steel back to the big screen in a big way.
On TV, Wonder Woman had not-long survived cancellation with a shift from ABC to CBS and would eventually tot-up 50+ episodes. Alongside that, another Marvel franchise, the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno incarnation of David Banner/Hulk, was also successful in the smaller budget world of TV.
Into this market came The Amazing Spiderman, starring former Sound Of Music Von Trapp family member, Nicholas Hammond as a distinctly not teenage Peter Parker. It would suffer the same fate as Wonder Woman in 1979: cancellation. Unfortunately, it didn’t get anything like the shot at success of that show, though, totting up just 13 full episodes. Nor was it anywhere near as well liked – not even by one of the character’s original creators.
At a similar time, though, there was another small-screen incarnation of Spider-Man out there. One that was a whole lot weirder, and – eventually – a whole lot more influential than the American version. Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Toei’s Supaidāman.
The result of a three-year deal between Marvel and the Japanese studio, there were 41 episodes of the series aired on TV over there in less than a year. While that run itself was relatively short in terms of time, the influence that Toei’s weird-to-Western-eyes incarnation of the Spider-Man concept had lives on to this day.
Stan Lee himself has pointed out that he enjoyed the Toei incarnation of Spider-Man because, aside from liking the special effects, it took the concept of a hero and told the stories in a uniquely Japanese way. Indeed, it abandoned pretty much all of the mythology we associate with the character and kept little other than the suit and the superpowers.
The series’ Peter Parker is Takuya Yamashiro (played by Shinji Todo) inherits his powers from an alien called Garia. Along with his Spider-powers (and some weaknesses) he also inherits a spaceship called the Marveller, which can transform in to a 60m tall robot known as Leopardon, and his Spider-protector suit, which is contained inside a bracelet.
This change of mythology served several purposes for Toei. Perhaps most importantly, Marveller and Leopardon provided the studio with the toy making opportunities that were central to its business model. It also allowed Spider-Man to conform much more closely to the ‘henshin’ concept that underpinned its already successful Kamen Rider series.
‘Henshin’, essentially ‘transformation’, is one of the notable differences modern-day between Japanese superhero myths and many established American ones. Put basically, compared to the Western tendency (though by no means rule – see Batman) for superheroes to be permanently physically different due to their abilities (and sometimes having to deal with the conflicts the changes present in real life) in shows like Kamen Rider and Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (known as G-Force or Battle of the Planets over here), heroes are afforded their powers by a pseudo-magical device, and relinquish them when in their secret/normal identities. Iron Man would probably be the closest to this idea in the Marvel canon, yet – as a relatively marginal part of the Marvel canon at the time compared to it’s headlining web-slinger, he was apparently not in Toei’s sights.
Toei’s Spider-Man, as something of a hybrid between these tendencies thus more marketable to a Japanese audience than the classic Ditko/Lee mythology of the comics would allow.
More important, though, is the inclusion of Marveller and Leopardon, and their use to battle monsters that would grow to giant size in each show’s finale. Sound familiar?
Well, it should, because it essentially set the pattern for what would become known as Toei’s Super Sentai series of shows. These ‘teams’ – or, under another translation of sentai, ‘squadron’ – of henshin heroes are better known in the US and UK under their Saban-adapted title, as the Power Rangers series. That’s another article in-and-of-itself, but here’s the beginning…
The first recognised incarnation of the Super Sentai brand would, in fact, come from another product of the Marvel collaboration. Battle Fever J began life as an attempt to adapt Captain America, but turned into something very different, with pretty much the only legacy of the Marvel source material being on of the five Battle Fever J members being called Miss America. It did however, keep the growing enemies and the giant robot conceit, which would continue to be refined over subsequent incarnations.
At one point, all of the episodes of Supaidāman were available to view on the Marvel website. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Hopefully, they will appear again some day so we can all enjoy a slice of obscure TV history again.