Tracking The Influence Of Spider-Man Cartoons On The MCU

Go with me here as we cross franchises to make a point, but if a Terminator was sent from the future to destroy the pop culture of the 21st century, their John Connor-esque target would be the 2008 Iron Man film. Without it, there would be none of the Marvel magic that we’ve come to take for granted in the nearly 15 years that followed. That Howard the Duck cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy? Gone. All those amazing post-credit scenes? As dusted as Thanos’victims. And forget about the subsequent Marvel TV series, projects, games, and merchandise that have expanded the possibilities of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Simply put, Iron Man changed everything. It seems impossible to even think about it now that they’ve effectively taken over the world, but Marvel took a big swing that could have been a huge failure. Thankfully Kevin Feige, Jon Favreau, and the like bet on themselves and a simple truth observed from generations of comic fans: bringing the interconnected world of the comic book page to the big screen (and small screen) would spur more interest and a deeper devotion from fans. The fans are key here because Marvel bet on them and their interest in following a complex timeline and multi-part story as well.

We know how this story ended, but what you may not have realized is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe took some narrative cues from not just the source comics but from Marvel’s early forays into animation. One of the MCU’s first Easter Eggs was hearing a snippet of the 1966 Iron Man cartoon’s theme song interpolated in the score for Tony Stark’s cinematic debut. Yet in terms of humor, storytelling, and character crossover, the architects of the MCU drew clear inspiration from everybody’s favorite webslinger, Spider-Man.

Some history: Produced from 1967-70, Spider-Man’s television debut was a cheaply produced cartoon series that took major liberties with the character and the villains he faced. (An especially infamous/amazing episode had Spidey doing battle with a blob creature named Blotto who could absorb cars and lamp posts — it’s kind of incredible, really). While the show’s budget was low, its impact was priceless, with Bob Harris’ and Ray Ellis’ unforgettable theme song – with its “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a Spider can” lyrics – being an earworm that helped cement the Webhead’s place in popular culture. It also was the toon that birthed a million memes, the most popular of which is the so-called Spidey pointing meme, one that has been directly referenced in Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse and Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Despite being crude and campy, the ‘60s animated Spidey remains the character’s arguably most popular television outing (albeit one that’s impossible to find). It has its limitations to be sure, but when the series is at its best in comic-faithful outings like “Captured by J. Jonah Jameson” (featuring an unintentionally hilarious Jameson robot trying to squash Spidey) and the second-season opener “The Origin of Spider-Man,” it feels like the peerless work of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko has come to life on screen.

Another magnificent Marvel cartoon that helped spark a fondness for the publisher’s characters was Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. In this 1981-83 series, Peter Parker is a college student at the fictional Empire State University, joined by roommates and fellow superheroes Bobby Drake/Iceman and Angelica Jones/Firestar. (The latter of whom was a mutant created for the cartoon who has gone on to become a Marvel mainstay in the comics). Together with their canine pal Ms. Lion – a cloyingly cute canine sidekick that causes much derision among viewers – the trio fight crime together while always having a good time.

Whereas the later seasons of the original Spidey toon got dark and psychedelic thanks in no small part to the involvement of Fritz the Cat creator Ralph Bakshi, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends always kept things light. More than that though, nearly every episode featured either a cameo or a full-fledged guest appearance from another Marvel Comics character. (Among those who appeared on the show were Magneto, Kraven the Hunter, Doctor Doom, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Loki, Iron Man, and the Hulk). This was massive, as it established in viewers’ minds that these heroes and villains inhabited the same world. For children of the 1980s and ‘90s, this interconnectivity became so expected that it felt off to watch the X-Men films and not have other non-mutant characters turn up.

Fox Kids’ fondly remembered Spider-Man: The Animated Series of the 1990s further bridged the gap between the printed page and visual medium. The cameos from other Marvel icons continued, but this toon under the leadership of showrunner John Semper aimed to be nothing short of an animated comic. As such, it utilized serialized storytelling and season-long arcs – then largely unheard of in Western animation. Popular characters like Venom made their animated debut here, as did concepts that would later become commonplace in the MCU. The series’ final episode has Spidey traveling through the multiverse, where he encounters a comic book creator named Stan Lee (who voiced himself, paving the way for his numerous MCU cameos).

Subsequent Spider-Man cartoons continued to stoke the creative fires of their predecessors, with shows ranging from 2008’s The Spectacular Spider-Man to 2021’s Spidey and His Amazing Friends pushing the limits of how animation can be utilized to tell superhero stories – an undertaking that reached its creative zenith on the movie screen with the stunning Into the Spider-Verse. The current state of televised Marvel animation has series like Disney+’s What If… bringing things full circle by presenting stories directly influenced by the MCU.

While we don’t have concrete proof that Kevin Feige, Taika Waititi, James Gunn, Jon Favreau, Jon Watts, or other MCU creative titans pulled up a pillow to watch Spidey cartoons while noshing on some cheerios as kids, drawing on those experiences while preparing their opuses, a little guesswork is permitted. There is enough connective tissue between the vintage shows and the MCU to suggest there was at least a refresher course on the spirit of fun and general vibe of the toons and how that should be replicated on the big screen. Or maybe it’s just best to think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a sort of pop culture ouroboros – an eternal circle of entertainment that has drawn influence from all that came before, influencing all that is yet to come. Regardless, these are some fun cartoons that remain shockingly enjoyable no matter their age.