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Spider-Man: The Venom Saga DVD Review

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Show & DVD Details

Executive Producers: Avi Arad, Stan Lee / Writers: Stan Berkowitz, Len Wein, John Semper, Meg McLaughlin, Brynne Stephens, Mark Hoffmeier, James Krieg

Voice Cast: Christopher Daniel Barnes (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Hank Azaria (Eddie Brock/Venom), Edward Asner (J. Jonah Jameson), Jim Cummings (Shocker), Scott Cleverdon (Cletus Kasady/Carnage), Saratoga Ballantine (Mary Jane Watson), Linda Gary (Aunt May), Don Stark (Rhino), Maxwell Caulfield (Alistair Smythe), Joseph Campanella (Dr. Curt Connors), Barbara Goodson (Dr. Ashley Kafka), Joan B. Lee (Madame Web), Dawn Lewis (Detective Terri Lee), James Avery (Jim Rhodes / War Machine), Robert Hays (Tony Stark/Iron Man), Tony Jay (Baron Mordo), Ed Gilbert (Dormammu), Roscoe Lee Browne (Kingpin), Liz Georges (Debra Whitman), Patrick Labyorteaux (Flash Thompson), Michael Horton (John Jameson)

Running Time: 95 Minutes (5 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen, Dolby Stereo Surround (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: June 7, 2005; Suggested Retail Price: $14.99 (Was $19.99)
Episodes Originally Aired April 1995 - November 1996
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9); Black Keepcase

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Somewhere in between his debut as a comic book character and his latest claim to fame as a chart-topping film icon, Spider-Man occupied television airwaves on Saturday mornings in the mid-1990s. This incarnation of "Spider-Man" was neither the first nor the last time the teenager with insect-like superpowers appeared in an animated series.
In fact, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko birthed the character in 1962 and every decade since has seen a TV cartoon adaptation of the web-slinging hero, from 1967's "Spider-Man" to "The Amazing Spider-Man" in the late '70s to the '80s offering which was entitled...you guessed it, "Spider-Man."

As the titles of the series have never been too concerned with differentiating themselves from earlier renditions, it might be confusing for the unacquainted (who perhaps have only discovered this superhero in recent years) to discern between the numerous different cartoon "Spider-Man" shows. But one look at this version and you can tell it's a product of the 1990s. This "Spider-Man" made its debut November of 1994, began to air regularly the following winter, and continued through January 1998 for a total of 65 episodes (that magical number for syndicated series). For the most part, the series aired Saturday mornings at 10 AM, though new episodes came sporadically throughout the five-season run, with each "season" consisting of about a dozen shows. On the FOX network's Saturday morning lineup, "Spider-Man" was accompanied by other comic-adapted cartoons like "X-Men" and "The Tick", plus "The Power Rangers" in their first and most significant heyday.

With Sam Raimi's big-budget film adaptations bringing Spidey to a new generation, it's not surprising that Buena Vista Home Entertainment would want to cash in on the character's rediscovered popularity. So, from their vaults come episode compilations of this weekly animated series. The Venom Saga is the fifth volume of this kind; three previous releases have been timed to coincide precisely with the theatrical or home video release of Sony's Spider-Man movies. Such a strategy may be considered generous or shrewd depending on your point of view, but it cannot be considered unwise. After all, the two Spider-Man films theatrically grossed over 1.5 billion dollars around the world and some of that interest must leak over to these cartoon DVDs.

Loud noises pain Spidey in his new black suit. Spider-Man gets a diagnosis from the one-armed Dr. Curt Connors.

This volume contains five episodes, which is one more than the studio's past releases of the show have offered. (Although, those DVDs did include bonus episodes from the '60s "Spider-Man" cartoon.) The disc is comprised of a three-episode arc from Season One and a two-parter from Season Three. The common thread is that each prominently features the villain Venom, a more powerful, more evil, and more black antithesis to Spider-Man. Venom shares most of Spider-Man's skills, like insectually climbing buildings, shooting webs to capture foes, and swinging around high from the same material. But Venom also has a more twisted dual personality and lacks the hero's noble intentions.

This volume's opening trifecta, entitled "The Alien Costume", details Venom's origins from black ooze in the Hudson River to the potent enigmatic title object to a full-fledged semi-human villain who could rival the enemies featured in the previously-released "Spider-Man" compilations. The remaining two shows catch up with Venom and his troubled human identity, while also introducing his offspring Carnage.

The '90s "Spider-Man" is diverting, but far from a great show. It is marked by countless bad puns and animation that is several notches below theater-worthy. Though voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes, who was certainly comforting as The Little Mermaid's Eric, Spider-Man comes across as less than heroic. Perhaps it's because he's drawn like a bodybuilder but written like a kid. Maybe it's the frequent interior monologues which come across as comical but not quite camp. The series lacks the intelligence of Disney's "Gargoyles", a show which shared at least one writer (Brynne Chandler Reaves), one regular voice (Ed Asner), and most years of airing. Nonetheless, it aspires to a similar adventure mold, where personalities are plentiful and episodes need not be self-contained. Like most comic book adaptations, "Spider-Man" is driven by characters as much as story. Though the scripts are complex and occasionally clever, there's a lot of action but also quite a bit of disconnect.

Oh no! He's gonna throw Shocker out the window! Spidey does his best J.J. Jameson impression for a captivated Rhino.

"Spider-Man" is better than maybe a majority of the numerous animated television programs the last twenty years have brought us, but that's more of a testament to their inexpensive and often uninspiring nature than this show's real skill or flair.
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It is certainly involving for the most part, but as a show primarily interested in attracting children, it does most of the thinking for you. This collection of five episodes (1/13th of the show's entire run) is surely as good a selection of Venom episodes that the show had, and the first three-parter balances the mythology and action which gives the show (and the comic book series) its appeal.

"The Alien Costume, Part One" (Originally aired April 29, 1995)
A space shuttle headed for Kennedy Airport makes a crash landing in the Hudson River, and Spider-Man saves the two astronauts inside. Somehow, though, he's suspected in the robbery of the valuable substance Prometheum X that was on board. With a million dollar reward on his alter ego, Peter Parker lays low...until he finds himself atop a building in a strange black-and-white suit. Now, he has even greater superpowers, but even greater responsibilities.

"The Alien Costume, Part Two" (Originally aired May 6, 1995)
Spider-Man must deal with the negative consequences of his mysterious new suit, namely its ability to drive him to hostility. His violent temper is on full display as he grapples with photographer Eddie Brock and The Shocker, an electrifying henchman on his trail.

"The Alien Costume, Part Three" (Originally aired May 13, 1995)
When the black costume takes on one of Peter's nemeses as a new owner, Spider-man suddenly must deal with a tongue-wagging foe named Venom. Spider-Man has to come to terms with his own crippling fear in addition to taking care of the troubling, persistent Venom, who knows Spider-man's real identity and intends to use it against him.

Peter, Mary Jane, and Eddie at the movies. Somebody should have called Fandango! More symbiont scum for Spider-Man: Carnage threatens our hero as 'daddy' Venom watches on.

"The Sins of the Fathers, Chapter X: Venom Returns" (Originally aired November 2, 1996)
As the title states, Venom does return in this later episode.
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He escapes from jail in tandem with his imprisoned alter ego. Another unstable convict melds with a replica symbiont and becomes a potent villain called Carnage. The two of them pose plenty of trouble for Spider-Man, who only has the robotic War Machine as an ally.

"The Sins of the Fathers, Chapter XI: Carnage" (Originally aired November 9, 1996)
Venom continues to grapple with the symbiont, with prison psychologist Dr. Kafka encouraging him to do good. Meanwhile, Venom's spiteful spawn Carnage enjoys sucking the life force from everyone he can. Spider-Man tries to make everything right, with a bit of help from Iron Man.

This volume begins with one set of opening credits and simply title/writers screens at the start of each episode that follows. Outside of those intrusions (which are intentionally brief), The Venom Saga could very easily play as a 95-minute movie, aside from the commercial fadeouts and the fact that there's a major chronological and dramatic schism between the 3-parter's conclusion and episode four.

VIDEO and AUDIO

This DVD presents the episodes in their original broadcast ratio of 1.33:1. Visuals deliver about what you'd expect from a weekly television cartoon made last decade; the animation and transfer are a far cry from reference material, but they get the job done. The picture lacks the sharpness of feature animation and one might notice a bit of that moiré effect, assuming they know it by name and care. There's some minor shimmering and colors aren't the most vital, but nonetheless it meets one's expectations satisfactorily.

Audio comes by way of Dolby Stereo Surround. A Spanish dub is also offered and by comparison, the original English language sounded much fuller and richer, though again not surpassing expectations of a '90s television program. Surround speakers don't come to life too much, except for the exciting opening sequence and to gently echo music and effects. Only those expecting 5.1 mixes like the Spider-Man feature films will be disappointed. It's a capable if unspectacular sound presentation.

Spider-Man creator Stan Lee discusses a plethora of topics in "Stan Lee's Soapbox." He also introduces the disc's five episodes in another section of the DVD. "The Venomous Web": highlight any section to learn more on Venom. "Spiderman: The Venom Saga" DVD Main Menu

BONUS FEATURES

"Stan Lee's Soapbox" is a fun interview featurette in which the co-creator of Spider-Man waxes poetic on a number of pertinent topics.
Even at 82, Lee is like a big kid. His enthusiasm is inspiring and makes him very easy to listen to. Here, he reflects upon Venom, that powerful black suit, the temptation Spider-Man is faced with, childhood memories, seeing his creation in everyday places, and much more. We get to hear just Lee talk in front of a blue-and-red tinted web backdrop for 11½ minutes and though it might not sound entertaining, it definitely is.

Lee introduces "The Venomous Web", an interactive profile of the heinous villain. An animated web layout provides 13 places to click, each leads to a little informative video clip. The information actually arrives aurally from David Michelinie, the co-creator of Venom, but his comments are accompanied by relevant scenes from the DVD's episodes sans dialogue. Only one clip runs more than a minute; most are about thirty seconds long. A bit of what Michelinie says is entirely obvious having watched the episodes, but his insider reflections are still welcome. He also shares some insight on the comic book, including what about Venom was different from the show and what it was like working with collaborator Todd McFarlane.

The last bonus feature listed is "Episode Introductions by Stan Lee." Against the same backdrop as before, creator/executive producer Lee offers brief commentary on the five episodes included. Each clip runs between 40 and 80 seconds long, and the "Play All" option enables you to watch the whole DVD with Lee's introductions spliced in between shows.

The 4x3 Main Menu is rather plain, listing the five options in white text in front of a minorly-animated blue-and-red-tinted web backdrop. An instrumental of the theme song accompanies the main and bonus features menu, as do intermittent sound effects. Other music accompanies the submenus, and the scene selection page offers animated previews of the scenes (a rarity for Disney).

The disc, like most other Buena Vista DVDs, opens with previews of coming and available attractions: Chicken Little, Power Rangers S.P.D.: Volume 1 - Joining Forces, Spider-man vs. Doc Ock, and Bionicle 3: Web of Shadows. The Sneak Peeks menu hosts all of these, and on page 2 adds promos for Tarzan II, Pokemon: Destiny Deoxys, Bionicle 2: Legends of Metru Nui and "Power Rangers S.P.D." on Toon Disney.

Venom makes a discovery for the ages. Woah, so Peter Parker is really Spider-Man?! What, you didn't know that? The smell of pork has evil Spidey reaching for the sky. Pork=pig=cops. Get it? Got it? Good!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Spider-Man: The Venom Saga provides five diverting episodes with satisfying audio/video quality and a nice handful of bonus features. The show, like most '90s TV cartoons, will appeal to some part of the population, but is not everyone's cup of tea. There are both good and bad qualities on display; engaging action and colorful characters are a plus, but the animation is mediocre at best and the non-stop puns can induce cringes. Single-disc compilations like this are never as good a value as season sets, and that complaint again applies here. As such, it's only recommended to diehard fans clamoring to get this series on DVD any way they can. The disc will probably satisfy these folks, but only they'll know how strong this selection of episodes is in comparison to the rest of the series.

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Reviewed June 2, 2005.

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