A group of students steal radioactive materials as a sign of protest, but they learn a lesson in nuclear weapons when an arms dealer takes advantage of the situation.
Recently I watched Spider-Man (1977), the pilot movie for The Amazing Spider-Man TV series, which you can hear us review at Now Playing. While I felt that movie was a bit slow, it was also so wacky and gonzo I could not look away. More, I couldn’t imagine how CBS would turn this concept as presented into a weekly series. I had to see more, so I eagerly jumped into the next episode, The Deadly Dust.
And man was that a mistake! I’ll get into why.
The Deadly Dust is a two-part episode that aired over two weeks. It was released internationally and on VHS and Laserdisc as a single movie. As it is a single story I will be reviewing both episodes here.
I was still excited during the opening credits sequence, and noticed the title has changed. While the movie was just Spider-Man, now the series is The Amazing Spider-Man, and the opening credits is no longer a tiny window of Spider-Man wall crawling–instead it’s a montage of the opening movie set to some generic 70s music. I was disappointed to see the more rockin’ disco music from the pilot movie replaced; this isn’t nearly as groovy.
In addition to the title, in the year that passed between the airing of the pilot movie and this first episode the series cast had changed. Peter Parker is still played by Nicholas Hammond, but gone was Dave the lab partner, as was Peter Parker’s Aunt May. Instead there is an entirely new supporting cast.
J. Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle where Peter works as a photographer, was played in the pilot by Bewitched’s David White. White was replaced by Robert F. Simon (who had a recurring role on Bewitched), to whom I take an immediate dislike. His Jameson is far too quiet. Jameson should have a flaming temper and wild ideas about Spider-Man. That’s how the character is still written, but as acted by Simon the character just comes across as cranky, and perhaps a bit constipated.
In the role of the Daily Bugle’s token African-American, Robbie Robertson (Hilly Hicks) is gone and replaced by a new character, Jameson’s secretary Rita Conway, played by Chip Fields. Fields is the spitting image of Glory Grant, who was Jameson’s secretary at the Bugle, but inexplicably that’s not Fields’ character. Conway is shown to be a sassy woman who keeps Jameson in his place.
Though again in these opening scenes I’m not taken with her. She seems to have the temper Jameson should have, blowing up too easily at her grumpy boss. Plus the portrayal is a bit racist. When Peter tells Rita he’s afraid Jameson will fire her, and that he has friends that would make it hard for Rita to find another job, Rita replies that she has friends that could make it difficult for Jameson to keep the tires on his Rolls Royce. Why must the black character’s friends steal car tires? I suppose because it’s the 1970s and on television.
But I am happy to see the only returning supporting character, Michael Pataki as Captain Barbera. His Colombo-like persona was a highlight of the pilot movie. When this episode opens it’s with Barbera trying to stop a woman from jumping off a building. She says it’s her boyfriend’s fault and is ready to jump, but of course Spider-Man comes in and saves the girl.
I was immediately enthralled. Who is the girl’s boyfriend and why is he making her commit suicide? The title is “The Deadly Dust”–is that deadly dust Angel Dust and the girl is on a bad trip? I thought back to the controversial issues of The Amazing Spider-Man comic where Harry Osborne goes on drugs and thinks he can fly, and I’m really taken in. So you can imagine my disappointment when I discover this is just an introductory action scene that has no bearing on the plot of the episode.
The actual plot is about a nuclear bomb. Peter’s college professor Dr. Bailor is about to open a nuclear reactor on the college campus. Peter and his classmates are outraged at the thought of having radioactive materials on campus as the reactor will produce the titular “Deadly Dust”, also known as plutonium oxide, the byproduct produced from the nuclear reactor. Bailor refuses to relent despite the sutdents’ heated arguments, so three of the students decide to teach Dr. Bailor a lesson and steal the plutonium. When that doesn’t get enough press, they then take it a step further fashioning the plutonium into a makeshift nuclear bomb. Lacking only one ingredient, plastic explosive to use as a detonator, the students hope the bomb will strike fear into the university and make Bailor rethink his blasé attitude towards such dangerous materials.
This was a plot line I could get behind–extremist activists going too far to prove a point and a nuclear threat are concerns big enough to warrant a superhero’s attention yet real enough to relate to the fears of the audience. If that wasn’t enough to warrant Spider-Man’s attention, the masked vigilante is thought to have stolen the plutonium. Now his biggest supporter, Barbara, is partnered with the FBI to investigate Spider-Man for causing a nuclear threat. More, as Bailor said the only student capable of fashioning the plutonium into a bomb was star pupil Peter Parker, and Parker is known for his connection to Spider-Man, the feds think the two are in cahoots on the theft.
It’s a really good set-up that I enjoyed watching.
I was also enjoying the B-plot introduced. Barbera’s public praise of the vigilante gets the attention of Miami Beach supermarket tabloid The Weekly Examiner, who sends Gale Hoffman to get a cover story on Spider-Man, using Spider-Man’s photographer Peter Parker as a lead. Gale is sexy and smart and Peter is interested in her, but her refusal to leave Parker’s side hinders his ability to investigate the plutonium theft. Gale acts in this episode much like a Lois Lane to Peter Parker’s Clark Kent–she’s a good reporter aiding Peter in the investigation, but needing to be ditched when it’s superhero time.
There’s many good scenes between Peter and Gale, with Gale suspecting Spider-Man of stealing the plutonium. Here, for the first time, we get to the root of why Peter is a superhero. Gale rightly points out that no one asked Spider-Man to save the world, and if he doesn’t like it he can just hang up his blue tights. Peter responds very gravely saying “What about his conscience? What’s the point of having a special power if you don’t use it to help people?” He also says “I think Spider-Man does a lot of good but if people knew who he is it wouldn’t be the same thing?” He goes on saying how lonely it is for Spider-Man, and it’s hard because Spider-Man has to lie to everyone at work, his friends, and even his girlfriends. “People think it would be really wonderful to have Spider-Man’s powers. Let me tell you, I’m not so sure whether it’s a blessing or a curse.”
In the entire pilot episode we were never given these insights into why Peter dons an outfit and stops evildoers. Here, we get the reason and it comes because Peter is feeling close to Gale. It’s both character exploration and relationship development in one scene. I do wish there was more of a reason, though. Without the guilt of Uncle Ben’s death, Peter’s motivations are thin. More, his passionate speaking on the topic makes Gale suspect Peter may be Spider-Man, something she eventually asks him outright. Unfortunately Peter’s convenient lies put Gale’s suspicions to rest. I think I’d have preferred it if his partner was in on his secret.
All of this in the first hour made me think The Deadly Dust may actually be an improvement over the pilot film, but it did lack in one regard–there was no real villain. The students aren’t bad guys, they’re just misguided and not all that bright. Running from the cops and performing investigations into the nuclear theft is entertaining, but could not sustain a two-hour running length, so we are introduced to Mr. White (Robert Alda, father of Alan Alda and bad guy from two Incredible Hulk episodes).
Mr. White is a multi-millionaire record executive who enjoys his Los Angeles lifestyle, hanging out on the roof of his skyscraper, bikini-clad women surrounding him. But making money on gold records isn’t enough, Mr. White is also a…well having watched the episode I don’t know what he is. Mercenary? Terrorist? Gangster? Let’s settle on ill-defined baddie.
White reads about the plutonium theft and races to New York to steal the stolen nuclear goods. He, like the FBI, thinks Peter Parker stole it, and that if he can take it from the grad student he can then sell it to the highest bidder. Truthfully I liked the addition of this fourth faction to the story, but unfortunately Mr. White would come to dominate the story in its second hour.
By the end of what would have been the first regular episode of The Amazing Spider-Man I was really enjoying it. The cops, the rogue students, Peter and Gale, and Mr. White’s goons all chasing the nuclear materials had been a great bit of fun. I would have recommended the first of the two episodes. But after the midway point the episode loses its focus and leaves New York.
Parker’s name is cleared and the plutonium found all too quickly. One of the students making the fake bomb gets radiation poisoning and is rushed to the hospital. The hospital reports radiation poisoning and the real thieves are discovered, but not their bounty. Racing to the hospital, the students just left their near-complete bomb in the middle of the room, and Mr. White’s goons quickly steal it and take it back to Los Angeles. Peter, having put a spider-tracer on White’s white limo, wants to pursue. He tells Jameson about the bomb, but Jameson cannot run the story lest it cause widespread panic. To recover the bomb, and be the first out the door with the story once the danger has passed, Jameson agrees to go with Parker and Gale to Los Angeles.
This is where the story goes south. Literally. Once the three leads leave New York, every single aspect of the New York storyline is forgotten. The students who caused this whole mess? Never seen again. Barbera? Out of his jurisdiction. The FBI agent DeCarlo who was tracking the plutonium in New York? Disappeared. No, the only ones who can save us from a rogue nuclear bomb are two reporters and a grumpy newspaper publisher. Well, and Spider-Man, I suppose.
I learned after watching this episode that The Amazing Spider-Man series production was based in L.A., but the character is so closely identified with New York City they did not relocate the character. With that being the case, why then make a story where Peter must travel cross-country to follow a criminal? Was it so they could have their end action scenes outdoors, in the air, and not reveal that they are not in Manhattan? It’s confusing, as is the story.
In LA Spider-Man fights White’s goons several times, most comically on a Hollywood old-west backlot (literally an old-west backlot, not a backlot subbing for a real location) and White becomes nervous. Instead of selling the bomb he tries to extort the US Government, saying if his demands are not met he will “detonate the bomb in the place where it will do the most damage.” This phrasing confuses our newspaper reporters, who apparently only write for newspapers but never read one, because the headline of a newspaper in LA reads “President to speak in California”.
The entire second episode of “The Deadly Dust” is a jumbled mess. There are repeated fights that change nothing. Gale is taken hostage and then freed. Peter and Gale even visit Mr. White’s record studio, driving home the ridiculous nature of a record executive terrorist. At best any two-hour episode of a 1970s television series might start to wear out its welcome, but here it has devolved into nonsense.
I think the show runners thought the plus side of the second hour is there is a lot less Peter Parker and a lot more Spider-Man. Parker disappears more and more as Spider-Man fights goons and chases after the bomb, but honestly the Spider-Man fights in this episode are entirely terrible. The Spider-Man outfit looks even more silly in this episode than in the pilot, his gloves flapping in the wind and his red boots looking like he’s expecting a rainstorm. Moreover, the stuntman in the outfit is prone to grand, theatrical movements and cocking his head like a dog. Every time Spider-Man is fighting these same goons I am left shaking my head. More, it usually ends with Spider-Man running away! Why he chooses to flee rather than use the oversized web shooters on his wrist to trip up his enemies confounds me. There is no logic, it’s just there to stretch out a thin, silly story.
Not all the stunts are terrible. We do get some good wire work as he climbs down buildings or performs superjumps, but watching someone climb isn’t really all that fun. More, due to budget constraints, Spider-Man seems to wall-crawl only as a last resort preferring to run like any human on solid ground whenever possible. I understand why it is done this way, but that doesn’t make the show any more entertaining.
Strangely the high point of the second hour for me was Jameson. I couldn’t stand him in New York, being confined in his office and very low-key, but once out in LA he lets his cheap flag fly! He is constantly chasing after Parker and dismissing anything having to do with Spider-Man. He really starts to embody a version of Jameson as I imagined him. He still has nothing on J.K. Simmons, but it’s an improvement.
And I must give this episode credit for its climax. At the end, Mr. White and his goon have hidden the nuclear bomb on a rooftop near where the president is speaking, and it’s up to Spider-Man to stop it. He convinces a helicopter tour guide to give him a ride, telling the pilot it’s a publicity stunt, and then freefalls out of the helicopter. While the spider-suit flapping in the breeze shows clearly how poorly the suit fits the stuntman, it is cool to see Spider-Man actually perform death-defying feats.
And it gets better! Mr. White is in his own helicopter and flies after Spider-Man, who uses his webbing to latch on to White’s ride. White’s goon Angel pilots the chopper all around trying to shake the wall-crawler and we get to see practical stunt footage of the Spider-Man dangling from a helicopter. The point-of-view camera used in the pilot returns as well, and we see Spider-Man’s view as he hangs on the rope. It is really exciting. This is where all their money went, and it is money well-spent. Unfortunately it becomes a case of too-little-too-late in this episode as the poor writing and repetitive action had me checked out a good half hour before the money shot.
The poor writing continues as Mr. White just so happens to shake Spider-Man on the exact same rooftop where they stashed the nuclear bomb, and with Peter Parker’s scientific knowledge Spider-Man disarms the bomb, saving the president and Los Angeles, with two seconds to spare.
Peter Parker gives Jameson pictures of Spider-Man posing with the bomb, and he and Gale seem destined for a romance, but Mr. White escapes saying he will get Spider-Man another day. Why FBI Agent DeCarlo doesn’t just arrest the man based on the newspaper articles is a question never answered, and I don’t think the series lasted long enough for Mr. White to actually return.
The first half of “The Deadly Dust” had so much promise, the second hour devolved into brain-numbing action for action’s sake, and bad action at that. It’s a weaker not recommend as there are some things of value, but an easy not recommend.