Ever since I was a little boy, I have always absolutely loved the 1990’s Spider-Man Animated Series. It’ll be one of those timeless shows I’ll introduce to my children if I have any in the future. It’s such a wholesome show that everyone young and old can enjoy and get something from, and it’s better than 99.9% of the stuff on TV today in 2021.
But back in 1995-1996 when I was little, the routine Dad and I had was like clockwork: As soon as Pop got home from work around 3:00, 4-5 year-old Luke would sit on the floor while he’d sit in the recliner, and turn the channel so we could tune into the newest episode. As soon as the unmistakable theme kicked in, and Joe Perry of Aerosmith unleashed that signature guitar riff, I was excited and ready to roll!
The show had everything! Nonstop action, fantastic storytelling, and top-notch voice acting led by Christopher Daniel Barnes (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Ed Asner (J. Jonah Jameson), Jennifer Hale (Felicia Hardy/Black Cat) and others. It didn’t need to rely on anything other than these things to draw people in, unlike a lot of TV shows today.
In fact, Spider-Man’s showrunners seemed to go out of their way to avoid anything remotely dark, violent or scandalous since it was a kids/family show. Guns were replaced with laser rifles and laser pistols. Nobody was killed onscreen, and there were always other words used as euphemisms for “dead,” “death” or “killed.” Darker Marvel Comics characters such as the Punisher, Daredevil and Kingpin appeared in the show, but they were considerably toned down. And there always seemed to be some moral lesson at the end of most episodes, such as self-sacrifice, doing the right thing for others, and showing courage even when it’s hard.
But in the last two episodes I watched on Disney+, there was a much sadder and more adult theme: Childhood cancer and terminal illness. I must not have remembered that episode, because I had never caught that until now. I’m man enough to admit that once I realized that’s what was going on, I softened up and broke down. I’ve known and loved the show for decades, and I just now caught that. It brought me to my knees, because cancer has affected my family, and I know people who are currently fighting that awful disease, or they have family members fighting it with them.
In Episodes 2 and 3 of Season 3 from 1996, titled “Make a Wish” and “Attack of the Octobot”, Peter Parker is at the end of his rope. Things aren’t going well for him at all. Mary Jane has left him for Harry Osborn because he’s too busy as Spider-Man (even though she doesn’t know), and J. Jonah Jameson has turned New York City against him. He’s fed up. He wants to quit his life as Spider-Man.
But one day, Robbie Robertson, one of his superiors at the Daily Bugle gives him a fan letter. Robbie thinks Peter works for Spider-Man as his personal photographer, and tells him to contact Spider-Man so he can meet a little girl who loves him and is his biggest fan. But Peter is so jaded about his life as a superhero, that he puts the letter away in a filing cabinet, ignoring it. But one day on his walk home from work while he’s dreaming of a normal life, Peter notices the letter in an alleyway, and hears a voice urging him to continue his work as Spider-Man.
He is then suddenly transported to another dimension, where he meets Madame Web, a wise old lady with the powers of clairvoyance. She’s been watching him, and can see his future. She tells him that the biggest mission of his life is yet to come. But in order to succeed, he must undergo training from her, and learn to have the faith of a child.
After he is returned to reality, he visits the little eight-year old girl in the letter. She’s absolutely thrilled that her hero came to visit her, and she gives him the biggest hug! He then tells her his origin story, shows her how his powers work, and spends quality time with her. But he’s still frustrated with how his life is going. He still wants to quit. She pleads with him to keep going, but he refuses.
He tries to take off, but she persuades him to take her web swinging with him so she can see the city like he sees it every day. Unfortunately, both of them are captured by Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man gets amnesia from one of his weapons. It is only through the love that the little girl, Taina, has for him that he remembers who he is and how much he inspires her and others. After defeating Doctor Octopus and taking her home, Spider-Man thanks Taina for supporting him and briefly takes off his mask just for her. He reveals himself as Peter Parker. Peter then tells her that she is his hero, and promises her that he’ll continue being Spider-Man, and he swings off into the night.
That last bit may seem cheesy to some. But reality hits once the camera zooms in on a medical center after Spider-Man swings past it. It’s a center for terminally ill children. Taina’s situation becomes crystal clear: She’s terminally ill. She’s going to die. And she wanted to meet her hero before she passed away. I had never caught that last thing before tonight, since the show actively avoids directly mentioning death or anything dark. And Taina wasn’t bald or frail. She looked perfectly healthy (probably so things didn’t get too dark or depressing since it’s a kids’ cartoon). But once I caught what was going on, it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Spider-Man may be a kids’/family cartoon, but after the episode I just kind of sat still for a couple minutes to calm myself down and gather my thoughts. After that I started thinking about so many things. My own mortality, truly appreciating life, and anger and confusion at the fact that innocent little boys and girls still suffer and die from cancer and other diseases. I don’t think anyone deserves cancer or any other related disease, but it shatters my heart when I see little ones having to deal with that kind of thing.
I will always consider myself a Christian. Even in my weakest times with my faith. But the big thing I’m struggling with right now, is why God allows people to be afflicted with such horrible diseases, especially children. Some will tell me that God allows cancer to happen, so His glory can be revealed in how people can come together to battle the disease. Perhaps they’re right, and that is how God works. But I still can’t get around why He allows it to happen in the first place. I try to be grateful, and hold steadfast to my faith that there is indeed something beyond this life, and that there is an all-good, all-wise and all-powerful God who controls all of this. But boy does He make it hard to do so at times like now.
I will still believe in God even when I am angry, hurt or confused. But after I wrestle with life’s mysteries, I am often reminded to appreciate my life since I still have it, and I hug my loved ones tighter. Hug your loved ones a little tighter, folks. Love them hard, cherish your time with them and be grateful. There’s no way of knowing how much time you have left. And none of us are getting out of this ride alive.