"Ultimate Spider-Man": Novel New Take on the Web-Slinger
The Spectacular Spider-Man rapidly became one of my favorite superhero cartoons for its intelligent take on Marvel’s iconic wall-crawler. The series drew on the iconic Stan Lee and Steve Ditko comic books and gave them just enough nips and tucks to freshen them up for modern day audiences. Like many of the show’s fans, I was deeply saddened to learn that the show was not renewed after its second season, with salt rubbed into the wound knowing that the show’s demise was due to inter-company politics. To that show’s many fans, Disney XD’s new Ultimate Spider-Man series is starting in a hole simply for being the show that is replacing Spectacular Spider-Man. However, those fans, and Spidey’s fans in general, can rest much easier because Ultimate Spider-Man manages to freshen the formula in many novel ways, acquiring many of the strengths of Spectacular Spider-Man while mixing in some exciting and interesting new creative choices to produce something that feels genuinely new.
Spider-Man’s origin story is rightfully one of the most famed in superhero comics, but that doesn’t mean I’m in a hurry to see it played out yet again. Thankfully, Ultimate Spider-Man eschews the usual “start from square one” conventions, kicking off with a year’s worth of experience under Peter Parker’s web-covered belt. From there, the series premiere “Great Power” is off and running, with Spider-Man’s motor-mouth patter (provided quite entertainingly by Drake Bell) acting as his own Greek chorus to fill in newcomers with the necessary exposition on the fly as he tackles the Trapster in mid-crime. After defeating the super-villain Trapster, Spider-Man gets a surprise visit from spymaster Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., who comes bearing an offer for the web-spinner to join S.H.I.E.L.D. for better training and equipment. Unfortunately, Fury’s eyes are not the only ones that have noticed Spider-Man’s potential, for industrial magnate Norman Osborn seeks to exploit Spider-Man using far more dangerous means for far less benevolent purposes.
While Spectacular Spider-Man hewed extremely closely to the stories and characterization in Stan and Steve’s original comics, Ultimate Spider-Man is far more willing to play with the formula in sensible ways, straying pretty far even from the newer comic book series from which it takes its title. Fury’s offer to Spider-Man makes perfect sense and throws a fascinating and unexpected wrinkle into the usual way the Marvel Universe works, even if those familiar with Fury may be convinced that there has to be an alterior motive in play. There are other ways the show deviates from the expected, like turning Mary-Jane Watson (the ever-talented Tara Strong) into more of a gal pal than a genuine romantic interest for Peter Parker, and in the successful update of Aunt May (Misty Lee) to a hip golden oldie rather than the frail old codger that she’s often portrayed as in the comics. It’s also a nice surprise to see Spider-Man placed firmly amongst other Marvel superheroes and supervillains for a change, rather than segregated off into his own little pocket world because of Marvel’s pre-acquisition tendency to license its characters to different studios. Just injecting characters from outside Spider-Man’s typical foes and supporting cast already livens up Ultimate Spider-Man from many of its predecessors.
The other way that Ultimate Spider-Man strays from the usual is in its unexpected uses of humor. Most animated superhero shows tend to be serious as the grave, with the ones that don’t tending to be primarily comedic (Teen Titans or Batman: The Brave and the Bold) if not outright slapstick (The Super Hero Squad Show) or parody (The Tick). Ultimate Spider-Man is aiming to tell a serious superhero story, but it’s not afraid to animate Spidey’s snarky asides and offhand quips in wildly creative and often quite funny ways. Spider-Man’s constant comedic patter is one of the character’s trademarks, and Ultimate Spider-Man isn’t afraid to exploit the uninhibited medium of animation to get us into Spider-Man’s stream-of-consciousness thought process. Admittedly, some of these asides may stray a bit too far into the slapstick and a few too many are dedicated to entirely unnecessary exposition, but on the whole they’re more successful than not. If nothing else, I have to give the show’s creators a lot of credit for being willing to take such a chance on their hybrid approach, and the fact that it succeeds far more often than not is a testament to the quality of that approach. I expect many will still pooh-pooh the attempts at humor, believing that it demeans or trivializes the character or the show, just as many dismissed Teen Titans for its excesses. To them, I can only say: your loss.
Animation fans will certainly have nothing to complain about from a technical perspective. Ultimate Spider-Man is every bit as accomplished as its predecessor in producing a vertiginous adrenaline rush through Spider-Man’s web-slinging or superhero combat. There is a real, kinetic sense of speed and agility in Spider-Man’s movements, with some especially fun scenes involving a fight in a high school cafeteria and one as Spidey tries to infiltrate the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. Character designs are a bit more realistic than the highly stylized Spectacular Spider-Man, which may be more appealing to traditional superhero fans but which also make the wackier comedic morphing a bit more jarring. Voice acting is excellent across the board, and if nothing else Ultimate Spider-Man deserves much credit for bringing back J.K. Simmons for his hilarious and dead-on rendition of supporting cast member J. Jonah Jameson.
Relaunching another show for a character as iconic as Spider-Man is a dangerous balancing act. Change too little and you risk being overly derivative, but change too much and you risk losing what makes the character appealing in the first place. While there are a few stumbles along the way, Ultimate Spider-Man manages to pull off that balancing act quite successfully, leaving me cautiously optimistic for the future of the show. It may not be a third season of The Spectacular Spider-Man, but Ultimate Spider-Man has already staked out new territory from its predecessor and is well on its way to being equally successful.
Ultimate Spider-Man premieres on Disney XD on Sunday, April 1, 2012, at 11:00 AM (ET/PT).