“Great Power”, “Great Responsibility”
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Alex Soto, Phil Pignotti and Tim Eldred
THE PLOT: One year has passed since Peter Parker dove into the Super Heroing biz as Spider-Man. He’s managed to make a name for himself in the city and has become a decent crime fighter. However an encounter with the Trapster and an offer from Nick Fury puts forth the proposition to Peter that if he were to train with S.H.I.E.L.D., he’d become a more efficient Spider-Man.
LONG STORY SHORT: The Frightful Four (three-fourths of them) attack Midtown High under orders from Doctor Octopus, who with Norman Osborn is working to find out who Spider-Man is and bring him over to the Dark Side. Spidey saves the day, but Harry Osborn is injured in the process. The battle also makes Peter forget to get the birthday cake for Uncle Ben’s posthumous birthday. All this makes Peter decide to take up Fury’s offer, and he agrees to join S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury teams him up with four other teenage heroes, Power Man, White Tiger, Nova and Iron Fist. At first, Spidey is reticent to be part of a team, but after another battle with the Frightful Four, and the team’s enrollment in Midtown High, he reluctantly accepts their occasional assistance.
One the one hand, it’s capitalizing on the Ultimate Spider-Man concepts with the basic designs of the characters, the relationship between Nick Fury and Peter, the youth of the character and the plot with Norman Osborn. It also brings Spider-Man into the Avengers game with S.H.I.E.L.D. being a consistent concept and the movie designs of Cap, Thor and Iron Man being used. (Even the clip of Iron Man bouncing around in his hanger was right out of the first Iron Man movie)
On the other hand, to many this will come as a cynical and cheap usurper of the modern Spider-Man cartoon after the untimely demise of the Spectacular Spider-Man animated series which still remains to be the best Spidey was ever done on the small screen. Also, the tone of the series will be compared to Marvel Super Hero Squad and Batman: The Brave and the Bold respectively. Right off the bat, this series is littered with pummelings of the fourth wall, wacky technology gags, and nutty cutaways which make little sense out of context. This is the first Spider-Man cartoon to ironically be innately “cartoony”, and that’s going to bother a lot of people.
So how does this show come off to me personally?
For what it’s going for, I really enjoyed it. The overall thesis of the show was sold with the first two episodes, and it felt different than all the other Spider-Man cartoons that had come before, whilst still being a Spider-Man show. This series is barely meant to be taken seriously, to the point where a lot of easy complaints with certain characters like Curt Connors fly right out the window from the get-go.
First and foremost, this remains a Peter Parker focused show. Despite the presence of a ton of characters, both from the overarching Marvel Universe and Spidey’s own supporting cast, we never lose the sense that Peter drives his own story. Reviewing the MTV series has really given me an awareness of how that can happen, and it’s this cartoon’s good fortune that such a misstep has been avoided. The show would really be as bad as people could say it is if Peter wasn’t at the heart of the story. For the character himself, Drake Bell does a very good job in what to my knowledge is his first major voice acting role. His voice for Peter/Spider-Man is a bit juvenile and certainly not a voice I would hear when reading the comics, but the performance is done well enough that you can buy into the voice for this type of world. To some, it could take some getting used to. I wish Josh Keaton were voicing, but Bell does succeed with what he’s given
Another achievement is that the show is not afraid to stop dead for the sake of exposition, as the way in which it’s delivered is done well. The video game-esque cutscenes where Peter address which character does what is entertaining enough to where even if you know all about who he’s referring to, it draws your attention to see how it’s interpreted. The Harry and Flash intro sequences were especially engaging, as we saw how Peter sees these characters subjectively. The scene in the Osborn limousine is creepy yet understated enough that it means more when you know exactly who Norman Osborn is to Peter.
Talking about all the jokes, some of them are par for the course in terms of super hero antics in a cartoon. I.E. Spider-Man clogs up the Trapster’s gun, and just before it blows he makes an “UH OH!” face. Luckily, the show does know how to go beyond such easy gags to really sell the hyper-animated feel it has without coming off as lazy. The first two episodes were written by Paul Dini, in what must be to my knowledge his first foray into animated Marvel shows. Dini can do humor just as well as he does drama, and he gets the voices of the characters down pat. One of the best lines in the third act is when Jameson says on the teleprompter “Believe me ladies and gentlemen, it gives this humble commentator less pleasure than I imagine to say…I told ya so.” That’s a pitch perfect Jameson right there, nailing both his playing to the audience and bigging up his ego. Spidey’s one-liners are solid as well right off the bat , when after defeating the Trapster. “This is where I leave a note that reads ‘Courtesy of your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man’. Have a pen I can borrow?” Even the cutaway gags, crazy as they were, made me laugh every now and then. Such like Spider-Man being in Peter’s Spanish class, Peter’s fear of being exposed as Spider-Man in a tabloid, and the signal for turning off S.H.I.E.L.D.’s defense systems sound like a car-lock button.
The tone isn’t wall-to-wall wackyness, as it really can’t be when dealing with Spider-Man, and it does well when it wants to be serious. The ending where after all the craziness that occurred during the day, Peter forgot to get the cake for Uncle Ben’s birthday was very well done. It shows how at the end of the day, he’s more Peter Parker than Spider-Man in how his normal responsibilities to his family are more important to him than everything else. The fight sequence in the cafeteria, zany as it got every now and then, did have a sense of menace when Wizard first began threatening the kids and began torturing Peter in front of everyone. Bell sells it as both his acting and the animation make it look like Peter’s really going to die.
Admittedly though, I had a lot more fun with the first episode than I did while watching the second. Not really due to quality but due to preference. I don’t care for Spider-Man being given super gadgets that very clearly are made to be toys, and the whole team-up aspect rang hollow. When Nova, Luke Cage, White Tiger and Iron Fist were talking bad on Spider-Man, I was rolling my eyes. I felt like this was an uninspired way to go about having Spider-Man interact with other heroes by making him the rookie under everyone else. Luckily though, Dini’s smarter than that, and made it so Spidey knew more about being a hero than any of them. He even rejected the Spider-Cycle up front, saying he doesn’t need a vehicle. This is what makes the show worthwhile, that conceits with Saturday Morning cartoons which could potentially go against the characters are confronted right away and dealt with. The Spider-Cycle was just a set piece so Peter could meet the other heroes (and to sell toys) so I don’t really see him using it in every episode happening any time soon. I’ll also say that although one could argue having Spider-Man as a teenager doesn’t go against the source material, doing the same thing to Luke Cage, Nova, Iron Fist and White Tiger might. Although when you think about it, those characters (Cage, Iron Fist and Nova at least) all premiered in the comics in the 70s, whereas Spider-Man debuted in the 60s. Having him as a more experienced hero in comparison to them is a nice bit of thematic writing. In any case, the ending to the second episode made me laugh. I thought the four teens joining Midtown High was a little bit too “X-Men: Evolution” where every super powered character was at the high school. But again, Peter’s having none of it and immediately tries to transfer out, only to discover that the whole school’s rigged by S.H.I.E.L.D’s watchful eye with Agent Coulson as the principal. It’s silly, but it’s also kind of fun.
Bottom line, if you’re more inclined to watch a Spider-Man show that goes after the source material as close as possible, this honestly isn’t the show for you. In the strictest sense of the word, it’s a cartoon. Pure and simple. It’s not the best entry into Spider-Man’s animation history in comparison to other shows, but it’s far from awful and no where near as bad as it could have been. Who knows, it could fall off later on down the season. For my money, Ultimate Spider-Man is off to a great start.
All images taken from Marvel.toonzone.net