Ultimate SMH – Louis Santiago on the Series Premiere of ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’
I really, really wanted to like this show. Partially because I love Spider-Man, and partially because Marvel cartoons suffer from the curse of not being DC animated series. My generation, having grown up on Batman: The Animated Series, The Justice League, and the many DC animated movies, is always ready to believe that any new DC animated series is going to be gold, no matter what, and, (no offense, but fond memories aside) with terrible 90’s Marvel cartoons as examples, that any new Marvel series is going to be terrible. The sad thing is, legitimately good shows like (hold your groans, nonbelievers) Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Spectacular Spider-Man totally suffer because of this “curse” while shows like Young Justice get unreal praise. Now, I’m not saying I hate Young Justice—I definitely enjoy it—but the show (honestly, now) has lots of soul withering, painful elements (“Hel-lo, Megan!”) that people just shrug aside. So, for the discerning viewer and Marvel fan who wants to see more awesome Marvel animated shows, I sat down to watch Ultimate Spider-Man with nothing but hope that I would be excitedly writing a glowing review ten seconds after the series premiere ended.
And here I am, telling you as a Marvel, as a Spider-Man fan, and as a critical viewer of animated superhero shows that Ultimate Spider-Man… does a lot—a lot—wrong. There are some things that the show does right, but for the most part, USM crushed my soul.
For that reason, I think I’ll do this review backwards, starting with…
What It Did Wrong
Before I say anything, I want to stress that I don’t mean to offend any of the creators involved with this show; I do intend, however, to be very honest. That said…
Ultimate Spider-Meh – For starters, this show doesn’t have a visual style to speak of. There are plenty of graphics and stylish animations, but the artistic approach and character design don’t bring anything to the table or compliment the characters and series at all. The art is solid, which is good, but solid is just a step above the ordinary look of the 90’s Spider-Man cartoon and a step below the distinctive look of Spectacular Spider-Man and Avengers: EMH. The looks of those shows make the lack of visual style in USM all the more questionable. Of particular note is Normal Osborne, who, on this show, looks exactly like nobody.
The 4th Wall Ain’t the Only Thing These Jokes Are Breaking – Joke asides / flashbacks / whatever supply the best laughs; the “We Want You for S.H.I.E.L.D.” poster and Flash Thompson’s “Feliz Navidad!” were particularly good, but in neither case were those jokes out of Spider-Man’s mouth. What does come out of Spider-Man’s mouth is at best (like the majority of joke asides) passable, and at worst absolutely painful. And what counts as “absolutely painful”?
Spider-Man: “Other kids I know start their day with orange juice. Me? I get yelled at by a 100 foot tall cranky pants. Where’s a little love for the Spidey guy?”
Spider-Man: “How ultimate is ultimate?”
Nick Fury: <takes a villain down in an insane way without even looking> “That ultimate.”
Spider-Man: “Sweet!” <his phone rings> “I should probably set my ultimate cell phone to ultimate vibrate!”
To make matters worse, what start as somewhat enjoyable asides get old fast, making the laughs that much more rare. Thankfully, there are a few good moments in the second episode, but “a few” funny/fun moments just isn’t enough were Spider-Man is concerned.
Ultimately not Ultimate Spider-Man – Although I didn’t expect a literal translation of the comic to visual media (because, really, expecting anything to get a panel-to-panel translation to film or TV is the first mistake of any fan), this show fails to achieve the seriousness and dramatic weight of the Ultimate Spider-Man comic series. In the comic, Brian Michael Bendis managed to put Peter in extremely trying and emotional situations as often as he dropped him into simple, banter-inducing ones, making for a well-rounded Spider-Man who you as a reader felt you could really understand and support.
The TV series is ultimately just… slap stick and… and the word “rad”. That’s the best way I can put it.
Fortunately this show’s Peter Parker can say it all with just one look.
Yeah… I don’t want to get ahead of myself because I’ve only seen two episodes, but so far, there’s only the barest hint of weight here. Maybe that’s a good thing—I don’t know. What I do know is, I really, really doubt we’ll see a favorite character die in this series and then come back as a genetic monster.
Classic Cast?… What’s That? – This is more of a Spider-Man fan complaint, but Spectacular Spider-Man used an unreal amount of classic Spider-Man characters. And I’m not just talking “Oh, hey, there’s Betty Brant.” I’m talking Glory Grant. I’m talking Liz Allen and Randy Robertson. I’m talking Frederick Fosswell—Frederick Fosswell, people. You probably don’t even know who that is. The result was a full cast and a vibrant Spidey world that hit the level of character drama that helped make classic Amazing Spider-Man the dramatic powerhouse that it was.
Ultimate Spider-Man doesn’t even try. Only… it goes beyond not trying, instead making even the most solid, staple characters of the series into oddly, impossibly gray patches of background. Mary Jane and Flash Thompson are great examples of this folly (Flash particularly fails to be more than a generic bully, which any Spider-Man reader can tell you needs to change for a lot of reasons), but there’s no better example than the large, barking, flat screen TV that Jonah Jameson has become, perhaps the worst travesty to ever befall such a great man (as he would put it).
Maybe the series will completely turn around on this. Or maybe this show will make something of this new approach, focusing more on Spider-Man’s adventures than Peter’s daily life, and maybe that will totally work somehow. But two things are certain if they run with this mostly Spidey approach: 1) it would defy a part of what makes Spider-Man great and 2) Spectacular Spider-Man will remain the truest Spider-Man experience you can watch.
Okay. I think I got to everything. So now, finally, we’re on to…
What It Did Right
Other Young Heroes Are in This?… THANK GOD – Believe it or not, the show gets a lot better when other S.H.I.E.L.D. rookies (and Marvel B and C listers) Iron Fist, White Tiger, Power Man and Nova get involved. The result is an experience that comes as close to the Ultimate Spider-Man comic series as this show is likely to get (and I won’t say how).
I will say that the heroes work a good team dynamic, and not a one of them are heroes you’ve seen in animation before, so there’s really no way for them to disappoint you (unless you’re very familiar with them already, in which case, there’s a chance you’ll try to stab your TV). I don’t think any one of them is particularly terrible though and they all have a definite chemistry that should unexpectedly charm your pants off. In my case, I was left hoping that this show is going to turn into a weird hybrid of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and Teen Titans with The Brave and the Bold’s penchant for pairing an A lister with lesser known heroes. All things considered, it’s a combination I would totally take.
What If Peter Parker Hadn’t Died? – Although the premise may initially feel off-putting, it’s actually genius and the only major draw for fans of the comic series; any reader who was ever curious about how Peter Parker’s life would’ve continued if he’d not been killed last year will find an answer on this show. In the comics, Peter had only just been approached by Nick Fury and asked to train with members of S.H.I.E.L.D. so that he could be a better Spider-Man. Although the show definitely doesn’t pick up where the comic left off, it does take that idea from the comics and use it as a great premise that has plenty of potential to supply viewers and readers with something they’ve never seen from the web head. I can honestly say that this approach is what will draw me back, wary as I may be, for episode three.
A Highly Non-Linear Plot – This may be more of a writer’s observation, but so far, the episodes don’t follow anything like a linear plot, which is at once a solid feat and a breath of fresh air. If these first two episodes are any indication, we won’t have to deal with the same formula for every show (something like “Peter goes to school ->Peter (I dunno) finds out about a villain attack from MJ’s watching the news -> Peter makes an excuse and dashes off to defeat the villain -> Peter swings back just in time to miss/not miss something and make a snide remark either way”). It’s a small victory that many will likely not care about, but I’m giving credit where credit’s due.
The Final Word
All in all, there is potential here, it’s just buried beneath a collection of bad ideas. For this fan, the failures here are particularly painful when compared to the few-mishaps-buried-beneath-a-collection-of-truly-awesome-ideas that was Spectacular Spider-Man. With that in mind, this new iteration of Spider-Man can only feel like a long, shameful step backwards. I’m still going to watch with hopes that I’ll soon be eating my words.
But in the meantime, I’ll be wistfully waiting for a complete collection of Spectacular Spider-Man on DVD—one that I know I’ll never get—and I’ll be contemplating the direction of a company that takes away a show as entertaining and spot on as Spectacular to replace it with something as sadly flawed as Ultimate.