The old saying about rising tides lifting all boats doesn't always apply to the world of entertainment. Cinematically, Marvel Comics is enjoying a day in the sun, with decades-old characters being turned into movie events on a seasonal basis. But when Marvel's flagship character, Spider-Man, made his latest transition into animation last year, the show came and went nearly as quickly as the live-action version of The Tick. (It didn't help that it aired on MTV, nobody's go-to source for animated superheroes.)
Now collected on DVD, the animated Spider-Man's first and probably only season wasn't perfect, but it did show great potential. Loosely modeled after Brian Michael Bendis' great Ultimate Spider-Man comic, it finds the right balance between Peter Parker's angst and his alter ego's crime-fighting adventures. On the first episode's commentary track, writer and co-executive producer Bendis attempts to explain why the classic Marvel creations still work, putting Stan Lee second only to William Shakespeare in timelessness. There's a big gap between The Bard's 400 years and Lee's 40, but Bendis has a point: Just as those riddled with soul-deep doubt will always have Hamlet, guilt-ridden teens will always have Spider-Man.
Here, he's embodied by computer animation and the voice of Neil Patrick Harriswho, as the former Doogie Howser, already has some experience contrasting prodigious abilities with fragile psyches. The action picks up more or less where Sam Raimi's Spider-Man left off, following Parker's college years, where he's joined by Mary Jane Watson (Lisa Loeb) and future Green Goblin heir Harry Osborn (90210's Ian Ziering). When not dwelling on the soap operatics of its hero's daily existence, the series sends him off to battle The Lizard, Kraven, and other familiar villains from the comic books.
Using a sometimes awkward, occasionally awesome form of computer animation, at its worst the show looks like the intermission sequence of a video game, and at its best (usually in the action sequences) it looks like animation from the future. Still, as always, it's the characters that make or break the series. Spider-Man generally does right by them, positioning itself in PG-13 territory and taking a slightly more adult approach to the Marvel Universe. In the best episodes, Peter Parker looks as conflicted when dealing with romantic difficulties as Spider-Man does when facing down a villain. Had the series been given the chance to come into its own and dig a little deeper into those conflicts, it might have become as much an institution as its star's comic-book and movie incarnations.