Ultimate Spider-Man debuts Sunday at 11 a.m. Eastern on Disney XD.
Disney XD’s Ultimate Spider-Man is TV’s umpteenth attempt to produce something that on paper, should be really easy: a Spider-Man series with the same kind of crossover appeal and artistic quality of efforts like Batman: The Animated Series and other DC Animated Universe shows. I’m sure that every previous Spider-Man show has its fans—the 90s Fox Kids series holds some childhood nostalgia for me, there was that cel-shaded series with Neil Patrick Harris as Peter Parker, and the recent Spectacular Spider-Man had a vocal fanbase, but none of them ever quite took hold.
Ultimate Spider-Man has serious pedigree: Paul Dini, a major contributor to the DC Animated Universe, is running the show, and the series is drawing inspiration from Brian Michael Bendis’ excellent comic of the same title (Bendis is listed as a writer and producer alongside other comic writers like Joe Kelly, Joe Casey and Steven Seagle). There’s careful consideration of a larger Marvel animated universe (the show is airing alongside an Avengers show in its second season), and the pilot episode partially revolves around Nick Fury (Chi McBride, filling in for Samuel L. Jackson) recruiting Spidey to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. and maybe, one day, the Avengers.
That’s why it’s especially crushing that Ultimate Spider-Man, at least in its first episode, feels rather lame and perfunctory, with wackiness dialed up to 11 in an effort to distract from how fundamentally bland it is. The storytelling approach is smart—we’re dropped into Peter Parker’s life about a year after he was bitten by a spider and got turned into a superhero. Disney XD knows we’ve seen the movies or read the comics or something. We know about Uncle Ben, about great power and great responsibility—that all gets filled in, but in very quick flashbacks.
The concentration instead is on Peter balancing high school life with super-hero life, surrounded by the usual ensemble—Mary-Jane, Harry and Norman Osborne, Flash Thompson, J. Jonah Jameson, and Aunt May (who is in the cooler Bendis vein rather than the creaky old bat of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation). Perhaps to echo this high-school approach, everything is skewed funny. The show is full of Spidey’s wisecracks, lots of flashbacks and cutaways, and a generally manic style, both visually and aurally. At one point, Peter freezes the frame to talk to the camera. At another, he recalls kissing Mary-Jane when he was 12. “MISTAKE!” he screams. We’re treated to a cutaway gag of Iron Man bouncing around his lab. Some of it’s fine, but some of it’s very unnecessary.
I have no problem with an animated show based on a comic book borrowing that visual style. When new characters pop up, the camera freezes on them, they strike a pose, and a big brassy font proclaims their identity to us. At one point, while fighting the Trapster (a D-list villain even by Marvel standards), Spidey hits him and a big “KRAK” flies across the screen. That’s alright. What we don’t need is hyperactive sound effects (mostly boinks and klonks) every time someone is knocked into a wall. All the fight scenes were missing were little birds flying around people’s heads. Drake Bell, in the role of Spidey, has the wise-ass attitude part down, but that’s all he’s figured out.
If the show is being aimed directly at kids, that’s fine. I’m sure they’ll appreciate the silly janitor character Stan Lee is playing. Maybe they’ll get a kick out of lines like “I should probably set my ultimate cellphone to ultimate vibrate!” But there’s a surprising lack of depth to a show with a creative roster this good. There’s definitely a chance that things will pick up as the show carries on. The idea of Peter training with S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t really been done before on one of these shows. Apparently he’ll be working with an ensemble of Marvel heroes like Nova, Luke Cage and Iron First. That could be cool.
Plus there’s the usual foreshadowing—Norman Osborne (Steven Weber) is up to no good, and he’s got Doctor Octopus (Tom Kenny) working for him in a shadowy lab. J.K. Simmons bleats out anti-Spidey propaganda as J. Jonah Jameson, although he’s only glimpsed from a TV screen (but Mary-Jane is an aspiring journalist).
So if Ultimate Spider-Man settles down and nails a more balanced, emotional tone? Maybe this show can finally break that long streak of animated series failure for Marvel’s signature hero. But there’s not much in “Great Power” to get one’s hopes up--there's not enough heart there yet.