Ultimate Spider-Man: “Why I Hate Gym”
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Ultimate Spider-Man: “Why I Hate Gym”

B-

Ultimate Spider-Man

“Why I Hate Gym”

Season 1, Episode 6

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There have been a lot of comparisons between Ultimate Spider-Man and Young Justice in the last few weeks, and while both series feature teenage superheroes training for the big leagues, lumping them together isn’t fair to either show. They’re completely different beasts, starting at the very foundation: the companies that produce them. Marvel’s characters and stories tend to be more down-to-Earth and personal, whereas DC has god-like heroes and frequent multiversal crises. There are certainly exceptions—Marvel has cosmic characters and stories, and DC has some central humans (Batman being the key one)—but from the start, Marvel has tried to make their world more like that of the reader. New York City isn’t Metropolis or Gotham; it’s New York City.

Ultimate Spider-Man is telling stories geared toward its target audience, light superhero morality tales that offer insight into the teenage experience while adding enough in-jokes and references to appeal to the adult comic book fan who is checking out the cartoon. Young Justice is telling a superhero story first and foremost, with high drama and stunning action sequences, but not very much of the ordinary teen life. The writers of Young Justice find ways to make their cast’s fantastic problems metaphors for teenage issues, but it’s a rare occasion when the team members are shown out of costume. My review partner David doesn’t love the high school hijnks of this series, but I think that’s essential to the appeal of Ultimate Spider-Man: showing a young Peter that is struggling to balance the life of a superhero with being a student.

The other main distinguishing factor between both series is tone. Young Justice has the occasional quip, but Ultimate Spider-Man is a series that puts humor first, and that fits for the title character. Young Justice is a serious action-adventure, all secret cabals and double-crossing moles and alien invasions, and it does that exceptionally well. For those that want something a little less intense, there’s Ultimate Spider-Man.

Some people are annoyed by the cutaways, but I feel that they differentiate the show from other superhero cartoons. It would be easy to incorporate exposition into Spider-Man’s narration during his opening fight with Batroc the Leaper, but cutting away to Chibi-Spidey checking the S.H.I.E.L.D. files, coming up empty, and improvising “he’s French, he leaps” adds some visual variety to the scene. There are those that could say the cutaway breaks the momentum of the fight, but I think it adds to the energy of the scene, and that’s more important to me.

Spidey teams up with White Tiger to take down Batroc, and their relationship is at the core of this episode as they become the only people that can save Danny, Flash, and Harry from the copycat assassin Taskmaster. Taskmaster is one of my favorite Marvel mercenaries, and the writing team of Man of Action and Joe Fallon does a good job interpreting him for the screen, largely thanks to Clancy Brown’s excellent voice work. Best known among superhero fans for voicing Lex Luthor in Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League, Brown’s low growl adds a layer of menace to anything he says, whether he’s wearing his signature skull mask or a cutoff tank-top, short shorts, and porn moustache. The writers also find a way to make Taskmaster’s powers visual by showing his mental math on the screen, a mix of random fractions and geometry that are probably nonsense, but that the viewer interprets as actual science at work.

Taskmaster has been hired by Dr. Octopus to track down Spider-Man by infiltrating his school as a substitute gym teacher, and he uses his photographic memory to figure out which of the high school’s students could be the web-slinger by putting them through an obstacle course. The metaphor is pretty obvious, but in case you don’t catch it, Spidey spells it out for you: “The management would like to point out that we in no way mean to suggest that all gym teachers are sadistic taskmasters who live to bring misery to high schoolers everywhere. Except the ones who do.” I’m pretty sure everyone has a gym teacher that they really hated. I know I did.

Peter actively sucks at gym to protect his secret identity, which ends up saving him as Taskmaster locks Danny, Flash, and Harry in the school when he calls them back for a second evaluation on Saturday. Ava is pissed that she wasn’t called back for a second round, but when she goes back to the school, she notices that the S.H.I.E.L.D. defenses around the perimeter have been activated and calls Peter to infiltrate the campus with her. Ava’s major problem with Peter is his lack of focus on having proper training and technique, but when she’s faced with a villain that can perfectly mimic training and technique in seconds, she’s forced to adopt Spider-Man’s form of improvisational combat.

In both this week’s episode and the Spider-Man/Nova-centric story from a few weeks ago, the writers have missed out on opportunities to provide back-story for the characters Spidey is partnering with. “Why I Hate Gym” is the perfect opportunity for us to get some cutaways shedding some light on Ava’s history, but she remains a mystery. It’s notable that the first two S.H.I.E.L.D. teens that get spotlighted are Nova and White Tiger, characters that have just made their debuts in the comic books. They don’t have the fleshed-out continuity of Iron Fist or Power Man, so the writers don’t need to worry about pleasing fans that want to see more established mythology. (I really hope we get an Iron Fist episode in K’un L’un, if not a multi-part arc.)

When Taskmaster finally catches Spider-Man, he doesn’t try to kill him, but instead offers him a job. Taskmaster reveals that he used to work for Nick Fury until he was betrayed, and offers Spidey an out before Fury double-crosses him too. It’s very possible there’s no truth to Taskmaster’s words and that he’s manipulating Peter into distrusting Fury, but building on the history of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. would definitely help add some depth to the series.

Spider-Man and White Tiger save the day by turning out the lights and switching weapons, throwing off Taskmaster’s abilities and giving them the upper hand when they battle him on the obstacle course that started this whole mess. The episode ends with Ava verbalizing the moral of the story while Taskmaster vows revenge, and it’s a standard ending for a serviceable episode. I’m still holding out hope that the stories will get a little more sophisticated than “assassin pretends to be gym teacher,” but as is, it’s still a fun 22-minute trip into the Marvel universe.

Stray observations:

  • When Batroc headbutts Spider-Man, the Spider-insignia flies off his costume. Nice touch.
  • Ava is concerned with Danny’s safety. I could see them becoming a potential item.
  • Shame on Marvel for not collecting Gail Simone’s Deadpool and Agent X stories, which heavily feature Taskmaster. Now that Simone’s DC output is lessening, maybe she could pen some new Taskie stories once her exclusive contract ends.
  • Agent Coulson: boxers or briefs? Briefs.
  • “When life gives you Batroc, make French toast.”
  • “Is that your face print?”
  • “Can we get some man-sized tires up in here? Please!”
  • “Oh, if Irving Forbush could see me now.” Janitor Stan Lee might be my favorite character on this show.

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