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Disney XD premiered its new Marvel superhero series ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ at 11am EST on April Fools’ Day. The cartoon takes its name and origin from the 2000-2009 comic book series written by Brian Michael Bendis, which was a reimagining of the Spider-Man stories with a larger inclusion of the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D in its main storyline. The premiere included the first two episodes of the new series, “Great Power” and “Great Responsibility.”
In “Great Power,” Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D, a military law enforcement agency with an interest in superheroes, approaches Spider-Man after a messy fight with the villain Trapster with an offer to train him to be a better hero.
Fury reveals he knows Spider-Man’s true identity, that of high school student Peter Parker, and that he can offer him better equipment in addition to improving his fighting skills. Being a free spirit, Peter declines the offer and heads to school only for the Frightful Four, a group of supervillains, to crash into the cafeteria demanding to know where Spider-Man is. Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborne, is hurt in the ensuing battle and it makes Peter realize he may need Nick Fury’s help after all.
In “Great Responsibility,” Nick Fury puts Spider-Man through a series of tests to see if he has what it takes to be a trainable ally to S.H.I.E.L.D. Naturally, Peter gets in over his head but manages to come out of the exercise on top. After a brief debacle with a highly sophisticated motorcycle, Peter finds out that he is not the only young superhero recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D.
The new team that he is expected to work with consists of Nova, Iron Fist, Power Man, and White Tiger, who do not approve of Spider-Man’s devil-may-care attitude. Once again, he declines the offer to work with them but then the Frightful Four return. The team intervenes and after some friction, they defeat the villains and Peter reluctantly agrees to work with them in the future.
The series is well animated and takes full advantage of Spider-Man’s smart mouth and excellent sense of humor. The action sequences are evenly paced and creative, much like the comic book it draws its inspiration from. This is no surprise as the show’s production is overseen by Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man and several other Marvel heroes, Jeph Loeb, a well-known comic book writer, and Brian Michael Bendis, another well known writer for Spider-Man and other Marvel comics.
The voice acting is excellent. Marvel wins extra brownie points for inviting J.K. Simmons to return as J. Jonah Jameson, whom he played in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, and Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Coulson in the Marvel films.
There are also other voices whom seasoned cartoon watchers will recognize like Clancy Brown, Tara Strong, Kevin Michael Richardson, Greg Cipes, Tom Kenny, and there is even a minor character voiced by Stan Lee. The titular Spider-Man is voiced by Drake Bell and he does a good job of bringing energy and sarcasm to the legendary Web-Slinger.
While the show has many likable qualities, there are some drawbacks. Its tone and writing are definitely geared towards younger viewers, preferably the 8-13 year old crowd rather than the older teenagers. The jokes Spider-Man cracks are often hit-or-miss and he can come across as a bit spastic at times due to the high volume of visual gags and one-liners in his monologue.
The biggest detractor is when he stops and directly addresses the camera. The problem is not that Spidey is breaking the fourth wall in general, but rather that he is blatantly speaking to the viewer. It is very distracting for him to stop in the middle of a scene and explain something to his audience and while this often works in comic books, like with Marvel’s infamous Merc-with-the-Mouth Deadpool, for a television show, it can be grating.
The easiest comparison to be made about Spidey’s narration and lack of fourth wall is to Bill Lawrence’s ‘Scrubs’ (2001) because Spidey’s short attention span leads him to “Imagine Spots”—moments where his imagination creates short humorous sequences that are mostly jokes or emotional reactions to things. While funny, they really do slow down the general narrative of the episodes.
Overall, it is too early to tell if the show will be a big hit or not, especially since fans like me still regret the cancellation of its spiritual predecessor ‘Spectacular Spider-Man,’ (2008) but there is definitely life in this web-slinger and we look forward to seeing where the show takes him.