Spider-Man (1994) -
For the time, the animation was top of the line. It was among the first cartoons to combine CG animation with traditional. Looking back, it's somewhat distracting, but it looked amazing when I was young. Everything about the show screams early-90s, with visual influence spilling over from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and GI Joe, which gave Peter Parker the look of a thirty year old jock, with that Jim Lee haircut, rather than a wiry recent high school grad. It also can't bring itself to let go of the melodramatic comic book coattails of the 1980s, immortalized by Marvel Editor & Chief Jim Shooter.
It benefited from splash popularity from Batman: The Animated Series that boosted viewership of all other Super-Hero shows. Batman took great care to be respectful of its lore, while updating and changing it for the sake of continuity. The X-Men cartoon met success with the same formula, so they applied it to Spider-Man. This version of Spider-Man dedicates the appropriate amount of time to Peter Parker's personal life. He has all the money problems from the comic. J. Jonah Jameson is always on his case. He attends the fictional Empire State University, where he is also the lab assistant to Doctor Curt Conners (The Lizard).
Gwen Stacy is nowhere to be found, but Spider-Man's romantic entanglements with Felicia Hardy and Mary Jane Watson are front and center. The show is unafraid to mix a pinch of romance into an action cartoon, which is a refreshing change of pace when compared to modern cartoons constructed by focus groups and excel finance sheets.
Like the comic, the cartoon has its highs and lows in quality, mostly related to writing. The first season focused on introducing as many villains and stories as it could squeeze into a year, but it later found a nice groove from season long story-arcs interrupted by side-stories, much more like modern television (The studio strongly objected to this plan, of course).
This Spider-Man is the most revered of his cartoons. It wasn't canceled after one or two seasons, which allowed it to dig deep for underused, and excellent, Spider-Man villains. Spider-Man and Peter Parker had time to develop relationships with other characters. Histories formed. Past events dictated behavior and interactions. Compare that to modern cartoons and you'll realize how rare that is.
Back when Marvel cared about continuity, it created a new series that followed the story of the 1994 cartoon. It's more like a miniseries, or a Doctor Who special, than it's own series. It mimicked the season-long story arc strategy of its predecessor. Spider-Man is blamed for attacking a space shuttle and in order to clear his name, he travels to the destination of the shuttle to rescue its pilot.
For this series, Spidey gets spiffy new nanotech threads and finds himself on a planet that is a mixture of the Island of Dr. Moreau and the world of Judge Dredd called counter-Earth, where animal-people rule the world and humans exist beneath smoggy city pollution.
Spider-Man fights Venom and Carnage and counter-Earth versions of other villains, but the main baddie is a telekinetic dictator called High Evolutionary. Some might remember him as the red mechanical looking villain from the comics, but this guy is kind of goofy looking, with a Santa Clause beard and weird bone attire.
The art was primitive and advanced at the same time. All of Spider-Man's web effects are detailed and clever, but sometimes Spider-Man will crawl on a multi-surface walls with pipes and indentations like it's smooth and flat.
Other-world politics played a part in the action as Spider-Man teamed up with a motley crew of rebels to free humans from oppression. A subtle fabric of social intricacies surfaces when we see human sympathizers, rioters, racists on both sides, and "heroes" clash. Odd horror elements come into play every once in a while. An alien race called the Synaptic take over humans and turn people into bio-controlled zombies. It seems like Bungie lifted the idea for the Flood in Halo directly from Spider-Man Unlimited.
It's a hodgepodge of various genre elements that mostly work, but was shot down after one season due to flagging ratings. I like shows that try something new with tried and true characters, and taking Spidey, putting him in nanotech duds, throwing him off Earth and onto a planet populated by animal-people was certainly new. It doesn't always work, but it stays interesting.
The edgy, computer-animated, adult Spider-Man on MTV with the voice talents of Neil Patrick Harris and Lisa Loeb suuuuuuucked. The writing is not respectful to the characters. It portrays Kingpin as a cackling, personally-involved petty thief who fights with the FBI and flies helicopters (REALLY!?). Mary Jane defends the life-endangering thievery of a narcissistic, high tech Robin Hood character. Come on.
The writers can't seem to make up their minds about how stupid they want their characters. Every once in a while, the characters will swear just to remind the audience that they're watching MTV, which is EDGY. Every time it happened, I was annoyed. I don't have any fucking problem with cussing, but when you read it in the middle of a Spider-Man cartoon review, it seems out of place, no?
Some people considered the visuals state-of-the-art, but I don't know why. Many other CG cartoons had already surpassed the quality of this cartoon. I'm not even talking about the top-notch level produced in Toy Story or Ice Age, but this show barely looks better than 1994's ReBoot. All the characters run like sloths, which is painful to watch in a show dedicated to supernaturally-gifted athletes. Some of the more complex facial expressions are impressive for a 2003 cartoon and some of the night scenes are kind of cool in a retro Tron way, I guess, but other than that, the art sucks.
Its sole redeeming attribute comes from solid voice acting. Michael Clark Duncan, Clancy Brown and a slew of supporting guest stars performed their duties admirably. This show was mercifully put of its misery after only one season.
I kept reading all over the internet that this was the best Spider-Man cartoon ever made. Internet knows best. It is.
In this version, Peter Parker is a straight-A high school student with friends Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborne. It's great that Gwen Stacy, the most important romantic partner Peter has ever had, is finally in one of the cartoons. Surprisingly, the show confronts Harry's drug problem, which is brave. It also plays with the viewer's knowledge of the comic books to keep things fresh.
It does the basics very well. An essential part of a super-hero cartoon is creativity during fight scenes. The combatants should make unexpected moves that excite the viewer (remember the first time you watched Neo extend his fingers to choke Agent Smith in The Matrix?). This cartoon has the most unexpected fight moments in any cartoon since Avatar: The Last Airbender. I especially liked the episode in which Venom is trying to peel off Spider-Man's mask and expose his identity during a fight. The back and forth is nothing short of genius. Some people are put off by the extremely stylized art, but unlike most other cartoons, the quality of art, proportions and perspective stay perfect even in the most frenzied action sequences.
The show doesn't skimp on Spider-Man's romantic life, either. Actually, it may go overboard, as Peter is pursued by Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson and Liz Allen (all from the comics). This may be the result of changing perspectives among youth that no longer see "smart" kids as "dorks." Peter still has to deal with bullies, but it's apparent that bullying is generally looked down upon by students, a huge leap forward from the 1960s comics. Most of Peter's problems come from his double life as a Daily Bugle photographer. He disappears from important moments in his friends' lives and they later find that he was "off taking pictures." This leads to a falling out with Eddie Brock, which has dire consequences. This Eddie Brock isn't just relentless, he's observant, clever and resourceful. There are a few moments when Brock is truly chilling.
The show gives us a solid reason (excuse?) for the sudden uprising of super-villains, who are all great and some are even pretty likeable. The history of Rhino, Sandman and Spider-Man is pure gold. Dock Ock has his moments, as does a dixie-fried mercenary Shocker.
As fun as season one is, I was not prepared for the mature steps it took for season two, in which it explores the loyalty of friendship and the detriment caused by betrayal, how it can generate resentment and even seething hatred. The social mechanics of modern day high school are explored in depth with sentimental care. Season two has an intertextual relationship with Shakespeare that will be lost on anyone under the age of 18, and probably many older viewers. It's an impressive and thoughtful action cartoon. It's more than we are likely to see again and it was shamefully cancelled after two seasons.
Spider-Man fans hate this show.
Spider-Man breaks the fourth wall, telling jokes directly to the viewer...lame jokes. His love life is completely absent. There isn't even a whiff of romantic tension or a kiss or an almost kiss anywhere in the show. Peter Parker's financial woes are ignored (or don't exist. In this version, Aunt May seems very well-off).
The stable of regular characters is comprised of, for some reason, Nick Fury, Iron Fist, Power-Man and White Tiger. A petition surfaced on change.org after the eighth episode, begging for the show's cancellation. Disney renewed the show for a second season after episode nine. Ultimate Spider-Man doubled Disney's audience of young boys, so it's here to stay.
The show may not be very good, but oddly, it's almost great. Just beneath the surface of incessant rapid-fire quips, cupie anime interludes and banal character development, you'll see glimmers of brilliance in almost every scene, even the bad ones. Rampant creativity bursts at the seams but is stifled by Disney/Marvel's decision to target the key demographic of two-to-eleven year old boys (that's right, two year olds). The creative team shines when they don't have to focus on the core characters, whose attitudes and actions are vigilantly constrained by studio executives. The villains, on the other hand, are all awesome.
This cartoon brings something new, interesting and somewhat disturbing to villains like Sandman, who has gone insane from isolation on a deserted island, Venom, who bounces from host to host with unrestrained bloodlust, Green Goblin who ruminates on his condition like a Victorian-era monster, and Dock Ock, with his subtle transformation from a creepy voyeuristic coward to a relentless and formidable enemy. They also hilariously revisioned Baltroc the Leapster.
People may claim that Disney could please both older and younger audiences with a slight compromise. While somewhat true, there is a give and take when compromising. They may gain some 13-16 years olds, while respecting us older fans, but they believe they'd lose far more young viewers. Disney has bet all-in on little kids. It's a business decision that sucks for us.
The Peter Parker we all know and love has anger issues in the comics and other cartoons and an unhealthy obsession with justice after the death of his uncle (how else could you get a fifteen year old to give up his social life, love life, and community respect just so he can get broken bones, bruises and sleep deprivation while he risks his life every night?). This show barely acknowledges the existence of anger or fear. Peter never loses control or breaks down. He certainly never suffers from self-doubt. He's absurdly cocky and irresponsible for someone who has the line "with great power comes great responsibility" playing on loop in his head.
The humor consists of a constant barrage of puns and sight gags--all immature. There is no depth to any of the jokes and the vast majority fall flat. That being said, this is the only Spider-Man show to make me laugh out loud, long and hard. Still, laughs don't happen often. It reminds of Austin Powers 3. Sure, I laughed. If someone throws enough jokes at me, a couple have to hit the funny bone. Was it worth sitting through all the ones that didn't?
Also, why in the hell are Power Man and Iron Fist in this show? Not only that, why are they painfully lame? Power Man (Luke Cage) has no edge for a guy who is supposed to be a streetwise scrapper. Iron Fist (Danny Rand), is insufferably bland. He's supposedly reached one of the higher planes of enlightenment. However, he seems only capable of sharing his wisdom in broken fortune-cookie new-age surfer talk. He sucks so much. White Tiger is a surprisingly amiable, if limited, character. She has past ties to Kraven the Hunter, making her fit a little more easily into the Spider-Man world.
The best addition is Agent Coulson from the Marvel movies. He is Spider-Man's S.H.I.E.L.D. handler, posing as principal of his school. Clark Gregg, who portrayed Coulson in the films, supplies the voice. He gives the show a sane break from Spider-Man's motormouth antics.
The threads of creativity woven into the fabric of the Ultimate Spider-Man makes the show all the more frustrating. It could be great, and on occasion strikes the right balance between funny and exciting, but in the end, Spider-Man deserves more.