What’s so Ultimate about Ultimate Spider-Man anyway?

Marvel’s newest foray into cartoon animation is Ultimate Spider-Man, which started airing April 1

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.  But this show is no April Fool, as it brings a very different vision of Spider-Man to the small screen.  As a huge fan of the prior Spider-Man animated series, Spectacular Spider-Man, I came into this new series with a lot of trepidation.  Spectacular Spider-Man was a great show, with a strong storytelling sense, great voice acting and a tight serial narrative running through all of the episodes.  When it was cancelled, I was very disappointed to see such a quality show go off the air, as it was one of the best animated translations of Spider-Man to ever hit the small-screen, balancing the super-heroics of Spider-Man perfectly with the soap operatics of Peter Parker.

Ultimate Spider-Man is a completely different beast, one that hasn’t really been seen before with Spider-Man.  The biggest alteration is that this new series is actually unpredictable, in a way that no other Spider-Man series has been.  Most Spider-Man adaptations (besides Spider-Man Unlimited) have followed the same formula, introducing the biggest villains in Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, having him face them all down, while going through the paces in his personal life.  Sure, they’ve alternated in terms of overall quality, but there was a certain level of predictability with each adaptation, which made each successive adaptation slightly more mundane.  Two years later, we now have Ultimate Spider-Man, which picks up Spider-Man’s adventures one year into his career as Spider-Man.  The formative years of his adventuring have already been experienced, although off-screen, allowing the writers to tell new stories with the character. 

Following this reasoning, Spider-Man is now in training to become an agent of SHIELD, and as part of that training is partnered with a few other young superheroes-in-training, White Tiger, Power Man, Iron Fist and Nova.  This is a very inspired take on the classic Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends vibe, as Spider-Man learns how to interact with a team and work together, to take on foes that may be more powerful than those he would normally take on solo.  In the first few episodes, the team-up took on the likes of Doctor Doom (or rather Doombots), Living Laser and even the Frightful Four.  The stories that the creative team are telling are different than those I’ve gotten to see before in a Spider-Man television series, taking an almost Marvel Team-Up vibe.  The characters that were picked to be part of this cartoon play off of Spider-Man quite well, with Nova taking on a rivalry with Spider-Man that is very reminiscent of his long-standing rivalry with Human Torch. 

Besides the team-up nature of the series, which sets it apart from other adaptations, it also takes the traditional Spider-Man humour and ratchets it up a few notches.  This is perhaps the most divisive aspect of the new series, because of how it utilizes the humour inherent in the character.  Instead of Spider-Man just trading quips with his teammates or his villains, we also get a glimpse into his head in a style reminiscent of Family Guy, and similar cartoon shows.  By getting a quick glimpse into Spidey’s mind by way of quick animated sequences, the humour never stops, and it keeps the overall tone of the series light and fun, but not too light and fun as to take on a Teen Titans Go! vibe.  The animation is of a very high quality; in fact the animation on Spider-Man himself is some of the best I’ve ever seen for the character.  It’s far superior to the relatively simple nature of the art style used for Spectacular Spider-Man, and the other heroes are treated just as well.  The show does have a slightly darker tone than Marvel’s other current animated series, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but this seems to be more about differentiating the look of the two cartoons, as opposed to actually telling darker-themed stories. 

I expected very little from Ultimate Spider-Man, but it has really surprised me so far.  After watching five episodes, I’m quite pleased by how original it is, how it surprises me with its character choices, and how it utilizes certain characters, and manages to maintain a delicate balance with the humour, between clever and silly.  Thankfully, it manages to walk that tightrope quite well, with the end result being a decidedly fresh take on Spider-Man, for the whole family to enjoy, as it’s perfect for Marvel Comics fans of all ages.  What’s so ultimate about Ultimate Spider-Man?  Pretty much everything.