Disney XD’s upcoming “Ultimate Spider-Man” is an animated series with a fantastic pedigree. Helmed by “Batman the Animated Series” writer Paul Dini and “Ben 10” creator collective Man of Action with “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” writer Brian Michael Bendis acting as a consultant, this cartoon version of Peter Parker and his costumed alter ego has a lot going for it. At WonderCon 2012, the first chapter of the two-part pilot was shown during the Marvel Animation panel, and while expectations were certainly high, the show delivers, striking a solid balance between comic book and cartoon.
The overall feeling of “Ultimate Spider-Man” is of a true comic book-influenced animated series, taking not only the comic’s characters and concepts, but the unique formatting the mediumprovides as well. Spider-Man breaks the fourth wall with caption-like exposition, sound effects grace the background of a knock-out punch and cutaways to short expositional sequences split up the episode. The overall effect is slightly jarring, but really the feeling of watching a true comic book show, encapsulating the overall essence in animation much like “Sin City” did for film.
The first part of the series pilot, “Great Power,” does an excellent job of establishing the series’ focus. There are many subtle nods to the Marvel Movieverse in the episode (Nick Fury references Tony Stark’s early days as Iron Man, and the show cuts away to an animated sequence of Stark smashing his car when he can’t control the Iron Man armor a la the first live action film), and with Clark Gregg reprising his role as Agent Phil Coulson, there will surely be more to come. Episode writer Paul Dini drew from all corners of the Marvel U for the pilot, including mainstays like Dr. Octopus, Norman and Harry Osborn, Mary Jane Watson and Flash Thompson, but also introduced viewers to more obscure characters like Klaw, the Wizard, Trapster and Thundra. The diverse cast helps in keeping the show interesting from both a kid-friendly and adult perspective.
The animation style is in step with that of “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” with a decidedly anime influence, especially the cutaway sequences, some of which feature a chibi-Spider-Man explaining the way his spider powers work. The animation style does fit with the overall tone of the show, geared towards children. While it leaves no lasting impressions in the way Bruce Timm’s art style did on DC’s cartoons for years, it certainly does allow for a unified front between the various Marvel animated series.
One of the most entertaining moments of the episode is the introduction of Stan Lee, who will have a recurring role in the series as the janitor of Midtown High. Lee’s delivery is absolutely hilarious — in fact, most of the voiceover work is excellent. Drake Bell is a decent fit for Peter Parker and the return of J.K. Simmons to the role of J. Jonah Jameson is a welcome one. However, it’s Chi McBride as Nick Fury who steals the show, providing a spot-on voice for the animated head of S.H.I.E.L.D. McBride differentiates himself enough from Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal to make the character unique to the “Ultimate Spider-Man” universe while also playing homage to hir big screen counterpart.
Although “Ultimate Spider-Man” is definitely a children’s show, there’s a lot for longtime Marvel fans to enjoy. Callouts to obscure Marvel characters, a fantastic script from Paul Dini and lighthearted humor shine throughout this episode. If future installments are a solid as this debut outing, “Ultimate Spider-Man” will prove a fantastic place for young fans to be introduced to Spider-Man and the Marvel Universe. And, even if you’re an older fan, there’s plenty to enjoy.
“Ultimate Spider-Man” debuts Sunday, April 1 at 11 a.m. ET/PT on Disney XD.