“Ultimate Spider-Man” follows Marvel’s famous web headed crime fighter on his journey from solo vigilante to eventually becoming one of the greatest heroes around. With each episode he learns more about what it takes to reach that goal, while also exploring some of the more unexpected corners of his world. This past weekend, Spider-Man stumbled upon the corner filled with shadow vampires, monster heroes and the notorious Dracula.
The two-part Halloween special “Blade” and “The Howling Commandoes” aired on Disney Channel this past Saturday. The episodes not only pitted Spidey against Dracula, but also introduced to the world at large to the Howling Commandoes, a special S.H.I.EL.D. unit consisting of Werewolf by Night, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Living Mummy and Man-Thing. Nick Fury calls this motley crew in when threats show up on the supernatural spectrum.
In this case, both Dracula and Fury want to get their hands on pieces of a powerful mystical object. When Spider-Man, Blade and their teammates face off against Dracula, the big bad walks away with Spidey’s mesmerized pals, leading him to team up with the Commandoes and former member Blade. Eventually they win out over the legendary vampire, but they also have to contend with a betrayal from one of their own.
CBR News talked with supervising producer Cort Lane about bringing these classic monsters together, updating them for modern audiences and putting together a guest voice cast that featured Terry Crews as Blade, Oded Fehr as the Mummy and Ross Lynch as Werewolf By Night.
CBR News: Was the introduction of Blade and the Howling Commandoes always envisioned as a Halloween-related two-parter?
Cort Lane: Yes, it was always envisioned that we would premiere it as a special, but that it could run in international markets or reruns as individual episodes. We wanted that flexibility so it could get the most exposure as possible because we’re so excited about the story and wanted everybody to see it in whatever form it needed to be.
Blade is the first new character viewers are introduced to in this episode. He’s fairly well known thanks to the films, but hat elements from the various incarnations were you looking to incorporate into this version?
We were a bit inspired by the film version, but also the version in the comics and the Ultimate version. That’s what’s great about working on these shows, that we can select the things we like about every iteration of the character. We even were fond of some elements from the anime version from a couple years ago.
Terry Crews voices Blade this time around. Did the group have him in mind for the role when you were breaking the story?
We started thinking about casting during scripting. He was actually our first choice and we got him. That doesn’t happen very often in the entertainment business, so we were thrilled. He’s fantastic. We wanted just the slightest touch of humor to this version of the character and he’s really a funny guy so that was great.
When CBR talked to Terry last week, he mentioned the humor of the show was a big draw for him.
And certainly a character like Blade, and this is true of Deadpool as well, it’s not just translating the personality appropriately for kids, but also how they use weapons and how they fight and still making sure they’re really badass.
Was that why the monsters were shadow vampires, so everyone could cut loose a bit?
Yeah. Not just with Disney, but with international markets as well, there are standards and practices issues about what’s appropriate for kids and you just can’t kill. I think we were really successful in telling a great vampire story and having a character like Blade, for him to be really cool in action even given those restraints.
You also got to play with Dracula, a character who’s been around for quite a long time. What versions of that character inspired this one?
The character was relaunched in the Marvel publishing universe just a few years ago and we definitely wanted to take that version. It was almost completely that version. Joe Quesada is very involved in breaking all of these stories and he encouraged us to use this version. We really started out wanting to tell a Howling Commandoes story with these classic ’70s Marvel characters and just knew that Dracula, being another one of those ’70s monster characters from publishing history, was the only villain we could use.
For many, the image of Dracula from Marvel is from a “Tomb of Dracula” with the tuxedo and cape, but this one is clearly more of a supervillain.
We didn’t want him to be just a guy in a tux. Fortunately, we had the really cool redesign from comics and so had fun with that. Frankly, it looks great in animation so we were thrilled.
As far as the Howling Commandoes themselves go, they seemed true to their roots but updated for a new audience. How much of the Frankenstein’s Monster with the big gun and the launchable limbs did you all come up with?
There have been so many versions in the comics and he’s been portrayed differently, so we did play a little fast and loose with him. We needed to amp him up and make him fresh for this audience because they’ve seen that character a million times. Some of that stuff has been in the comics, but we really liked that version of him as well. He was a lot of fun and really likable. We did come up with some new ideas for him and I think that’s okay. He’s such a classic character, not just for us but for everybody in the world.
Last week we talked about Disney star Ross Lynch coming in and recording for Werewolf by Night. Considering some of the goofy characters he plays on TV, his gruff voice was a bit of a surprise here.
The characters that he plays for Disney Channel are a specific thing and he was really excited about the challenge. He definitely sounded different and looked different portraying this part. We did want Jack Russell to be young so that he would feel relatable and almost a peer to Spider-Man, but he still needed to be edgy and tough and a werewolf. Ross really went for it and that was very exciting because you never know how these things are going to turn out and he worked hard and was totally excited.
This episode has a huge cast — all the regular players were there, plus Dracula and the Howling Commandoes. Did you have to break them up into groups for different recording sessions?
We did record it in two separate sessions. How it works is, you do an episode in a four-hour session. You might have pick-ups later or ADR. It turns out that four hours is just barely enough time to get it all in, so we did two four-hour sessions. They were great sessions. Ross came in separately. He had a very busy schedule with Disney Channel and also because he’d never done this before, we wanted to make sure he had the time and the opportunity to play with it as much as necessary.
Terry Crews mentioned that he enjoyed being in the room with everyone and kind of watched them to get the feel for voice acting.
I think a lot of our guest stars do that. He was really game. Keep in mind he’s in the room with some younger actors who are not primarily known as voice actors, then Chi McBride who is a very well known live-action actor and then some pros with experience in doing tons of animated shows like Greg Cipes who plays Iron Fist for us.
The sessions sound like they would have been fun with that group and that levity comes through in their performances. The episode has scary elements, but also a lot of humor to temper it.
It’s spooky and scary in places and kind of freaky for a younger viewer, so we need that balance of humor.
I especially liked the bit where Peter takes off his Spidey mask in front of Aunt May and she tells him he’s wearing a subpar Spider-Man costume.
[Laughs] You get a lot of fun out of keeping Aunt May in the dark. I don’t know how long we can keep it up. She’s an intelligent woman, she’s the Ultimate Comics version of Aunt May, not the classic version. It’s fun to play for comedy, but one of these days, she’s going to wake up.
The second episode sees Spider-Man and the Commandoes defeating Dracula and then the Living Mummy does a heel turn. Was that part of the plan from the beginning of developing this story?
From the very beginning, as we fleshed out the Howling Commandoes, we considered the Mummy as a potential traitor. We played with that element and in a suspense or horror story, there’s often a big twist. It just came together. Oded Fehr is just such an amazing actor and his voice is so freaky. We wanted someone big to play that character. At first it’s a relatively small character at the beginning of the episode and then he’s the big bad at the end, so we brought in somebody fantastic.
And of course, the Mummy gets huge at the end of the episode which leads to a battle with Giant-Size Man-Thing.
Did you love that? Giant-Size Man-Thing. That was our fanboy thing. We love all those classic Giant-Size specials. [Laughs] It just sort of happened in the room, I can’t remember whose idea it was.
The episode ends with a gag where we discover that there’s actually another member of the team The Invisible Man who was watching over Aunt May. In the credits it says the character was played by himself, can you tell us anything about that?
I’m not allowed to say who that was. It’s a Marvel secret that we might reveal one day.
The Howling Commandoes is a really interesting team that could explore some different corners of the animated Marvel Universe. If this special does well, is there potential for a new series?
I’ll tell you, the whole idea of doing something with the ’70s monsters has been something that Joe Quesada and I have been very passionate about for quite a number of years now. This was our chance to finally do it and we would love to do more. Right now we have plans to feature them potentially in some of our other shows. Beyond that there’s no specific plans for a series or a movie or anything. But, let me tell you, I’m the biggest fan of that idea. Unfortunately, we’ve got a lot of characters and a lot of shows and a lot going on. I’m crazy to want to do more with these characters, but yes, I would love to.
Getting into the monster world would not only allow you to animate some of those classic monster stories by Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, but also mine some comics that haven’t been adapted before.
There’s a ton of amazing Kirby monsters from the ’60s and even more of these ’70s monsters. There’s a lot to play with. There’s a lot of ideas in our back pockets just waiting for Howling Commandoes to be its own thing.
We’ve talked about action figure tie-ins before and I know the episodes aren’t driven by that side of the business. But, has there been any talk of Howling Commandoes action figures?
Not at the moment. This is our first time unveiling this version of the team. I’ll be honest, it’s something I’ve pitched [to Hasbro]. We have to see what the reception is to this and if there’s more opportunities for these characters to be featured either on other shows or on their own. I think that will grow over time.
As soon as their Monster Truck transport vehicle appeared on screen, I wanted to have one filled with action figures.
I know! And maybe a Build-A-Figure of Man-Thing.
The “Ultimate Spider-Man” Halloween special airs again Oct. 13 at 11:00 AM on Disney XD.