Unmasking "Ultimate Spider-Man" & the Guardians of the Galaxy

UPDATE: When discussing the first appearance of the Guardians of the Galaxy in animation, CBR and Lane are referring specifically to the upcoming movie's team roster.

Space. For many it's the final frontier, but not for Spider-Man. Everyone's favorite wall crawler found himself boldly going where many Marvel characters have gone before, venturing into the vastness of space on the latest episode of "Ultimate Spider-Man." With a title like "Guardians of the Galaxy," you get a pretty good idea of who Aunt May's number one nephew's traveling companions were on the Disney XD show.

After saving the world from a Venom-possessed S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier masterminded by Green Goblin in the previous episode, Spidey could have used a bit of a breather but that wasn't in the cards. Instead, none other than superstar Marvel Comics writer Brian Michael Bendis -- who also pens the "Ultimate Spider-Man" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" comic books -- took the Web Head to the stars along with his teammate Nova. From there, Spidey found himself fighting Korvac (voiced by James Marsters) and the Chitauri, as well as teaming up with Guardians Star-Lord (Chris Cox), Gamora (Nika Futterman), Drax (David Sobolov), Groot (Michael Clarke Duncan) and Rocket Raccoon (Billy West).

CBR News spoke with Supervising Producer Cort Lane about Spider-Man's evolving relationship with his teammates, introducing the upcoming film's Guardians of the Galaxy line-up for the first time in animation and practically forcing Bendis to write the episode.

CBR News: We've talked about these episodes where Spider-Man learns more about one particular teammate, like "Legend of Iron Fist." In this case it's Nova -- what were some of his key character elements you wanted to hit with "Guardians of the Galaxy?"

Cort Lane: There's good reason for saving Nova for last. As you mentioned, we have had episodes focusing more on Spidey and one of his individual teammates -- we really did wait until the second season to reveal more of their origins because this show is about Spider-Man. With these individual episodes, these relationships have been able to change as he bonds with them and learns more about them. At the very end of this season, that's critical -- that knowledge and relationship is the thing he uses to save them from a very big threat. Also, as you mentioned, by becoming a better leader, he becomes a better hero. His path this season is to become the ultimate hero he can be.

Nova and Spidey have had the most conflict through both seasons. From the very beginning of the first episode, Nova has just not liked this guy and given him a hard time and Spider-Man has given it back to him. It made sense saving Nova for later on so we could explore what that means in terms of the conflict and the teasing -- the frenemy thing they have turns into real respect and friendship.

The other thing is, we always knew with Nova that his story would be a Guardians of the Galaxy story. We wanted to wait so we could be closer to the feature film's release next August and be very careful how we handled things. This is the introduction of the Guardians to the Marvel Animated Universe. You're going to see them again.

It's worth noting this is the first time the Guardians have been seen outside of publishing. The current Marvel Comics series is written by Brian Michael Bendis who wrote this very episode. We wanted it to be aligned with that and the feature film. Marvel is nothing if not synergistic, but in a way we think fans and the general public can appreciate as a consistent presentation of these characters and elements -- everybody can be fans of the same thing.

In relation to that synergy, I also noticed "The Avengers" bad guys, the Chitauri, were backing Kordac. Was that part of the unified Marvel idea?

Absolutely. For most viewers, this is the first time they're going to experience the Guardians of the Galaxy. I feel really fortunate -- and I know the whole team, Man of Action, Brian, Joe [Quesada] and Jeph [Loeb] -- that we actually get to be the ones that present this team to the general public. That's very cool because it's a year ahead of the film.

We had a lot of fun figuring out how to do it. The surprise reveal of Rocket Raccoon in the teaser makes it clear this is a really fun idea -- that these are funny, interesting, dynamic and unusual characters. I love our title cards.

I noticed those as well. They actually looked like they might have been done by a comic book artist.

It's one of our key character designers who actually designs for the show. He creates those himself and we provide them to the studio because we love how the title cards are more detailed. They have comic book flare, so they really pop.

When planning out the season with the intent of doing a "Guardians of the Galaxy" episode, did Bendis throw his hat into the ring right away?

I don't think he had a choice. [Laughs] There are stories we know ahead of time that we want Brian to do. For example, "Freaky" from last season when Spidey and Wolverine switch bodies was based on an "Ultimate Spider-Man" issue. When we do something that's so directly influenced by Brian's work in publishing, we of course want him to write the script. He gets excited about it.

He does snappy dialog so well and that really lends itself to the dynamic between Spidey and Nova -- they're always at each other. The other thing that Brian really loves is his "piew piew guns." There's a lot of scenes with piew piew guns in this episode. It was exciting to give Spidey a big, sci-fi adventure story because that's not something we've been able to do yet.

My favorite bit of dialog in the episode, which is quintessential Brian, is when Spider-Man, exasperated about Groot, says, "Throw the stick? That's the plan?" and Drax responds, "That's always the plan." I read Brian's work, so being able to see those exchanges in animation is such a personal thrill for me. It's so cool.

When casting characters like the Guardians who aren't as familiar to the voice actors auditioning, is it more or less difficult to get them in the zone you're looking for?

The Guardians were an especially creative challenge from a voice direction standpoint. Our voice director Collette Sunderman did a great job of shaping these characters with a lot of notes from Marvel New York. In particular, Joe Quesada was very involved in the casting and giving notes on the voice direction. So it can go either way. When you have a very iconic character like Captain America, the actors try to achieve that balance and to feel like him. That's a lot of work. At the same time when there's a character like Rocket Raccoon you have to ask yourself the question, "What the heck should he sound like?" I intrinsically know what a lot of villains are going to sound like, but what does Rocket Raccoon sound like? Gamora's tough. How does she sound? How does she sound tough and dangerous, yet still be likable?

We voice cast long after the script process begins. In this case, Brian understands the voices of the characters from publishing, so whatever those wonderful voices are that exist in his crazy mind is what he had in mind. In most episodes when we're writing Spidey, Nova, Norman and Nick Fury, we have the voices of our cast in mind and we write to those voices. In particular, Drake Bell and Logan Miller who play Spider-Man and Nova, have a lot of fun teasing each other in the booth. That influences how we portray their conflict -- they're funny guys and like to tease each other. They're both young. So, that relationship spills over into the writing.

Rocket Raccoon is the kind of character every reader probably has a pretty distinct voice of in their head. How did you decide on Billy West ("Futurama") and his approach for the voice?

Ultimately with Billy, it was just a good audition. We played it for Joe Quesada to help us decide and that's the one he selected. With Billy you get somebody who's so experienced and can do the comedy really well. The balance with Rocket Raccoon is he has to be serious, yet have a rough attitude. He has to be believable in action sequences, but he's a raccoon, so there has to be humor there.

Michael Clarke Duncan voiced Groot. He passed away in September 2012, making the Guardian one of his final roles ever. What was he like to work with?

That's another one -- how do you cast Groot? He's a tree and only speaks three words. We wanted a voice so deep and resonant that it felt alien and otherworldly and Michael Clarke Duncan had that voice. We were so fortunate to get him. He was charming and fun to work with. He did a zillion versions of those three words for us. It was so sad he passed shortly afterwards. This was one of the last, if not the last, performances he gave.

Every time he says, "I am Groot," there is a meaning -- like a translation that we know but the audience doesn't get. They do change and get more aggressive right before he gets into the action. Then, seeing Groot turn into a big tree guy and beat the hell out of Korvac was a lot of fun.

Speaking of Korvac, why did the "Ultimate Spider-Man" team choose him as the bad guy? He fits in with the space theme, but isn't neccessarily well known.

We wanted a big space villain but didn't want to steal some of the thunder from things we're doing in "Hulk" and "Avengers Assemble." Korvac is originally a Guardians of the Galaxy villain in publishing. When we were thinking Guardians and their villains, we thought, "What about that guy Korvac?" He's got such a weird look with half-human, half-refrigerator form. We knew we also wanted the Chitauri, so it just came about. Brian was way on board.

We needed a guy who could be a real threat, but we knew we didn't want there to be tons of backstory and set-up because both needed to be about Spidey, Nova and introducing the Guardians. It's a lot of characters so we didn't want a villain who was going to require too many pages because we had to make the Guardians shine. We'd worked with James Marsters before -- he's really game and does the villain thing so well.

There were a lot of fun easter eggs in this episode, from the Nova-as-Luke and Rocket Raccoon-as-Yoda Star Wars cutaway to a list of heroes including Howard the Duck and Devil Dinosaur.

I love that moment too -- where Star-Lord is listing Earth's greatest heroes. He has this laundry list and gets down to Howard the Duck and Devil Dinosaur at the bottom -- who by the way are two of my favorites -- and hasn't even mentioned Spider-Man yet. That's one of those things we always do to keep Spidey humble. In this case it comes from a very unusual place. Star-Lord has never heard of Spider-Man, but he's heard of Howard the Duck.

The next episode is titled "The Parent Trap." What can you tell us about it?

It's the very last of our Spidey team-up episodes, featuring Power Man. It's very connected to S.H.I.E.L.D. and reveals the "Ultimate Spider-Man" animated origin of Luke Cage that's full of surprises and connections to Nick Fury. It has a whole James Bond vibe, too.

You're going from sci-fi to spy -- that has to be a fun transition!

That's one of the things we love about this series. We can do the tonal changes, but it's still always rooted in who Peter is, what he's trying to accomplish and what he's learning. We're always starting from the stand point of, "What is Peter's personal story?" As long as you have that it will always feel like part of his show. With the Nova and upcoming Luke stories, while revealing their origins and surprising things about them, we still have to feel like Peter is emotionally invovled -- that there are personal stakes involved and all of this is very necessary for him in the season finale. Only through this greater understanding and relationship with these characters is he able to save them.

The finale of our story arc isn't the last episode. There are fun surprises at the end of this season.

"Ultimate Spider-Man" continues on Disney XD this Sunday, July 28 at 11:00AM with "The Parent Trap"

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