Unmasking "Ultimate Spider-Man" with Producer Cort Lane

Spider-Man's no rookie when it comes to headlining cartoons, yet his latest animated adventures are undeniably fresh, fun and exciting. In fact, Disney XD's "Ultimate Spider-Man," which just returned for the second half of its second season, offers viewers young and old a look at the character that relies more on the dynamic of the cast to develop its stories rather than simply adapting classics from the comics to the small screen.

About a year after gaining his powers and becoming a hero, teenager Peter Parker found himself recruited by Nick Fury to work and train with S.H.I.E.L.D. alongside four other young heroes: Iron Fist, Power Man, White Tiger and Nova. Since then, our hero has gone up against some familiar foes, faced new threats and learned a few lessons along the way.

Featuring the voice talents of Drake Bell as Spidey, Chi McBride as Nick Fury, Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson and J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, "Ultimate Spider-Man" also boasts some impressive team of writers. Joe Kelly, Joe Casey, Duncan Rouleau and Steven T. Seagle, collectively known as Man of Action, created the series. "Ultimate Spider-Man" comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis also gets in on the action in the writer's room, along with animation guru Paul Dini ("Batman: The Animated Series"), Marvel's Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada, Marvel Entertainment's Executive Vice President, Head of Television Jeph Loeb and supervising producer Cort Lane ("The Super Hero Squad Show," "Iron Man: Armored Advenures").

The XD series, which airs at 11:00 AM on Sundays, returned on June 9 with "Swarm" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider-Man" and was followed yesterday by "Journey of Iron Fist." In our new, weekly column, CBR News spoke with Lane about the show's origins while digging into some of the details about the most recent episodes and getting a few hints about this week's "The Incredible Spider-Hulk."

CBR News: One of the traps many superhero-based cartoons can fall into is revisiting stories that were previously told in comics and/or animation. You seem to avoid that with "Ultimate Spider-Man." Was that an important building block when putting the show together?

Cort Lane: Yes and no. I think there are elements to Spider-Man's story and history that are a core to who he is, and we want to touch on those elements. At the same time, there are classic stories that have been told in animation -- or I should say re-told in animation -- and that animation is out there in the world and even aired on XD for a little while.

While it wasn't our goal to specifically not re-tell those stories, there didn't seem to be a great need for it. It was more important to us that we tell really exciting and thrilling new stories and sort of, in my mind, 'ultimize' them: Make them souped up and exciting, dynamic for kids today. Kid viewers have changed over the last several decades in a lot of ways and we want to make sure we keep that world relevant to them today.

How do you tap into how modern kids are watching and absorbing entertainment?

There's a lot of ways. First, you just have to watch what's working on all the kids' channels. Second, you do focus group research and you show them the series. We are not slaves to focus group research, but it provides some really, really interesting tidbits, most of them positive, like, "Wow, they really, really, really liked that element." One specific item is the Mini-Spideys we use in cutaway gags in Spidey's mind. Kids love them more than we anticipated, so we incorporated those some more. As you saw in [Episode] 212, "Itsy Bitsy Spider-Man," we basically created an episode around them. Those are some things you can learn.

Where did the original idea for the Mini-Spidey gags and other quick cutaway jokes come from?

We knew that we needed to incorporate humor . We felt that in the comics, particularly in the last couple years, Peter Parker is a really funny guy. He's got a lot of aside comments, he has a funny look at the world, he quips in the middle of battles. Things can be really, really horrible, and he's still quipping at the villain.

We wanted to capture that personality and didn't think it had been done enough in animation or even in the feature films. We can really embrace that in this show, so we did. We talked about breaking the fourth wall, we talked about the kinds of quips he would make, we talked about physical gags and we talked about gags inside Peter's head. Then, we had this amazing supervising director named Alex Soto, who you know from many other great shows [like "Ben 10"] and he tried, especially in the first season, different kinds of cutaway gags. The Mini-Spideys initially seemed like a pretty out-there concept, but it really worked. Then we introduced Angel and Devil Mini-Spidey and Mini versions of other characters like Nick Fury and his teammates. It grew organically once we realized we had something special.

How does the writer's room work on "Ultimate Spider-Man?" The Man of Action guys are obviously involved, as are Brian Michael Bendis and Paul Dini. Does everyone pitch in the same room or is there a less traditional set-up?

What we do is sort of a unique hybrid of a writer's room and the more regular story-editor-working-with-writers [set-up], we do both. We have periodic story summits where the story editors, in this case Man of Action and a few key writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Paul Dini and Joe Quesada and Jeph Loeb and I, we're all there in the room and we break a series of stories over two days.

There's not that much pressure on how many we break; it's about breaking great stories. From a schedule perspective, we figure out how far that takes us. If production is going to need some more scripts, we back up from that date and then we schedule another story summit. Joe Quesada and Joe Kelley live on the east coast, so they come out, and Brian comes down from Portland. It's awesome to have these guys who, frankly, I've worshiped a little bit on the publishing side, collaborating on stories. Man of Action manages the process from there. Some of them they write themselves, others they assign [to] writers who they enjoy working with. Brian always takes a couple stories he's really excited about, Paul may take a few as well, and everyone gives notes throughout the process.

Speaking on the importance of humor to the show and character, one of the show's signature elements is the rapid-fire delivery of jokes. Do writers offer joke ideas for episodes they're not working on?

Yes, at the front and at the back. We are also unique in that, once we get back a rough cut of the episode, you can see it paced out by the director in final animation, edited. We'll often look at that and say, "It's a great sequence, but Spidey should have a quip there." It's hard to add a cutaway gag once animation is in, but it's not too late to add a funny comment or some back-and-forth between characters, particularly because Spidey wears a mask and there's no lip-flaps to match.

We actually have four bites at the apple, and I think it makes the show really witty and the dialog really sharp. It starts at the story side. There will be specific bits of dialogs and gags there. Then, at the animatics stage, we all look at it and might add a gag or cut a gag if it's not working, and add extra quips, there. Then, at the rough cut stage, we can modulate how the performances work in ADR if we feel a line isn't funny enough. Drake is very flexible -- he'll even improvise a little in the booth. We have many opportunities to make it snap.

For the voice recording sessions, is everyone in the room together or do they go in separately?

The goal is to get everybody together. I know a lot of shows don't do that anymore. It is important to us. We record, frankly, with all union talent. We do it in LA, near us, and it is very important to get everybody in the booth. There is a dynamic between Spidey and his co-stars that is fun. You don't get that at the same level if everyone's recording separately. Every once in a while, somebody like Chi McBride or Clark Gregg might be doing something major in the live action television or feature world and we will not be able to get them, but for the most part, everyone's together. It's a lot of fun. Our cast is young. We wanted a young cast so they felt really like teenagers instead of mature actors performing like teenagers. It can be a rowdy room.

Was it difficult finding young actors with the experience and talent you need for a show like this?

When I look back at the casting process now, it wasn't that hard, but, I mean, we cast the net very wide, so to speak, because we had literally thousands of auditions for Spider-Man and hundreds of auditions for all the key characters. We had great options out of those. I think in total I listened to 4,000 auditions for the start of the show.

Going back to the story pitch meetings, do writer's stake a claim to particular villains they want to bring into the show?

Yes. That's the thing -- everybody's a Marvel fan and they have Marvel favorites, but that can be tough because I think almost everybody's favorites are fairly obscure. My two favorite Marvel characters are Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch. Fortunately, Hawkeye's not as obscure as he used to be, and I'm very glad we got to use him at the beginning of Season Two. I don't see Scarlet Witch coming to the show anytime soon.

You have to be patient and you have to realized that, for us, in this show, the villains work best when they have a personal connection to Peter or somebody he's very close to as you saw in 211 ["Swarm"]. Since Swarm isn't a character that kids know very well -- even though he has a history with Spider-Man and was introduced in a Spider-Man story -- he's a villain that, frankly, doesn't have a close, personal connection with Spidey, so we have the opportunity to twist that around and make an alternate version of him that's very connected to Spidey. We think it's a more powerful story and a more threatening villain when it works on a personal level.

In "Swarm," the villain was framed as a technology based bad guy instead of a biological one, with his consciousness controlling robotic insects accidentally created by Spider-Man when he upgraded his Spider Tracers. What angles were you looking to explore with that new presentation?

We have played up in this series, which I think hasn't always been captured well in other series' and films, that Peter is a tech genius. Here, he's still a teenager, but he loves technology and we saw that in how he interacts with Tony Stark. He just worships Tony. We've played that up through the series, and every now and then he'll create something like the Spider Tracers, but he's not Tony Stark yet. He's on his path. That goes awry a bit, not that it's totally his fault -- things would not have gone so badly had Swarm's digitized intelligence not taken over the Spider Tracers.

But the Spider Tracers allow us to tell a story for growth for Peter in that technology is a tool, not a power, and he needs to use technology responsibly. Iron Man really makes that point to him at a couple points in the story; that Tony Stark's real power is his brilliance and in the end, Spidey has to use his smarts to stop Swarm. There's a little bit of a message there, but it's driven by the story and this tech villain that partially comes from Spider-Man's tech. Since Spider-Man's all about responsibility, he feels a responsibility to that.

The interactions between Iron Man and Spider-Man have a nice father/son or mentor/student flavor to them, which is something Peter is clearly looking for.

With his uncle being gone and his father being long gone, there's always the opportunity to tell stories about Peter and his mentors. He has some significant mentor relationships in this series and I think it's been wonderful to watch them because they can be funny and really interesting as well.

Obviously, Nick Fury has taken Spider-Man under his wing. That relationship can be a little bit contentious because Peter doesn't always follow the rules and Nick Fury is a pretty tough boss. Then, of course, there's Iron Man, who appears periodically and is sort of who Peter would like to be one day: A super hero, a brilliant guy that everyone admires. He seems to have everything going for him, so that relationship is fun to touch on every now and then. Then there's this relationship with Curt Connors, who is super smart, somebody he looks up to, who, to save Peter, becomes the Lizard. So Peter has this immense sense of responsibility to cure Curt Connors. Those are the three relationships we've set up that make the series more emotionally relevant.

Speaking of Iron Man, he got a cool looking composite armor this episode which would make for a really nice action figure. Does that idea cross your minds as you're coming up with stories?

Yes and no. We're never driven by that. They're not making a toy out of that Composite Iron Man as far as I know! Fortunately, there's a lot of tech in the show, and there's S.H.I.E.L.D., so there are elements that our toy partners can play with. When we come up with something, it has to work with story, there has to be a reason. I am the person who presents it all to Hasbro and LEGO in particular, and say, "Is thiss something you would love to play with or do something interesting with?" If they really love it, then it might be something we're more prone to bring back.

That toy-etic element is not something that guides the creative, but it may mean we feature something more frequently, because if a kid sees it on a toy shelf, it's got to be pretty cool and it should be in the show -- but it's in the show in the first place because we love it.

The beginning of "Itsy Bitsy Spider-Man" starts off with the team in those cool underwater suits, and it made me think of toys again.

[Laughs] It's interesting. We knew they needed to go underwater to find this relic. "Well, we have to put them in something. Rather than it just be a S.HI.E.L.D. scuba suit, why not a unique scuba suit for each character?" Certainly, toy lines for past shows have created all that weird, wonky stuff and it never appeared in the show, so every time we have an opportunity where it needs to be in a story, then we should make up a cool design that we love so we don't have crazy armor-scuba-space things that we don't love first.

Earlier you mentioned how this entire episode came from the idea of the Mini-Spidey cutaways, but what was the process like when you actually had to sit down and turn the concept into a full episode?

It's funny. We love the Mini-Spideys and we knew we wanted to do something big with them, but weren't sure what. At the same time, we love our Loki and Thor stories and wanted to do another one of those. Those seemed to, as a running gag, always be about transformation. The first one featured Thor turning into Throg, the second one Peter turns into Spider-Ham, and as we thought about what he could turn into with Loki's magic, the Mini-Spidey thing just came and we decided to just turn everyone into Minis. That's what Loki does to them to make it hard for them to win. There's a lesson in there, even tiny like that, it just takes courage and skill and smarts to win the day despite that adversity. And, of course, they're up against the Destroyer who's a physically large threat, so there's a great contrast there.

This episode was packed with humor, from the visual gags to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s unicorn-and-rainbow decorated D.A.Y.C.A.R.E. facilities, plus you had Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson as the robot voices. Did all those jokes just flow from the story?

This is the kind of thing where we get started with the idea. The writers just sort of go crazy. The writers on this one were Kevin Burke and Chris "Doc" Wyatt, and they're funny guys. We had our Agent Coulson, Clark Gregg, as Nanny Bot 1 and 2. He's a busy guy, by the way, and we have him in a lot. Of course he's coming out in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." this fall. It's just a great cast and a lot of funny gags that grew out of how much we like the idea.

There's one element that was very serendipitous. Chi McBride who plays Nick Fury -- we have this young cast and they're pretty rambunctious, so sometimes he'll say in the booth, "You kids, go to bed." It became this running thing, "You kids, go to bed." So we were like, "We have to write this in a script so he could actually say it in context to the story."

Moving to the most recent episode, "Journey of the Iron Fist" introduced us to a new version of the Scorpion who, like Iron Fist, trained in the mystical city of K'un L'un. Why the drastic changes in his origin?

A couple of our classic Spidey villains we wanted to introduce in a more connected, personal way. With the Scorpion, we decided it would have a very personal connection with Iron Fist. We did something similar with Kraven and White Tiger, which we think worked really, really well, so we did that here. We made him very young and a dark version of Iron Fist. We get to go K'un L'un and experience that and it's really cool. George Takei is in our cast this episode [as "Elder Monk"] and is so wonderful to work with. I really like that.

Was George able to come in and record with the group?

No, he had to record separately. He lives in New York and his schedule is very challenging, so that we got him at all was a blessing. He did a couple episodes of "The Super Hero Squad Show" and I worked with him in the booth there with the cast. He's very humble and really funny and sweet, which is great to see.

Was there anything specific about the original Scorpion character that led you to create this almost completely new version?

It was very organic. We wanted to do something with that character and realized there is something a little silly in animation about a guy with a big green tail growing out of his butt. We thought, "How can we make this really cool and different?" He will grow in later appearances to have a suit more like you would expect, but we started him at this place where you understand what the personal grudge is, where he comes from and where he got his skills. He's just as talented a fighter as Danny is, so that makes him a more formidable threat right off the bat. Then he uses this very cool chain tail thing that sort of whips around and has poison on the tip. It became a very different thing with a ninja quality to it -- there's a mystery to who he is at the start of the story.

It just grew out of our idea of, how can we make them ultimate? That means their personal stories and their powers can be more exciting and different. Not that we were completely inspired by the Ultimate comics version of the Scorpion, but we did see that they did some interesting and somewhat similar stuff there.

Do you have Scorpion's next appearance figured out yet or is that one waiting for a future story meeting?

Yes, I've seen it in animation and he gets a very cool suit from another Marvel villain. That's all I can tease, but now he has tech on top of his amazing skills which makes him an even bigger threat.

While we're looking ahead, is there anything you can tell us about next week's episode, "The Incredible Spider-Hulk?"

Oh, boy! It's a really big story, and when I say 'big,' it's because there's a lot of Thing and Hulk smashing each other. I'm not going to give too much away, but it has a really shocking twist at the beginning that's very funny, but really dangerous, and the story plays out from there. The danger becomes so big that S.H.I.E.L.D. calls in The Thing -- and that just makes for some epic battles.

"Ultimate Spider-Man" airs on Disney XD Sundays at 11:00AM. This week's episode is called "The Incredible Spider-Hulk."

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