For new comic book readers, there's really no better place to start that "Ultimate Spider-Man". This updated version of Spider-Man tweaks a few details, modernizing the dialogue and characters while ultimately staying true to the original vision of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. I just wish I could say the same for the cartoon "Ultimate Spider-Man" which airs on Disney XD.
I knew we were in trouble from the first scene, which has Spider-Man riding a motorcycle . . . ahem . . . Spider-Cycle . . . through a tunnel. The idea is that Spider-Man is a secret agent for Samuel L. Jackson look-a-like Nick Fury and the forces of SHIELD. Since webslingers clearly aren't enough, Spider-Man has become a toy company's dream, with electric webshooters, Spider-Armor and more. In putting merchandise in front of story, we're off to a great start already.
The cast is every bit as a excessive as the webslinger's utility belt. Fortunately, we've got your basic cast - his Aunt Many, his best friends Harry Osborn and Mary Jane Watson and his high-school tormentor Flash Thompson. We've also got Spider-Man's memorable assortment of rogues like Dr. Octopus, Venom, the Kingpin, Silvermane and more. But the TV show then pulls 180 and throws in a team of teenage superheroes - Luke Cage, Iron Fist, White Tiger and Nova - to share the spotlight with Spider-Man.
The problem is, this isn't a team show. This isn't "Young Justice". Heck, this isn't even "Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends". This is "Ultimate Spider-Man", and saddling a team of heroes in the supporting cast is a major problem. These characters really need developing (Luke Cage isn't shown to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, Iron Fist talks like a surfer, my favorite character Nova seems like a jerk and White Tiger doesn't do anything). But how do you spend time individually developing four team members as well as three supporting characters without taking time away from the show's eponymous star?
The show's tone is also problematic. One of the reasons Spider-Man works so well is his chatty, snappy banter. This show, unfortunately, dials the banter up to 11. Spider-Man is constantly making jokes - to himself, not the characters - and constantly breaking the fourth wall to do it. Some of this is actually quite funny - like a stream-of-conscious rant on how Spidey doesn't get along with robots - but most of the jokes fall flat, thanks to an emphasis on quantity instead of quality.
The most frustrating part of "Ultimate Spider-Man" is how good the show should be. Written by Man of Action (Ben 10, Generator Rex), the show is also overseen by Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series), Jeph Leob (Batman: The Long Halloween) and Brian Michael Bendis itself. The voice cast includes "Pushing Daisies" alum Chi McBride as Nick Fury, J.K. Simmons reprising his role as J. Jonah Jameson and even Clark Gregg reprising his "Avengers" role as Agent Coulson (who is also the principal at Peter's school). You've also got Steven Weber as Norman Osborn, Adrian Pascar as Iron Man and of course Stan Lee as Stan the Janitor.
Unfortunately, the show is a web of good ideas trapped and entangled by its own potential. On paper, "Ultimate Spider-Man" has a lot of promise - but every premise is doused in Red Bull and dialed up to 11. The result is too loud, too complicated and just plain too much. As you read in the previous paragraph, "Ultimate Spider-Man" should have everything going for it - but the one missing ingredient is the heart which made previous series like "Spider-Man: The Animated Series" and "Spectacular Spider-Man" so endearing.
(That's it for this rant. Check out a new Blue Yonder next week!)