The cartoon series Ultimate Spider-Man is one of the benefits of the Disney acquisition of Marvel. Disney augmenting Marvel Studios funding so they could produce content for Disney venues, led to the Marvel Universe programming block on the Disney XD channel. It also features the Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes animated series. The show is on iTunes and Amazon (fortunately for me, since my cable provider offers Disney XD, but as part of the most expensive package. I'd much rather purchase the individual episodes). The show kicked off with the first two episodes, which form the basis of the series.
The show is the brainchild of Jeph Loeb, and features the creative team of the Men of Action group (comic book writers turned Hollywood, responsible for Ben 10 and Generator Rex animated series), Brian Michael Bendis (the essential creator of the Ultimate universe Spider-Man comic), and Paul Dini (of DC Animated Universe fame). Given the creative team, many fans of both Spider-Man and animation set their hopes pretty high.
The animation is, generally speaking, about as good as animation gets. The execution of the designs, the choreography, all of these are top-notch. The web-slinging, as Spider-Man flings himself across the streets of Manhattan, are well-done and dynamic. The action is very fluid, very casual, yet with an awkward "falling sideways" look and feel.
One of the things I never really understood about adaptations of comic book properties to cartoons is the art team's insistence in making changes. Simplifying designs so they are easier to animate, and consequently meet schedules, is one thing; but often the changes seem like they are made solely for the sake of change, so some egocentric fellow in Hollywood can say "You see the new costume? That was MY idea!."
There are a litany of small changes here that fall into the "change for change's sake" category. Spider-Man is immediately recognizable in his classic blue-and-red uniform. There are small differences with the Frightful Four designs, such as the Wizard's cheesy mustache straight out of the long-gone-and-glad-of-it disco era. Klaw's sonic weapon is more of a claw than the classic design, Thundra looks different (no chain belt). The Trapster gets the worst and most drastic redesign, looking like a strange welder.
The supporting hero cast has minor changes galore, but the changes make sense to differentiate them from the designs and characterizations of the heroes on which they are based.
One change at the core of Ultimate Spider-Man is, instead of focusing on Spider-Man and Peter Parker, this incarnation clearly ties into the Marvel films. Spider-Man is not the lone wolf type with which we're all familiar. Here he is recruited by SHIELD for training by Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury from the movies. Agent Coulson from Marvel movies is undercover as Parker's high school principal.
The other hero trainees (White Tiger, Nova the Human Rocket, Power Man, and Iron Fist) are replacement characters with no established personality (Nova is not Rich Rider, but new character Sam Alexander), or they are de-aged back to teenagers, with their backgrounds scrubbed.
Power Man! Iron Fist! Two other people!
I am very disappointed that they de-aged Power Man and Iron Fist. The personality of characters is, as for all of us, determined by their personal histories. It is frustrating to watch characters for which I have no small affection suddenly retrograded to blank slates, with no reasons for their personalities.
Teen heroes stretch the already-elastic suspension of disbelief required for superhero stories to work, from the de-evolution of the X-Men in X-Men: Evolution, to teen Tony Stark as Iron Man in the series Iron Man Armored Adventures, to, now, Power Man and Iron Fist.
No adults give teenagers that much power to abuse with the combination of emotional volatility and inexperience in just about every aspect of life.
The series attempts to inculcate a much quirkier humor element, mixing techniques from other shows with the dramatic core of superheroics. The kindest thing I can say is that the constant fourth-wall-breaking digressions, Chibi-like animated sequences, and so forth are hit and miss, with many digressions and sequences going on far too long, and with far too much frequency. The writers are clearly trying to include Spider-Man's smart-aleck sense of humor, but one gets the impression they are trying too hard, with the humor too often interrupting the narrative flow, both wasting precious time within the episode and disrupting any attempt to build dramatic circumstances.
I found the digressions were annoyingly childish, which I suppose is fair enough, as the series is aimed at children. I am sure my eight year old son will enjoy them. (I did enjoy the scene of Spider-Man in Spanish class.)
There are many Easter eggs for comic fans, and many things for an adult to watch for. When Fury is introduced, they show vignettes from his Marvel Comics history, including an image of Fury underwater, which reminded me fondly of Thunderball
(the Bond film, not the member of the Wrecking Crew.) Like most Marvel movies, there are more cameos by Stan Lee as the janitor with a zen-like wisdom. Treasure them, as he's not going to be around forever to do those.
The supporting cast ranges from the familiar characters you know and love (J. Jonah Jameson is still ranting, and Spider-Man-hating) to wholesale revisions. Curt Conners working for SHIELD as a weapons developer? That's a twist, and I'm not sure it's one I like. Conners has long been a pure scientist, and he has, in other incarnations, been more interested in the medical implications of his work than anything else; more of a pacifist.
Mary Jane Watson is a childhood friend of Peter's who wants to be a Daily Bugle journalist, not a model slash actress. Harry Osborn is more or less the same old Harry, and Norman Osborn is still the genius corrupt industrialist behind many of Spider-Man's foes. Aunt May is much more a real character than just a motivator for Spider-Man; she's not elderly; but seems more in her mid-life.
One of the most annoying elements are the flashbacks when a new character is introduced. I would rather they introduced the "Parker's Pals" supporting cast via narrative instead of flashback, but I assume it's a one-shot deal for the introductions. The first episodes are not a bad beginning, if lacking serious tone and depth that makes the humor more about relieving Spidey's tensions than just being another smart-mouthed kid and undermining the dramatic action. Brian Michael Bendis always did that well with the Ultimate comic; I may hate what he did to the Avengers franchise, but he does exceptional work on the Ultimate Spidey side of his careeer.
I'm sure the show will be a great hit with the kiddies. Kids are notoriously easier to please. I'm not sanguine how well the relative shallowness will play with the older crowd; much of the lasting success of the great animated series is their ability to appeal to both kids and adults.
Hopefully the writing after the initial episodes will jettison the "tell, not show" asides, tone down and dial back the time-wasting attempts at humor and get down to the business of telling a compelling story.
Watch Spidey on Amazon
Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury in convenient cartoon form. Also,the show has Spider-Man.