Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Spectacular, spec-tac-u-lar, Spider-Man...

Been a good stretch for comic book fans who don't like to see their favorites get screwed up in the translation from page to screen. "Iron Man" was awesome, as we've previous discussed, the pilot for ABC Family's adaptation of "Middleman" (debuting Monday night) is a lot of fun, and thanks to a commenter in the "Iron Man" discussion, I've gotten hooked on the CW's "Spectacular Spider-Man" cartoon. I have no interest in seeing "Incredible Hulk," even with the latest trailer giving away the big cameo at the end of the movie -- the Hulk is a very hard character to make interesting in a live-action movie, no matter how good the CGI gets -- but overall, my inner geek is quite happy.

For the fellow nyerds among us, a few random thoughts on the Spidey cartoon coming up just as soon as I try on this spiffy new black costume...

When I originally got the "Spectacular Spider-Man" screener DVD, I passed on watching it for a couple of reasons. First, I'm swamped enough as it is as the Ledger's lone critic, and as we have a freelancer-written weekly column on kids/family TV, it's rare that I take the time to watch and write about anything in that area. Second, the last few Spidey cartoons were so dull that I didn't think it was worth it.

Had I only popped the DVD in long enough to watch the opening title sequence, featuring the amazing/spectacular/friendly neighborhood-ly catchy theme song (by The Tender Box), I imagine I would have been quickly hooked. Instead, I had to wait for the aforementioned recommendation from Alap, plus time for my DVR to snag enough episodes to make a decent marathon, and it totally lived up to Alap's description of it, which captures the show so succinctly that I'll quote it in its entirety:
as hard as it is to believe, this series has the same intelligence, emotion, and structural coherence that "batman: the animated series" had when it changed the way people think about children's animated television.

just watch the third episode, the one with the lizard's origin, which has the sharp, simple character moments--the teen drama between peter and gwen, doc connor's guilt-ridden relationship with his son, that most every saturday morning cartoon either doesn't have the time or doesn't care to squeeze into the story. plus, the animation style is super clean and broad, so the action scenes are actually pretty bracing to watch. honestly, it's the closest "ultimate spider-man" has come to being put to screen.
The show, developed by Greg Weisman and Vic Cook, cherrypicks the best bits of Spidey continuity from his various incarnations, then throws in a few new (or extremely re-imagined) ingredients. Pete's still in high school, but now Gwen Stacy is the girl next door best friend (and unrequited love interest, though she's the one who's hot for him in this version). He works at the Daily Bugle (where Ned Leeds has become Ned Lee in an attempt to diversify the supporting cast), is still the victim of Flash Thompson's gang at Midtown High (which now includes Robbie Robertson's son Randy in addition to Kong from Ultimate Spider-Man), and has the usual stable of villains, though not everyone's quite the same. Montana from the Enforcers becomes The Shocker, Tombstone is the show's stand-in for either or both of Kingpin and The Big Man, and the Green Goblin isn't quite who you think he is. But all the changes and reconstituted elements flow together seamlessly in the same way the early days of the Ultimate Spider-Man comic did. It's not exactly the Spider-Man you might remember reading as you grew up, but it all makes sense in this context.

The show does a nice job of balancing the angst and the action. One of the few things I really enjoyed about "Spider-Man 3" was the opening aerial combat between Peter and Harry Osborn, which was one of the few times the film franchise captured what I always imagined to be the incredible speed and grace of Spidey in action. The cartoon, not having to rely on the laws of physics or the difficulty of matching CGI to live-action, really goes to town on the fight scenes. This is the guy who was able to dance around the entire roster of the X-Men in Secret Wars because he's so damn quick and agile and spidey-sense-enhanced, and it's a joy to watch.

The soap opera aspect of Peter's life, and the way nothing ever goes quite right for him, is in full effect, and nicely handled by a voice cast that includes Josh Keaton as Peter, Lacey Chabert (yes, that Lacey Chabert) as Gwen, Peter MacNicol as Doc Ock, Kevin Michael Richardson (Rockefeller from "Knights of Prosperity") as Tombstone, and Daran Norris (Cliff from "Veronica Mars") doing a hell of a J.K. Simmons impression as J. Jonah Jameson.

There's only one episode left in this initial 13-episode batch, a climax to the black costume/Venom story (the show's moving quickly in introducing as many villains as possible), but it should be in repeats for quite a while, and it's definitely worth a look for the spandex fan set.


Tony Dayoub said...

Don't go knocking the Hulk movie out just yet. Check out what former Premiere critic, Glenn Kenny said on his blog about watching it last night:

Anonymous said...

Did you ever watch the MTV Spider-Man cartoon? I really enjoyed that set and wonder how this compares.

Consider me intrigued. I only worry that the repeats will be out of sequence. If that's the case, how confusing would it be?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Consider me intrigued. I only worry that the repeats will be out of sequence. If that's the case, how confusing would it be?

Well, it's fairly serialized, but I jumped into the middle of the run, with my local CW affiliate airing two episodes a week (a repeat from earlier in the season followed by the new episode) and I was able to keep up. Obviously, it helps if you know enough of the comic book mythos to be able to say, "Okay, that's the guy who becomes the Sandman" or "Oh, yeah, Aunt May and Mary Jane's aunt are friends."

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I should actually try watching a few episodes, but based on that title sequence alone, I'm already kind of put off by it. I'm always bothered by the current animation trend where character designs seem streamlined to the point where everybody looks like stick-figure midgets. I'm also not much of a fan of the huge eyes coupled overdilated pupils that ever character seems to have. It makes them look both creepy, and like they're about to cry. Overall, they just don't look people. Again though, maybe I should actually see how a whole episode plays, but I've always had trouble enjoying a show when I'm already put off by the overall design.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Alan. This is the best animated Spider-Man series... maybe ever. (Though I do have love for the '67 version -- very funny -- and nostalgia for the Amazing Friends series.)

It's a great amalgam of Ultimate Spider-Man and the original (and very dated) Spider-Man comic of the 60s.

Kenrick said...

Big Spidey fan here. I've been watching it since day one, and I must say, it's really really good. The only episode I didn't quite like was the Electro episode.

I like the character designs for Spider-Man and villains, and the civilians are usually ok. The designs are simple enough that they lend to great animation. The animation in the most recent couple episodes are especially top notch.

The series has been moving quite briskly, with a lot of characters having been introduced already.

I totally recommend giving this show a shot. This and Avatar: The Last Airbender are the two animated series I watch.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to check that out. I also liked the MTV Spider-Man cartoon (starring one Neil Patrick Harris!) and am currently cartoon-less, outside of The Venture Brothers.

Anonymous said...

The show has moved quite fast, and it is difficult for me to assess what has received short shrift because of familiarity with the source material (Foswell's in it but not the Big Man? There's an officer DeWolff wandering around? Jameson Jr. is encountering alien life? Whee!). But knowing how suddenly kids cartoons can come to an end, I can appreciate the desire to hit the ground running and tell as much story as possible in the first thirteen. And like Alap I think the show has streamlined a lot of Spidey history without sacrificing too many character moments. I especially appreciate the willingness to make Pete an unlikable character sometimes -- by letting him fail Harry, for instance -- in fidelity with the source material.

I do hope it gets a second season. I'd like to see what the plans are for Spidey after all the players are in place and all the old stories have been retold.


Davy said...

So glad to see the love for this cartoon. I've been watching it since episode 2 (dang DVR -- ARRGH!), and it's really a great mix of the various spidey continuities. The art really reminds me of Sumerak's kid-friendly "Power Pack/Spiderman" team-up books (among others PP teamups he's done).

For me, this show is miles above the MTV computer generated version. The MTV show almost took itself too seriously, trying to be edgy. It didn't have the required Spidey-humor this one does and its computer animation always felt too stiff for me, as if it might have been better with a CGI-feature budget, but not a CGI-for-TV budget. Looked too much like Code Lyoko for my tastes.

Great series, and I hope it gets picked up for more.

Anonymous said...

been out of town for the last week or so, so i totally missed this post when it first went up and don't know if you're still reading the comments section, buuuuut thanks for the shoutout (is that what it's called?) and thanks even more for checking the show out. makes me feel good that i'm not some crazy person for waking up early (for me) every saturday morning to watch this.