I think most people came towards Ultimate Spider-man with chips on their shoulders. I did. I mean, it was the enemy series! The sham king! The forced new series! The beginning of the end! And honestly it is far from perfect, far from the spectacular series that came before (and that was cut off before its time). It was branded the Family Guy Spider-man! People said it ruined their faith in Paul Dini. It is used in a Godwin’s Law fashion amongst cartoon and comic viewers – but it doesn’t deserve all of the hate.
Ultimate Spider-man comes with a fair deal of baggage. Tacking on Spider-man (he barely is referred to as anything but Spider-man)’s team of trainees means he isn’t always the focus. Adding in cutaway gags can disrupt the pacing and the feel of the series. It isn’t the designs for characters and mature drama that Spectacular Spider-man was – but it never set out to be that.
The series is Spider-man for the Avengers movie generation – for the children who want to see Spider-man with everyone else they know, with new heroes they can see in themselves, where Spider-man rubbing shoulders with his idols isn’t so jarring (see almost any crossover with Amazing Spider-man in the 90s).
Ultimate is about making a responsible Spider-man, a Spider-man who has to deal with his actions and who actually has reasons J Jonah Jameson hates him – though why the Daily Bugle has him as a Limbaugh-type figure who pays for talking television screens in New York strains belief and seems like a way to shoehorn J.K. Simmons into almost every episode for a few seconds. But Spider-man here causes collateral damage and is criticized for it. Here Spider-man recognizes his actions hurt people and the other heroes recognize the fact. Hell, they bring in Damage Control as the people behind cleaning his messes.
Ultimate Spider-man is also about creating other heroes for people to follow and to see themselves in though. While the main Spider-man crew is white – literally everyone besides Nick Fury and the new teammates are white – the show introduces partners; Nova (a Latino hero), White Tiger (a black heroine), Luke Cage (another black hero) and Iron Fist (who is still Danny Rand and is still white) but still – there are multiple ethnicities, multiple backgrounds – there are strong heroes that the kids who will grow up watching this can see themselves in and they do a good job of avoiding stereotypes. Sure, White Tiger is a smart girl character but she is smart because she needs to be and she can match wits with Spider-man. The heroes are here to backup Spider-man but also to challenge him and inspire others. They push each other to become better in a real way.
The show is flawed but they also have some excellent characterizations of villains. Tom Kenny is incredibly chilling as Doctor Octopus and Norman Osborn has a Lex Luthor feel to him where he is calm and calculating. Sandman is displayed as a tragic figure that calls to mind the New Adventures of Batman and Robin episode “Growing Pains”. Plus Batroc is in it, they have uncomplicated versions of the Frightful Four (they just toss them in with a sentence of exposition) and except for Beetle the characters are all incredibly solid iterations. Beetle is just the worst though – having a silent villain when you need banter can often fail – and it does because the Beetle episodes drag on.
And while the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shoehorned in – see Agent Coulson, all of the Avengers character designs and Nick Fury, it works for the stories they are telling. These are spinoffs that build the world, that allow the characters to have smaller struggles – Thor can get turned into a frog, Iron Man can fight hackers, Doctor Strange can show up! These are all excellent for kids who are growing up – for the target demographic.
But with all of this I’ll drop my hammer – the humor doesn’t work for the series. Cutting away from the action should not be done in the series! If you are going to do inner dialogue, have it move with the action! If you want to have jokes have Spider-man actually be funny. We don’t need chibi shoulder angels and demons showing up to explain why Spider-man is doing something! We should know from the show! We don’t need wheels of “blank” every episode – just be funny in the context of the series, in the action, in the scenes where Spider-Ham is being chased by Asgardians.
The humor harms the series and holds it back from being more widely enjoyed by the mixed age audience of the new cancelled Avengers: EMH but there is much worse out there.
Ignore the hype, get some mindless work and give the show a shot on Netflix Instant. The first 26 episodes are there, streaming. Give it a shot yourself.