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RERUN REVIEWS: Spider-Man: The New Animated Series 1×01 “Heroes and Villians”, 1×02 “Royal Scam”, 1×03 “Law of the Jungle”

WHY IN ALL SEVEN HELLS ARE PEOPLE NOT TALKING ABOUT THIS SHOW!?!?!? Everybody waxes nostalgic about the 90’s series! Everybody laments the untimely end of Spectacular Spider-Man! But nobody says: “Hey, remember that Spider-Man show from 2003? Wasn’t that so cool? Shame it only got thirteen episodes.” Yeah. This show only ran for one season. And it was near perfect! Like 99.9999999999999999999999999% perfect! This was my Firefly before I discovered Firefly. Then I discovered Firefly and had to go through the whole thing all over again! The only difference between this and Firefly is that everybody has heard of Firefly. Or at the very least, talks about Firefly- nobody talks about this show. And they should! Hell, if Spectacular Spider-Man never existed then I’d say with absolute confidence that this would be the best Spider-Man show EVER! EEEEEEVAAARRR! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE- You get the point.

So… for those poor souls who ever experienced the glorious wonder that was this show, let me fill you in. The year was 2002. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was the talk of the town. So it seemed only natural that a new Spider-Man cartoon should be made to capitalise on it’s success. An adaption of the Ultimate Spider-Man comics was already in progress, so it was changed accordingly. But who should make the show? Fox? Cartoon Network? MTV? Wait… MTV? Really? Who in their right mind would get MTV to make a Spider-Man cartoon? Well, whoever it was, give them a medal. See, unlike the 90’s series, the creators of the show found themselves with a lot of creative freedom. MTV were pretty live and let live about the whole thing. So we got more violence, a little bit of blood, explosions, light swearing and adult themes. Oh my!

Yeah, this show wasn’t intended for little kids. And by and large, this lead to a great show with great storylines. The only downside the MTV’s involvement was the exclusion of Aunt May, as the MTV execs were worried an older character would deter their viewers. Interestingly enough, Brian Michael Bendis was a producer, presumably staying with the project after it was changed from Ultimate Spider-Man. The series was also made entirely using CGI which, especially for 2003, looked really, really good- not to mention incredibly cinematic. I usually don’t bother mentioning this kind of stuff but it’s worth noting that the makers of this series were amazingly creative visually. It’s just a great looking show. I could go on and on about various examples of this but I’ll just talk about one in particular. Simply put: Spider-Man never changes in to his costume the same way twice. I could elaborate but I couldn’t do it justice. You’ll have to watch it to know what I’m talking about.

Additionally, you might be wondering though, does this take place within the Raimi Spider-Man continuity? Weeeeeeell….. yes and no. It’s kind of a semi sequel. The characters look different (Harry Osborn is blonde, if you can believe it), their personalities aren’t exactly the same and there are a few things here and there that seem out of place.

So what do you need to know exactly? Well, Norman Osborn a.k.a. the Green Goblin is dead and Harry thinks Spider-Man killed him. Peter, Harry and Mary Jane are all attending Empire State University and Peter and Harry are living together. And that’s basically it. You all caught up? No? Well, tough! I can’t waste my time explaining all day! I’m a busy man, dangnabbit! Let’s get this show on the road!

NOTE! I will be reviewing the episodes in the order of production not airdate. For some reason they were all aired out of order. Don’t ask me why.

 

“Heroes and Villains”

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Okay, so I know I’ve been going on about how great this show is but I have to admit… the first scene is a little clumsy. It starts off okay, students at ESU are protesting the bulldozing of a campus housing building (Villeroy Towers) and Peter Parker, played by Neil Patrick Harris, is taking photos. Then he starts narrating for some reason. This happens on and off throughout the series and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Here it doesn’t. He meets Mary Jane (played by Lisa Leob) and Harry (played by Ian Zeiring), we get a bit of banter between them, which does a decent job at establishing their personalities. Harry is a bit of a playboy, M.J. is a little playful and Peter is more serious and grounded. Don’t worry, that’s not all they are. Rest assured, these are characters with plenty of depth. This is what I’d call a good start. But then we’re right back into clumsy territory as a mysterious guy in a suit of armour that allows him to travel at high speeds steals a priceless ruby. This is all in the first three minutes mind you. Spider-Man chases him in a pretty well done scene, the mysterious guy gets away, and Spider-Man sums up the situation with “Some guy’s just can’t catch a break.”. And the rest of the episode is great. I’m serious! The introduction is weak, but the main event is fun!

What’s the story? Well it turns out that the mysterious guy, played by Harold Perrineau of The Matrix, Lost and Romeo+Juliet fame, lives in Villeroy Towers and stole the gem to help pay for a defence fund. This right there is why this show was so interesting. The man, dubbed Turbo Jet, is viewed by most people as a hero, despite being a criminal, putting civilians in danger and accidentally electrocuting a security guard. Meanwhile Spider-Man is branded a menace despite for to stop him. This leads to some really compelling meetings between them as they debate their perspectives on the matter. I particularly like one of Turbo Jet’s lines: “So you just blindly follow the rules, that it? While I’m out there trying to help people?”. It’s a question without a black or white answer. Even Mary Jane thinks he’s a good guy. Course she changes her mind when he kidnaps her after being setup by Spidey. And for those of you who don’t like the fact that she always had to be rescued in the Raimi film series… yeah, she has to be rescued a lot in this too. But she makes up for it by being spunky and not entirely helpless. Hell, she elbows Turbo Jet in the face. That’s something, right?

So not the greatest start to the series, but it laid the foundations for some great stories.

 

“Royal Scam”

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One thing I should have mentioned earlier, the cameos in this series were fantastic and frequent. Don’t believe me? This episode had the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan… as the Kingpin! Oh yes! You heard right! And it’s every bit as cool as you’d think it is!

Basically, Spidey is duped by Kingpin into stealing an experimental microchip which will allow him to steal billions from banks all over the world. Thing is, Spidey thought he was working for the FBI. So naturally, he’s not a happy spider. As if that wasn’t bad enough, trying to stop the Kingpin is putting a serious damper on his social life, as he keeps missing M.J. performing in a play, much to her disappointment. That’s yet another thing I like about this series, it really understands what it means to be Spider-Man. They show how it isn’t easy and that Peter often suffers for it, but they still manage to keep it fun and interesting.

But what’s Michael Clarke Duncan like returning as Kingpin? Ummmm… great! He’s a really fun villain, proving to be Spider-Man’s intellectual match as well as his physical match. This is a guy who can tear Spider-Man’s webbing apart with his bare hands! He is not to be messed with. Although for some reason they gave him a cane that can shoot energy blasts. Huh. I don’t remember THAT from the Daredevil movie. Things get even more complicated for the wall crawler as, after failing to apprehend Kingpin once he discovered the ruse, he’s contacted by a real FBI agent (played by Keith David)… as Peter Parker. And they want him to help them get Spider-Man. Uh oh!

So Kingpin has beaten him, Mary Jane is annoyed with him, and the FBI is investigating him. He really can’t catch a break, can he? So he goes after Kingpin again and, after a high speed helicopter chase, manages to subdue him. And that’s pretty much it. Okay, maybe I’m, doing it a disservice. It’s not as simple as that. Except it kind of is. But simple doesn’t necessarily mean bad. And that leads me to another thing I like about this series. Even the weaker episodes are still good. And this is one of the more weaker episodes. Aside from the whole “Being Spider-Man interferes with being Peter Parker”, there isn’t much depth to it. But even a shallow pond can be as beautiful as a deep ocean. A cupcake can be just as tasty as a three tier wedding cake. A small analogy can be just as clever as a large analogy. What I’m trying to say is that this is a good episode. It’s just not as good as some of the others.

Overall, this episode is worth your time but won’t blow your socks off.

 

“Law of the Jungle”

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Before Rhys Ifans or even Dylan Baker there was… in fact, you know what? Guess. Go ahead. Guess who they got to voice Curt Connors. GUESS! You done? Okay, brace yourselves. They got… Rob Zombie. I can pretty much guarantee that NOBODY got that right. Who the hell wakes up one morning and says: “I’m going to cast Rob Zombie as Curt Connors in my Spider-Man cartoon!”. But do you want to know the really weird thing? It works. Yeah. Rob Zombie as the Lizard completely works! It’s one of the best episodes of the show. Really!

So, in contrast to some other portrayals, Curt Connors is a bitter, misanthropic scientist at ESU who lost his arm in an accident that he blames on Norman Osborn. Peter is working with him on a serum that might allow humans to regrow lost limbs. Unbeknownst to Peter, Connors injects himself with the untested formula and… you know the rest. What’s great about this story is that it gives a lot of focus to Connors fall from grace. And it is a fall. A slow fall rather than, say, he injects himself and then BOOM he’s the Lizard. His body slowly changes and his mind follows shortly after. As you might have guessed, this is one of the darker episodes. And not just in terms of story. The visuals in this episode are some of the best, with great use of shadows and coloured light. It’s very appealing to look at and adds to the atmosphere exceptionally.

We also get a look at Harry’s backstory. We’ve seen his bitterness at Spider-Man and his grief over the loss of his father, and this episode expands on the latter as he, M.J. and Peter have to clear out Norman’s office. Whilst there, Harry uncovers documents and other evidence that forces him to question what kind of man his father was. What’s great is that this happens simultaneously as Curt takes his final steps in becoming the Lizard and, as his mind is ravaged by the Lizard part of him, sets out to kill Harry, believing him to be his dead father. This in turn provides another dilemma for Peter as he tries to save his mentor whilst trying to save his best friend.

There’s no way in hell I’m going to spoil the ending, but I will say this: one of the reasons I love this show so much was because it didn’t patronise it’s audience. And because of that, each episode doesn’t always have a happy ending. I won’t say any more than that. It’s a dark, tragic and stunning episode that it a must see for any Spider-Man fan.

So that was the first three episodes of Spider-Man: The New Animated Series. Only ten more to go. Let us know in the comments what you thought and check back in the future as Spidey battles mystic Japanese warriors, a cat burglar with a secret and James Marsters with a jet pack.  

 

About the author

Scott Meridew