Marvel premieres its new Spider-Man animated series on Disney XD, finding fun in taking the wall crawler back to basics.
[This review contains details of Marvel's Spider-Man that may be considered SPOILERS.]
After the success of Spider-Man: Homecoming this summer, it was certainly in the best interest of Marvel's Spider-Man animated series to demonstrate the two had something in common. And for the most part, the commonality is in taking Peter Parker back to his early days as a high school student, and to show him at the start of his career as the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. The trick is to do that without resorting to another rehash of the character's origin story – something even casual audiences know backwards and forwards by now. Homecoming took full advantage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, placing Peter's maturation under the watchful eye of Tony Stark, who bequeaths the hero a high-tech version of his once very simple costume. This animated iteration of the character does something similar, but choses instead to make Peter the architect of his future as a hero through the power of science and his burgeoning mastery of it.
That science-first approach is the defining characteristic of Marvel's Spider-Man. The very first words spoken in the series are about how science is the currency of the world, and throughout the premiere, the two-part 'Horizon High', the show goes to great lengths to reiterate the importance of science in Peter's life. Science is not only the currency of the world in which this new series takes place; it's also the currency of the show itself. As such, Horizon High becomes the engine that drives the series. It's the place where Peter spends most of his time, and it's where the majority of the supporting cast that includes Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, Anya Corazon, Max Modell, and Harry Osborn can be found. In effect, Marvel and Disney XD have turned a STEM-focused school into an NYC community all its own. The results make for a solid foundation on which to build a new series geared toward a younger audience.
In a recent discussion with Marvel senior vice president of animation and family entertainment, Cort Lane, he talked about the role Peter's education would play in his evolution as a superhero. And for those who were wondering how Spider-Man would distance or differentiate itself from Homecoming, Peter's schooling is the first of many steps. A science-oriented Peter Parker essentially replaces the need for a Stark/Parker mentor/mentee dynamic as seen in the feature film. Instead, the series shuffles the mentoring of its main character between the past and the present – or Uncle Ben and Horizon High's Max Modell.
It's a decision that underlines the series' "back to basics" approach Lane also discussed in our interview. Balancing the lessons Peter learned from his uncle (voiced by Patton Oswalt) without explicitly referencing the events that led to the teenager taking up the mantle of Spider-Man for unselfish reasons, and also introducing the notion that science, too, must manage power and responsibility wisely makes for a potent touchstone the series can return to time and again. That is certainly true of the two-part premiere, which not only establishes the importance of Horizon High, but it establishes the thematic through-line via the updates given to villains like the Vulture and Scorpion.
Though his motivations are somewhat similar, this Vulture is more outlandish and far less complicated than his big screen counterpart. Scorpion, for his small part, is very much the version fans of the comic books will be familiar with. What's interesting about these villains, however, lies in how the show makes use of their appearance. Rather than letting the bad guys steer the direction of the story, Marvel's Spider-Man makes them more of a subplot, an obstacle to be overcome as Peter struggles to juggle everything he has going on, like finding a way to pay for school, maintaining a relationship with his best friend Harry who is unjustly expelled from Horizon High, and, you know, being Spider-Man. The slight shift allows the series to be more focused on Peter's dual lives and the difficulties that arise in managing the two.
There's some solid set-up of more consistent villains in the Spider-Slayer-creating Smythe family, as well as some early darkness creeping up in Harry's subplot. For the most part, though, the villain problem comes in second to Peter's personal life, and especially his ongoing relationship with his Aunt May, and recollection of his Uncle Ben's words of wisdom. After previous Spider-Man animated series put a premium on the character's adventures as a superhero this latest iteration seems intent on answering the question of why Peter Parker continues to put on the mask when it clearly costs him so much.
That may sound heavy, but it's not. Make no mistake: this isn't a prestige drama masquerading as Saturday morning children's programming. The episodes are simple and straightforward, and the lessons Peter learns are always very clearly underlined. Despite how thoroughly the series services its target audience, though, there is still something for adult fans to enjoy as well, especially if they're introducing their children to Spider-Man for the first time. In the end, Marvel's Spider-Man puts a new spin on a winning formula that finds a great deal of fun in taking the wall crawler back to basics.
Marvel's Spider-Man premieres Saturday, August 19 @7am on Disney XD.