This review courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Judge David Johnson.
MTV + Spider-man = ?
Spider-Man made more money than God when it was released in the summer of 2002. Thus, riding the web of fortune, MTV hosted Spider-Man: The New Animated Series, an attempt to capitalize on the wallcrawler's immense popularity. Columbia has released discs containing episodes from the inaugural season. So does, the new incarnation stack up against its trans-genre counterparts (including the classic, late '60s adaptation)?
Facts of the Case
The animated series continues in the same narrative flow as the movie that prompted its creation. Peter Parker (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, Doogie Howser), Mary Jane (singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb), and Harry Osborn (Ian Ziering, Beverly Hills 90210) are in college now, sporting cool, modern haircuts, Nokia cell phones, and lattes. Mary Jane is nursing a crush on Pete, Harry harbors his hatred for Spider-man—the scum he thinks killed his dad—and Peter Parker…well, he's got issues as well.
You see, Peter Parker happens to be Spider-man. Balancing the tasks that face a superhero and college student pursued by a knockout redhead (is that weird for me to say, describing a cartoon?) is tough, and this is the thread that runs through the episodes.
Diverging slightly from the tack the movie(s) have taken with the webslinger, these animated tales don't focus as much on Pete sacrificing his "normalcy" for fear of what supervillains with crazy powers might do to his loved ones.
Included on the disc are three episodes…and here they are:
Spider-man faces danger in the form of the three former KGB-agents zipping around on prototype jetpacks and firing some crazy-ass plasma guns. The trio, led by the James Marsters (Spike from TV's former Angel—the village children sigh in sadness) voiced ringleader seeks to make off with a cutting-edge slice of technology. But when Spider-man foils the group's initial attack, things get personal.
The three reappear, take hostages, and demand Spider-man show up for a solid helping of comeuppance. But are these demands just a bait and switch? And do they really think their killer ray guns stand a chance against a wad of spider ejaculate?
"Law of the Jungle"
The Lizard, formerly Doc Connors, makes his debut. The Doc, one of Peter's college professors, struggles with the fact he has only one arm. This general unhappiness about his handicap leads the Doc to some radical experimentation with reptilian DNA. With the help of Peter, as lab assistant, Doc Connors discovers that using these lizard genes can facilitate regeneration of appendages.
So, two guesses on what's the choice of action for the good Doc. Does he --
A) Inject the serum that will bring back the arm he has so lusted for, thus rendering him—in his eyes—a complete man once again?
B) Acknowledge the dangers of sticking a syringe jacked up with experimental gene-altering goop that may or may not turn you into a lizard, and decide against it?
Well, if you chose A, then, you're obviously familiar with the idea of sarcasm. Yes, Doc loads up on his magic juice and yes, he turns into the ferocious Lizard, and yes, he and Spider-man tussle.
"Sword of Shikita"
The lethal huntress Shikita (last name not "banana") storms into town, hired by some goons hoping to capture Spider-man as the ultimate big game prize. Driven by honor, Shikita is impressed with Spidey's resolve, and eventually decides the superhero is too honorable to be caged.
No, what is mandated here is a fight to the death, something Spider-man is unwilling to do. The face-off is complicated when the aforementioned goons meddle with guns.
Spider-man is one omnipresent icon. These days he's crawling all over my cereal boxes and soup cans and fruit snacks and soft drinks and potato chips and antibacterial ointment and motor oil and underwear and cheap wristwatches from Burger King and sewing machines and concussion grenades and soap and contact lenses.
And here, reborn in animated format.
First off, what I liked. The animation for this series is really cool. I'm sometimes split on the quality of computer generated stuff for TV, but Spider-man: The New Animated Series delivers some really solid visuals.
The animation particularly shines when the action scenes kick into gear. Each episode brings at least one or two little action scenes, and the sharpness of detail makes the goings-on gleam.
It's not necessarily groundbreaking stuff, and still falls into typical cartoon series formula (the characters wear the same clothes all the time, lack of background intricacies), but I was still impressed with it as a whole.
In fact, this computer-generated approach really seems tailor-made for the demands of a Spider-man cartoon, what with all the swinging and jumping and skydiving that Spidey partakes in.
The style is certainly here. It's the substance that's lacking.
It's hard to really put my finger on it, but these episodes struck me as kind of…bland. That's the best way to put it I suppose. There wasn't a ton of edge—and no, the last thing I want is for MTV to "MTV-ize" this by having Spidey get wasted every night with his friends or participate in stupid challenges or sift through the bedroom of a couple of girls to decide which one he wants to date.
I think it was the theme of Peter's striving for normalcy that didn't really hit me. Whereas I was struck by the movie's representation of the struggle with being powerful and choosing good, this incarnation of webslinger and his travails didn't really send anything home for me.
To make matters worse, I found Neil Patrick Harris's voice-work as Spidey distracting. When Spider-man cracked his jokes in the heat of battle, he sounded more clunky than spunky.
Of the three episodes, I enjoyed "Tight Squeeze" the most. As a Die Hard genre-junkie, I'm always up for the one-man-versus-the-hostage-takers storyline. Aided by some phenomenal scenes of aero-acrobatics, when Spidey and the head honcho duke it out in the Manhattan skyline, this episode rises above the others.
"Law of the Jungle" was most notable for Doc Connors' intro as the Lizard. The buildup to his transformation was a tad laborious, but the payoff was cool enough. The animated Lizard was lithe and fast, and the inevitable throwdown that takes place between he and Spider-man will be enough to please the kiddies. The jailhouse sequence in particular stands out, with its innovative use of lighting.
"Sword of Shikita" proved to be the least enjoyable, of the three. There certainly was lots of action, but it was one-on-one fisticuffs action, not look-at-the-dope-Spider-man-swinging-all-around action. Animated, the tangle between Spider-man and Shikita just looked awkward.
All of the episodes are presented in a nice widescreen transfer, and the visuals are striking. Very nice. A 5.1 mix accompanies the shows, but I found it generally useless. It might as well have been stereo, the sound was so front-loaded. A shame too, as there was plenty of action happening to put the surrounds to work. The techno score was nifty enough, but seemed muted throughout. Not as much of an impact as I would have wanted.
As for extras, Spider-man: The New Animated Series shoots blanks.
A crisp, visually appealing television translation of America's current favorite superhero, but lacking the magic that catapulted the webslinger into the spotlight.
Looks great, but less filling. Spider-man is ordered to clean up all of the web residue he leaves on buildings.
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