Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Ultimate Spider-Man Cartoon Rant: The Tyranny of the Dreamworks Eyebrow
-- Since I'm reviewing something that is clearly not aimed at my demographic (as Disney XD is meant for tweens and teens, not mid-twenties English MAs who perseverate over pop culture's unfortunate implications), I'm going to do this review in a more fluid structure, posted more around observations and emotional impressions rather than actual critical judgments. Even if I did think Ultimate Spider-Man was outright terrible, its existence doesn't negatively impact my life any more than I choose to let it. And I'm not one of those "you raped my childhood" fandom pundits, mainly because I think it's profoundly inappropriate to use rape as a description of anything but actual rape.
-- That said, it really gets under my skin that the Greg Weissman Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon was cancelled after only two seasons, while this takes its place. That was one of the best superhero animated adaptations ever! Why couldn't Disney XD have just kept that around, rather than making their own new cartoon with a far more dubious (and less movie-accurate, I might add) premise and execution?!
-- The first distinguishing feature of the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon is the way that Peter Parker now talks to the audience and goes into dream sequence asides, a la Peter Griffin or Dr. John Dorian. This is obnoxious enough as is, since any dramatic value is rendered moot by making Peter's internal monologue a stand-up routine for an imaginary audience. This is worse in the scenes where Peter is not wearing his Spider-Man mask, because he uses the insufferable mannerisms and expressions of Dreamworks' "CGI characters with attitude". Raising an eyebrow and smirking does not validate your opinion.
What I hope to see is a Scrubs-style treatment of this where, while Peter is going off into one of his dream sequences, we see him standing completely still and oblivious in reality, with everyone looking at him in awkward dismay. Preferably followed by a bullet through his spider-brains, as he's too busy fantasizing about humiliating Flash or Nova or whoever to even recognize his spider-sense.
-- The second distinguishing feature of the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon is the enrollment of Peter into Nick Fury's little superhero academy, which also intersects with Peter's day-to-day life because all of the metahuman cadets are enrolled at Midtown High (complete with movie immigrant Agent Coulson as the new principal!). There are two things about this which bother me; one, the fact that it's contrived on a level unforeseen since the Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends cartoon. And two, the extremely uncomfortable taste this leaves for readers of the Ultimate Spider-Man comic. Remember how beneficial THAT Nick Fury was to THAT Peter? How cleaning up the messes of Fury's black ops stuff got that Peter killed? Then again, this Peter is one whose death I would enjoy.
--Speaking of that hostility towards this Peter Parker, the character shows many of the same characteristics as Ben 10 and Generator Rex, two other protagonists of shows led by the Man of Action studio. Both characters are young male heroes who possess all the characteristics stereotypically required of a young male Saturday morning cartoon hero. They're rebellious, but they obey the system just enough to maintain a coexistence with the real world. They have problems, but they're almost always grounded towards the "relatable" (social life, girls, overbearing authority figures) and rarely dip into more challenging existential issues. They're book-dumb nimrods who don't particularly care about academic pursuits and don't learn from their mistakes any more than they have to in order to survive. And they exude attitude at every opportunity, taking attention away from the other, more interesting characters on their respective shows.
It's a safe, marketable rebel, the kind who doesn't rebel enough to make any actual sacrifices, the everyman character who doesn't have any traits unique enough to make him a true individual. It works pretty well for Ben and Rex, since they're original characters. For Spider-Man, having him as a hyper-aggressive show-off just doesn't work. That's the kind of self-absorbed attitude that made him let the burglar go, leading to his Uncle Ben's death. Contrary to popular belief of creators, the best Spider-Man stories aren't the ones that deal with him as a teenager/young adult with teenager/young adult angst; they're the kind that have him acting as a reasonable adult, or as close to one as he can get (which puts him head and shoulders above most reasonable adults). He's not called Spider-Boy, he's called Spider-Man. He's the kind of character who always carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, and agonizes over every decision he makes. The joking attitude is part of him, the front he uses to cope with tragedy and take the wind out of his enemies' sails. It isn't all of him.
-- I should clarify my own biases here; I LOATHE the teenage superhero sub-genre. I say this as someone who has read a lot of the teenage superhero sub-genre and even writes and draws his own teenage superhero webcomic. But then, Ruby Nation is meant to deconstruct these "Wake Up, Go To School, Save The World" tropes. I don't like the idea of the kid hero who treats saving the world like a game. I don't like the idea of their mistakes being just chalked up to growing pains, when countless lives are at stake. And I don't like the idea of a character becoming a superhero out of the desire to play hero, and treating that as easy while stuff like school and girls are hard. The job, as I see it, carries a tremendous psychological weight. If you're emotionally healthy, you aren't likely to put on a costume and risk your life as a vigilante. And the consequences of regular social life are nothing compared to these life-and-death situations. Maybe it's because I never fit into the regular social order of high school (even as part of a geeky sub-clique), but every time they start whining about how they can save the world but can't get to class on time or what not, I roll my eyes in aggravation.
I'm not saying they're bad or shouldn't exist, and I'm definitely not advocating the Civil War treatment of those characters (where they were treated as incompetent glory-hounds who got hundreds killed, despite the New Warriors all having been established as competent and altruistic enough to avoid that shit). But it seems to me like the problems associated with a teenager are nothing compared to the problems associated with being a superhero, not the other way around. Personal preference, personal baggage.
-- The show does have its merits. The animation is very good, and the voice acting is pretty solid. The other young superheroes are engaging characters, and in many ways overshadow Peter himself (especially Kid Iron Fist, played by Greg Cipes doing a great surfer dude/zen dude impression). Norman Osborn is used well, and the use of Doctor Octopus as a behind-the-scenes manipulator works excellently. He's extremely creepy, lurking in the shadows with his tentacles.
On the other hand, Spectacular Spider-Man did a lot of this far better, and that was evident from the very first few episodes. That show's Peter was driven by his desire to do good first, even if he made mistakes along the way. Their Harry was a more complex and tragic figure, rather than the wacky rich best friend he seems cast as in all incarnations. Their Gwen was a far better best friend to Peter than this Mary Jane, who's basically a junior Lois Lane (complete with stupidly getting herself in danger in order to get a story-- though I guess that makes her perfect for this Peter). The animation style was more unique, and the story blended drama and comedy much better. And this was in the first few episodes.
-- Overall, I don't like the show, but it's compelling in a train wreck sort of way. Maybe it'll grow on me the way the Glen Murakami Teen Titans show did. Or maybe it'll develop a good larger story, and shy away from the wacky asides. In any event, it's not for me. I also like the fact that the comic creators in Man of Action get a lot of money for these formulaic tween/teen action shows, so they have the financial support to do awesome comics like Joe Kelly's I Kill Giants and Joe Casey's Butcher Baker Righteous Maker.