Neil Patrick Harris, Lisa Loeb, Ian Ziering
Columbia/Tristar & Adelaide Productions

I thought I'd seen it all.

Twenty-five years of Spider-Man comics, toys, films, sweets, posters, games and cartoons, and I thought I'd seen it all.

Then along comes MTV, of all things, to prove that there's life in the old dog yet.

Picking up shortly after the recent film left off, Spider-Man: The New Animated Series (hereafter referred to as Spider-Man) hearkens back to classic Spidey comics of the last forty years. We join Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson and Harry Osborn as freshmen in college, and watch them deal with life, love, and (with some regularity) supervillains.

Produced by Mainframe - the people behind groundbreaking CGI series Reboot - Spider-Man is a more mature version of the Web-Slinger's exploits than most. The characters drink (except Spidey - spiders react�oddly to drugs), get laid, and - shock horror! - use the occasional (mild) naughty word. In a departure from most American animated series, Spider-Man takes a straight soap opera approach to storytelling.

This is, of course, right at the heart of the character: Spider-Man has always been the story of the man behind the mask, warts and all. The Spider-Man Method has been applied to other comic characters to great effect: Smallville, for example.

The characters are well drawn, in a number of respects: while only Spider-Man looks like he does in other media, the rest of the cast - including New York City - are depicted in unique, novel ways. The show is computer-generated, as is much of Mainframe's output, and everything is constructed in three dimensions. However, the characters are put through a complicated process that makes them look like two-dimensional line drawings, with outlines. This takes the show a step away from absolute realism, and it gives Spider-Man a fresh, new look.

The characters are an amalgam of their various interpretations: eagle-eyed arachnophiles will see where Mark Bagley, Todd McFarlane, and Romita & Son have been drawn upon to produce Peter Parker's nervous shyness, or Spider-Man's webs and unique locomotive style. Aside from a little MTV-mandated beautification, the central trio look like they've stepped straight out of the comics (although Mary Jane is a bit more doe-eyed than I've seen her, and looks unnervingly like a girl I used to work with). The characters pop, bubble and simmer with emotion, and a little creative license ensures that Spidey is no different.

The influence of Brian Michael Bendis is all over the show: his comic series Ultimate Spider-Man reinvigorated the character before the film came out, and you can see where the show's creators (including Bendis himself) have drawn upon these books for inspiration. The youth and the sheer honest emotion of the programme is all Bendis.

The emotional depth of the show is remarkable: Peter Parker tries to keep Mary Jane Watson at arm's length, knowing what his secret life might cost them, and yet he can't stay away from her, in either identity. Harry Osborn hates Spider-Man for (as he sees it) killing his father (the Green Goblin), and yet he can't completely ignore the evidence that Spider-Man is, basically, a good person. And Mary Jane Watson�all she wants to do is love Peter Parker. But she's not prepared to hanging around waiting for him like a lovesick puppy. Not all the time, at any rate.

The action is just amazing (ha ha): imagine bringing together all the best acrobatics and fight choreography from not only the original film, but also a great many others, and stitching it into a twenty-minute urban ballet. Spidey moves like you always thought he would, throwing himself across and around the city, plummeting, soaring, and flinging himself about the place like gravity was just�something that happened to other people. He fights hard - punching and kicking and flipping and chucking, with a power and violence absent from most action cartoons. And often, his foes fight harder. Swords, bombs, and guns - with bullets, not rays! - the naughtyspawn throw everything at Ol'Web-Head. And a lot of it hits! In a welcome departure from most Saturday morning shows, Spider-Man bleeds. A lot. And sometimes, people die�

The baddies include a couple of old favourites from the comics - Kraven the Hunter, Electro, a riff on superthief Black Cat, and so on - but also serves up a number of new villains, most of whom are women. And while many of the reasons for this are practical - they needed to keep production costs down, the classic villains were unavailable, or they had specific actresses in mind for the show - the producers of Spider-Man have managed to create at least a couple of new villains that would be worth transferring to the comicbooks, someday. I have to admit, with a heavy heart, that when I originally read about the new villains, I thought they sounded asinine, with daft names and even dafter looks. I'm happy to report that I was pretty much wrong about all of them.

The acting is superb: Peter Parker is voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, who many readers will remember as Doogie Howser, M.D.. Harris has the same sort of slightly nervous boyish charm that Tobey Maguire had in the movie, and does a grand job as Peter's wisecracking alter ego. When the script calls for it, Harris gets to show some serious steel, and he fairly revels in it. Lisa Loeb, unrecognizable as Mary Jane, is a good turn, and utterly seamless with her onscreen counterpart. The guest cast - the baddies - represent some canny choices. Michael Clarke Duncan reprises his recent live-action role as The Kingpin, who fought Spidey long before he met Daredevil. Gina Gershon, Michael Dorn, Harold Perrineau, James Marsters and Stan Lee (!) all provide strong, understated performances.

Spider-Man: The New Animated Series is a surprisingly strong effort from start to finish. An emotionally complex soap opera structure supports the sort of frantic action that will keep even the most jaded viewer rooted to his seat.

Sadly, it looks like this first DVD will be the only DVD, as MTV have not ordered a second series. This is a shame, as they were really on to something, here. Even working under heavy budget constraints, the makers of Spider-Man brought together all the best aspects of the character - the soap opera, the humour, the idiosyncratic action - with a dark edge that mocked the juvenile, toothless incarnations of previous outings. Given another series, and wider exposure (riding the coat tails of, say, the upcoming blockbuster movie!), the team at Mainframe could have moved mountains. But like so many good things, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

Which, if nothing else, is typical Peter Parker luck�

(NOTE: The 2-disc DVD set contains over four hours of animated goodness. Coupled with the exhaustive behind-the-scenes and bonus material, this represents spectacular value for money.)


Review text (C) Matthew Craig

Originally published in the pop culture magazine Robot Fist