Season One, Episode One & Two - “Horizon High Pts. 1 & 2”
Starring Robbie Daymond, Fred Tatasciore, Alastair Duncan, Scott Menville, Melanie Minichito, Nadji Jeter, Nancy Linari
Produced by Disney XD
’Rama Rating: 4 out of 10
If there’s one major flaw in the new Disney XD series Marvel’s Spider-Man, it’s that the show fails to capture the essence - or even the likeability - of its main character. Despite a solid foundation and a strongly developing visual identity, Marvel’s Spider-Man forgets that no matter what else it gets right or wrong, it has to nail Peter Parker, and in focusing on cramming in dozens of cameos, threads, and Easter eggs into the two-part premiere, the main thing that’s missing is the charm that comes from Spider-Man himself and his put-upon, relatable personality. Yes, it delivers many of the big Spider-Man clichés - Uncle Ben, webshooters, Harry Osborn, Spider-Sense - but these oft-repeated standbys are mashed-up into a world that feels rudderless without a charismatic lead or enough of a new hook to keep viewers engaged.
Set in a world where Peter Parker’s journey to becoming Spider-Man happens alongside his admission into Horizon High, a new science-focused high school, Marvel’s Spider-Man jumps past the origin we’ve seen before just enough to potentially offer some new ground. Fans of Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man “Big Time” era will be right at home, as Horizon High offers a simple twist on Peter’s former employer Horizon Labs, complete with Principal Max Modell - and there are some clues, like Otto Octavius and the Living Brain, that could be hinting at a “Superior” future for Peter. And given that it’s almost a lock that Peter’s three classmates - Gwen Stacy, Anya Corazon, and Miles Morales - will all soon become heroes of their own, we may be in for something of a “Spider-Verse” as well.
But putting Peter in a more specialized high school - one so chock full of Spidey characters and Easter eggs that you can barely keep up – isn’t enough to separate this series from the previous iteration Ultimate Spider-Man which was also focused on a high school setting, especially when the focus of Spidey’s adventures becomes the general, vague concept of “science.” While Peter Parker’s story has always been a sci-fi tale at its core, the “science” theme in Marvel’s Spider-Man isn’t really a tool for teaching or driving adventure so much as an oppressive pall that bogs down the show’s pacing and turns Peter Parker into an insufferable know-it-all nerd.
For example, there’s a continuing theme through the show’s opening fight scene with the Vulture in which Peter is constantly checking and adjusting the PSI on his webshooters. It’s a terminally boring choice that, because there are few consequences and little actual application of the premise behind Peter’s actions, simply bogs down the already slow fight by constantly jumping back to Peter doing little more than checking his watch. The other side-effect is that he’s constantly correcting other characters or acting confused when they don’t use the right scientific terms. We get it, Peter’s a nerd - does he need to veer into Sheldon Cooper territory to prove it?
The pacing of the fights in general is also a drag on Marvel’s Spider-Man - characters often stop to monologue or make observations as time seemingly slows to a crawl to facilitate exposition, and Spider-Man rarely seems able to both talk and move at the same time. There’s a scene where Spider-Man and Vulture have an entire conversation in between Vulture shattering a window and the glass hitting the ground. Pure comic book pacing, to be sure, but when presented in a moving, breathing medium with an inherent sense of time, it becomes almost surreal.
The stilted, Flash-style animation doesn’t help either. Spider-Man’s fight scenes at least get by on Peter’s acrobatic poses, but any scene where normal human characters have to move in an environment or simply exist in a wide shot makes the seams all too clear. And weirdly, the sound design is similarly oppressive - an important conversation between Peter and Harry is nearly drowned out by bizarre, generic music, for example.
If there’s one area where Marvel’s Spider-Man truly excels, and which gives me hope for the future of the series, it’s the character design. Taking a page straight from Hayao Miyazaki, there’s an expressive, anime-influenced take on the characters that is unlike anything we’ve previously seen in a western superhero cartoon, and which fits the characters perfectly. Peter, Harry Osborn, and Max Modell look exactly as you want them to look, and Scorpion, the second major villain of the show, looks better than he has in years, especially with his goon-ish, almost barbaric face and hulking size. Oddly, the strength of the designs does occasionally lead to moments where the characters look too good against the flat, unengaging environments they’re in.
The show’s voice cast is also hit or miss - Fred Tatasciore’s Max Modell and Melanie Minichino’s Anya Corazon are particular standouts, while Robbie Daymond who plays Peter is almost entirely charmless, monotonally blurting out science words and extended soliloquies about his role as Spider-Man. There are a few surprises in the cast, as well. Patton Oswalt as Uncle Ben feels just right, even if the character design is incongruous with Oswalt’s voice, and legendary voice actor Scott Menville offers a unique twist on Otto Octavius that is one of the show’s most interesting premises.
In a time when Spider-Man: Homecoming is raising questions about how to really deliver a new experience with Spider-Man, it seems strange that Marvel’s Spider-Man would focus so heavily on relationships and stories that not only have nothing to do with Homecoming, Marvel’s big Spider-Man reboot, but which we’ve seen play out time and time again in various media. In fact, the relationships, story threads, and depictions of the characters seem far closer to what we saw in the Amazing Spider-Man film franchise than any current version of Spider-Man.
Marvel’s Spider-Man does pick up a bit in the second half of the two-part premiere, focusing more on Horizon Labs and moving away from some of the worst moments of Peter acting insufferable. There’s even an attempt to inject some humor in the show, but it’s tempered by glacial plotting and po-faced monologues about the nature of heroism. The brilliant character designs and “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to continuity in Marvel’s Spider-Man certainly set up some building blocks for a show that could be really special. Instead what we get is a show that attempts to straddle the line of the various portrayals of Spidey in other media, and winds up feeling true to none of them.
Marvel's Spider-Man premieres August 19 on Disney XD.