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Spider-Man in the viewfinder of a camcorder in a still from Spider-Man: The New Animated Series Photo: Marvel

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Looking back at MTV’s wild attempt to give Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man a multiverse

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a long way from Marvel’s 2002 animated series

In 2021, a kind of shared universe for cinematic properties is not only common but expected — look no further than the latest example, Spider-Man: No Way Home, the final installment of Marvel/Disney/Sony’s initial Spider-Man trilogy but also a veritable nostalgia factory. Incarnations of characters from Spider-Man’s past, formerly lost behind walls of reboots and bought-and-sold rights issues return to menace Peter Parker and make all of the money in the world at the box office. Ceaseless hits of serotonin based around the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is so powerful that it can revive the dead, fictional or franchisable.

Almost 20 years ago, though, the idea of a fantasy series crossing multiple mediums instead of taking place in a set pattern of movie sequels was unheard of, which makes MTV’s Spider-Man: The New Animated Series at least a little innovative. It wouldn’t exist for very long, with its abrupt cancellation pushing it to the back corner of the pantheon of Spider-Man productions. But its existence provides a glimpse into a superhero expansion, no matter how prehistoric it feels in comparison to today’s offerings.

In the early aughts, the fact that we not only got a competent Spider-Man film but a really good one seemed like a miracle. The Batman films had seemingly exhausted their options; Blade had been received as unceasingly cool but not a game-changer; and 2000’s X-Men was a success, but often felt more like characters filtered through the aesthetics of The Matrix than a true love letter to the comics.

After decades of aborted attempts at Spider-Man, Sam Raimi stepped up to bat and scored a home run: the first film to score over $100 million in its opening weekend and critics who seemed stunned that they enjoyed a comic book movie this much. With such unforeseen and monumental success, Spider-Man would not only earn a sequel but a “New Animated” TV spinoff, long before Disney+ unleashed a barrage of shows built around the hope that you’d like to see your big screen superheroes on a smaller one.

Unfortunately, to fast-track the spin-off meant gobbling up a plan already in motion. The New Animated Series was originally conceived as an adaptation of the immensely popular Ultimate Spider-Man, a comic book that had began its publication just two years before Raimi’s films and was by far the most consistent of the Ultimate Marvel imprint. Devised to reboot the Marvel heroes, rebuilding the characters from the intricate web of lore and removing them from the encyclopedia of deaths, rebirths, and event series that they’d amassed since the ’60s, the Ultimate line-up was a good starting point for new fans. It was ripe for a TV show, but the popularity of Spider-Man initiated a kind of “course correct.” Now the show would serve as a sequel and spinoff of the movie for the ravenous fans who couldn’t wait until 2004 for Spider-Man 2.

A still of Spider-Man facing down a villain in Spider-Man: The New Animated Series Photo: Marvel

But the effects of being a series developed as one thing and changed into another are evident from the start. Peter Parker’s design is obviously modeled after his Ultimate Spider-Man counterpart, with his character trapped between the dorky everyman vibes of Tobey Maguire and the wisecracking teen of the comics. Meanwhile Mary Jane Watson, the other half of Raimi’s balance between superhero epic and romance story, looks kinda like a Kirsten Dunst caricature drawing that you’d get done at Myrtle Beach.

It’s in the supporting cast where any attempts at being a straightforward spinoff continue to unravel, disconnecting it from the films that it’s meant to be banking on. Keith Carradine plays J. Jonah Jameson, his dialogue clearly based on J.K. Simmons’ immortal performance from the film, but running on tame autopilot from Carradine. An array of Spider-Man’s prominent villains also show up over the course of the short 13-episode run, ranging from The Lizard to Kraven the Hunter to Electro to Silver Sable to others. In a 20-minute cartoon, it’s a lot to throw at a Spider-Man who spends the first two films angsting over complex personal relationships with his antagonists.

The voice cast is a wild time capsule in its own right: Neil Patrick Harris plays Spider-Man, a role that he would return to in the Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions game. Curt Connors, the scientist whose hubris and ambition leads to him becoming The Lizard, is voiced by Rob Zombie. Virginia Madsen voices Silver Sable. Ethan Embry, currently starring in Grace & Frankie, perhaps finds the best role of the show in the tortured Electro.

The quality of their appearances vary, but a few are absolutely befuddling in the context of the franchise’s overall continuity. For example, Connors, who would be played by Dylan Baker in a “Will They/Won’t They Turn Into A Supervillain” cameo in Spider-Man 2 and 3, is abruptly killed off at the end of his episode. Regardless of it being due to poor planning or poor communication between the creators of the film and the TV series, that certainly muddles things, especially if you’re engaging with New Animated Series as a Raimi Spider-Man stopgap.

Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man Image: Sony Pictures
Peter, Harry, and MJ in a still from the Spider-Man: The New Animated Series
Peter, Harry, and MJ in a still from the show.
Photo: Marvel

Then there’s the ending. Consumed by guilt with Kraven the Hunter and The Gaines Twins (voiced by Jeremy Piven and, I’m not kidding, Kathy Griffin), Spider-Man throws his costume into the harbor and gives it all up. Due to their psychological warfare, Peter is manipulated into thinking that they’ve killed both Mary Jane and then another love interest, causing him to lose faith in the efficacy of his heroism.

Obviously, by the time Spider-Man 2 rolls around, Spidey is back in action and the classic plot of Peter Parker giving up his superhero persona due to his constant struggles would form the backbone of that film, too. But there would never be a season 2, so the audience who managed to catch both was left wondering how Peter got out of this particular rut, not to mention the utter lack of indication that he’s fought the near-dozen villains that he encounters in the show. The show can’t help but feel like Spider-Man 2 lite, considering that New Animated Series never quite manages to build a strong level of empathy toward its characters, trapped as they spin their wheels between movies.

While The New Animated Adventure’s is foremost a spinoff, one addition to its cast renders it as an interesting prototype for Marvel’s shared universe: The Kingpin, voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan who also portrayed the crime boss in the 2003 Daredevil film. Along with Duncan taking the role, the character’s race (Black, unlike the traditionally white Kingpin of the comics) also brings up questions of whether this, too, is connected to the films.

In the early aughts, with the cinematic and TV rights to characters still scattered to the winds after Marvel’s bankruptcy, it’s uncertain whether Kingpin’s inclusion is due to an agreement among various entertainment branches or a simple dodge past any legal issues. However, considering that Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine nearly made a cameo in the first film, and Dr. Strange’s mention in the second, the Raimi trilogy is turned into a potential shared universe that just happened to only focus on the Spider-ey bits. Still, it’s a far way away from Kingpin’s latest cameo in Marvel TV, and the interconnectedness of the modern MCU with access to virtually every Marvel superhero.

Spider-Man fighting the Lizard in a still from Spider-Man: The New Animated Series Photo: Marvel

Today, The New Animated Series remains a curiosity with a few shining moments. Embry’s turn as Electro is the closest the series gets to the pathos of the Raimi films, with the character framed as a bullied outsider who becomes a victim of his own anger. The animation, a cel-shaded 3D, is undeniably dated, but it also creates a series that looks entirely unlike any other animated outing for Spider-Man. As a huge fan of Raimi’s films, it’s just nice to sit in that world for a little while, even if it’s not quite clear whether it’s actually trying to be that world at times.

In the age of spinoff series with distinct and specific long-term planning in mind, Spider-Man: The New Animated Series is clumsy by comparison. It can also never escape the fact that, despite its diversions, it’s meant to coincide with the movies, meaning that in the grand scheme of Spider-Man cartoons, it’s an outlier. The cartoon to follow it, 2008’s The Spectacular Spider-Man, is one of the best superhero series of all time and is a fresh take on Spider-Man’s early years despite that story being retold copious times. The Spider-Man series before it, the beloved 1994 Fox Kids cartoon, remains a nostalgic favorite (and introduced the concept of a “Spider Verse” to the screen). Even 1999’s futuristic Spider-Man Unlimited often feels more cherished, thanks to its madcap “Counter-Earth” location, another addition to this pre-Into The Spiderverse Spiderverse.

But it’s a show worth watching, especially as an example of the nascent state of blockbuster franchising that would eventually become the norm across not just the Marvel Universe, but film itself. The formerly “unfilmable” Lord of the Rings is getting a prequel series on Amazon Prime. Both Fast and the Furious and Jurassic World got cartoon spinoffs. DC and Warner Bros. are leaping on the concept of the Multiverse for all its worth with, as of 2022, three versions of a live-action Batman. And before all of that, we got a Spider-Man cartoon on MTV; a TV series meant to be an adaptation of a comic series that was altered to expand the world of a film series that was also partly based on that same comic series.