When you start to look into him, the High Evolutionary, the clumsily named villain of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, is kind of like a fungus: all sorts of places you’d never expect. A creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, High Evolutionary is about as old as the Marvel Universe, and a surprising number of creators have told stories with the notoriously convoluted hero. This includes animation, as one of High Evolutionary’s most prominent pre-Guardians appearances was in a nearly forgotten, entirely bonkers Spider-Man cartoon.
This was a show that turned the supervillain Electro into a walking eel, reinvented the Green Goblin as a hero with an accent I would describe as “Mexican Dracula” (read: I can’t make up my mind as to whether it’s ridiculous or offensive or both), and ends with a cliffhanger so abrupt you’ll think the power went out. This was Spider-Man Unlimited.
Spider-Man Unlimited was meant to be the follow-up to the beloved 1994-1998 animated series, a pillar of the animated superhero boom heralded by Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men. A big part of these shows’ success was in their ability to tell complex all-ages stories that stayed true to the spirit of their source material in spite of aggressive censorship and a difficult production environment. Spider-Man Unlimited was… different.
A loose sequel to its predecessor, the series started with Spider-Man leaving Earth in pursuit of Venom and Carnage, only to be stranded with them on Counter-Earth, a bizarro-world where the High Evolutionary’s genetic experiments led to a race of human-animal hybrids called Bestials who serve him. Human beings largely live in the slums or join the resistance against the High Evolutionary — including Spidey, in a high-tech suit designed for maximum toy potential. Across 13 episodes, Y2K Spider-Man balanced his roles as a resistance fighter, regular superhero, and citizen of Counter-Earth, fighting Bestial versions of his villains and entirely new characters and tracking down Venom and Carnage.
I’m not going to lie to you and say Spider-Man Unlimited was a hidden gem. Narratively, it was dreck, with flat characters, nonsense villains, and paper-thin plots. It was, however, weird. The show didn’t necessarily look great in action — scenes were at times inventively staged but jarringly edited — but its art direction? That was some good shit. The Counter-Earth of Spider-Man Unlimited was rendered in inky blacks and grimy colors, as the New York it’s set in was given a cyberpunk makeover. The Bestials were a weird throwback for 1999, hearkening back to the “animals with ’tude’” trend of slightly older shows like Biker Mice From Mars or SWAT Kats that in turn were chasing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ clout.
Whether Unlimited looked “better” than its predecessor is a matter of preference — both were projects primarily commissioned by executives who wanted them made quickly and cheap — and some of its design decisions were outright baffling. Venom and Carnage, for example, are barely recognizable, a pair of hideously goofy troll figures made of goo. It is hard to take them, or the show they’re in, very seriously.
In every other aspect, there’s a lack of ambition in Unlimited that stands in stark contrast to Spider-Man, with its bombastic score, ambitious serialized storytelling, and snappy retelling of the character’s greatest hits. Watching it over 20 years later, Spider-Man Unlimited remains an incoherent grab bag of vaguely Spidey-themed iconography and ’90s sci-fi cartoons.
In a since-deleted blog that can still be read via the Internet Archive, Spider-Man Unlimited producer Will Meugniot briefly details the constantly shifting circumstances that led to the show’s creation. The first was money: According to Meugniot, Fox (which aired the show) and Marvel had to keep producing new Spider-Man shows to keep the previous show on the air, and continuing the hit ’90s series was too expensive for executives to consider.
This meant that the first version of Unlimited was a straight adaptation of the first 26 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, a faithful retelling (something that, as beloved as it was, Spider-Man was not) done “cheaply” to keep the Spidey brand in house. Then, Meugniot writes, the deal to make what would become Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was struck with Sony, barring Fox and Marvel from making a show about the primary version of Spider-Man or his cast of characters. That left Meugniot with a random assortment of out-there Marvel characters that he was allowed to use, and the eventual result was Spider-Man Unlimited.
Ultimately, it was all for naught: Like much turn-of-the-century kids’ entertainment, Spider-Man Unlimited was canceled before it could complete its first season on account of not being as wild a success as Pokémon. The curious can watch all 13 completed episodes on Disney Plus, which is almost certainly more than anyone saw in 1999. Again, that is not a recommendation. Everyone did their best, but sometimes the villain has the right idea — and if the High Evolutionary is known for anything, it’s for scrapping everything and starting again.