Saturday Morning Flashback: SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED

In January of 1999, the WB Kids Network launched Batman Beyond, a sequel series to the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series. Set roughly 40 to 50 years in the future, Batman Beyond is the story of Terry McGinnis (Boy Meets World cast member Will Friedle), a Gotham teenager from the wrong side of the tracks whose father is murdered by the hired goons of Derek Powers (Sherman Howard), the current CEO of Wayne-Powers Industries. Events throw Terry into the path of Gotham’s most famous – and angry – recluse, the elderly Bruce Wayne (the legendary Kevin Conroy), and Terry stumbles upon Wayne’s biggest secret: that he was once the famed Batman, protector of Gotham. Swiping Wayne’s gear, Terry sets out to avenge his father as the new Batman, with Wayne reluctantly acting as a mentor to Gotham’s new hero.

Batman Beyond was a hit right from the start, taking a concept that could easily have turned into a gimmicky kid’s show and turning it into a legitimate part of the DC Animated Universe, building on the themes and continuity of the previous series without being overly reliant upon them. In the end, Bruce Timm and company ended up creating a vision of the future of Batman which rivals – if not surpasses – Frank Miller’s famed The Dark Knight Returns, enough so that over the past few years DC Comics has made efforts to not only bring a possible version of the Batman Beyond story into the main DC Universe, but also to publish comics which continue the narrative of the show itself.
This article is not about Batman Beyond, however. Rather, it is about the rival show which debuted in September of 1999 on the Fox Kids Network: Spider-Man Unlimited. Like Batman Beyond, Spider-Man Unlimited is a sequel to the hit 1994 Spider-Man animated series, moving the title character into a more overtly science fiction setting. Unlike Batman Beyond, however, Spider-Man Unlimited is a spectacular failure on every conceivable level, starting with its bizarre and ill-conceived premise. In Spider-Man Unlimited, Peter Parker (Rino Romano, who would go onto to play Batman in The Batman) leaves Earth to go to “Counter Earth” in order to rescue astronaut John Jameson (John Payne), for whom Peter feels responsible due to his failure to stop Venom and Carnage from sabotaging his ship. These feelings of responsibility are not helped by the fact that everyone believes Spider-Man is responsible for the sabotage.
The rescue mission goes south quickly, stranding Peter on Counter-Earth, where the High Evolutionary (Richard Newman) has created the Beastials, human-animal hybrids who have taken over the planet. Humans have been reduced to second class citizens, living in squalor. Fighting back against the High Evolutionary and his minions is a small group of rebels which Jameson has fallen in with. With the only way back to Earth being the ship which the High Evolutionary possess, Peter joins in with the rebels as Spider-Man, armed in a new high-tech suit which uses nanotechnology and is modeled after the outfit worn in the comic Spider-Man 2099.
Now, if that premise sounds absolutely idiotic and inappropriate for a Spider-Man series…well, it is. What the premise alone does not make clear however is just how ineptly this entire endeavour is executed, misunderstanding the appeal and themes of the Spider-Man comics so much that it makes the “Clone Saga” seem well thought out. So please join me as we take a look at the mess that is the first episode of Spider-Man Unlimited.
Worlds Apart: Part One
The stupid begins right off the bat as the episode opens with John Jameson explaining to the media how an unmanned probe was sent to the far side of the sun and discovered an exact duplicate of Earth. Now, while I am no science expert, last time I checked, our solar system did not include another life sustaining planet like Earth, let alone an exact duplicate of Earth on the far side of the sun. Now, had the creators behind this series been using their brains, they could have simply invoked the parallel universe idea which appears all over science fiction to explain just exactly what Counter Earth is, but no, apparently a second version on Earth in our solar system was considered the better option. Not even Star Trek Voyager was this idiotic, and that’s the program where our lead protagonist strands her crew 75 years away from Earth for no good reason.

But the stupidity in Jameson’s exposition dump continues as he explains that the unmanned probe was destroyed by…something. We are not given a clear image of what it is, but Jameson has apparently decided that it is an “act of aggression by the people of Counter Earth.” Now, assuming that what destroyed the probe was indeed from the people of Counter Earth and not just a comet or something (which is a big assumption), let me ask the following question: are the people of Counter Earth not justified in shooting down your blasted probe? How do they know it is just a probe? For all they know, it is one of those laser firing satellites from Diamonds are Forever or Die Another Day. Even putting that aside, your probe is invading their territory. Frankly, they have every right to blow your probe into a million little pieces.

Anyways, Jameson somehow figures that this means that the destruction of probe deserves investigation, and is undertaking a one man mission to Counter Earth to do just that. It is at this point we discover that this event is being covered by Peter Parker and J. Jonah Jameson, the latter who is boasting about what a hero his son is and that he has what it takes to be a president. Based on John Jameson’s statements thus far, the “presidential qualities” John has appear to be of the same ones possessed by George W. Bush Jr. and Rick Perry, but I digress. Peter’s spider-sense goes off, and he quickly changes into Spider-Man, ready to face whatever threat is about to present itself.
Now, as I mentioned early on, Spider-Man Unlimited is supposed to be a direct sequel to the 1994-1998 Spider-Man series, much like Batman Beyond is a follow up to Batman: The Animated Series. What you may have noticed from the images and cast info I have provided, however, is that nothing in this series thus far connects it to the previous program:none of the cast of the previous series are part of this one, and the character designs for the program are radically different from the previous series, drawing upon the artwork of Steve Ditko for the show’s design this time out. The only, and I do mean ONLY, connection we get is that the theme music from the previous series is played ONCE as Peter first appears as Spider-Man.
So why the connection at all? Presumably, this attempt to make this show connected to the previous one stems from a desire to draw upon the emotional investment in the characters built up in the prior series. In theory, when Peter leaves Earth to go to Counter Earth, the situation carries more weight than it otherwise would because we know what he is leaving behind, and how much he has invested in it. However, in eliminating pretty much everything that could have connected the two programs, not only does the attempted connection ring hollow, but when the Joe Perry-penned theme song rears its head, it only serves to remind us that there was a much, much better Spider-Man cartoon which existed before this junk. Once you factor in how well Batman Beyond was using the continuity of Batman: The Animated Series to add depth to its program, this less than half-hearted effort on the part of the creators of Spider-Man Unlimited comes across as an insult.
Now, getting back to the show, Spider-Man notices two men running to the rocket, only for the pair to shape shift into Venom and Carnage, who apparently no longer need hosts to bond with. Cue the opening credits, which I have to give their due credit, as they are not half-bad:
Coming back from the credits, Jonah spots Spider-Man swinging onto the rocket ship as it launches, missing the presence of Venom and Carnage, whom Spider-Man tussles with for a bit before being thrown off of the ship. As the ship makes the jump to Counter Earth, John’s last message indicates he is having trouble while Spider-Man floats back to Earth on a web parachute in full sight of the crowd. In an example of a mob, they blame him for whatever trouble John was facing before being cut off.
A week later, things have not improved, with people freaked out by Spider-Man. This sequence includes one admittedly funny bit in which Spider-Man, after saving a cat, gets a shot of mace in his face by a nearby woman:
This is followed by him saving a group of firefighters from getting pummelled by a piece of falling debris, which lands on him instead. This leaves people to think he’s dead – because as we all know, when a body can‘t be found, that person is probably dead. At this point, Peter returns home, and we discover that he is living with Mary Jane, who tries to convince him that perhaps it is for the best that people believe that Spider-Man is dead. While we as an audience know that Peter is never going to make that choice, the writing and performances help to sell these all-too-brief moments that Peter is at least contemplating the idea, with Romano proving that he is a more than capable handling the drama and comedy with equal skill. Sadly, this bit with MJ will come back to bite this show a bit later, but we will get to that in a minute.
Just as Peter is about to give up being Spider-Man, a garbaled message appears on television from a not-dead John Jameson. Jameson talks about some sort of horrible situation on Counter-Earth, but it is cut off moments later. Peter decides he has an opportunity to do something to save John, and we cut to six months later, where Jonah has scored Peter a gig at the launch site for the mission to go looking for John Jameson.
It is at this point that the show gets a little…odd. Peter debuts his new suit made of nanotechnology which he claims to have “borrowed discreetly from Reed Richards.” Now, I don’t know about you, but that line sounds as if Peter has more or less stolen the suit. Such an act seems vastly out of character, at least as the character was in 1999 before he started making deals with the devil and attending weekly cult meetings. Would it have not just made more sense to say that Reed Richards lent him the suit? Was theft the only option? Maybe all those scenes of people hating on Spider-Man earlier in the show are not because he supposedly failed to save John Jameson, which gives the impression that people actually gave a damn about what NASA is up to rather than what is happening on Jersey Shore (did I actually just write that joke? Wow, I’ve sunk low), and are more angry about his possible kleptomania.
Spider-Man heads for the rocket, which it turns out Nick Fury is protecting. As Spider-Man explains to Fury, he needs to steal the rocket (I guess this is his new M.O.) because he’s the only one who can rescue John Jameson….for some reason. Now I get him feeling responsible for what has happened, but seriously, he’s the only one? First off, who knows what he will face on Counter Earth: he could need an army for all he knows. Secondly, there are several different groups of heroes better suited to getting John back from this Counter Earth, starting with the Fantastic Four (who wouldn’t need to steal from other people in order to prep for the mission), the Avengers (who have a rich alcoholic to provide whatever they need for a rescue mission), or even the freakin’ X-Men, who in the 1990s seemed to spend as much time dealing with alien threats as they did with other mutants.
Apparently this lame answer is enough to convince Fury to let Spider-Man steal the rocket (wouldn’t this decision get Fury kicked out of SHIELD?), and we are then provided with one of the absolute dumbest scenes in any television show. First, Spider-Man (who the world thinks is dead), announces that he is going to Counter Earth to rescue Jameson…then announces as Peter Parker that he is going along to get the story, in almost the exact same voice.
Now, let’s look at the various problems that exist with this scene. First off, with the world thinking Spider-Man is dead, he had the perfect cover to leave: no one had to know it was him stealing the rocket! Letting the world know you are stealing a rocket when they already think you are scum is not going to help your public image at all. Second of all, by explaining the absence of Parker, he has just given everyone the clues to put two and two together and figure out that Peter Parker is Spider-Man.  How long do you think it will be until the press shows up at Aunt May and MJ’s doorsteps to grill them about his secret double life?
Speaking of Mary Jane, it’s time to revisit that early scene in the episode where she tries to convince Peter to give up being a superhero and apparent part-time thief. Prior to that scene, we see her freaked out at the possibility that Peter might be dead and won’t be coming home. So the perfect partner that Peter is, he decides to ditch her to flee to another Earth where she likely won’t see him for a good long while, and thus cause further potential worry that he may or may not be dead each night. Smooth, Parker. As for Aunt May, who never shows up in either of these two episodes and could be dead for all we know: how the heck is she going to react to Peter ditching Earth? If this is a sequel to the prior show, Aunt May was not exactly in good health, and was not too fond of Spider-Man to boot.  Had the show survived to have a proper final episode, I would have loved to see Peter come back to find MJ married to someone else and Aunt May long since passed on, because quite frankly, Peter here kind of deserves that kind of end for his general idiocy. Or at least another shot of mace in the face.
Anyways, Peter takes off from planet Earth (and yeah, he is flying the thing himself – just go with it), making a reference to the great power and responsibility bit which in no way has anything to do with the themes of this show. Peter crashes on Counter Earth a short while later (apparently space travel is much quicker than your average flight from Canada to the United States), quickly discovering the Beastials and the situation facing all of humanity. He then tries to outrun the Knights of Wundagore, who are the High Evolutionary’s personal soldiers and rejected cast members of Thundercats, making an obligatory Dr. Moreau joke (kids love those) along the way. In the process of this cash, Spider-Man uses a stealth mode that would have allowed him to avoid Fury earlier had he been thinking, only to be captured a short while later. The episode ends on a cliff hanger with Spider-Man captured by the High Evolutionary.
I could go on to describe episode two, but there is little new info which explains how poor this series is that we don‘t already get in episode one. The simple fact is that Spider-Man Unlimited is not a Spider-Man series. Yes, Spider-Man is the lead protagonist, but in ditching the setting, supporting cast, and the themes of comic and prior show, the whole average guy with real life problems side of the character and his stories is lost. And let’s not kid ourselves, it is that average Joe element that makes Spider-Man interesting as a character. The situation presented in this show is better suited to a Fantastic Four series, where the justification for why the lead characters are on another world would feel natural, as it is the kind of thing they do all the time anyway. Even Captain America would be a better fit, given that as a soldier, he’d be right at home fighting against a ruthless dictator.
What makes Spider-Man Unlimited worse though is that in his fleeing to another world to save John Jameson, Peter is being far more irresponsible than he would be staying on Earth to help his partner and likely still alive Aunt May. With great power comes great responsibility, but Spider-Man has always been about balancing one’s responsibilities, about trying to do the right thing for friends and family while also acting as a blasted superhero for the sake of all mankind. I am not saying that what Peter does isn’t heroic, but the manner in which he goes about it is utterly moronic and unfair to the other people in his life. You want to know why there is no scene of Peter telling MJ his plan? It is because any realistic take on the scene would be along the following lines:
PETER: MJ, I need to steal a rocket and head to another world in order to rescue the son of my jerk boss.
MJ: Um, what? And doesn’t space travel take a long time? And since when can you fly a rocket?
PETER: Well, to answer the middle question first, I may be gone a while. So I’ll need you to keep an eye on Aunt May while I am gone. And I’m sure flying a rocket is like driving a car, which I do all the time.
MJ: Wait, hold on a second. How will I know you got there safe, or when you are coming home? I mean, what if you die out there? How would I know? And what if Aunt May has a crisis?
PETER: I’m sure I’ll only be gone a few days, a week at most. And what is the worst thing I could find on another planet?
MJ: Well, John’s last message seemed to indicate a crisis-
PETER: I knew you’d be fine with it. Thanks honey! Got to go!
MJ: Wait! What about the apartment? We have to pool our pay each month to afford this place! How am I supposed to cover our rent, let alone food and gas! I haven’t had a great payday since that musical let me go. Peter? Peter?!
And so on, and so forth.
There are positive elements of the series, such as the already noted design work and voice acting, but it is all wasted on what is a fundamentally flawed premise. And what makes it all the more aggravating is that they could easily have done Spider-Man 2099 as a series, which would have made a heck of a lot more sense. Yes, people would have been shouting “rip off” from the roof tops given the presence of Batman Beyond, but as a kid, I remember me and my friends already shouting that about the program to start with. Heck, just look at the titles: Batman Beyond, Spider-Man Unlimited. It is pretty darn clear what Marvel was trying to keep up with DC at this point, but once again, their animated efforts were well below the standard being set by the competition.
For those of you who want to subject yourselves to the show, all thirteen episodes can currently be found in North America on Netflix, though I should warn you the show ends on a cliff-hanger. But unless you are bent on seeing every version of Spider-Man ever animated, I would highly suggest skipping this one.

Dave

Dave is the co-host of 24 Panels Per Second.

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