The return of the Green Goblin! A S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier down! A new Sinister Six emerges! The Lizard strikes! Plus, Spidey has a few new house guests!
These are some of the big changes in store for the second season of the Disney XD series, "Ultimate Spider-Man," spearheaded by the Man of Action Studios team of comic creators-turned-animation guys Duncan Rouleau, Joe Casey, Steven T. Seagle, and Joe Kelly. Rouleau, Casey, and Seagle--along with "Ultimate Spider-Man" Supervising Producer Cort Lane--spoke to MTV Geek recently about the eternal struggle between power and responsibility for everyone's favorite wall-crawler, the massive shakeups in his new season of animated adventures and getting the comedy and action balance just right.
If you're not familiar with the Man of Action team, they're the brains behind "Ben 10" and "Generator Rex," so they know a little something about young superheroes juggling personal and super-heroic lives.
Speaking to everyone assembled in two separate calls about the second season of the show, the consensus seems to be that this new year of "Ultimate Spider-Man" will involve a lot of payoff from story elements at the end of season one. For instance, Lane reveals that Peter's mentorship under S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist Dr. Curt Connors will reflect the relationship in the comics as the troubled scientist succumbs to his lizard brain in the first episode of the new season. We'll be seeing an evolving (or de-volving) take on the Lizard throughout the season as the primitive intelligence of Connors' alter ego begins to asset itself--aggressively. Rouleau drew comparisons between the introductions of Peter/Dr. Connors across the films, comics, and TV show, adding that season one allowed viewers to spend a lot more time with Dr. Connors the man and grow the relationship between him and Peter. "What really informs [the relationship] is that Dr. Connors is a real character inside the show. When he becomes the lizard, he's terrifying and frighting, but Peter has a relationship with Dr. Connors in a way that the movies didn't have a chance to reflect on and a way that the other shows didn't have a chance to look at."
For Lane, the Lizard storyline will create an new and scary villain for our hero to square off against, even as Spider-Man seeks to cure his friend. It's all part of the overall theme of responsibility which is--no surprise--an integral element to the series, particularly in season two which sees Peter/Spider-Man step up into a leadership role with a team of young heroes comprised of Nova, Power Man, Iron Fist, and White Tiger, who also become unexpected roommates at Aunt May's place as "Ultimate Spider-Man" carries over another storyline from its comic counterpart (there, Iceman, Johnny Storm, and Gwen Stacy all found themselves living under Aunt May's roof).
"The idea of him being a part of this team, leading this team, depending on these guys and them depending on him--that all ties into just the notion of friendship and what it means to stand up for the people you're part of a group with," Casey tells me. The Man of Action team has tried to balance the power/responsibility theme in a way that's both friendly and resonant to younger viewers, while also introducing something that most fans of the character might not have seen in the 50 years of his history. Steven T. Seagle says that in season one, we got the chance to see Spidey hanging on the Helicarrier with his friends, but that the creative team thought it would be fun if his teammates all had to camp out at Aunt May's house. Even though Peter has enough pressures weighing on him as a hero, he'll have to share his household with a bunch of clashing personalities that also might not be as aware of the need to keep things low-key in the middle of a suburban neighborhood (there's a full episode that plays up the comedy of this specific situation this season)--"it's a house full of teenage superheroes and hijinks will ensue," Casey jokes. Casey says that where season two steps things up when compared against season one--or even some of the comics--is placing a teen Peter Parker in a leadership role.
Seagle says that building up character-based stories--taking the time to flesh out the relationships in the large supporting casts of their heroes--has been at the core of all of Man of Action's previous projects. If you see the characters fighting, these guys want you to care about the stakes and care about how those relationships are being affected by the conflict. "Working with Joe Quesada, Brian Bendis, and Jeph Loeb on these shows--they all come from the same philosophy. Character is always top-drawer."
When I note that historically, at the bottom of the greatest Spider-Man storylines there's an element of guilt, Lane says that one of the issues the character will struggle with this season is how to combat and save the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn. "He really wants to help Norman," Lane explains, "because he feels bad that Harry has lost his father. For Peter, it's really about taking responsibility, which is really intense for a 16-year-old." Casey adds that "Everything about Spider-Man is about responsibility," drawing on the characters' enshrined mantra about power and responsibility going hand-in-hand.
The first part of the new season will see Spider-Man squaring off against an updated Sinister Six made up of Lizard, Electro, Rhino, Beetle, Kraven, and a mysterious sixth member. The first six episodes will in fact lead up to what Lane describes as "the biggest and coolest battle" between Spider-Man's team and this group of deadly villains.
Reflecting on season one, Lane says they were quickly able to figure out the tone for "Ultimate Spider-Man" and what worked for the overall production. "I think within the first six episodes, you really find the tone. I think in season two, the focus is to take all that we learned and deliver bigger stories, cooler animation, more complex battle scenes and execute against what we do well."
Humor and Spider-man are a tricky balance to maintain: the notoriously talkative hero's patter can grate in the wrong writer's hands, annoying the viewer as much as it does the villains he's heaping verbal abuse upon (note how little joking the big screen incarnations of the character engaged in across four features). Casey says that showing the lighter side of the superhero genre is kind of Spider-Man's stock and trade, and that the Man of Action team simply took what he does best and amping it up. "We tried a lot of different gags throughout the season, and we found that we really loved the 'mini-Spidey' moments," Lane adds. Lane says that it's possible for their team to deliver personal and intense storylines for Peter in the same way that Bendis has been able to in the comic "Ultimate Spider-Man" while still maintaining that madcap style of humor that propels the series forward (Casey: "Anytime Spider-Man is uncomfortable or Peter Parker is uncomfortable and annoyed, we really get a kick out of that.")
Seagle says that going into the series, they were aware of fan concerns about the type of humor that "Ultimate Spider-Man" might have, pushed at the time as being inspired by the likes of "30 Rock" while frequently breaking the fourth wall." He credits the production team with nailing this aspect and approaching it with no rules while marvel's Jeph Loeb and Joe Quesada have provided notes to help develop the humor and tone of the series. "What does happen is that what you think will be funny--when you see them moving, you'll go 'That's not funny at all," Casey says continuing that sometimes what reads as funny on the page and in layouts might be less successful in motion, requiring a quip from Spider-Man to get the comedy to work.
Heading into the new season, I asked which characters we should keep an eye out for along with any new voice cast announcements: unfortunately, performers and the Man of Action team are locked into strict non-disclosure agreements, but Casey and Seagle did want to single out Steven Weber's season one performance as the Green Goblin (we spoke to him last year about his work on the show). "We love Steven Weber," Casey tells me, adding that the actor is like many performers who jumped at the opportunity to participate in the series.
Lane says for him, Peter's teammates' journeys were some of his favorites--complicated, tragic, and filled with ties to the existing Marvel U. Among those, he says the one that really struck a chord with him was White Tiger's origin, created especially for the series with connections to Kraven the Hunter while honoring the characters' origin in the comics. Without giving too much away, the martial artist's origin--involving the loss of a loved one--will be particularly poignant for Peter.
Seagle, Casey, and Rouleau each chose Spider-Man, Casey joking that he only chose Peter because the show's named after him. But they all agree that there's a lot of growth on the way for Peter Parker/Spider-Man this season that will make him imminently watchable in 2013. Seagle promises that we'll be finding out many interesting and surprising things about him in the new year, and that for them, humanity is one of the most enjoyable things for them to play with on the show.
"Ultimate Spider-Man" returns to Disney XD on Monday, January 21st with a one-hour premiere.