Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. But with that love of comics and the characters they feature comes an intense interest in the various adaptations that have been made of comic characters. Each month, in Off the Page, the Fanboys will take a look at a piece of comic-inspired media, whether that be a movie, television show, live performance or even a radio drama.
Greg: Welcome once again, good people of the Place to Be Nation, to the second edition of Off the Page. If you checked out our first edition, you’ve got an idea of this column’s intent — to review comic book-related media. Some of it’s bad, some of it’s good, and a lot of it is downright bizarre.
Nick: Well, to be fair, we haven’t done anything good yet since our only column so far was about “Pryde of the X-Men.”
And why change that now?
This month, we’re taking a look at the first two episodes of the short-lived “Spider-Man Unlimited.”
Greg: For those unfamiliar with this show (which, I’d venture, describes most of the globe), it was tasked with following the extremely popular Spider-Man cartoon that began in 1994 and had a solid five-season run.
This show, sadly (?) wouldn’t last as long.
Nick: This series ran only 13 episodes, but actually ran for two years after there was a yearlong delay between the third and fourth episodes.
But, that’s neither here nor there. Rather than discussing the series’ bizarre scheduling, we’re here to discuss its bizarre character designs, animation, scripting and plots.
Greg: While the bulk of the show takes place on “Counter-Earth,” it begins with Peter Parker in familiar surroundings that could’ve taken place in the prior series. He’s a photographer for the Daily Bugle, works for J. Jonah Jameson, loves Mary Jane Watson (though it’s unclear if they’re married here) and moonlights as your friendly neighborhood wall crawler. Sounds fine, right?
Nick: And it starts out well enough, with JJJ’s son, John, holding a press conference in preparation for his latest journey into space. And then, about two minutes in, everything goes off the rails.
Greg: For starters, there’s a crowd of journalists at the press conference, and one of them is inexplicably blue. Literally, the man’s skin and hair are blue. Is this Nightcrawler? Beast? A member of the Blue Man Group? It’s unclear. Additionally, New York City appears to be a mostly barren urban wasteland, devoid of cars, pedestrians and activity, except the few individuals who eventually decide to pelt Spider-Man with garbage.
Nick: Venom and Carnage show up, and are working together for reasons that aren’t clearly explained. You see, in the comics, the two were pretty much mortal enemies. In addition to their strange partnership, the two symbiotic villains have also gained new shape-shifting powers. Now, the two have always been able to shift their bodies somewhat, but here they’re able to disintegrate, disappear and travel around in liquid form like the T-1000 from Terminator 2.
Greg: Oh, and they appear to no longer have human hosts.
For those unfamiliar with Spider-Man lore, imagine Yoda and Emperor Palpatine suddenly deciding, “You know what? Let’s just do some stuff together.”
Nick: As Greg mentioned, citizens eventually show up to pelt Spidey with some garbage. Why you ask? Well, you see, John Jameson’s spaceship disappears while traveling to Counter-Earth, and Spider-Man is blamed for the incident.
What is Counter-Earth, you ask? Well, it’s another version of Earth that has been discovered… on the opposite side of the sun.
Which totally makes sense.
Greg: Don’t bother considering the scientific ramifications of any of this, such as how the likes of Reed Richards (mentioned in passing) haven’t discovered its existence well in advance. It’s apparently just been there for a long time and nobody noticed. And the inhabitants of Counter-Earth destroyed an unmanned Earth probe, causing Jameson and company to try and get to the bottom of the attack.
Nick: So, naturally, they send a spaceship through a portal to see what the deal is. And Jameson doesn’t come back.
Greg: Venom and Carnage attack Jameson (off camera) on the ship after thwarting Spidey’s attempt to stop them. The public, being idiots, believe ol’ Spidey to be responsible, as all they hear is Jameson yelling through his headset. Of course, it’s never made clear exactly what the symbiotes did to John or why they didn’t simply hitch a ride on the ship and remain undetected. As we find out later, Jameson is in perfect health.
Nick: So, New York is mad at Spider-Man for this galactic conundrum. So, Peter decides it might be best to hang up the webs for a while and focus on his relationship with MJ. He tells her this, and the two seem poised for a renewed happiness. So, five minutes later, he completely changes his mind after seeing a video transmission from John Jameson asking for help.
Greg: He changes his mind, it must be noted, without consulting or even telling the love of his life. He just figures “Welp, maybe I should help after all.” Then he commits theft.
Nick: Peter heads down to the New York spaceport and puts on his new suit. That’s right, off-screen he has obtained a new cybernetic suit from Reed Richards’ lab. It has a redesigned logo and an absolutely hideous web cape.
I feel the need to pause here and say that I’ve never liked any variation of the web cape.
I can live with the web “wings” that he has in some comics that connect his arms to his ribcage, but even those I’m not overly fond of. But the cape? Despise it.
Greg: He looks a lot like Spider-Man 2099. And I agree about the web cape. It never looked good in the comics and doesn’t on the screen. The color scheme is neat enough though, much like the 2099 costume.
Nick: Yeah, it is a strange amalgamation of the two.
Greg: With a little Scarlet Spider thrown in, I guess.
Nick: Anyway, Spidey hijacks another spacecraft and steers it straight through the portal to Counter-Earth.
Greg: But only after a brief, completely unnecessary standoff with a jetpack-wearing Nick Fury.
Nick: Yes, Fury makes the briefest of cameos, and Spider-Man pretty much blows right past him with minimal effort.
Greg: Perhaps this was an attempt to tie this series to the prior one. The only other attempts are the MJ relationship and a very brief snippet of the iconic Joe Perry theme song while Peter changes costumes.
Nick: So anyway, Counter-Earth. Spider-Man gets there and is immediately attacked by a group of half-beast, half-man creatures called “Bestials.”
Greg: Picture the Thundercats hanging out with the villains from He-Man.
Nick: Not just any Bestials, however. These are an elite group known as the “Knights of Wundagore.” They have very inventive names, too — Ursula (a bear), Lady Vermin (a rat), Sir Ram (a ram) and Lord Tyger. I’ll let you figure out what kind of animal he is.
What ensues is a chase sequence that seems to extend from the halfway point of episode 1 all the way through the first 10 minutes of episode 2.
Greg: And it appears to feature some reused animation sequences. Either that, or the animators were just really lazy and unimaginative. In any event, we get to learn some of the personality tics of the Knights of Wundagore. Lord Tyger is a John Cena type who is pretty noble and just wants an honorable fight, gosh darnit. Lady Vermin is a frisky minx who wants to … get to know Peter a little better.
Nick: And usually, I’m all for a good chase sequence. The problem is, when you have choppy, nonfluid animation and repetitive sequences, it’s hard to make any action scene interesting, let alone a 20-minute segment of Spider-Man being chased by the same four hovercraft.
Greg: About the only compliment I can pay the sequence is that Spider-Man does get off a few good one-liners. These are surrounded by dozens of terrible ones, but you take what you can get with a project like this.
Nick: During the middle of the chase, Peter is briefly detained and it is there we are interested to the Knights’ master, the High Evolutionary, the man who has created the Bestials for unknown reasons.
Greg: Unlike the comics, in this universe the High Evolutionary merely landed on Counter-Earth in an attempt to escape the Earth, also for unknown reasons.
In the comics, HE created the Counter-Earth, which makes more sense (well, comic book sense). Here, we learn that he’s merely trying to breed a superior species. Unfortunately, the downside is that normal people are left in the gutters to die.
Nick: He hates humans! But he seems to be a human! And he hates irony!
Greg: To the High Evolutionary!
Nick: Aaaanyway, so Spider-Man escapes the Knights when a group of human freedom fighters busts in. One of them has red hair, and since Mary Jane also has red hair, she and Peter start flirting with one another.
Greg: Keep in mind that at no point did Pete break up with MJ. Still, he flirts away with Counter-MJ while chatting up a Counter-Australian guy who carries ’90s guns.
He’s led to their underground lair, though they’re unaware that Lady Vermin is following them. That’s what they get for not surrounding the lair with liquid-hot magma. And it’s there that Spider-Man meets the leader of the resistance — John Jameson! But not Counter-John Jameson, who is nowhere to be found.
Nick: Nowhere. But a new group of Bestials is somewhere to be found, and they come busting through the front door, leading the freedom fighters to the natural conclusion — Spider-Man has double crossed them! Even though he’s had literally no time to contact anyone.
However, rather than the Knights showing up, the High Evolutionary has called in a different team… Venom and Carnage, who have teamed up with the HE off screen.
There’s a lot of off-screen developments happening in this show, come to think of it.
Greg: I’ve heard of “show, don’t tell,” but never “don’t show OR tell.”
But they’re secretly planning to betray him in service to The Synoptic, a thing that they mention but don’t explain during the course of these two episodes. And indeed, a lot is happening off screen. Enough time passed for Jameson to form a group of freedom fighters, but also for Venom and Carnage to join with The Synoptic (whatever it is) and the HE.
Nick: So, Spider-Man uses his new suit’s anti-symbiote sonic powers to chase off Venom and Carnage and turn the tide of the battle in the favor of the humans.
The humans detain the other Bestials before Jameson decides they have to be killed in order to protect the location of their HQ. Thankfully, Spider-Man points out the fact that Venom and Carnage have already escaped with that knowledge, making the murder of dozens of living things somewhat needless. Indeed, Peter appeals to the group’s humanity because after all, “that’s what separates us from them.”
Greg: Finally convinced Spider-Man didn’t betray them, Jameson and his crew (except Counter-Australian) do their best to convince Peter to stay and help their cause. And certainly you can understand his conundrum — stay on a faraway planet and help a bunch of strangers with a battle they started or go back home to your wife, family and all the problems on regular Earth you could be solving.
Nick: So, naturally, he chooses to stay on Counter-Earth.
Well, there is the small matter of there not being a spaceship available to take him back to regular Earth.
And Jameson pulls a dick move by refusing to help him find and repair one unless he agrees to stay and help the human freedom effort.
Greg: Ah yes. For some reason, despite not having a ship, the freedom fighters give him a few days to make up his mind whether to stay. Along the way, Peter beats up a robot and gets nursed back to health by a single mother, and the unifying thread is that it’s all incredibly boring.
Rather than ending on an action-based cliffhanger or setting up a new threat for Spidey, it ends with him renting an apartment.
And there’s nothing more thrilling than the details of lower middle class living!
Greg: I can only assume future episodes deal with him finding a job he hates and haggling with a car insurance company.
Nick: Don’t forget getting his new doctor friend to check out that mole he’s had on his neck. Turns out it’s harmless.
Well, that’s pretty much the short version of the first two episodes. Greg, your final recommendation?
Me, I can’t really suggest it on any level. It’s not only badly made, but unlike something like “Pryde of the X-Men,” there’s practically no “so bad it’s good” value. These two episodes were just wholly uninteresting, cheaply made and just boring as hell. I say avoid it at all costs.
Greg: Skip this one, folks. Spider-Man Unlimited isn’t as bad as some shows, but in many ways it’s the worst kind of bad. While “Pryde of the X-Men” was so bad it was entertaining, Unlimited is just bad. It manages to be poorly designed and poorly acted but too damn boring to produce any real comedic value.
Essentially it’s a Spider-Man show without any of the iconic elements of Spider-Man lore. In that regard, I guess it’s kind of like (a much worse version of) the Green Lantern movie.
Nick: Well, that does it for this month’s Off the Page. Greg, tell the people what we’ve got coming up later this week.
Greg: We’re celebrating St. Valentine’s Day with a romantic edition of Countdown — a list of our favorite comic book couples! We may even be joined by a very special guest for the occasion.
Nick: Maybe so. Who knows? Well, we do. So yeah, the plan is to have that guest.
In the meantime, as always, we welcome your feedback, which can be sent to GregP@placetobenation.com, NickD@placetobenation.com or on Twitter @gphillips8652 and @nickduke87.
Greg: Have a suggestion for our next Off the Page topic? Let us know!