We’ve seen Peter Parker in high-school and in love, fighting his greatest enemies, twice in live-action (soon to be a third retelling) and many more in animation. It’s a familiar story that we all know by heart but tolerate so we can see how far it gets taken. One spin that I’ve always found inspired and unappreciated is the 1999 series, Spider-Man Unlimited…
On its face, it could be seen as a ripoff of DC’s Batman Beyond (tech-based suit, futuristic setting, freaky nontraditional takes on enemies). In reality, the story of Unlimited’s origin is much more interesting and unusual. The first idea was to create a series adapting Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original Amazing Spider-Man stories, before the Spider-Man movie by Sony put the brakes on that. That meant for the show to happen at all, it had to use the elements that wouldn’t infringe on the movies: the High Evolutionary, Counter-Earth, John Jameson, Venom. It was one of those rare times when people are painted into a corner and build the Notre Dame Cathedral from a house of cards. The fact that anything coherent came from that, let alone extraordinarily captivating, is amazing.
The premise of Unlimited dealt with Venom and Carnage sabotaging John Jameson’s manned flight to an earth at the other side of our galaxy, which Spider-Man failed to stop. Jameson’s shuttle crashes and he is presumed dead, with Spider-Man blamed. Overcome with guilt, Spider-Man steals some tech from Reed Richards and another shuttle to bring John Jameson home. Crash-Landing on Counter-Earth, Spider-Man finds a world run by Animal hybrids and human beings on the lowest rungs of society. John Jameson joined a freedom force to liberate the humans and refuses to return home until that goal happens. Spider-Man is forced to help accomplish Jameson’s goal in order to expedite their departure to their Earth.
On a planet run by Animal Hybrids, someone like Spider-Man merits more respect than he does on his own planet, while someone like Peter Parker has to live on the fringes of society with the rest of the humans. Spidey is literally caught between two worlds and gets to play in both in ways that others can’t. It turns out to be a subtle allegory for racism, with the Counter-Earth social structure designed so human remain on the bottom while the Bestials live on top with all the opportunities they deserve. The High-Evolutionary did this purposely, feeling that humans didn’t deserve to exist and that he could create a better species to replace them.
The series was about as political and serious as anything in the 90’s (read: not very) but it still kept the overall tone of Spider-Man with what readers could expect from that era. Long-spanning intricate plots were big in the 90’s, Spider-Man the Animated Series had spent its entire run weaving such stories, but Unlimited had the added bonus of a blank slate to work from. Some of Spidey’s enemies existed on Counter-Earth, but not all of them were actual villains. His time stuck in a new environment created all these new aspects to play off of: reestablishing his Peter Parker identity anew, dealing with complete separation from Mary Jane, social structures that he couldn’t outright change and advanced tech to fight Venom and Carnage with. His new suit allowed him to turn invisible and emit sonic waves to weaken symbiotes, things that added new dimensions to his fights. It tried to take Spider-Man in a new direction without losing the elements that fans associate with the character: quippy banter, acrobatic fighting, constantly put-down upon by life.
Ultimately, Spider-Man Unlimited was canceled by the network in favor of airing the more popular Pokemon and Digimon cartoons. At the very least, Unlimited wasn’t canceled for something as arbitrary as failing to sell toys although its steady ratings should have earned it a second season. What would follow it a few short years later would be a CGI series on MTV supposedly set in continuity with the movies and after that a more traditional fan-preferred take with Spectacular Spider-Man. Neither pushed the mythos forward in any meaningful way. Not that they had to, but one of the reasons fans say DC rules animation is that they often found ways to adapt their material in innovative ways (really just the talent running free and wild with the source material). Take the current crop of Marvel/Disney animated offerings, they’re not especially great because they exist solely to keep the brand alive until the next movie hits. Series like Spectacular Spider-Man and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes at least tried to update the stories of the comics in a fun manner that would please most fans. Unlimited wasn’t the last Marvel cartoon to really stretch itself beyond the conventional, the last two X-Men series did as well but not nearly as much.
Spider-Man Unlimited is not the best Marvel animated series, or perhaps even the best Spider-Man cartoon, but as a series that pushed the character so far out of his comfort zone, I will always admire that willingness and ponder its potential that never got realized.