As any Spider-Man fan can tell you, "With great power must also come great responsibility." But what comes with great ratings? A surprise renewal.
That was the very-good-problem-to-have that Cort Lane (Vice President of Animation Development & Partnerships at Marvel) and Stephen Wacker (Vice President of Current Animation at Marvel) suddenly found themselves dealing with back in the Spring of 2015. Back when Disney XD decided to order up another season of Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man.
"To be honest, we originally thought that we'd be wrapping Ultimate Spider-Man up at the end of Season 3. That was one of the main reason that season concluded with the four part 'Contest of Champions.' Which was just huge. We literally had dozens of Marvel characters appearing in those episodes," Cort recalled during a recent phone interview. "But then Ultimate Spider-Man's rating went up for Season 3 and there was demand for another season ... "
"And that meant -- once we got the official go-head for Season 4 -- that we had to come up with something even bigger," Stephen interjected. "Some sort of epic story that could then top Spider-Man fighting alongside The Avengers. The lucky thing for us is that we have over 50 years of Spider-Man history from Marvel Comics that we could then pull story ideas from."
Which is why Lane & Wacker then convened a story summit. A two day-long affair when Cort & Stephen brought select members of the Ultimate Spider-Man writing team together with some new collaborators. All with the hope that this group could then come up with the Ultimate Ultimate Spider-Man story. Something that could then tie together all of the characters & pieces that had been introduced over the first three seasons of this animated series.
"We actually do the exact same thing over on the publishing side at Marvel. I was just in New York for one of these story summits. We get together 3 or 4 times a year. Where we then go through all of the books with the creative teams that are working on those books. Get a sense of what the landscape of the Marvel Universe currently is like. More importantly, decide what our next big story point is going to be. Which -- in this case -- was Civil War II, which Marvel Comics is just now getting ready to launch," Wacker stated.
And just like they do at Marvel Comics (i.e., insuring that each individual issue is entertaining on its own while, at the very same time, making sure that each issue is then able to help move forward a far larger narrative), Cort, Stephen & Co. tried to come up with a plan for Season 4. Map out one truly epic story that could then be broken down / told over 26 episodes.
"And this time around, we really wanted the stakes to be higher. The threats to be that much more personal. Which is why we eventually landed on the Sinister Six," Lane said.
For those of you who don't know: The Sinister Six are Spider-Man's worst nightmare. A group of supervillains who have joined forces. All with the hope that their combined powers will then be finally enough to bring down this Webbed Warrior.
"And the best part about building Season 4 around this particular group of supervillains is that the members of the Sinister Six all have very personal grudges against Spider-Man. Doc Ock especially," Wacker enthused. "Over the course of Season 4, Doc Ock becomes dangerous not just to Spider-man but also to Peter Parker. So the tension runs even higher."
So in order to do battle with this grouping of his greatest enemies, Spidey must now team up with some of the more storied members of Marvel's Spider family. Among them Miles Morales, Agent Venom, Iron Spider, and the mysterious new Scarlet Spider.
"It's the introduction of Scarlet Spider, this character who's straight out of the comics, that most excites me about Season 4," Stephen said. "His arrival on the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series is draped in mystery. And Scarlet Spider's personal story is something that we'll be following all throughout Season 4. It'll effect Peter Parker's life profoundly as he eventually comes to view this character almost like a brother."
"For the Marvel comic book fans ... Well, I don't have to tell them that the Scarlet Spider has been around for a long time. They already know his history," Wacker continued. "And as a Marvel fan myself, getting the chance to finally see this character up on the screen, that's pretty fun too."
Of course, there is a considerable bit of lag time between when these ideas are initially pitched at Ultimate Spider-Man story summits and when these carefully crafted individual episodes then began airing on Disney XD.
"That was the biggest adjustment that I had to make when I came over from Marvel Comics to work at Marvel Animation," Stephen recalled. "When I worked in publishing, I could talk with an artist and a writer about a specific story idea. And three months later, that issue would be out on the rack, ready for people to read. Whereas with an animated series, it's often a year or more after you actually write an episode that you then finally get to see the finished product."
"But when it comes to Marvel Animation shows like the Ultimate Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, when you see how handsome those episodes are, how well they ultimately turned out at the end of that extremely lengthy animation production process, I'd have to say that they were really worth the wait," Cort said. "I honestly believe that it was the high quality of the animation that ultimately led to the uptick in ratings that we saw for Season 3 of Ultimate Spider-Man."
So seeing as Season 4 was something of a surprise to Lane & Wacker, are these two animation execs now -- just in case -- prepping a contingency plan should Ultimate Spider-Man be renewed for a fifth season? When I asked this question, Lane got rather philosophical.
"Look, at the end of this season, there'll be 104 episodes of Ultimate Spider-Man. Which is the longest running Marvel Animation series ever. And Stephen and I never dreamed that we'd get this far with this show." Cort said. "I mean, we're obviously very proud. But we're also grateful that we get to work with endlessly inventive people like Alex Soto and our supervising directors. They constantly found new ways to bring this show to life. To make the stories visually exciting. So we've been extremely lucky that we got to do four seasons of Ultimate Spider-Man with these guys by our sides."
"But if we are lucky enough to get picked up for a fifth season ... Well, like I said before, there are 50 years of great Spider-Man stories to chose from. And I'm sure that -- if we put one of those through the Marvel story summit process -- we'll then come up with a fresh new way to tell that story for television," Lane continued.
"That's what's really great about the story summit process that Marvel Animation and Marvel Comics uses. It's only the best idea, the strongest idea that ultimately survives that process," Wacker added. "Once an idea gets pitched and people then begin picking it apart, it can then get pretty intense inside of that story summit room. Which is not often fun. But even if you love a particular story idea, you eventually have to admit at some point that it just doesn't work."
"That -- in the end -- is what I think makes Marvel stories so strong. They've been put through the wringer long before they reach the viewer or the reader," Stephen concluded.
Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man Vs. the Sinister 6 airs on Disney XD Sundays at 9 a.m. ET/PT.