Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Recap: Ultimate Spider-Man "Strange Days"

And so, this post is late, despite my best efforts. Dang ol' thunderstorm. If you're going to try and do me a favor, Thor, knock out the power so I can't watch Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.

And speaking of gods and magic, that's where today's episode takes us again. Let's see what the Marvel Animation Universe brings us for a guest star who hasn't appeared in the films yet. With no MCU material to ape, they might actually have to be creative while characterizing and designing him.

The horror, right, Man of Action?
The episode opens on an average day for our wall-crawling title character. He wakes up, goes to the bathroom, and starts combing his hair, brushing his teeth, and rubbing his face. At the same time. It seems as though our Mr. Parker here has suddenly sprouted four extra arms. And to make things worse, Aunt May comes in to discover her nephew's mutation for herself! But surprisingly, she just takes it completely in stride. Along with the fact that she has the head of a spider. Still, that won't stop her from trying to kiss Peter's forehead.

"Oh, God, I'm being watched!"
But before you can say "Gregor Samsa," Iron Fist shows up and punches Peter straight out of his house. And when Peter wakes up, we see that it was all a dream.

You know, dreams are weird. They're like the one thing that everybody likes to ramble on about past the point of interest. And since I have a blog with more than several readers, I think I'll indulge myself. A couple days before I began typing out this Recap, I had a dream where I was watching a new episode of Top Gear. That's how you can tell it was a dream. Another way you can tell it was a dream is because they were driving around in homemade cars that could also fly. James May was going on and on about how the British has mass-produced them during World War II, but they soon fell into disuse. Because even when he's a figment of my imagination, James May loves his boring trivia.

Anyway, back in the episode, Peter has just woken up in his classroom and tells Danny that he just had the weirdest dream. But instead of describing it to Danny, Danny describes it to Peter.

Peter: "How'd you know?"
Danny: "I was there, man. Dreamwalking."

"Uh... do you invade my dreams often?"
"Often enough to have seen a lot of tubs filled with spaghetti."
Danny reveals to Peter that something is very wrong. Not only did it take almost all of his strength to wake himself and Peter up, but everyone else in the class is sleeping. Luke, Sam, even the teacher.

Danny: "Dreams are the window to the soul. Someone has slammed them all shut."

I thought eyes were the windows to the soul? Peter and Danny suit up and get on the Spider-Cycle. As they ride through the streets, it soon becomes clear that every single person in New York is asleep. Which means that any surgeons that were operating or people driving while this happened.... Yeah, there's bound to be a buttload of fatalities from this. In fact, it will later be revealed that the entire world is asleep. So... globally. Planes are going to crash, cars are going to crash, construction equipment is going to crash, all operating surgeons just fell asleep while operating…. Whomever is responsible for this has just become the greatest mass murderer in human history. I mean, how can you possibly explain nobody dying as a result of all this?

"I took a holiday. So sue me."
Spider-Man tries to come up with a rational explanation for all of this, but Iron Fist tells him that the answer may very well be irrational. Magic. Spidey drives across the Bugletron as Jameson mumbles some complaints about Spider-Man in his sleep. Thank goodness JK Simmons won that Academy Award, because his willingness to appear in Ultimate Spider-Man was making me worry about his career.

Spider-Man insists that magic is all a bunch of malarkey, but Danny explains that not only is magic real, but it's a fundamental part of how the universe operates. Alongside magnetism and gravity, there's chi, celestial energy, life force....

Spider-Man: "It penetrates us and binds us?"
Iron Fist: "Yes."
Spider-Man: "I was quoting, Danny."

Yeah. Misquoting. It doesn't bind us, it binds the galaxy together. It surrounds and penetrates us. But when this episode first aired, Disney hadn't yet purchased the Star Wars franchise. If they had owned Star Wars at the time, then this mistake would be inexcusable.

Spider-Man keeps insisting that he's been from one side of the world to the other and he's seen a lot of strange stuff, but he's never seen anything to make him believe in magic.

I would like to remind you all that Peter saw the God of Thunder be turned into a frog by a magic stone.
But Peter actually does have fond memories of magic. Namely, the corny magic tricks that Uncle Ben would do. Variations of the coin-in-the-ear, mostly. And I feel that it's important to add that these flashbacks mark the first time we've actually seen Uncle Ben (Greg Grunberg of Heroes fame) in the show, so it's pretty obvious that this will come into play later.

When Spidey's done reminiscing, he reiterates a variation on Clarke's Third Law and claims that all "magic" is just science that we don't understand yet. And strictly speaking, he has a point. I keep encountering characters that say “magic is science we don’t understand yet,” so I’ll be posting my thoughts on the subject separately so I just have something to link to when it comes up. I don’t want to have to address the “magic is science” argument every other Recap.

But long story short: If magic exists, then it is science. Period. Better works of fiction than Ultimate Spider-Man have explored this idea. In fact, I recapped one of them last April.

But unlike Tony Stark and Jane Foster, Spider-Man isn't using Clarke's Third Law to say that maybe there are some things out there we don't understand yet. He's using it to tell Iron Fist that he's full of crap.

This, basically.
But Iron Fist isn't deterred by Spider-Man's closed-mindedness, and he directs Peter to the house of the Sorcerer Supreme.

So this cop was going to shoot that guy at point-blank range before they fell asleep?
The two heroes arrive at a boarded-up warehouse. Naturally, Peter's a little skeptical about this being the home of a great and powerful wizard.

Iron Fist: "And don't call him a wizard. He's a doctor."

I’ll get to that in the Review.

Spidey's still flippant about the whole thing, but then the warehouse turns into a nice-looking manor complete with gargoyles. Hmmmm.... A "doctor" with a residence that changes shape? I think I know who lives here.

Seen here with his magic wand.
Spider-Man: "Cloaking device. Big whoop. I have a magic timepiece with a one-eyed troll inside!"

You know, I just realized that the only reason Spider-Man's communicator/super-shooters are invisible is so the character's look isn't ruined by clunky wrist gear. Oh, and yes, the "one-eyed troll" is Fury's face on the screen.

They enter the house, and Spider-Man decides that his dismissal of any and all things magic requires him to randomly open an old chest on a pedestal. And since tentacles come out, I can only imagine that the box was a portal to R’lyeh. And seeing Spider-Man deal with a mass of tentacles simply reminds me of things I’d rather be watching.

By a long shot.
A greasy-haired, mustachioed man in a waistcoat (Jack Coleman, also of Heroes fame) comes in and tells Spider-Man to not touch anything else.

Spider-Man: "Dr. Strange, I presume?"
Dr. Strange: “You may address me as ‘Sorcerer Supreme!’”

So much for calling him a doctor.

Iron Fist thanks him for the training that allowed him to overcome the magic slumber and explains that Spider-Man was the only person he could save.

Dr. Strange: "That's different. He's uniquely connected to this reality by energies that would act as a beacon for someone with your sensitivity, Danny. You're lucky to have this... 'spider-sense,' I believe you call it?"

So… Spider-Man’s spider-sense is some kind of… “force” connecting him to reality itself? Might want to check his midichlorian count.

Spider-Man: "Was that, like, mind-reading? Guess what number I'm thinking of!"
Dr. Strange: "You aren't thinking of a number. You're thinking of flapjacks."

Wow. Between Strange and Danny, mind readers have no sense of privacy.
Iron Fist: "There are greater things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

This quote is actually applicable here, but probably not in the way that was meant. This quote (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, by the way) is usually quoted to illustrate the fact that science can't explain everything... but that's not what it originally meant in Hamlet.

In that scene, Horatio and Hamlet just saw a freaking ghost, despite Horatio's skepticism. The line doesn't mean "magic exists," the line means "You can't say you didn't see something happen just because you thought it was impossible." A subtle distinction, but an important one.

The good doctor takes his guests to what appears to be a Pensieve, where the threat of the day is located. Nightmare, the so-called "King of Dreams," has finally found a way to escape the Dream Dimension, and this was all a part of his plan to do so. Spider-Man insists that dreams aren't real, but Dr. Strange explains otherwise.

Nightmare found a way into the real world in some way that will never be succinctly explained and put the world into everlasting sleep, complete with everlasting nightmares to feed off of. Spider-Man's answer is succinct.

Says the guy who got superpowers from a radioactive spider
But wars aren't fought with the army you'd rather have, and Dr. Strange has no choice but to bring the skeptical wall-crawler along.

Dr. Strange: "Destiny has chosen you to be here for a reason, Spider-Man."

"Hey, look, whatever's written in the book goes."
Dr. Strange: "If you hope to fulfill your purpose and save mankind, you'll have to do the impossible. Close your mouth and open your mind."

You know, with that greasy hair and talk of opening Spider-Man's mind, Dr. Strange is starting to sound like a stoner. Maybe they call him a "doctor" because he grows "medical" marijuana?

After doing some flashy incantations with the Eye of Agamotto, he transports the three of them into the Realm of Dreams, which is, quite frankly, beautiful. The animators did a great job of converting Steve Ditko's warped vision of other dimensions from the page to the screen.

In all seriousness, good job.
Spider-Man, still flabbergasted, wanders into a nearby door where he enters White Tiger's dream. In fact, he enters all his teammates' dreams. This gives us really our first chance in the entire series to see what really makes them tick.

In White Tiger's dream, she didn't study for her finals and gets yelled at by Coulson's gigantic head. Meh, kind of stereotypical.

In Power Man's dream, he's struggling to keep an entire building from falling on his helpless friends. Wow. Luke's greatest fear is having his immense strength not be enough to save those he cares about. That's surprisingly deep for this show. So to even it out, Nova's dream has him surrounded by rabbits. Even though they're ignoring him completely, he's still mortified by this.

Spider-Man's down enough seeing, so he's ready to believe in magic now. Mainly because he admits that the world he finds himself in defies all logic.

So our villain, Nightmare, finally reveals himself. Just for pun, he enters riding a black horse. A "night mare," if you will.

And... hmm. Nightmare's new look looks a little familiar.

Here he is in the comics....
And here he is in the show.
The tweaked design reminds me of something, but I can't put my finger on it. Hey, Dream of the Endless, does this guy look familiar to you?

"Hmmm.... Can't exactly say what, but there's something familiar about that handsome devil."
Nightmare and Doctor Strange fight for a bit, but Nightmare quickly resorts to cheating by summoning his "dreamons" to fight the heroes. Spider-Man brings up the valid point that they're fighting dreams, so Iron Fist brings up the counterpoint that they're still flesh and blood humans, even if they're in the Dream Dimension.

Nightmare ends up transforming his night mare into a gigantic spider to taunt our heroes. It has a visible spine, despite the whole "exoskeleton" thing. As Doctor Strange's shield spell manages to hold it off, he explains that the whole world having nightmares is giving Nightmare utterly ridiculous amounts of power, plus they're fighting on his home turf. He warns them that Nightmare will try and weaken them by trapping them in their worst fears.

Spider-Man: "What about your fears?"
Dr. Strange: "I am Sorcerer Supreme; every soul on this planet, in this dimension, is under my protection. I cannot allow myself the luxury of fear!"

Careful, Daredevil will sue you for trademark infringement.

But Spidey notices that Iron Fist is gone, and follows him into his nightmare while Doctor Strange tells them to stay with him.

Dr. Strange: "Well, that's great."

Despite Spidey telling him to snap out of it, Danny lives out his worst fear of the mighty dragon Shou-Lao of K'un L'un taking back the Iron Fist powers because he squandered them by fighting petty injustices alongside... Well, the Sandwich Club. They're not exactly the Knights of the Round Table. Yeah, I’d say that Iron Fist’s fear that he’s wasting his potential in the Sandwich Club is perfectly justified.

Man, Mushu got big.
Shou-Lao knocks Spider-Man right out of Danny's dream, which means it's just Spidey and Dr. Strange. And because things weren't unfair enough, Nightmare starts pulling an Agent Smith and turns into an army of himself. Luckily, the video game rule where only the real boss requires more than one hit applies, and the duplicates are quickly dispatched by Dr. Strange's Zelda-style sword spins.

Dr. Strange: "I am the Master of the Mystic Arts!"

And yet, we've seen you do nothing but lose.

Nightmare finally plays on the one fear that Dr. Strange allows himself by changing him into little more than a stage magician. You know, like Gandalf.

"You think me some conjurer of cheap tricks?"
Uh, yeah, actually. You did, like, a light spell in Moria and lit pine cones on fire once. Sure, you've done a couple other things, like that magic shield, but your spells are pretty much basic level Dungeons and Dragons cantrips.

"...Fair enough."
The power of Dr. Strange's fear is enough to turn Nightmare into a giant, stereotypically muscular form, and he quickly defeats the now-powerless doctor. After taunting Spider-Man for a bit, Nightmare whips out his final weapon.

Spider-Man: "Take your best shot."
Nightmare: "'Shot'.... Perfect choice of words."

He waves his hand... and Peter's house appears.

Nightmare: "A man who believed in you, and was punished for that very faith!"


Nightmare: "Your greatest failure...."

Are... Are they going there? In this show?

Uncle Ben: "How's it going, Pete?"

In.. in this show?!
They hug, and Peter tells him how great it is to see him, leaving Nightmare confused.

Uncle Ben: "Who's the Gloomy Gus?"

Spider-Man explains to his Uncle who Nightmare is. And by extension, why Nightmare can't hurt him.

Spider-Man: "You think this is some buried secret? Even though I couldn't save him, I live with what happened to Uncle Ben every day. But not the way you think. I took responsibility for this tragedy and turned it into something special. Helping people every day. As Spider-Man. Guess who taught me that magic trick?"

And he fights back. Because as a flashback shows, Uncle Ben taught him at a young age that nightmares aren't real. What matters is how you live with them during the day.

Spider-Man: "That's your greatest fear, isn't it? Sorcery may be real, but nightmares? Once you face them, there's nothing to be afraid of."

The power of disbelief starts working its magic to de-power Nightmare, allowing Dr. Strange to regain his powers and summon a microphone to broadcast Spider-Man's declaration of "It's just a nightmare" through the minds of the world. The world wakes up, including a grumpy JJJ who continues his tirade, and Iron Fist makes peace with his fear of being unworthy of his powers by saying that, basically, he does his best.

Nightmare gets trapped in Strange's box to R’lyeh, delivers the moral about facing your fears, and tells the two to get back to school. Speaking of school, Ava and Luke are trying to figure out what the heck happened as Sam insists that they took a nap and everything's fine.That is, until he enters the room that Peter and Danny are napping in and runs away from the rabbit in Peter's top hat.

Peter: "Sweet dreams."

And with a wink to the camera, the episode ends.

So, this episode. Dream? Nightmare? Let's review.


  1. Of course, Nightmare looks like... Pitch Black from Rise of the Guardians

    1. Tall, lanky, with wild dark hair seems to be a popular look for these characters.

    2. Wasn't there a time in the comics where they tried to make Nightmare into Dream, anyway?

    3. I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised.

  2. Is it just me, or does Doctor Strange's look and voice sound like Johnny Depp a little bit? That's the impression I got when I first saw the episode.

    Never really thought of Gandalf's magic as that lowkey, especially coming from one of the supposed powerful wizards of Middle Earth. I'd love to play D&D with you sometime, you sound fun to play with. I always wanted to play D&D but no one I know wants to play with, same with my Adventure Time Munchkin game and my Donkey Kong Jenga.

    1. Yeah, he does a little bit. I wonder if maybe this was just fantasy casting on the part of the character designer.

      And it always is hard to find people who are willing to sit down and play non-video games these days. A shame.