Cort Lane Talks About Bringing Spidey Animated Series to a Close After Four Thrilling Seasons
Over the weekend, “Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man” closed out a four season run with a two-parter that featured a de-powered Spider-Man using his smarts to not only regain his abilities, but also work with the likes of Norman Osborn to defeat Doctor Octopus and the Sinister Six. With his fellow heroes and the world in the balance, Peter Parker proved that, after all those years of training, he’d grown into the ultimate Spider-Man!
The “Graduation Day” finale episodes put a cap on an unexpected fourth season that lead to major moments like Doctor Octopus working with Arnim Zola and Hydra, the villain learning Spider-Man’s secret identity, a return to the Spider-Verse, a Carnage story and even run-ins with newly developed Spider Slayers!
We talked with Senior Vice President of Animation and Family Entertainment Cort Lane about developing a finale for one of the most recognizable characters in the world, paying off the themes of the series and the secret origin of how Carnage made another jump to the small screen!
The following interview contains huge spoilers for “Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man” season four including the finale, so consider yourself warned.
Marvel.com: Having watched both episodes of the finale, this felt like a very appropriate end cap to”Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man.”
Cort Lane: Thank you. I felt we were very aware of the fact that this was it after 104 episodes and we tried to get in a lot of moments of closure from even the very first episode. I was satisfied, but it was a challenge.
Marvel.com: How much of this ending did you have in mind back when you all were hashing out what this show would be?
Cort Lane: Well, that story was really developed by Harrison [Wilcox] and the story editors. As they began that process I said, “I want something that really connects us to the very first episode and shows his arc of becoming the ultimate Spider-Man. However you chose to get there, you guys have been managing the story now for a season, that’s up to you.” I was very pleased with what they did.
Marvel.com: With Doctor Octopus de-powering Spider-Man and making him realize his worth even without powers, the whole thing had a very classic Spidey feel while also feeling very much a part of this show.
Cort Lane: There are a lot of classic elements. Him against all odds and his enemies, which is a common story for him, but I don’t think we truly did it at that scale until this season. And then really capturing the Peter Parker of the story. We often in “Ultimate Spider-Man,” particularly as a show for kids, maybe leaned a bit more into the Spider-Man territory than the Peter Parker territory. This felt like an opportunity. Really connecting him to Aunt May in the final story and having him lose his powers. So it’s really just him as Peter Parker trying to figure it out and demonstrating that it’s not his powers that made him the ultimate Spider-Man and made him one of the greatest heroes in the world, but it’s that Peter Parker has grown up and leveled up and fought hard throughout 104 episodes.
Marvel.com: Along those same lines, you have Doctor Octopus unable to see how important the Peter Parker piece is to the whole equation. Was that one of the ideas from the get go?
Cort Lane: That was his fatal flaw. I did request that Doctor Octopus be a big part of the season [at the beginning of the process]. For me, Doctor Octopus has this tremendous arc through all four seasons in his own way as big and compelling as Peter’s. In episode one, he’s a whiny flunky who’s taken advantage of and abused. At the end he’s this world-beating villain on truly epic scale. I love what they did with him becoming a massive monster version of himself. He’s still failed to learn these critical lessons, but you do get the sense at the very end that he has learned and he does help Peter so even his arc comes full circle in the end, which I love.
Marvel.com: Earlier you mentioned that Peter gets to have a great moment where Aunt May encourages him in his life as Spider-Man. What went into that decision to let her in on the secret?
Cort Lane: We really had to play it out at the end of season three. In the interest of full disclosure, we really believed that season three was going to be our final season. We were excited to go beyond a second season and all signs at all levels within Marvel and Disney told us that season three would be as far as we would go. Not that the show wasn’t a great hit, it was, but for an action-adventure series, that’s a pretty long run. It really is these days. 78 episodes is a lot.
But as it turned out, season three was very successful. The ratings actually went up. The storytelling of the Spider-Verse storyline and Web Warriors and all that stuff really clicked. As we were finishing up season three they were like, “Yeah do one more.”
We’d decided in season three that Aunt May was going to find out that he’s Peter, they’d resolve all those emotional issues between the two of them and that was the end of it. In season four we needed to find a way to keep the personal stakes really intense between the two of them. Overall in season four we certainly have epic stakes with the Sinister Six and Arnim Zola — and Mark Hamill does such a fantastic job throughout the season as Arnim Zola — and Doctor Octopus and all their resources against him. But, the stakes stay very personal because we were able to start the season with the villains knowing that Aunt May is his aunt and that he has all these people that he is close to now and all of those people are at risk. It’s not just world-saving stakes, but really personal, emotional stakes for him. That’s the way we were able to amp it up in season four.
Marvel.com: When putting together a whole season that was a surprise did you all draw on ideas you hadn’t gotten around to in the previous ones or come up with all new stuff?
Cort Lane: There was a lot of both. I would say that we walked away from season three feeling like we told the big stories we wanted to tell, but we knew going into season four we could do more with the Sinister Six, that there was a big story there. We actually went in knowing we wanted to do something very cool with Arnim Zola played by Mark Hamill. We also knew that we hadn’t really told a Carnage story. That was a big opportunity so we knew we wanted to do that. What unraveled during the development of the season four for us is how we get there, how we put the Sinister Six together. There end up being some twists, turns and surprises. There’s a Sinister Seven and it turns out the Scarlet Spider is actually one of the Sinister Seven. Just bringing the Sinister Six together, that’s a couple of episodes, but turning it into a season-long storyline with lots of exciting turns, that’s what we got to work on throughout the season.
Marvel.com: I was a little surprised when I saw you guys tackling Carnage. Was there any apprehension about working with a character who’s so violent in the comics?
Cort Lane: I will give an exclusive to you on why we decided to do that. There was apprehension. There was concern from the consumer products and brand people. Carnage is, traditionally in publishing, a very creepy, scary, mass murdering, dark concept. We were doing some brand research on Spider-Man, it was really Disney’s research and I was able to sit in on it. We learned so much about what boys connect with when they engage with Spider-Man. Truly, for boys, he’s a character they connect with the most. I say across superheroes and action-adventure, he’s the character they have the most developed relationship with.
We were able to explore what it is they love so much about Spider-Man and asked lots and lots of questions. We found out that they, through Netflix, actually watched a lot of the 90s show. The Carnage storyline in the 90s show was something they referenced a lot and were very excited about. It was a big shock to us because we didn’t know that. He was one of their favorite villains, and he’s only been featured for a second in one of our earlier seasons. I was like, “We have to tell that Carnage story. This is too much of opportunity.” We could do it in a way that is a lot less unsettling than what was done in publishing but still capture what they find so thrilling about this threat.
Marvel.com: Back to the finale, you all gave Norman Osborn a really nice ending with him actually staying a good guy, even though he had a few opportunities to go back to being bad. What sets your Norman apart from the others?
Cort Lane: It’s tough with Norman because there are so many versions of him. He’s been extremely evil and just crazy evil and monstrously evil and reformed and maybe just a very cutthroat businessman. We had played with a lot of those versions of him. We decided in season three to close out his story and continue the thread of Doc Ock’s story. He really began as an underling of Norman, but at the end of this particular storyline we wanted to bring Norman back. We wanted to understand that he had learned a lot through all of these experiences and he’d grown into an ally of Peter Parker.
I know in publishing, there’s always that desire to see him as a villain again, but since we were finishing this story and this is the very end, we wanted to close it out with Norman too. Norman gets the end of his story as well and it’s a story where he is redeemed.
We still make it clear that he’s an arrogant jerk, but he’s an arrogant jerk who’s learned to be a better person. When telling stories to kids you have the added responsibility to show the better elements of human nature, that characters can grow and learn important lessons.
Marvel.com: One of the most visually striking moments from the last episode came when Doctor Octopus injected himself and morphed into that giant monster. Do you know what went into that design, it’s pretty gnarly in a great way!
Cort Lane: I was not at all. I can’t take any credit for how crazy-awesome that was. That falls to Alex Soto who was our supervising director through all four seasons and brings a strong design aesthetic. He created the mini Spidey characters you see in a lot of the cutaways and a lot of the other stylized characters that you see particularly in the Spider-Verse this season. I was particularly proud of the Web Beard pirate episode and the Sergio Leone cowboy-style episode. That stuff, visually, springs from his head while working with strong directors underneath him.
Marvel.com: Alex and his crew have designed a great deal of Marvel characters to fit into this animated universe. Even after four seasons, were there still any you’d hoped to fit in, but just couldn’t?
Cort Lane: By the end of four seasons, I can honestly say that there’s probably nobody we felt we missed out on. The one that I think was very hard to do — and I was very proud of how it came out — was Deadpool early on in the show. Getting the tone of Deadpool right within the context of a kid show was a very delicate balance. We actually completely recast the voice actor when the episode was deep into production to make sure we got it right. Delivering the comedy that still feels adult and kind of naughty, but actually make it through network standards and practices and that is not inappropriate is tough.
Marvel.com: Even with all the characters appearing in the series and the finale specifically, it’s interesting that, at the end of the day, it’s just him fighting Doctor Octopus and saving the day on his own. Is that the key component for him to become the ultimate Spider-Man?
Cort Lane: In telling really exciting story and introducing a lot of characters for him to play off of and team up with, he learned something through the experience or he had something to teach them. There was a lot of that in season three and four in particular, but we really wanted to isolate him and tell his final story in these final two episodes. We needed a great story reason to do that. It’s very easy to just have him team up with 27 of his super hero friends who are all there to support him because they believe in him, but separating him from all of them and separating him from his powers was a much harder way to tell that story but also really delivered on the message from the beginning about being the best hero. It’s not just about using the powers to stop the villain as he did in that first episode and causes a huge mess, but using them in the smartest, most heroic way possible. We wanted to make sure we had that Nick Fury moment at the very end which is a bookend to the opening Fury moment in the beginning of the first episode to show how far he’s come. Who knows how many kids actually saw that first episode, but it was important for us.
Marvel.com: You’ve come to the finish line on “Ultimate Spider-Man,” but there’s another series in the works. What can you tell us about “Marvel’s Spider-Man”?
Cort Lane: I can’t give away too much, but I will say is there’s a lot that worked about “Ultimate Spider-Man.” The ratings kept increasing in season three which caused us to continue the show. We’ve talked a lot to kids around the country about the show and how much they love it. The big question mark was, how do we make a show that’s different from show and ideally better than this show. That was a big challenge.
There were a lot of things we knew we could do and one of them was go back to his very first moment becoming Spider-Man and tell that story. It hadn’t been told in many, many years in animation. Another thing we could do is very directly focus on that experience of being a teenager and dealing with this really weird stuff. One thing we could also do more of was focus on his science smarts which boys have really told us is kind of its own super power. While there is certainly some of that [in “Ultimate”] and he actually solved the problems in the final episode through his science smarts, there was more to do with that from day one of him being a super hero. He’s creating his own tools and gear and what that feels like. And how does he get the resources to do that?
Another big element in this story is that it’s about friendship, new friendships and his friendship with his best friend Harry. We really hone in on that as well.
With “Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man”over, you can still look forward to new episode of “Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Marvel’s Avengers: Ultron Revolution.” Stay tuned to Marvel.com for more news about “Marvel’s Spider-Man” debuting Summer 2017 on Disney XD!