Wilcox Talks About Guiding Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man to the Finish Line in 4th Season
When Disney XD’s “Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man” debuted back in 2012 on Disney XD, it immediately blazed a new trail for itself by putting young Peter Parker in the hands of S.H.I.E.L.D. for some much-needed Super Hero training.
Over the next four season, he worked with a variety of teams including alternate reality versions of himself, but the end goal was always the same: the become the ultimate version of himself.
Now, with the series coming to a close this Saturday at 7:30 PM on Disney XD with a two-part episode called “Graduation Day,” it seemed like the perfect time to talk to Supervising Producer and Senior Director of Television Development and Production Harrison Wilcox about how he went from a guy working on his first animated series to the one in charge through a season that featured Arnim Zola, Hydra, Carnage, more alternate reality fun and a finale that finds Doctor Octopus leading a Sinister Six in a plot that threatens everything Peter’s built over these four seasons.
Marvel.com: You’ve worked on this show for four seasons and the finale hits this weekend. What’s it like for you to have it come to a close?
Harrison Wilcox: I have mixed emotions on it. I feel like we did the show proper service the way we wrapped it up. We not just wrapped up this season, but we had an opportunity, which you don’t always have in television, which was to wrap up the entire show. I think you see that a lot in the first episode of the two-part finale where each act we featured Spider-Man with one of his teams. We started with the S.H.I.EL.D. team, then the New Warriors and the Web-Warriors. I’m very grateful we were able to know where the track ended and do it service. With development, after five-and-half to six years, I’m happy to get off the Spider-Man train for a little bit. [laughs]
Marvel.com: What were your roles over the course of the show and how did they evolve?
Harrison Wilcox: This was my first animated series that I ever worked on. I came into the writer’s room at the time which was Cort Lane, Jeph Loeb, Joe Quesada, Dan Buckley, Man of Action, Paul Dini, Brian Bendis. I’m the low man on the pole in that room and it’s full of people have been my heroes in television and comics for most of my life, so it was a very surreal experience for the first two seasons. By the third season, as I had spent more time working in Marvel Television and we had new story editors come in — Henry Gilroy and Eugene Son and then Kevin Burke and Doc Wyatt — I was able to grow in my role and work my way up through the writer’s summits into a more collaborative role with our writers and our supervising director Alex Soto. As the show grew, I was able to grow with it and I couldn’t have asked for a better first animated show to work on.
Marvel.com: You mentioned some pretty heavy hitters in the world of storytelling. Do you feel like you learned about the art of creating a great story from them?
Harrison Wilcox: Absolutely. Those guys all have different personalities and attacks for how they break a story and the thing I took away more than anything was that there’s more than one right way to tell a story. We were able to demonstrate that over the course of the show.
Marvel.com: What was it like to have Cort and the others pass the reigns more fully to you for the fourth season?
Harrison Wilcox: To be honest, we did not go into this show planning past 52 [episodes], so having a third season was a nice surprise and then having a fourth season after the third season actually did better than the first two was an even bigger surprise. Cort and Steve Wacker threw the idea of a fourth season to me and they threw our story editors Kevin and Doc at me. Because there had been a couple months between the end of season three and season four, being the WHAT IF?! comic book fan I am, I always wondered could there be another story to tell. I felt like we’d wrapped up Goblin and Norman’s relationship with Peter, but we hadn’t really wrapped up Ock’s relationship with Peter. I had a couple ideas that I threw to Steve and Cort, they threw some other ideas back and me. Then I talked with the animation manager Kari Rosenberg. She and I met with Kevin and Doc and over the course of nine months we broke out the individual stories.
We had a master plan all along, but over the course of that year we broke out individual stories that filled in all those gaps. That was a really nice experience for Cort and Steve to trust me and the team that they’d put together to tell this story.
Marvel.com: What were some of the key characters and themes that you really wanted to hit on as the show closed out?
Harrison Wilcox: We wanted to always keep it half about Peter Park, half about Spider-Man. We never want to lose what makes Spider-Man special, which is Peter Parker. We wanted to keep the relationship with Aunt May alive and we wanted to bring more of Peter Parker into the show.
The show had certain requirements that got us farther away from Midtown High in season three, we established S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy and more of Peter’s life was spent with S.H.I.E.L.D., so we were trying to figure out a way to bring Peter back to Midtown and actually decided to try something new. As Doc put it, it’s a unique opportunity to bring Midtown, in a way, to S.H.I.E.L.D. We had Harry Osborn, Mary Jane and Flash Thompson as well as Amadeus Cho all in some capacity have a relationship or join S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy. In the Symbiote Saga arc Flash nicknamed them the Midtown Marauders. We actually those guys as a superhero team for an episode which is something I’d never seen before in comics or anything. It was a nice opportunity to do that while still staying true to who Peter Parker is as a character.
Marvel.com: The show has always done a great job of bringing characters into Peter’s life that he can learn from in a variety of ways. Were there any you were particularly interested in bringing in this season?
Harrison Wilcox: I have a soft spot in my heart for Flash Thompson as Agent Venom, but I was most excited about Scarlet Spider. I think he had a phenomenal arc and was a dark parallel to Peter. Scott Porter, who did the voice, did a fantastic job. Scarlet completed that team dynamic. He played off all the other characters really nicely and he and Peter had one of the most emotional relationships we’ve ever seen on the show.
Marvel.com: Earlier you mentioned having the set-up of the season figured out, but how much of the actual finale did you have nailed down beforehand?
Harrison Wilcox: Before we started with the first episode, we knew pretty well what the first half of the season was. We knew that arc between Peter and Scarlet, how that was going to play out. We knew that later in the season we wanted to do a return to Spider-Verse arc. We wanted to do a Maximum Carnage arc that developed into the Symbiote Saga.
We framed each of those arcs. The first half of the season was Peter and Scarlet and then each of those others featured Peter and another member of the Web-Warriors. The Symbiote Saga was about Peter and Flash and a little bit of Harry and MJ. The Return To Spider-Verse was Miles and Peter and the Spider Slayers was about Scarlet coming back and MJ coming into her own. We really wanted to have these mini arcs that focused on Peter and one other member of his Web-Warriors team.
We didn’t exactly know how those stories would break out or fit together or how that would lead to the finale. We knew we wanted to wrap up the whole season. We knew this season that Doc Ock was going to learn Spider-Man’s identity and that he would get waylaid over the course of other arcs and not get a chance to put his final plan into play until the very end. We knew we wanted to bookend that. We didn’t realize how many other things we wanted to bookend, you know Trapster waiting outside the cake shop. We had a joke that he’d been waiting there for four seasons. We wrapped up Harry and Norman really well in a way that I had not seen before and obviously the Nick Fury-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Spider-Man completing his training and no longer needing S.H.I.E.L.D. to do what he does best.
Marvel.com: You and the team have done some interesting things with this character that we don’t usually see like Aunt May knowing the identity and Norman’s ultimate arc. Was there ever any concern from higher up about those moves?
Harrison Wilcox: We’re not trying to do a page-by-page adaptation of any version from other media, we’re just trying to stay true to the core of who Spider-Man is. Everyone at Marvel is aware of what we’re doing and involved, but there is also a trust with the people we’ve hired to shepherd those characters properly and stay true to who they are. We are supposed to try and make things exciting and different. I think we did that.
In the case of Norman, we had the benefit of the show ending whereas in other mediums the story continues on. We saw it not so much as giving him a happy ending, but after all he, Peter and Harry had been through, especially in season three, it felt like it would take away from what Peter had gone through and the trials he’d been through to return Norman to villainous form. Norman says in the finale something like, “After all you did for me and my family and I realized you and Spider-Man are one in the same, I realized I should do better myself.” Spider-Man actually saved Norman as the Goblin, but Peter Parker saved Norman as the human and that was a really great moment in the finale.
Marvel.com: Kind of mirroring that is the relationship between Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man. How did you want to leave Doc Ock at the end of the show?
Harrison Wilcox: He has a chance, it’s up to him. It never feels like a complete win, at least for me, for Spider-Man to just lock up the villain. If Peter Parker can get through and redeem the villain, that, to me, is the true win. We saw that in various forms over the course of the show with Sandman, Rhino, Vulture and Scarlet. When those characters were on the fence, there’s some really interesting storytelling opportunities. When Rhino is on the side of the angels, that is very interesting. And that relationship that Rhino and Agent Venom have, we didn’t plan for that, it naturally grew out of that situation. It was really interesting for us. Putting these characters in challenging situations was very rewarding for us on this show.
Marvel.com: Were there any other relationships or beats that grew or developed in ways you didn’t expect?
Harrison Wilcox: We knew Scarlet and Peter would balance well because Peter’s always making quips and Scarlet hates the quips. They’re each the flipside of the coin. Scarlet and Agent Venom and Scarlet and Spider-Woman, those were both really interesting character dynamics that we did not plan for. Doc Ock and Dr. Morbius, that was really interesting. We didn’t plan for that. Of course, any time Arnim Zola, played by Mark Hamill came on screen, he was such a troll to Doc Ock, his partner at Hydra. Every time he showed up just to gloat or show how Ock had screwed up, we could not stop laughing every time that happened. That was so much fun.
Marvel.com: Doc takes a pretty interesting physical and visual turn in the finale. Was that something scripted or designed by the animators?
Harrison Wilcox: We work closely with Alex Soto, the supervising director and he works with Eric Radomski about what the design is going to look like. We make sure it doesn’t contradict the story, but we like giving the artists the freedom to do what’s best, not just to look great, but for how well it will animate in the situation. We’d seen over the course of the show, Ock turn all these other people into monsters or animal creatures, and the final Sinister Six was all animal-inspired with Ock, Rhino, Scorpion, Vulture, Lizard and Kraven as a kind of lion. Why doesn’t Ock do it to himself if that’s his last ditch effort to become the Ultimate Doc Ock? We threw out stuff and Alex Soto and company did something very creepy. I’m glad it wasn’t on screen too long because it’s really creepy.
His transformation over the course of the season was really interesting. You can piece it together by conversations between him and Zola and Hydra about how his look transformed and that was taken away. Maybe what he was promised by Hydra did not come through until he broke in during the Spider Slayers arc. You can really track his physical transformation this season. It was really a lot of fun to play with that.
Marvel.com: How key was Doctor Octopus learning Spider-Man’s true identity to how he came out the final plan of his seen in the last episodes?
Harrison Wilcox: With Ock learning his identity, it seemed like the next logical step. Up until then, Ock just knew Spider-Man and would try to destroy Spider-Man. Now that he knows that his enemy is a high school boy, it’s not going to necessarily turn into, “I’m going to destroy Peter Parker, but I’m going to destroy Spider-Man and leave this boy with nothing except the humiliation he’s given me.”
Where he got to at the end of the two episodes is, he’s ready to be Peter Parker Spider-Man by himself. He doesn’t need S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore. Him being on his own again was a great way to guide him down the path we were trying to get to.
Marvel.com: As you mentioned before you’re feeling a mix of emotions about ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN ending, but what other projects are keeping you busy these days?
Harrison Wilcox: I’m working AVENGERS: SECRET WARS, the fourth season. We’ve got some stuff I’m very excited about. We are taking a lot of inspiration from various versions of the Secret Wars over the years in publishing, but I think we found an interesting avenue for how we’re telling this particular version. We’re seeing a lot of the new Avengers we saw in season three. Black Panther and Captain Marvel are coming back with new and old Avengers mixing together in interesting ways. It all leads up to, probably, the biggest event arc we’ve done since I’ve been here at Marvel Animation. It’s this massive Battleworld Secret Wars arc where we’re seeing things mixed and matched together that you’ve never seen before. All I’ll say is dinosaurs and cowboys, just mash-ups you would not believe that would not fit anywhere else in any other story. We’re just doing weird and fun things that are “Wow I’ve never thought of that” or “Why haven’t I ever thought of that?” things.
I’m also working on the animated “Guardians of the Galaxy” series. We’re also trying to find that fun new take of stuff from publishing. There’s a lot of high profile cosmic characters showing up more and more. We’re finding fun new team dynamics for the core team and just listening to Rocket and Groot argue always makes me laugh.
The series finale of “Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man” airs this Saturday at 7:30 PM ET on Disney XD! Watch a new clip above and stay tuned to Marvel.com for all the latest news and updates on your favorite Marvel animated series.