Last year, Marvel turned heads by ending the animated series Ultimate Spider-Man and quickly following it up with a brand new series, Marvel’s Spider-Man. Many questioned the purpose of replacing one Spider-Man cartoon with another, especially given that both shows focus on a high school-age Peter Parker. However, with time it’s become clear that there’s more distinguishing Marvel’s Spider-Man than simply its rebooted continuity and overhauled animation style. Marvel’s Spider-Man is the first animated series that truly feels like an ensemble project. For the first time, Spidey is on equal footing with heroes like Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy and Anya Corazon.
That ensemble approach has really become evident with the show’s current five-part storyline, “Spider-Island.” A loose adaptation of the comic book storyline of the same name, “Spider-Island” explores what happens when millions of Manhattan residents suddenly develop spider powers. That plot twist has allowed for both Spider-Gwen (voiced by Laura Bailey) and Spider-Girl (voiced by Melanie Minichino) to join Peter and Miles in the superhero game, effectively transforming Spider-Man from a solo player to a member of a full-fledged superhero team.
A lot has been made about the push for greater diversity in the superhero genre. The heavy emphasis on both Spider-Gwen and Spider-Girl in this series feels like a critical step in the right direction in that regard. Marvel Studios may be a year away from giving fans the female-driven superhero movie they’ve been demanding in Captain Marvel, but at least we have an animated series where two intelligent, capable, adventurous heroines are being given the focus they deserve.
Spider-Gwen is easily one of the bigger success stories out of Marvel’s comic book division in some time. She was introduced in 2014’s Spider-Verse crossover before quickly spinning out into her own solo series. In the comics, Spider-Gwen hails from an alternate universe where she was bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker. If the Spider-Gwen comics have proven anything, it’s that Spider-Man is bigger than just Peter Parker, and that placing another hero in the costume opens up whole new storytelling avenues.
The Spider-Gwen seen in Marvel’s Spider-Man differs quite a bit from the source material, in part because she exists in the same universe as the classic Spider-Man. But the core appeal of the character remains. The show has taken a character whose primary purpose was once to become a tragic casualty in Peter’s life and elevated her into something more meaningful and inspirational. This version of Gwen Stacy is someone who’s already proven herself to be Peter’s intellectual and physical equal. She makes for a crucial role model in a time when young girls have too few superheroines to look up to in TV and film.
The same goes for Anya, who is finally making her belated TV debut thanks to this series. Anya represents an earlier effort by Marvel to broaden the scope of its universe and give readers a new hero who breaks the mold in terms of race, gender and background. Anya has been in and out of the spotlight over the years, with both her powers and her codename regularly fluctuating. But through it all, her appeal has remained consistent. Anya allows Marvel to tell the sort of teen-focused Spider-Man adventures that are no longer possible with the adult Peter Parker. And at the same time, she’s different enough in terms of her background, abilities and family relationships that her comics don’t simply rehash the early years of Amazing Spider-Man. Anya even made a go at being a superhero when her powers faded entirely, which isn’t something we could see Peter Parker pulling off.
Between Spectacular Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man and now Marvel’s Spider-Man, viewers have gotten plenty of a teenage Peter Parker battling villains and struggling to balance his personal and superhero lives. It seems clear at this point that the success of Marvel’s Spider-Man will depend less on finding new angles on Peter himself than how it makes use of his spider-powered partners. Along with Miles (who’s due for his big screen animated debut late this year), Spider-Gwen and Spider-Girl are really the key to setting this young series apart from those that have come before. They may well be able to attract a broader audience than a Peter Parker-focused animated series ever could. There’s a lot to be said for a series that showcases multiple teen girls who are both superheroes and highly intelligent scientists and inventors.
When it comes to Spider-Gwen in particular, it seems as though Marvel has barely begun to tap into this character’s potential as a multimedia powerhouse. Why doesn’t Spider-Gwen have her own animated series? Why isn’t there a Spider-Gwen movie in the works? With any luck, Marvel’s Spider-Man will help make those projects a reality and remind fans why it’s a great thing when Marvel’s heroines are put front and center.
The conclusion of “Spider-Island” airs Sunday, February 11 from 8 a.m. on Disney XD. Plus, check out our explainer on how Marvel’s Spider-Man differentiates itself from Ultimate Spider-Man.