In the aftermath of the Skrull invasion, the Daily Bugle has made Captain America its whipping boy for his Skrull imposter's televised message. After failing to make him see reason (as J Jonah Jameson has never been reasonable), Tony makes a deal with Jameson to follow Cap assisting with a prisoner transport to earn some good publicity, with Betty Brant reporting and Peter Parker taking photos. When the convoy is attacked by the Serpent Society, the action leaves Cap, Spider-Man, several SHIELD agents and a dozen civilians stranded beneath the city's subway tunnels.
There is no way to review "Along Came a Spider" without addressing the elephant in the room, so let's get it done. I was in the camp that wanted to like the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon, but had to settle for hating it with a passion and calling for its swift cancellation. When I heard that this episode would feature the voice of Ultimate's Drake Bell instead of Spectacular Spider-Man's Josh Keaton, and that Keaton had actually recorded for the episode before this change of plans, I was quite livid. It felt like the series that I was avoiding out of hatred was being forced on me, while the chance to revisit another series I loved had been stolen away. (The online backlash was strong enough for Keaton himself to post on his tumblr calling for calm and reason, and also to not blame Bell for the situation.) However, it's not nearly as bad as all that. Bell's voice is far more tolerable here, thanks in no small part to a script that portrays Spidey as we know him better: an easy-going, hard-working, wisecracking blue-collar hero rather than the raging irresponsible jerk from Ultimate.
In the end, the Spider-Man we see here isn't identical to the one from Ultimate or Spectacular or any other specific version, but splits the difference by being a standard version of Spidey who's here to serve this episode's story, no different from the Fantastic Four at the start of the season. It's also important to remember that seeing Spider-Man on an Avengers cartoon has been a long time coming. Although I would have loved to hear Keaton's voice again and feel like Spectacular still lived somehow (or even to learn that Spectacular was officially in canon with EMH as I'd always hoped), that isn’t quite what we get, but the result is still a fun and satisfying episode.
The heart of the episode is the interaction between Cap and Spider-Man. Cap (who's using his old triangular shield since his last two were destroyed) is now getting the type of bad press that Spidey deals with on a regular basis, and Spidey asks how Cap can be so nonchalant about it. Cap gives him a speech (he's Cap, he does that) about how he knows of Spidey’s heroics from the police and firemen (I hope that includes Captain Stacy), and how he's not defined by the press or public opinion but by his actions. It's humbling to Spidey, just like you'd expect from meeting Cap. "Can I be your sidekick?" he adorably asks. (See, the Spidey from Ultimate would never say that!)
Despite a strong script, and even overlooking the Ultimate business, there were still a lot of things that stuck out. The opening scene between Stark and Jameson was a big fat missed opportunity. These are two larger-than-life lovable jerks with deep pockets and flexible morals who own their own businesses. Tony should have a better time dealing with Jameson since they should speak the same language. He could approach it like a business deal, convincing Jameson that slamming Cap in his paper is bad for business in the long run, or threaten to buy the company out from under him or something. But instead Tony tries to reason with him the way anyone else would and is utterly shocked that his logical arguments don't work. Also, while there's plenty of reasons for Jameson to do what he's doing, it's farfetched even for him to deny that the Skrulls were shapeshifters. (If even one Skrull was caught shapeshifing on camera, it would be broadcast worldwide 24/7.) Meanwhile Spidey seems short on good wisecracks today. (These are my Spectacular expectations talking.) While dodging a serpent man's attacks, he cracks "the whole snake motif doesn’t work if you have claws!" I don’t know if it's the writing or Bell's delivery, but that was kinda weak. He also should have been throwing out jokes when he was holding up the braces of the tunnel ceiling. Something like "just don’t make me laugh," to show that he uses jokes to keep his cool, instead of "I can't! It’s too heavy!" which feels lazy just so Cap can give him the pep talk. Then there's the small problem of Cap's triangular shield coming back to him when thrown. It's firmly established in the comics that that shield can't do that, and it looks ridiculous seeing it spin on the way back to his hand.
"Along Came a Spider," despite some behind-the-scenes baggage, is a good episode, but not a great one. The action is well done, the script is fun, but a few issues leave it feeling kind of lost.
(And I'm still mad that it wasn't Josh Keaton.)