Let us talk about the Rhino for a bit, shall we? This week’s Ultimate Spider-Man (Season 3, Episode 17) brings back their version of the Rhino to destroy downtime New York, who bears pretty much no resemblance to any prior version of the Rhino at all. Which would be fine in and of itself since every prior version of the Rhino is boring as sin (even the Paul Giamatti version from Amazing Spider-Man 2, which shouldn’t be possible) and just about anything would be a step in the right direction, no? Well, in theory this version of Rhino is potentially more interesting than those that have come before, but that potential is never realized.
In the show the Rhino is actually a high school kid who was bullied by Flash Thompson (who also bullied Peter Parker, and is now part of Spider-Man’s team as Agent Venom), who then went to work for SHIELD for a while before stealing some chemicals in a bid to make himself stronger. The process worked and turned him into a giant humanoid-rhinoceros with rage issues, but it also appears that the transition is not temporary or reversible. He first appeared early in season two, and then made a few guest shots as a member of the Sinister Six, before arriving at this week’s episode as a prisoner of SHIELD. He gets hit with the one-two punch of discovering that his bully is now Agent Venom and that SHIELD can’t reverse the effect of the chemicals he took. This could actually have been an interesting story about him coming to grips with his new situation, or even getting some revenge against Flash for years of bullying, but all that pretty much gets tossed aside so that the Hulk can guest-star and spar with Rhino for ten minutes. In fairness they do eventually come around to the angle that Rhino just needs to be accepted for who he is now, but it only comes in the last few minutes of the episode, and does kind of come from left-field. The subplot about Flash’s bullying gets hand-waved away by Rhino halfheartedly forgiving him and everything goes back to what it was.
There are motions in this episode towards Flash learning two valuable lessons: first that he really is just a rookie and his brute powers won’t always win the day by default, and second that he still has a lot to make up for from his past. Neither of these really gets explored, though, thanks to the Hulk showing up. Considering that the remit of the series at present is to give these young heroes a chance to train and learn under the guidance of SHIELD it is a bit odd to see that tossed aside a single episode after it is established to guest-star the Hulk. And that’s not even counting the fact that in a straight-up Hulk versus Rhino fight there really is no competition: Hulk could wipe the floor with Rhino (and has, in the comics) without even breaking a sweat. The show could have benefited a lot from Agent Venom being forced to face the fact that the Rhino outclasses him in strength, and having to come up with a plan to win without the Hulk stepping in. It is a great character moment for Venom that is straight up missed, and that is disappointing.
Now let’s see just how different the Rhino is from his page-bound counterparts. In the comics we have a couple different versions of the Rhino to pick from, but the most famous would be the classic Rhino who first appeared back in 1966. Russian Aleksei Sytsevich was a poor immigrant in America who could only ever make money by working as an enforcer, which eventually led him to volunteer for an experimental procedure that bonded a polymer to his skin. This granted him even more strength and resilience, but also made him look a complete doofus in a rhino costume. He then spent the next five decades trying to raise enough money to reverse the process and live the American dream. Interestingly enough he did actually eventually get the suit off, and was even happy for a while before a new man wearing a more powerful Rhino suit (composed mostly of cybernetics and robotics) tried to make a name for himself by killing his predecessor. The new Rhino succeeded in killing Aleksei’s wife, but failed to kill the man himself. Aleksei, in his grief, puts his old costume back on and killed the new Rhino during the Gauntlet event in the Spider-books.
As you can probably tell the regular Rhino generally is not portrayed as a bad guy so much as a guy who just wants to live a decent life, but circumstances tend to get in the way. There’s some good angles to that story, but outside of a few issues here and there the Rhino is mostly played for laughs or as a generic henchmen (understandably, given his outfit and limited skills). For instance, he appeared during Gail Simone’s run on Deadpool and spent almost the entire time shrunk to a miniature size, which caused him to alternate being a key-ring for Deadpool and wandering around the office in a hamster ball. Any attempt at more in depth characterization is generally lost once you realize just how ridiculous his entire concept is.
In the ultimate universe (comics, not the show), the Rhino suit is more of a power armor that is heavily mechanized. Having not read his ultimate appearances I can’t comment on much more than that, but the idea behind it is at least more sound than his grafted polymer suit from the regular Marvel universe. This was also the design that inspired his look in the closing scenes of Amazing Spider-Man 2, and would potentially continue on to the Sinister Six and Amazing Spider-Man 3 movies, if they ever got made (unlikely given the fact that Sony is talking about rebooting the franchise again). That suit only got featured for about a minute or so, and thus we have no idea how well that would work out in practice.
There have been a few other iterations of Rhino across the years, but these are the most stand-out of the bunch. He rarely makes it past being a one-dimensional character, and when he does make two-dimensional status it doesn’t typically last very long. Frankly he should just be straight-up retired at this point, but somehow he has managed to cement himself as a classic Spider-villain and will likely continue to make appearances long into the future.
As for the episode itself, it doesn’t have much going for it and is mostly just an action slugfest between Hulk and the Rhino with little characterization. Given the ending we will likely be seeing much more of the Rhino as the season progresses, so hopefully the writers have some ideas for story arcs for him.
You can check out Ultimate Spider-Man: “Rampaging Rhino” on Disney XD in reruns, or in Amazon Instant Video. (It will more than likely join the other episodes of Ultimate Spider-Man on Netflix after the season finishes).
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