Saturday, December 18, 2010

Avengers: Earth's Nerdy-est Heroes

I apologize for not getting to Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes earlier, but there’s been little fan interest in it, and I don’t regularly watch its network, Disney XD. However, it’s turned out to be one of the first things Disney has originated since its purchase of Marvel Comics, and it does not bode well for the future of that ownership.

The Good

Unlike a lot of superhero stories, this one begins its origin stories in the middle of things. SHIELD, the military/spy organization, has four prisons, each holding various supervillains. One day, all four prisons break down and all the inmates escape. It’s up to a ragtag group of superheroes, mostly led by Iron Man, to capture them all.

The Avengers has some fifty years of comic book history behind it, and as one of the nice touches, this show features the main characters that started out the book. Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Ant-Man and The Wasp are the central characters. The characters are done in a clean, simple style that owes a lot to anime; there’s no heavy shadow, rounded shading or other dark effects.

The characters are pretty much what you might expect. This version of Iron Man is clearly based on the recent movies, and voice actor Eric Loomis tries to sound as casual and slick as Morton Downey Jr. Rick D. Wasserman doesn’t have a live-action model for Thor (the movie isn’t out yet) but gives him that noble-warrior pseudo-Shakesperian feel. Fred Tatasciore does The Hulk in one of his smarter incarnations, avoiding the “Hulk Smash!” primitivism. As the only female in the starting lineup, Colleen O'Shaughnessey gives The Wasp a cute, sarcastic voice; she’s a girl thrilled to mix it up in battle with the big boys.

Besides the fifty years of comics, The Avengers have had a spotty history in animation. In the 1960’s the ugly Grantray-Lawrence animated series (done for local syndication) were basically Jack Kirby’s comic book panels given minimal animation. In 1999, the series Avengers: United They Stand (done for Fox) used only the second-string characters like Tigra, Hawkeye and Ant-Man. There were two direct-to-video movies made of Ultimate Avengers that, like other Marvel video movies, were unenthusiastic.

Given that history, I was surprised and pleased by this new series. The characters look, sound and think like those comic book characters I saw as a kid. Well, smarter than those characters, and for a curious reason.

Stan Lee is listed as “co-Executive Producer” along with current Marvel Comics editor Joe Quesada, but his bombastic voice doesn’t appear in this show. I’m not a hater of Lee, but in all honesty, his heavy hand and insistence on putting his stamp on everything Marvel has dragged down many projects. Writing styles in comics and cartoons have changed since Stan wrote all those stories by himself, and the dialog in this series sounds fresh and interesting.

The Bad

With fifty years of backstory, the producers at Film Roman and Marvel Animation decided to feature as much of that history as they could. In the two-part pilot episode, it’s mentioned that seventy-odd superpowered villains are loose, and it seems as if every one of them was shown in the episode. You don’t get to know them as characters, only as names and vague powers. “That’s Crusher Creel, The Absorbing Man. He absorbs the properties of everything he touches! Here’s The Leader, a gamma powered genius as smart as The Hulk is strong! Here’s…” You get the point.

Look, that might please comic book nerds. Perhaps the writers and producers are nerds themselves, eager to show off their favorites. Or more likely, Marvel Animation and their parent corporation Disney wanted to get the likenesses of all these villains established and copyrighted at once. But if I were a kid and happened upon this series, I’d get confused by all these characters and I’d give up on it.

The same deluge happens with the heroes, although slower. It is true that Captain America was re-introduced in the fourth issue of The Avengers comics, and by putting him in Episode 6 they’re taking things…slowly. But they’re involving other heroes like Black Widow, Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye peripherally and quickly. We’ll soon have a flood of heroes we barely know and barely care about.

The Unhistorical

By the way, speaking of Captain America, the series shows his foes in World War II to be Hydra, not the Nazis. In the comics, Hydra was an all-purpose fascist organization that grew out of the ashes of the Third Reich. In this series, Hitler and the Third Reich didn’t exist, only Hydra. There is an economic reason behind this; Germany still does not allow the use of the swastika, Hitler or Nazi iconography in its entertainment media. By using Hydra, this series can run in Germany without any problems. But it cheapens many things, including the real-world evil of the Nazis and the origin of comic books themselves.

Most of the writers, artists and editors of comic books were Jews. The heroes they created were a response to the Holocaust in Europe, and the prejudice they faced in America. Although comics were considered horrid, evil works by people in their own time, in recent years comic books have become accepted and even lauded as one of the great contributions of Jews to American culture. By eliminating the Nazis, the producers have cheapened these creations.

While The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is probably the best adaptation of this particular super-group ever made, its flaws are serious. The kid audience, who mostly aren’t comic book nerds and who don’t know all these characters, will find it hard to care about these heroes and their battles. And that means they won’t likely care much about the live-action Avengers movie Disney is planning to make. We old nerds can’t float your boat for you, Disney; you need to get young nerds, too.