Disney XD’s Marvel Universe Debut Review
In case you weren't aware, the greatest Marvel animated series ever is Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, and after Season 1 ended with a flourish in June of last year, we've been without it. Last weekend, though, Season 2 finally premiered as part of Disney XD's Marvel Universe animation block with an episode I first saw at last year's San Diego Comic-Con. It's every bit as awesome now as it was then, because it focuses on the greatest supervillain ever – Dr. Doom.
It had been hinted at in the first season that we might get some Fantastic Four action in this series, and fans were salivating at the possibilities, also considering the hints that this takes place in the same universe as the beloved but defunct Wolverine and the X-Men animated series, too. A united Marvel Universe in this series would be the pinnacle of fantastic, and what better way to kick off Season 2 than taking steps toward that dream with the FF in all their fun and glory.
The Avengers are having some downtime, as Wasp and Iron Man go to hang out with Sue Storm and Reed Richards at the Baxter Building, while Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm show up at the Mansion to play cards with Hawkeye, Black Panther, the Hulk and Captain America (and the Cap cliffhanger from the end of last season is subtly referenced here, but it's obviously building towards a huge reveal and big-deal plot). There is glorious comedy in the fact that the Hulk attacks the Thing on sight… and again when Thing beats him with a full house… and later, when the Doombots attack, the Hulk picks up the Thing and clobbers robots with him. This is great, fun play on the longstanding rivalry between those two big beatsticks and it's wonderful.
There's also much hay made of Mr. Fantastic's tendency to get wrapped up in science and ignore his wife and everybody else, highlighted by the fact that Tony Stark apparently enjoys flirting mercilessly with Sue. It's a lot of good character stuff that bursts into action when Doom strikes both the Mansion and the Baxter simultaneously as a diversion for him to abduct Wasp and Invisible Woman. Thus prompting the two teams to swoop into Latveria to get them back, and a whole lot of Doom being awesome and barely breaking a sweat while fending off both teams on his home turf. Then, he just releases his prisoners and says 'get out,' leaving both teams scratching their heads as to what Doom's true game was. And it turns out he's found out Sue Storm is a Skrull, and didn't bother to tell anybody. Seeing as how we know Steve Rogers is now Skrulled up, too, hot damn, Secret Invasion stuff!
This show is still fantastic, and this season will be a blast to watch. Now if only we could get them to release the seasons as one blu-ray package instead of in 4 different volumes of standard DVDs.
Within the Marvel Unvierse animation block are some short interstitials – some cool, some iffy. While it's neat to get extended S.H.I.E.L.D.-style hero profiles and Marvel Master Classes with Joe Quesada showing us how to draw the Hulk, the Marvel Mash-Up shorts are a mixed bag. Basically, they're taking old, clunky Marvel animation clips from shows like the '80s Hulk and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and redubbing the dialog for yuks. While the clips are fast and furious, they're only sorta funny sometimes, with a feeling of trying a bit too hard. Then again, if you don't like one, it'll be over in a second and another one will be coming down the pike. It's a cute gimmick that may hit its stride down the line.
The big new deal, though, was the two-part premiere of Avengers: EMH's lead-in show, the new Ultimate Spider-Man. This series is being touted by head Marvel muckety-mucks Quesada and Jeph Loeb as the first animated effort that has actually been made "by Marvel, for Marvel." It also gives them a one-two punch of marketplace synergy, since both the Avengers and Spider-Man have movies coming out this year.
Loeb recently said, when comparing the two shows at an Ultimate Spider-Man press event, that "Earth's Mightiest Heroes has a tremendous following, and one of the things that's very unique about that show is that it was at a time prior to my coming in, and so it is a very serialized show. There are a lot of characters. What we wanted to do with Spider-Man and going forward is to tell stories that were individualized. Obviously, we want everybody to watch the show every week, but we also know that people's time is often taken that way, so DVR the show. But if you're not going to do that, then the idea is you will be able to catch up. I don't want anybody to sit down on Sunday mornings at 11:00 and suddenly feel like 'oh, I lost the last three episodes, so I don't really know what's going on.' With Spidey, the only part that is a two-parter is the pilot."
I'm trying to read that as Loeb just segueing from an Avengers question back towards the subject of Spidey, but some part of my brain is insistent on interpreting that as a bad sign for a potential Season 3 of Avengers: EMH, which worries me, and the fact that the Disney XD exec at that event insisted that Season 3 is still "TBD" isn't helping with my nerd paranoia. The implication being that A:EMH is not "by Marvel, for Marvel," and thus might not fit in with the plans "going forward."
Anyway, all that squirrelly conjecture aside, how is the new Ultimate Spider-Man? Full of great ideas and obnoxious malarkey. Keep in mind that I'm a man in his 30s reviewing a cartoon on Disney XD that's skewing a lot younger than that, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt, but a lot of the visual flourishes, chibi cherubs and the extremely Nickelodeon/Disney Channel style of Peter Parker voice acting from Drake Bell can get a little grating – although they aren't quite as annoying as I feared they could be. Again, it's that thing where it feels like they're trying a little too hard to be funny, and that is always automatically less funny.
Which isn't to say it's not funny at all – it has its moments, and it's generally fun, with a pretty cool set-up. Peter is still in high school, still bullied by Flash Thompson, and he's been at the Spider-Man game for about a year. His best pals are Harry Osborn and Mary Jane Watson – the latter of whom he's grown up with since childhood and they apparently briefly attempted to have a relationship when they were about 12 and immediately decided 'no way' on that, which makes for an interesting new potential direction. In a flashback, they kiss innocently once and immediately go 'yuck!' Thus, maybe they're not even going to touch that relationship, and MJ gets to be more than just a love interest. In fact, they've actually taken Peter's traditional shutterbug journalist day job and given it to MJ as an actual career choice, thus managing to keep that element (and thus the mightiness of J.K. Simmons' J. Jonah Jameson) while he's off at superhero training with Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.
Yes, Fury, recruits the young and reckless Spidey to be part of a new team of teen heroes in training – including Power Man, Iron Fist, White Tiger and Nova – and while he resists it every step of the way, you know it's inevitable. Basically, it's a sort of Avengers Academy idea, but without the closet supervillainy. It's fun to see characters like Nova and White Tiger hitting the big leagues of TV, and they're actually more interesting than Spidey is at this point, although the web-head's got the streetwise experience that the other trainees need to learn, even though he's got a lot to learn himself. The status quo set up at the end is that the other four heroes transfer to Midtown HIgh School with Peter (and know he's Spider-Man, which freaks him out a bit), and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg from the Marvel movies) is now the acting principal of the school just to keep an eye on them all. Oh, and guess what? Stan Lee is the janitor.
Yes. The show IS pretty fun, and there should be even more when it fully finds its footing and maybe settles down a bit. Although it appears the next episode involves Dr. Doom, which means there may be some cognitive dissonance when we see him in goofball mode after seeing him be so badass in Avengers. Then again, that might be out of the way already, since the EMH episode was immediately followed by a Marvel Mash-Up of 80s Cartoon Doom ranting on about triple rainbows and laser-fists.
Overall, the Marvel Universe animation block is a welcome addition to anybody's nerdy viewing habits, and should be great for your kids as well. But really, Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes is the best one going right now, so write your local Congressman to make sure we get several more seasons of it.