The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Cartoon?
In an attempt to quell the childish, near-giddy excitement that seems to be building in my nerd hind-brain in advance of the release of the Avengers film (renamed the rather more clunky Avengers Assemble in the UK for legal reasons) I may have, accidentally, watched the entire first series of The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes… Part of Marvel’s on-going attempts to jump the sinking ship of the American comics industry, alongside their endeavours in film and the series’ new companion cartoon Ultimate Spider-Man, the resurgence of an animated Marvel universe is an effort to create new nerds, rather than just court the existing ones, with the bonus effect of drawing the support of all the four-colour fans of old.
Alongside some well-written scripts that balance the minutia of nerd-cannon and a more accessible bent, the series has an acute sense of its own inherent absurdity; the more child-friendly version of M.O.D.O.C. (Now with a “C” for Conquest rather than a “K” for Killing) takes more of an emotional pounding for the frankly absurd character design he’s been saddled with than a physical beating, and after being pitted against yet another silver age villain Thor casually remarks “Tis surprising how many monkeys we face in battle”. But, rather than undercut the intended drama of other scenes and storylines, these moments of levity offer up a self-awareness that stops the more serious elements becoming melodrama, from being po-faced and even more unbelievable than the efforts of titans, gods and superheroes.
The serial format is both a curse and a blessing: It allows for far more of the comics’ mythos and history to be presented and gives the writers room to indulge their more fannish urges as well as service the stories of the cartoon universe but stops there from being a sense of event around each of the individual stories. Where, in film, the scant volume of the material allows the audience to believe that they are watching the heroes’ most epic adventures, with the more mundane of their battles being not dramatic enough to recount, the Avengers’ cartoon shows the earth imperilled so frequently that diminishing returns eventually set in. This may, in part, be a problem emphasised by my having watched the entire series in only two days, but I will brook no criticism for that…
There are other problems too, given the Avengers’ lengthy publication history in comics it seems crazy that they’d only pick one of their female characters to be on the team, and to regress her to her ditzy sixties society gal persona is even more embarrassingly anachronistic. It’s not that the Wasp lacks for moments of heroism, just that dialogue and interactions she is given play up the tokenism of her presence with far less self-awareness and respect than those of the Black Panther, another minority within the genre whose inclusion merely highlights a chronic absence of diversity. Also, in lighter complaints, the theme tune is cringingly awful and the uncanny not-quite Robert Downey Jr.-impersonating voice actor who plays Iron Man takes some getting used to.
But in spite of all that, and the occasional hand-holding that’s part and parcel of the all ages’ narrative, it’s a surprisingly mature series. Mimicking the form of the early Avengers comics, the stories tend to be relatively self-contained but with a number of subplots, concerning both the individual heroes and the team itself, which help to define the world of the series as being something more than primary coloured goodies beating up secondary coloured baddies. It lacks the narrative and artistic focus of something like Batman: The Animated Series, which given the size and established designs of its cast is probably inevitable, but the slow build to the Avengers’ most famous storylines is deeply satisfying. I still can’t wait to see the film, but now I get to look forward to the second series of the cartoon as well.
So… Excelsior! As someone far cooler than me once said…