"The Super Hero Squad Show" Vol. 1: Prime Grade Super Hero Silliness
The Super Hero Squad Show is the demented radioactive mutant love child of Marvel Comics superheroes and Looney Tunes, and the miracle isn’t that it works as well as it does but that it works at all. This show and Batman: The Brave and the Bold came along at just the right time, with both sending a blast of fresh air in a genre that is prone to falling into creative ruts and taking itself far too seriously. Shout! Factory has further cemented its position as the connoisseur’s choice for TV on DVD with The Super Hero Squad Show Vol. 1: Quest for the Infinity Sword!
Set in the metropolis of Super Hero City, The Super Hero Squad Show pits a raft of Marvel’s most iconic heroes (led by Iron Man) against the evil forces of Doctor Doom and his passel of bad guys. The nominal source of their conflict are the “fractals” scattered around: fragments of the impossibly powerful Infinity Sword that was shattered as Iron Man and Doom fought over it. The fractals are actually one of the show’s more inspired ideas: an easy-to-digest MacGuffin serving equally well as the overarching framework for the show, the plot engine to drive most of the episodes, and an all-purpose excuse to do something zany or crazy because it’s been a few minutes since something zany or crazy happened. The fractals are tremendously powerful, but also almost totally random; simply touching one can produce results as disparate as turning someone into a drooling nutball, granting someone super strength and the ability to strip the superpowers from those nearby, or turning the childish green Hulk into an insufferably smarter gray version. In the end, though, the fractals and the setting and everything else provides just enough cover for the show to get good guys and bad guys to smash into each other, bounce off or through a few walls, and blow stuff up. All presented in appropriately cartoonish TV-Y7 violence, of course. The show is often compared to Batman: The Brave and the Bold, but I think perhaps a better touchstone for it would be The Powerpuff Girls, which also had rather distinctive character designs and got a lot of comedic mileage out of poking fun at the hoary conventions of the superhero story genre.
In addition to Iron Man, the core team of the Super Hero Squad is formed by the Hulk, Thor, Wolverine, the Falcon, and the Silver Surfer. Veterans like Captain America, Doctor Strange, Ms. Marvel, and the Wasp appear semi-regularly, and the newcomer Reptil injects a bit of new blood into the proceedings. Doom is left with the thuggish Abomination and the pint-sized terror MODOK, although his rotating cast of supporting villains is broader and rotates more frequently. But for a few omissions (the most prominent being Spider-Man), this actually turns out to be the Marvel Zombie’s dream show, at least cast-wise. However, I am sure there is much gnashing of teeth among those selfsame Marvel Zombies over how utterly and unapologetically silly this show is. While there is plenty of over-the-top superhero action, the super-distorted character designs and more lighthearted tone clearly mark this show off for the younger kids in the audience. This is probably enough to drive off many fans with no sense of humor at all and who insist that superheroing should be Serious Business.
Personally, I think this is as big of a mistake as dismissing the comparably kid-friendly Marvel Adventures line of comics, which may be less sophisticated and angst-ridden than the mainline titles, but which are also a hell of a lot more fun. The Super Hero Squad Show is also surprisingly faithful to the comic-book versions of these characters in many ways. I don’t know who was responsible for the leap from the bathetic, speech-i-fying Silver Surfer of the comics to the slightly spaced out, cosmic surfer dude on this show (hilarously voiced by Mikey Kelly), but this person deserves a raise. Best of all, despite the surface change, the show still manages to capture much of the most compelling “fish out of water” aspects of the Surfer’s character (especially in his spotlight episode on this disc, “This Silver, This Surfer!”). For the most part, it does the same across the board for everyone else.
Speaking of the voice cast, The Super Hero Squad Show has assembled a quite a cast, mixing up Marvel veterans with some wonderful newcomers. Steve Blum pitches up his Wolverine performance compared to the way he voices the character in Hulk Vs. or Wolverine and the X-Men, but still communicates the same gruff prickliness. Travis Willingham does some wonderful work to make a one-note character like the Hulk appealing (and gets to stretch some dramatic muscles as the smarter gray Hulk in the otherwise mildly disappointing episode “Hulk Talk Smack!”). Tom Kenny certainly provides value for the money, serving as both Iron Man and the bubble-voiced MODOK, with the latter being perhaps the breakout character of this series in the same way that Aquaman is the often the highlight of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Finally, special kudos must be given to the Mayor of Super Hero City, voiced by Stan “The Man” Lee himself, who finally has a character to play than can fully exploit his huckster charm.
Not everything is perfect, especially on this first volume (of what will hopefully be many). Like Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the show is clearly still finding its footing in the early episodes on this disc. A lot of the episodes don’t feel terribly cohesive, and many just end rather than wrapping up nicely. While they can still draw laughs more often than not, it feels as though the writers were still figuring out exactly how far they could take the gags. As a result, these episodes sometimes have a slight air of comedic desperation, falling back on broad, non-sequitur slapstick fairly often. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially when it’s funny, but it’s not until around episode 5 or 6 that the show really feels like it’s found a comfortable tone, even as it still engages in broad slapstick like covering Doctor Doom in kid-spit and gummy worms or seeing what happens when you throw MODOK into a bathtub. The show also suffers from a problem transplanted from the comics: Marvel has no real iconic female superheroes in the league of someone like Wonder Woman, and there is a decided lack of them on this show. Of the regularly recurring female characters, Ms. Marvel is an unpleasant shrew with the thankless role of den mother to a pack of unruly boys (which, admittedly, does set up an incredibly funny upcoming episode). On the other hand, the Wasp is a winning character who’s fits in just fine with the boys in spite of her gender. Elements like the Falcon’s compulsion to protect her are just as much because of her size as her sex, and Jennifer Morrison’s vocal performance is charming enough to make one wish she were in the show a lot more often.
If Shout! Factory has proven anything over the years, it’s that they know how to do TV on DVD right. Quest for the Infinity Sword contains a whopping seven episodes of the show, all in sharp anamorphic widescreen presentations and stereo sound, with ample chapter breaks within episodes. There are also a small but serviceable number of bonus features included, with the highlight being a short interview session with Stan Lee that runs for a little more than two-and-a-half minutes. He’s as affable and bombastic as ever, and happily talks up his moment in the sun in another upcoming episode. The disc also includes a music video that sends the characters around the world (best for its visit to the Oval Office to meet it’s current comic book fan resident), along with a handful of trailers for the show, the MMORPG coming in 2011, and a video game tie-in. Compare this to Warner Home Video’s offerings thus far for Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which offer only four or five episodes per disc with no extras worth talking about for the same price tag.
Even though the best is yet to come for The Super Hero Squad Show, there’s still plenty of fun to be had on this first volume of the series. As I said, I’m sure there are people who pooh-pooh its more kid-friendly sensibilities, super-deformed designs, and willingness to spray laughing gas all over cherished superhero icons. With all due respect, these people are wrong and silly and need to save up to buy a sense of humor, maybe by skipping an issue or two of Angst Man or Superhero Comic Revealing Uncomfortable Sexual Hang-Ups About Women. The Super Hero Squad Show is good, clean, stupid fun and it’s the kind of thing we need more of.