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"Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" DVD: An Object Lesson in Editing

NOTE: Spoilers ahead.

The release of Marvel Animation’s Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes Vol. 1 on DVD provides an interesting object lesson on how editing decisions can greatly alter a film or TV show’s final production. When the show premiered on TV back in October, Marvel released extremely short 5-minute “micro-episodes” to introduce the cast members of the show and introduce many plot threads and supporting characters that would all lead into the two-part series premiere “Breakout.” It was revealed on our forums by Josh Fine, former Marvel Animation Director of Development, that the first five episodes of the show were designed so they could be broken down into the micro-episodes, but re-arranged to form proper episodes of the show. While the episodes were produced as standalone 20-minute TV episodes, their original airings on the Internet and Disney XD showcased a different hero in each 5-minute segment.

The DVD arranges the episodes back into the standalone 20-minute episodes, each of which focuses on one member of the Avengers, but now that I’ve seen them that way, I think this was a mistake. Each one is still a fine standalone episode in its own right, with satisfying beginning, middle, and end portions that all lead into “Breakout,” but the re-arranged order ends up being less effective than the micro-episode ordering for a few reasons. Since each 20-minute episode has its own standalone plot, including crescendos and climaxes, the DVD ordering leaves each of its lead superheroes hanging at the end but forces us to wait far too long for resolutions. After his introduction in the first episode, “Iron Man is Born!”, we have to wait for more than an hour to pick up his story thread again. While we don’t have to wait quite as long to pick up the other heroes’ stories (except for Captain America, where the delay is intentional), it still means that a lot of the tense cliffhanger momentum of these short stories is lost by the time we hit “Breakout.”  In contrast, the “micro-episode” ordering meant that those climaxes and cliffhangers were all concentrated at the end, effectively building tension and raising the stakes for each of the heroes individually. I think this gives even more impact to the events in “Breakout.” The individual climaxes and cliffhangers lead more naturally to the massive super-villain jailbreak and give those events much more weight and importance.

Another case where this ordering actually hurts the overall pacing of the DVD is how the Thor-centric episode “Thor the Mighty” comes second on the disc. The incident involving Loki in the “Isle of Silence” micro-episode is presumably strongly linked to the events in “Breakout.” As it stands on the DVD, it happens a full hour before “Breakout.” In the micro-episode ordering, it’s a beautiful bit of foreshadowing that’s still strongly in memory when “Breakout” occurs. In the DVD ordering, it’s a bit that’s too easily lost in the other events of the next three episodes.

The re-arranged episode order also leaves some elements awkwardly shoehorned in to other segments. The Hawkeye/Black Widow sub-plot and the introduction of the Black Panther work better in isolation than they do as part of these larger episodes that are supposed to be focusing on other superheroes. The micro-episode ordering meant these moments could stand on their own, and thus give each of these characters their own moments in the sun. By having entire micro-episodes devoted purely to them, we get a signal that they are important characters in their own right. In the DVD ordering, getting shoehorned into the closing minutes of another superhero’s spotlight episode has the unintended side-effect of demoting these characters to supplemental status. Even if they aren’t the headliners and won’t join the team when it forms, each of their sub-plots proves important to the series as a whole, but the micro-episode ordering is the one that properly signals their importance in advance.

Finally, the micro-episode ordering is much more effective at communicating a sense of a much larger world which the individual characters can only see a limited part of. Cutting back and forth between each of the individual stories gives a sense that all these events are happening simultaneously. The connections between seemingly unrelated incidents feels clearer and gives much more of a sense of larger events at work. Indeed, the fact that the micro-episode ordering feels more disjointed and less coherent actually works in its favor, communicating a world on the brink of chaos that explodes violently in “Breakout.” It’s easy for us to see that something BIG is in the works, and also that the individual heroes don’t or can’t see the same thing due to their more limited worldview. When all the climaxes and cliffhangers come at the end, “Breakout” feels like a violent explosion of all the forces that have been accumulating behind the scenes. Rather than giving us a better big-picture look at what’s going on, the
DVD ordering of the episodes brings our point-of-view closer to theirs. We don’t get that big-picture view, but rather the narrower, more myopic one of the heroes, and thus “Breakout” doesn’t get the same impact. It may sound odd, but sacrificing surface coherence in the micro-episode ordering turns out to create a more coherent product in the end.
It also turns out to be something most action-oriented movies and TV shows don’t attempt; the only other similar example I could think of off the top of my head is Love Actually and a few other comparable ensemble romantic comedies.

I can hope that re-issues of these DVDs (perhaps in proper season set or, dare I hope, a Blu-ray release) will allow viewers to watch the episodes in their hero-centric ordering or in micro-episode ordering. I certainly know which one I’d choose.

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