It’s been a long time since I’ve watched Ben 10, a show that in its initial run struck me as, at best, an extended toy commercial, and at worst as a lot of crude pandering to playground bullies, their sycophants, and their sneaking admirers. But it’s my turn to watch and review the latest Ben 10: Ultimate Alien DVD, and I discover that a franchise I’d previously dismissed as merely offensive when it wasn’t actively revolting has evolved to the point that it is now only very, very, very, very boring.
The series is about the adventures of Ben Tennyson, a teenager whose watch-like Omnitrix lets him transform into various superpowered aliens. In the company of his magic-wielding cousin, Gwen, and his reformed enemy turned erstwhile friend Kevin, he cooperates with some kind of interstellar constabulary to take down monsters and defeat would-be world conquerors. Volume 2 of Ben 10: Ultimate Alien picks up in the middle of the latest such plot arc: A bad guy named Aggregor is going to use the powers he has stolen from five aliens to retrieve and piece together the broken-up bits of “the Map of Infinity,” ownership of which will lead him to “the Forge of Creation” where he will yada yada yada and take over the universe. (As has been asked many times before, why don’t these guys just limit themselves to Canada or Australia? Given the way the international community works, they’d probably get away with it.) It takes Ben and his friends six episodes to defeat Aggregor, and another four episodes to deal with the aftermath when the battle leaves Kevin temporarily deranged.
Even leaving aside the more deep-rooted problems with the series—like all the heroes being jerks—there are a lot of problems with these episodes.
The biggest problem is that there is absolutely no reason to spend ten episodes on this very tedious and very extended plot arc. The Map of Infinity is broken into four pieces, which means Ben and his friends have four chances to defeat Aggregor before he can head off to his ultimate destination. Of course, Ben and his friends will fail each time—otherwise there won’t be that climactic victory at the last possible moment—which means we spend four of the episodes waiting to see how the good guys will screw things up. This would be excusable if anything interesting happened in “Map of Infinity,” “Deep,” “Where the Magic Happens” or “Perplexahedron,” but it doesn’t; each story is just an obstacle course with lots of predictable fighting and running around, punctuated by the heroes reminding each other that they can’t afford to lose (right up until the moment that they do). The only surprises come with discovering just how soft the writers can make the science, and at how shameless they can be at creating completely ludicrous solutions to the problems they’ve created for their characters.
The second arc does better by being broken up into three distinct stories that contain some small measure of comedy and drama. In “… Nor Iron Bars a Cage” Kevin infiltrates a prison planet so he can exact vengeance on a prison warden who murdered one of his mentors, and the story works up some minimal tension by giving Kevin’s otherwise irrational thirst for revenge a satisfying target. “The Enemy of My Enemy,” the only really decent episode in this set, draws a lot of sly and silly comedy from the grifter Argit and the idiot Vreedle brothers. But then it’s back to form in the two-part “Absolute Power,” which droningly loops through the kind of sequence (10 PUNCH-PUNCH / 20 RUN-RUN / 30 ANGST-ANGST / 40 GOTO 10) that requires a scriptwriter less than it requires a software engineer. That leaves “Reflected Glory,” in which would-be rivals Cash and J. T. try exploiting Ben and Kevin before coming to a humiliating end, as the only episode to stand outside the plot arc’s rigid logic. Unfortunately, that’s also the episode that puts everyone in the worst possible light and does the best job at alienating the viewer from heroes and antagonists alike.
There is, supposedly, some character evolution going on, with Ben losing his taste for fame and becoming a bit less arrogant, but it’s the kind of evolution that is revealed through dialogue, not through action, and certainly not through any moments of decision that might mean something to the character. And, except in a few spots in “The Enemy of My Enemy” where Argit and the Vreedles get to be clever-clever and clever-stupid, respectively, all the dialogue is bland and clichéd. I suppose that makes sense, in a tiresome kind of way: Ben and his friends seem exactly like the kind of mouthbreathers who have never opened a book and have certainly never watched anything except bad action movies, and so are incapable of expressing themselves in any way that doesn’t sound like a bad imitation of sub-moronic action-movie repartee.
Production work is professional but rote. If you’ve ever seen an explosion, or seen someone get knocked backward through the air, you will have seen every single beat in this DVD set.
Those who watch and enjoy Ben 10: Ultimate Alien will take their pleasures where they find them. But I suspect even they will find this plot arc duller and longer than it should be.