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"Ben 10: Ultimate Alien": The Mostest Special-est Snowflake

ImageThis review will mark the third occasion I’ve had to rant about Ben 10: Ultimate Alien (or, as I think of it, That Giant Bug Wearing a Ben Tennyson Suit), and if you think it gets any easier with practice, I would point out that this series is the third or fourth iteration of the Ben 10 franchise, and it appears not to be getting any easier for its producers.

The series’ conceit–and “conceit” is a word that attaches so quickly to young Ben Tennyson that I must forcibly remind myself that there are lots of other words, such as “egomania”, “arrogance” and “delusions of humanity” that could with equal justice be employed in an indictment–is that a ten-year-old kid (now grown into something resembling adolescence) has been gifted with a quasi-magical doohicky that lets him transform into various alien forms each with special “powers”, the sum total of which make him–so he will boast at the least provocation–the most powerful being in the universe. The ancient Romans, for one, had an expression about why this was a bad idea–“Never give a child a sword”–and they knew whereof they spoke, for they several times gave a spoiled child unlimited power and wound up with emperors with names like Caligula and Commodus. The world Ben Tennyson terrorizes is even creepier, resembling that in the fantasy classic “It’s a Good Life” as reimagined by George Orwell: All the grown-ups, unwilling to live inside a recognizable nightmare, pretend that their prison really is a paradise, and that the horrible child-thing holding them in thrall really is a highly moral and beneficent protector.

I suspect that the show’s producers know this too, and that’s the reason they go out of their way to make everyone in the show–allies and adversaries alike–so deeply unlikable. It helps camouflage the fact that the hero is really an arch-villain in the making. The show has quite a deep mythology, full of secret societies and recurring characters, and it’s stunning how many of them will take off their pants and piss in your face, just so you’ll dislike them even more than you dislike the good guys.

Volumes 4 and 5 of Ben 10: Ultimate Alien nicely exemplifies everything that irks and puzzles me about this franchise and its characters. It hoists Tennyson to yet more dizzying heights of arrogance, unpleasantness, and undeserved success while tossing in at least a couple of episodes that I’m half-convinced are veiled confessions by the producers that the title character really is an ego-engorged prick.

Volume 4, for instance, starts off by suggesting that if Ben is a bad apple, he hasn’t fallen very far from a bad apple tree. Grandpa Max has generally been one of the more sympathetic characters in the series, but “Moonstruck,” which is about one of his very first adventures, is mostly notable for the way it visits the character flaws of the grandson upon his grandfather by making the young Max almost as insufferable as his successor.

After that we get back-to-back episodes that between them showcase the show’s ethical deficiencies. “Prisoner Number 775 Is Missing” is the series’ attempt to trot out its political bona fides with a Guantanamo Bay parallel, but watching Ben and his friends getting pissy about ethics is like watching a kettle coating itself black. As though to prove my point about the show’s situational ethics–“Ben’s enemies deserve everything bad that happens to them” is its default position–“Simian Says” ends its story by throwing a villain to the sharks (literally), and plays it as a gag.

ImageWe know the bad guy in “Simian Says” deserves what he gets, because he screams and rants and threatens and all but flings his own poo at our heroes just before some big jaws close around him. But that’s Ben 10‘s style–it’s also present in “Prisoner 775,” which paints any police or military force Ben doesn’t belong to as irredeemably despicable–and it gets especially tiresome (again, as in “Prisoner 775″) when the writers think they’re being politically conscientious. The results ought to embarrass anyone who actually sympathizes with the scripts’ boringly orthodox positions. I have little but contempt for Scientology–insofar as I bother to pay any attention to it–but “Flame Keeper’s Circle” left me suspecting its writer moonlights as a well-poisoner. Neither do you have to disagree with the subtext of “The Purge”–that only horrible people can possibly believe in border control–to find it clammy and self-righteous. It doesn’t help matters that it plays the Forever Knights’ Sir George–who will become an ally before the end of Volume 5–as a loathsome prig. Marginally better is “The Widening Gyre”, which at least has the wit to hang a lampshade so big over its ecological storyline that the thing just topples over into silliness.

Fans of the Charmcaster character–she must have some; to turn Andy Warhol’s aphorism sideways, everyone in the future will have at least 15 fans–will probably adore her in “Enemy of My Frenemy” and “Couples Retreat,” which try to paint her as a tragic figure, forever doomed to be unloved, and I’ll happily help the effect along by confessing I don’t love her either: There’s just something about watching unpleasant people doing unpleasant things that turns me off. “Enemy of My Frenemy” at least has the dubious distinction of killing Ben off before bringing him back via a trick that he can’t take any credit for. You’d think learning that he can actually lose a fight might sober the self-besotted little egoholic up, but I’d seen enough of the show by this point that my expectations remained bonelessly limp.

Then there are the episodes so boring I can’t even get worked up over them. “Solitary Alignment” feels like several thousand cubic hours of backstory without even the excuse of a pop quiz at the end. “The Eggman Cometh” is like Batman‘s infamous “Farmer Brown” episode, but without the mad sense of absurdity that redeemed it. “Greetings from Techadon” at least has John DiMaggio as the bad guy, but the rest is just typical Tennyson showboating, without apologies and at length.

I’d also put the three-part finale (“The Beginning of the End” and “The Ultimate Enemy” Parts 1 and 2) into the “very boring” category, since they consist of little but 60 minutes of people whaling on each other, without much suspense as to the outcome. This is also at least the second time (and probably the third or fourth) in which Ben and his friends have saved the entire universe from being taken over by a bad guy, which diminishes its specialness by somewhere between fifty and eight-seven-point-five percent. Nor is it terribly notable when Azmuth shows up at the end to declare that Ben is simply too good for his gizmo, and gives him a new one. (Oh boy, more toys for the franchise to sell.) The only thing now, it seems to me, is for Ben to break into heaven so he can murder and replace Jesus Christ; his self-conception has already pretty much encompassed that as approximately what he deserves.

I said above that the show’s producers seem vaguely uneasy with their protagonist, even as they keep pumping him up to grotesque proportions. Evidence comes in two forms.

ImageIn some stories, such as “The Ultimate Enemy” and “The Ultimate Sacrifice,” they try to justify Ben’s position by showing that he has the kind of moxie that makes him deserve it. In the former he turns down the chance to wield the kind of power sought by his vanquished foes; in the latter he chooses to destroy himself so that some creatures can attain freedom. Neither one feels well-motivated, precisely because the series as a whole has never pulled Ben to a level where such choices would actually be meaningful. A 16-year-old kid has little feeling for his own mortality–which is one reason adolescent suicide is a real problem–and Ben’s grasping at self-obliteration in “The Ultimate Sacrifice” feels exactly like the kind of melodramatic gesture an immature stripling with an overdeveloped sense of self-importance might stupidly reach for without understanding the finality of the decision. It doesn’t help that Ben’s persistence of existence (especially after “Enemy of My Frenemy”) suggests he probably regards death as just another setback he can effortlessly recover from, like a punch in the face. The choice at the end of “The Ultimate Enemy” also feels like a temporary thing. You can practically hear his interior monologue: “Ultimate power at the age of 16? Eh, I got Xbox games to play. Talk to me again when I’m 37.”

The basic problem is that everything we have seen of Ben–his self-righteousness and sense of privilege–would motivate the opposite actions in the two “Ultimate” stories. The only thing that stops him from two bone-headed errors is his immaturity. It’s an odd argument for Azmuth to make: Ben Tennyson deserves his toys because he’s too immature to misuse them.

And as I’ve said, I wonder if the producers know all this. Moments when the veil of belief in their character seems to tremble come in “Double or Nothing” and “Night of the Living Nightmare.” “Double or Nothing,” formally, is a satire on their franchise’s financial success, with Ben’s unwilling doppelganger, Albedo, cashing in on his likeness with a traveling stage show. It’s a witty conceit, and it also has fun with some monster doppelgangers who are helping Albedo out. Thing is, it turns out that Albedo is collecting money only so he can build a machine that can cure him of his condition, and when that succeeds he declares he has absolutely zero interest in ever seeing–let alone fighting–Ben again. But Ben, offended at the satire and exploitation of his persona, has already accidentally sabotaged Albedo’s solution. The moral, which perceptive fans will not want to acknowledge, is that Ben is the actual villain of the story–he even abuses his powers, like any supervillain, to get into one of Albedo’s stage shows–and that he is to blame for things going south, even though he was acting completely in character.

“Night of the Living Nightmare,” meanwhile, traps Ben in an underpopulated nightmare of a world, in which the only inhabitants are enemies and friends who have turned against him. The complaints of fake-Gwen and fake-Kevin are exactly the complaints I’ve lodged, that Ben is proud, selfish and undeserving of his success. And Ben has no answer for them, either because there is no answer or because the producers for once didn’t want to get between Ben and some well-deserved abuse.

ImageSo, I liked “Night of the Living Nightmare” and “Double or Nothing” quite a bit, but not only for the Ben bashing. “Double or Nothing” is quite funny, and “Night of the Living Nightmare” is very creepy in spots. The same qualities are on even better display in “The Mother of All Vreedles,” “Inspector 13,” and “Catch a Falling Star.” The last of these is far and away the best thing on these discs, a nearly pitch-perfect little gem of a story about an escaped villain and the Hollywood starlet who has fallen in love with him. It has a spooky lack of focus, so that you are never sure what kind of direction it is going take or where it is going to end up. It also, with great bravery and a deft mastery of mood, refuses to lay bare the mystery at its heart: Why do people sometimes love the worst thing they possibly could? Butch Lukic’s superb visual direction and terrific performances by Tara Platt and Christopher McDonald as Jennifer Nocturne and Captain Nemesis, respectively, give it real human warmth, and it plucks at the nerves with a musical score that emotionally recalls Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho without recapitulating it.

But these are the exceptions. Overall, the series rests at the spot occupied by “The Perfect Girlfriend.” That’s a story in which Ben’s girlfriend, Julie, starts behaving oddly by doting over him ceaselessly, even oppressively. Ben himself takes it all in stride, but Gwen and Kevin are suspicious, and soon set about exposing the fraud. It perfectly encapsulates all that is most vexing about the show. It paints Ben as the undeserving recipient of mindless affection. It’s an affection he takes as being exactly what he deserves–his suspicions aren’t aroused by Julie’s almost creepy devotion to his happiness–and which he thoughtlessly exploits for most of the episode’s running time. The episode’s ending moral statement sounds wise–people should pursue what they want, not what others want–until you actually stop and think about it, and then you’ll realize that it would be the moral maxim of someone like Ben Tennyson: a person who takes and takes and takes from others and does anything he wants without regard to the needs or desires of anyone else.

ImageMeanwhile, the theme it is striving to express–that people should treat others with mutual regard, not as creatures to be exploited–is utterly undercut by supposedly comic scenes between Gwen and Kevin in which she bullies him into doing what she wants him to do (like go shopping), and which he sweatily confesses he’s doing only because she’ll make his life unpleasant if he doesn’t. It’s a really messed up view of the relationship between men and women, as would be instantly obvious to everyone if the roles were reversed: Imagine a girlfriend miserably acquiescing in what her boyfriend demands, with the nervous excuse that things will be “nicer” if she does than if she doesn’t. Nor is this a stand-alone incident; there are far too many moments in the series when the supposedly wise and mature Gwen acts like a really awful human being: humorless, hectoring, willfully sure of herself, and quick to exploit or abuse others in the pursuit of what she regards as a noble end.

And yet these moments will come couched in and surrounded by Stan Berkowitz’s subtle and supple writing. Rarely can such a stark contrast between some garbagy content and its artistically deft expression be found.

“Ultimate” has as one of its meanings “final.” Would that Ben 10: Ultimate Alien, after deploying an “ultimate” sacrifice and an “ultimate” enemy, finally end. Well, the franchise is just too big for Cartoon Network to think about doing that, at least not yet. (And given the longevity achieved by some franchises, like Scooby Doo, maybe not ever.) I wish I could call everything I’ve said “The Ultimate Critique” and be done with it. But, as Ben 10 itself has shown, villains–like its own title character–always come back eventually.

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