"Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes" Vol. 2: A-Team Brings Their A-Game
I was greatly impressed at the scale and the skill of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes after watching the first episode at New York Comic Con last year and catching all the “micro-episode” lead-ins online. It was a show that I felt was worthy of Marvel’s flagship superhero team, creating accessible versions of some of the company’s most iconic superheroes and turning all the dials to 11. The first thirteen episodes are now available on DVD, and while my colleague Chad “Smash” Bonin isn’t as impressed with the first batch of episodes (on volume 1), I continue to thoroughly enjoy the series with the six episodes on volume 2. They combine massively scaled super-powered smackdowns with just enough soap-opera theatrics to produce an irresistibly addictive “and THEN what happened?!?” drive that reminds me of the best Marvel comics. I think it’s telling that I first put this DVD into the player intending to only watch one or two episodes and ended up gobbling up the whole thing in a single session.
The first episodes of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes established Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, the Black Panther, and Ant-Man and the Wasp as individual characters, along with a sizable cast of secondary characters like the archer Hawkeye; the slinky, sexy secret agent Black Widow; and top spy Nick Fury and his agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The show’s proper two-part premiere episode “Breakout” used a massive super-villain jail break as an inciting incident to give the heroes a reason to team up and provide a solid foundation for the rest of the season. The bulk of the first disc was setup to introduce characters and lead in to “Breakout,” and I must admit I found it less effective as presented on the DVD than in the “micro-episode” presentation on-line. Volume 2 is really where the show gets to work, powerfully propelling itself forward as it adds friends and foes, and resolving some plot threads while introducing new ones. In “Some Assembly Required,” the group’s initial enthusiasm is sorely tested as the Avengers are nearly undone by intra-team conflict, with lingering resentments even after the source of that conflict is revealed to have sinister origins. “Living Legend” adds Captain America to the cast while also exposing us to the dastardly machinations of his longtime foes Baron Zemo and Arnim Zola (with the latter’s demented Jack Kirby design wonderfully realized on screen). “Everything is Wonderful” introduces the evil scientists of AIM, led by the macro-encephalic MODOC, as they create a foe for the Avengers with revenge on his mind and the fantastic power needed to realize it. Avengers mavens will know where this is going, but the story stands well on its own (even if it requires Iron Man to be a bit thicker than I’d like). I was also rather amused at Thor and the Wasp’s reactions to the grotesque MODOC—a perfect demonstration of the way the show can inject just enough humor into its stories.
“Panther’s Quest” is probably the weakest of the six episodes, as the Avengers travel to the African nation of Wakanda to help the Black Panther recover his throne from the dastardly Man-Ape. The story is one of the rare instances where the show over-estimates its ability to manage a grand-scale plot, ending up a bit too disjointed to make a solid, cohesive whole in the time it has available. However, I’m happier that it aimed too high rather than too low, and it does an excellent job of demonstrating why the Black Panther deserves a seat at the table as more than just their token black superhero. Finally, the two-part “Gamma World” brings the disc to a concussive conclusion as a massive threat in part 1 grows into an even bigger one in part 2 while also giving Hawkeye’s story some attention. In addition to being driven equally by conflicts of brains and brawn, “Gamma World” reveals that Hawkeye’s real super power resides less in his archery skills than in his gigantic brass cojones. It’s a new kind of thrill to watch him get right in the Hulk’s face with little more than bravado to back up his threats, and the way that plot point is resolved brought an ear-to-ear grin to my face.
I think Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes‘s best trick is how it makes us feel that the Avengers are always just a little bit outclassed by their foes. The show manages this through a variety of tricks: ambushing villains getting an early upper hand, splitting up the team, getting (or pushing) a hero off-stage, or scaling up the villains in an unexpected manner. The way the episodes unfold on this disc make these tricks seem less like plot-induced stupidity or arbitrary power fluctuations and more like the natural growth and development of the team. It feels like the Avengers are learning to work together, and their growing abilities lead naturally to taking on bigger threats and newer challenges. The fact that the heroes always seem outclassed makes some of the surprising but logical last-minute reversals that much more satisfying, with Thor getting two especially great ones.
There are also enough in-jokes and references to tickle a long-time comic book fan, but without the heavy dependence on prior knowledge that I felt was Wolverine and the X-Men‘s greatest liability. The show cherry-picks from the long history of the Avengers, mixing and matching in creative ways to blend the best of all eras into a new coherent storyline. Like the original series, the Hulk leaves the team early, but the new series plays out Hawkeye’s criminal-to-superhero journey in a more streamlined and integrated manner than the make-it-up-as-we-go story from the comics. The show is completely accessible and enjoyable to a Marvel neophyte, with the foreshadowing events strictly adding a bit of extra spice for the fanboys in the audience. It’s the same trick that Justice League pulled off pretty regularly. However, there are also enough change-ups to keep you guessing how a plot play out even if you do recognize a reference. It turns out to be the best of both worlds for the long-time Avengers fan: references that respect the old while injecting enough of the new to keep things fresh and surprising.
I have precious few serious criticisms of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The show spent a good amount of time establishing supporting casts for each of the superheroes, like Iron Man’s Pepper Potts and James “Rhodey” Rhodes, or the plucky paramedic Jane Foster who caught Thor’s eye. Now that the team is together, these appealing supporting cast members and their attendant sub-plots seem largely forgotten. I felt that there were a few too many clichés in the dialogue on the first volume (“This ends now!” should be flagged as a spelling error in every superhero writer’s word processor), and there are still a few lines that clunk in these episodes. That criticism is tempered somewhat because it’s centered mostly on Captain America, and it seems that his early appearances are deliberately playing him as a walking, talking, butt-kicking propaganda film straight from World War II. The way that habit of his gradually drops off as time goes on makes me believe it’s not lazy writing as much as deliberate choice to create the character arc. I’m also a bit wary of the decision to place Cap firmly in a subordinate role, although this might be part of his character arc as well. I suspect that at some point (if it hasn’t already happened), Cap will stand up before a crowd of dispirited Avengers, deliver an inspirational St. Crispin’s Day speech, and rally them to victory by hefting his shield aloft and hollering, “Avengers Assemble!” And that will be awesome. But we’ll see.
This is the first new Marvel series to be released by Walt Disney’s home video arm, and the results are satisfying, if too short. All the episodes look great, with a sharp anamorphic widescreen video transfer and a surprisingly potent 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack for an animated TV series. There didn’t seem to be much surround speaker use, since dialog, music, and sound effects stay focused mostly in the stereo and center-channel speakers. However, subwoofers will sure get a workout, as they provide palpable heft to Iron Man’s blasting boot jets and repulsor rays, Thor’s thunder and hammer smacks, and anything the Hulk does. The single DVD bonus feature is another look at season 2 of the show, teasing forthcoming events and more guest stars from the Marvel Universe. In addition to confirming a few upcoming guest stars, the feature also reveals that next season’s overarching story combines a classic story with a very recent one. The only disappointment is the non-trivial chunk of material lifted straight from the featurette on vol. 1 about a new hero set to join the team next season; also, the fact that we’re only getting 2 single-disc releases rather than a full season 1 set.
For one reason or another, I have never been satisfied by modern-era Marvel animated TV series in the modern era (“modern” arbitrarily defined to start in 1993, when Batman the Animated Series rewrote the rulebook on how to do these things). The one-two punch of The Spectacular Spider-Man and The Super Hero Squad Show began to change my mind on that, and with Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the turnaround in my attitudes is complete. At long last, Marvel’s animated TV offerings can compete with what Warner Bros. and DC have to offer. Out of the gate, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes‘s quality is somewhere between Justice League‘s first and second seasons, and the Merry Marvel Marching Society seems intent on going bigger and better as they go.