As any superhero fan knows, the Avengers are for Marvel what the Justice League is for DC: an all-star team of the world’s finest heroes meant to combat the worst possible threats. So it’s only natural that The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes would spend an eminently enjoyable fifty-two episodes adapting more of the Marvel universe than any Marvel cartoon before or since, thanks in no small part to its sizable and diverse lineup and sufficient ambition to make all of that inclusion count for something more than fulfilling a checklist. Now as the show takes its place in animation history and the new Avengers Assemble is poised to offer a new take on Earth’s mightiest heroes, Toonzone’s “Best. Episode. Ever!” feature returns to look back at Marvel’s accomplished ensemble superhero series. This time, three of us have come together to reminisce about some of the episodes we love. As always there’s no lists or ranks, just animation fans casually celebrating animation. Our picks are listed here in chronological order, starting from the earliest episodes.
We’ve made our tough choices, and there are without a doubt many more excellent picks that could be made. We invite you to sound off in the comments: what’s your best episode ever?
Full credit for the screencaps in this feature goes to the fabulous Marvel Animation Age.
Macattack’s Choice: “Hulk Vs. The World”
Directed by Sebastian Montes | Written by Kevin Burke & Chris Wyatt
While the show is called Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, this episode is quite possibly the best appearance of the Incredible Hulk in animation, period. It’s absolutely classic in how it portrays Bruce Banner and the Hulk. It’s really too bad the show decided to mostly remove Banner from the equation in subsequent episodes, because the conversation between Absorbing Mann and Bruce was fantastic and Bruce’s personality comes across well here thanks to Gabriel Mann bringing relatability and gravitas to Banner.
This episode brings suspense and lots of it. The Army is chasing Banner through the desert and even when Banner makes it to Las Vegas, he’s still not safe. The stress is getting to him so much, he nearly transforms right in the middle of the city before he just barely stops it. General Ross also gets in a lot of excellent foreshadowing that will pay off later in the series. He is clearly obsessed with Banner and wants Banner locked away or destroyed, and he doesn’t much care which. When the Hulk finally comes roaring out, we are presented a really nice and forceful fight sequence between the Absorbing Man and Hulk where we feel every punch. And, of course, “Hulk smash rock, Einstein” is one of the best lines in the show throughout the entire run.
This episode also kickstarts another long-running plotline that would last throughout the show, which is Black Widow and her apparent betrayal of S.H.I.E.L.D. that leaves Hawkeye to take the fall for her actions. One of the things that made Avengers EMH so great were little plotlines like these that made you keep tuning into the show and kept you guessing about who was manipulating who. S.H.I.E.L.D. is also not portrayed as being a particularly nice organization, considering the way they are locking up all of the other gamma mutates besides Banner. It’s clear from Banner’s worries that S.H.I.E.L.D. has a special agenda in mind for gamma mutation and the Hulk’s blood, but that plotline ultimately never gets resolved in the series itself. The most we get is the Red Hulk much, much later (which was not S.H.I.E.L.D.’s work directly) and then the plotline is unfortunately dropped (though a lot of plotlines were dropped at the end due to the creative staff being changed).
The animation is also pretty solid. Say what you will about the character designs, but they animate really well and the fighting is smooth and well-choreographed, particularly when Hulk battles Absorbing Man. But when S.H.I.E.L.D. intervenes to capture Hulk, we get an awesome scene where Hulk takes a rocket launcher and turns it right back on S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Army. The Hulk is much more intelligent here and it pays off with some truly unique actions the Hulk makes, which is an indicator of what’s to come in general. The Hulk actually uses strategy against opponents throughout this series and this really adds a unique touch.
One thing that disappointed me in EMH was the lack of Banner after this episode. There was a lot I felt Banner could’ve brought to the show, but the creative approach taken mostly makes the Hulk a permanent transformation with a few exceptions. The Hulk, although he’s portrayed deeper here than in any other animated appearance, is still somewhat of a flat character. It is Banner who provides the Hulk with much of his appeal (there’s a reason why Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner became so popular). EMH, granted, came out long before the Avengers movie, but it’s a shame to see Marvel is still intent on leaving Banner out of the equation when Banner is what audiences seem to be sympathizing with. Then again, I am not a marketer.
But, regardless, out of all the episodes in Avengers EMH, this is the one I enjoyed the most. It has lots of action, plenty of subplots kicking into gear, and a great dynamic with the Hulk that has never been brought to life better in animation. That’s why Hulk Versus The World is my best episode ever.
Juu-Kuchi’s Choice: “Gamma World” Parts I and II
Directed by Vinton Heuck (part I) and Sebastian Montes (Part II) | Written by Michael Ryan
At this point in the series, the Avengers have a lot going for them. They have a super soldier, a god, a billionaire playboy philanthropist scientist, a super scientist and his awesome girlfriend turned superheroine, and the head of a small African state. Now they face a great challenge when The Leader (excellently played by Jeffrey Combs) utilizes the Gamma-based supervillain prison The Cube to fire up a dome of pure Gamma radiation which can mutate people into monstrosities. It is up to the Avengers to stop him and his henchmen, but they may have to utilize the help of the still AWOL Hulk and the world’s greatest marksman, Hawkeye, in order to save the day.
I’ve always been fond of this two-parter, as it serves as a great watershed moment for how large scale, multi-part, adventures could and should work. The first part works exceptionally well in this regard, allowing the Avengers a chance to work together to overcome a very uncertain situation. Although this is the team of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the episode knows how to make such a super-powered team fallible and still prone to the occasional sucker punch and surprise. This is exemplified and amplified in the best possible way when part II hits hard after the expected (but very well-executed) twist at the end of part I.
Part II not only shows how the Avengers can be routed but also how that, when the chips are down, the writers know their characters enough to combine seemingly disparate parts and let them work together. Hawkeye, Thor, and Hulk get the lion’s share of this type of dynamic in Part II, allowing for a rather odd but ultimately sound team-up that helps save the day in the most unexpected of ways. Hawkeye shines in these episodes and provides a great human element for the team. This isn’t because the show needed a marksman but rather, as Ed Liu pointed out in his review of DVD Vol. 2, a guy with big brass cojones who can stand up to the Hulk after he takes down a HYDRA warehouse and a Hulkbusting unit with ruthless efficiency. When the climax hits and we see those three go toe-to-toe with an array of Gamma Mutated monsters, the way each one of them handles their foes provides for tense moments and cathartic resolutions. This is especially true on Thor’s end, when the power of Mjolnir is used against him. It all works out so wonderfully.
As much as there are episodes that have even greater stakes later on in the series, I can never really say no to Gamma World when it comes to exemplifying what makes the Avengers work. With flawed heroes, great dynamics, pleasant surprises, and fun all around, “Gamma World” Parts I and II is a microcosm of what made Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes so great.
GWOtaku’s Choice: “Prisoner Of War”
Directed by Steve Gordon | Written by Kevin Burke & Chris Wyatt
Steve Rogers is in the epitome of a worst case scenario. He’s defeated and captured, stranded on a Skrull starship far from home, subjected to brutal interrogation for weeks as the aliens try to figure out how best to break humanity. In this episode we learn plenty about how the shape-shifting Skrulls have thoroughly infiltrated the Earth and are poised to strike. One Skrull underling, convinced that there is no further use in studying Cap, dismissively remarks that “There’s nothing special about Captain America”, clearly referring to his lack of superpowers. A better example of “famous last words” was never spoken in this show.
What’s anyone to do when you’re in an enemy stronghold with no realistic hope of rescue? If you’re Captain America, you save yourself. Not only does he not break after an extended period of torture, he’s still sharp enough to see through a “rescue” that’s just a Skrull ploy – and quite capable of wiping the floor with every foe in the room. Cue Cap grilling one of his tormentors for information and proceeding to break out a motley group of prisoners consisting of Madame Viper, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Cobra from the Serpent Society, Mockingbird, Henry Gyrich, a sedated Susan Storm and your classic mad scientist from A.I.M. There’s no reason at all this random assembly of heroes and villains should work well together, and even here they often don’t. But it is Cap who, without missing a beat, keeps everyone focused with the stark reality: whatever their differences, their only hope for survival and a daring escape lies with each other.
Steve Rogers is generally considered to be the definitive born leader in the Marvel Universe, and in this episode he lives up to that hype. Upon discovering an unconscious Susan Storm, without a moment’s hesitation Cap insists on taking the Invisible Woman along regardless of how this might hamper the group later. Faced down by the powerful Super Skrull, an enemy wielding all of the Fantastic Four’s powers, Cap and company somehow manage to hold the line while the brains of the group commandeer a Skrull vessel. But it is the virtues of selflessness and courage that shine brightest here. Just when they’re finally on the verge of escape, Super Skrull assaults Madame Viper. This is a woman who was the most antagonistic toward Cap the entire episode, who made her dislike for him and what he stands for very clear, who promised that they would be enemies again once he Skrulls were beaten. Cap immediately dives back into danger to rescue her. As an incredulous villain questions his sanity and asks what he’s doing, Mockingbird has the simple answer: “He’s being Captain America.” Ever the consummate soldier, Steve Rogers will leave no one behind. Ever the ideal hero, Captain America simply does not ever give up.