Disney XD’s Hulk and the Agents of SMASH marks the first time the Hulk has had a cartoon centered on him since the cut-short 21-episode series that aired in 1996-97. He’s been a cast member in ensemble shows (the two recent Avengers cartoons) and a frequent guest star, and he’s been the headliner for two DTV movies (Hulk Vs. and Planet Hulk), but considering that have been at least two failed attempts to create a Hulk cartoon since that last series, it was a surprise that a new Hulk show was even announced in the first place.
Hulk and the Agents of SMASH also seems to have had development problems of its own. It was announced right on the heels of Ultimate Spider-Man, and was intended to be a tentpole of the Marvel Universe programming block with a planned premiere date in the fall of last year. Something obviously happened to delay the show’s premiere to now, and something tells me the whole production was redone from scratch. The way Jeph Loeb described the way he and Paul Dini came up with this series is almost like they talked it out over drinks, and the way the show is presented kind of shows that. But is the show any good?
The show centers on a five-Hulk team, culling mostly from the newest comics penned by Loeb himself. In addition to old Jade Jaws, the team has She-Hulk, Red Hulk (aka General Thaddeus Ross), the mysterious Skaar, and Hulk’s perpetual friend and sidekick Rick Jones as A-Bomb, who is like a blue-skinned mix of the Abomination and the Hulk in appearance. On paper, this is not a natural team, especially since Red Hulk has almost always been an adversary to the original Hulk as both General Ross and in his new Hulked-out state.
The show utilizes similar character designs with Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers Assemble, and is animated in 2D with some 3D vehicle models. Animation duties are handled by veteran Korean studio DR Movie, no stranger to Marvel productions. This pretty much means the show looks a lot like its contemporaries, so if you don’t like those character designs, this show will probably not appeal to you either. There isn’t much going on in the background of the show, but that is kind of justified considering the first two episodes are set in the desert or the Negative Zone. In motion, the animation is wholly inconsistent. Sometimes, the show has beautiful, smooth animation, especially in the breathtaking action sequence in first 40 seconds of the premiere. Sadly, this is never replicated in the rest of the two episodes that follow. Other moments are barely animated at all, popping up more frequently as we go along and becoming especially noticeable in the second episode. Characters either move like a paper cutout across the screen or flash across the screen like a motion comic. This is especially glaring in a battle near the end of the first episode, when Annihilus, the villain for this opening round, unleashes his horde of killer insects. The insects are barely animated, instead sliding all over the screen like clip art cut and pasted in Flash on the fly.
The writing doesn’t fare much better. The first episode from a writing standpoint is only okay. After a fantastic opening sequence, we are introduced to (human) Rick Jones, explaining that the Hulk shown in those forty seconds no longer exists, and that Hulk has become a better, smarter being. Rick is out to show that Hulk can be a hero through a webcam series, though the Hulk is skeptical. When a gateway to the Negative Zone suddenly opens up in the only town where the Hulk is accepted (and even celebrated) by its citizens, the Hulk feels it is his duty to try to stop whatever’s coming through, so off he goes to save the day with Rick following in a massive vehicle. This leads to the introduction of Skaar, the lead thug of Annihilus, who is leading assaults on the town and on the Hulk. Red Hulk eventually gets in on the action, surprisingly using firearms to dispatch enemies more often than his brute strength. The Hulks and Rick capture Skaar and bring him to the Hulk’s base of operations, and while there is a brief implication that Red Hulk and Jade Jaws still don’t get along that well, there’s also no real animosity between them (and even subtle hints that Ross has declared defeat in his conflict with the Hulk).
The rest of the episode and the second episode deal with the gateway to the Negative Zone and characters being pulled in and out of it, with the Hulk leading a rescue mission to save a captured character. Rick’s transformation into A-Bomb (not really a spoiler, since this is something the series has advertised from the beginning) at the end of the first episode introduces a blatant continuity error between episodes, as the first episode ends with Rick clearly resting on a bed as he transforms, while the second episode begins with Hulk carrying Rick when the transformation begins. Even the younger kids this show is obviously targeting are going to notice such a blatant error. The sequence is also underwhelming in both what is witnessed and the actual impact to the characters in question.
The second episode is also disappointing for eschewing a lot of the man-to-man battles that the Hulk is known for, opting instead for vehicle vs. alien combat that seems meant to pitch a toyline that does not exist. It also struggles from rushed pacing in general, and the show’s periodic Family Guy-style webcam confessionals don’t fit into the narrative well at all. In the first episode, the webcam confessionals only interrupt the scenes and wreck the few genuinely humorous moments (particularly a scene involving Rick Jones and a hammer). In the second episode, the webcam scenes completely disrupt the action and seem to exist in a vacuum of their own, separate from what’s happening on the screen. Finally, the second episode also has one of the worst attempts at toilet humor I have ever seen. And it is literal toilet humor at that. Fans of the character the humor is directed at are not likely going to be pleased with that scene.
That being said, the Hulk’s personality is kind of interesting. It seems that Paul Dini and his co-writers are drawing primarily on the “Professor” Hulk personality that existed for a time in the 90’s, when Bruce Banner had almost complete control over the Hulk. This show’s Hulk not only talks in complete sentences, but has a lot of intelligence, showing an understanding of (comic-book) science and tactical fighting, and genuinely caring about people around him. However, for a moment late in the second episode, the Hulk briefly regresses to his more savage persona and screams about how “Hulk is strongest there is!” Obviously the threat is there for the Hulk to revert back to a more savage state if he’s pushed hard enough, but only time will tell if the show will actually follow up on this. Fred Tatasciore uses his Avengers: Earth’s Mightest Heroes tone for the Hulk here and it works pretty well, as opposed to the more digitally distorted voice heard on Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers Assemble.
The other characters don’t fare as well. Red Hulk has been dramatically simplified into a “blow everything up” kind of guy, without any of the gravitas of his character. She-Hulk is not a lawyer here, but a Hollywood jill-of-all-trades stuntwoman who stages realistic crashes and stunts that are too dangerous to be attempted by normal human beings. Rick Jones turns from a likable Hulk buddy into a boisterous sidekick that can get mildly grating. Skaar is the only other character that has any sort of interesting backstory, but to explain it would involve spoilers.
The voice work for these characters are mixed. Ben Diskin is mostly just yelling all the time as Skaar. Clancy Brown sounds like Mr. Krabs on steroids as Red Hulk, which doesn’t really fit the character well at all. Brown does better as Thaddeus Ross in his brief cameo in the series’ opening scene, though. Eliza Dushku is okay as She-Hulk, but her voice will likely disappoint people who think She-Hulk should sound deeper and throatier. Seth Green gives it everything he has as Rick Jones/A-Bomb, and he nearly saves some of the bad material A-bomb is forced to spew. Green actually makes Rick Jones somewhat likable, and it’s a shame we’ll likely never see normal Rick again on the show. It looks doubtful that we’ll see any of the Hulks’ normal human forms, since it is strongly implied that Red Hulk and She-Hulk are mode-locked and there’s no sign of Bruce Banner throughout the show either.
Viewers of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes will also be shocked that Annihilus is now talking, and he is voiced by Robin Atkin Downes in his “Mumm-Ra” voice from the recent Thundercats reboot. Annihilus loses a lot of his eerie, creepy veneer, unfortunately, since that Dini and company give Annihilus absolutely nothing to do but screech at the Hulks like Skeletor to He-Man on a really bad day. Robin Atkin Downes gives an enthusiastic performance, but unfortunately just comes off as a particularly peeved Mumm-Ra overall.
The music is handled by Guy Michelmore of Planet Hulk and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The music is fitting and spirited, and seems to be inspired by Mark Mancina in the way the orchestration is employed. Background music is enriched by motifs for Hulk (horns), Red Hulk (hard rock), She-Hulk (something that sounds inspired by Alanis Morrissette instrumentals), and A-Bomb (something more whimsical). This is by far the best background music in Marvel since Jeph Loeb took over the animation department, with a diverse, grand, powerful score that does everything it can to make every scene work. Unfortunately, music can only go so far to save a scene that is scarcely animated.
In summary, the premiere is just a mediocre, flawed, toyetic action cartoon. The writing at its best is a significant improvement over Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers Assemble, but the absolute worst moment of the premiere sinks to a new low in Marvel animation. The animation switches between gorgeous and motion comic-esque, often in quick succession. There is a significant lack of depth, and things are resolved too neatly by the end. Worst of all, there’s precious little being smashed throughout the second episode, especially for a show starring the Hulk. Time will tell if the show will stay that way, improve, or get worse. Clips of future episodes seem to hint at the subversive tendencies that cartoons under Paul Dini’s wing seem to develop, but that isn’t promising by itself. I consider the premiere a marginal improvement over Avengers Assemble‘s premiere and a significant improvement over Ultimate Spider-Man‘s premiere, but that is damning with faint praise.
Ultimately, all Marvel has managed to assemble here is something less than a smashing success.
Hulk and the Agents of SMASH premieres on Disney XD on Sunday, August 11, 2013, at 11:00 AM (ET/PT). For more details, visit Disney XD’s Marvel Universe page.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Clancy Brown’s character on SpongeBob SquarePants as “Krusty Krab” instead of “Mr. Krabs.”