Welcome back to Boomb Tube, Multiversity’s weekly column detailing the current Cape Cartoons scene. This week we, uh…
We don’t actually have any new cartoons.
Okay, Teen Titans GO! happened, but if I wanted to write a couple of paragraphs about ten minutes worth of screaming I would just post the transcripts from my therapy sections. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s an enjoyable series but there’s nothing to really write about unless I just want to restate jokes or act like a curmudgeon who doesn’t like cartoons about pizza parties (which heaven knows I do).
That’s why this week we’re doing two things. First, since summer is coming up and most cartoons are leaving us to go on the beach and chill with some brahs, we’ll introduce the Boomb Tube Summer Special. I’ll be writing about Cape Cartoons that aren’t necessarily on the air anymore or that haven’t been covered by Boomb Tube.
Second, since Avengers Assemble wrapped up, Ultimate Spider-Man is hiding somewhere in the rafters, and Hulk and the Agents of SMASH is on its home stretch, now seems like a good time to take a look at where Marvel animation is currently at.
When I started writing Boomb Tube, comics-based animation was in a pretty good place. Young Justice was absolutely killing it, as was Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. While the former show was essentially a reboot of the DC Universe that made it accessible for casual viewers (and really should’ve been the blueprint for The New 52), EMH stuck more to the source material but didn’t burden itself with it. Many episodes were highly influenced by Simonson’s “Thor” or ‘The Winter Soldier’ but the important aspect of EMH was how it streamlined all these stories into one comprehensive narrative for the Marvel Universe. That show covered quite possibly everything, to the point that they found a way to cover “Secret Invasion,” “Kree/Skrull War”, and “The Coming of Galactus” all into one season-long arc while still playing off stories like “Avengers: Red Zone” or the “Korvac” storyline in between. There hadn’t been an animated universe with that sense of scale since Justice League Unlimited which had roughly 9 years of canon (Batman and Superman: The Animated Series) to build off of. In 52 half-hour episodes, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes reconstructed and streamlined the entire Marvel Universe without compromising any of its stories, even building on a lot of them.
Then the movie came out and, in an effort to capitalize on that, we got Avengers Assemble which made the universe so much smaller. The Avengers, who had expanded to become a global operation with a diverse roster, was cut down to all the men from the movie, Falcon, and Black Widow kind of showing up sometimes even though the world agrees that she’s the best Avenger. The numerous threats that would take the world’s mightiest to defeat were replaced by Red Skull in an Iron Man costume, MODOK, MODOK in a bigger robot body, Anime Dracula, Literally Nobody’s Favorite Attuma, Hyperion, and Sam Rockwell. Also Loki and Dr. Doom because one was in the movies and you kids probably know the other one, why not.
The choice to segue from one acclaimed show that had built a ton of continuity itself into one that has relatively little isn’t that surprising since Marvel seems to be using its animation department as more of a marketing tool than a storytelling one. After all, an action figure of The Impossible Man or Hulk is a lot easier to sell than The Purple Man. Plus, aligning the series to be closer to the movie would hopefully drag in the over $1 billion worth of audience the movie did. Unfortunately that caused this new show to fall flat as its attempts to be more like the movie, right down to Wannabe Joss Whedon dialogue, only limited Avengers Assemble’s potential, which is a shame since some moments have been pretty good; and even though the voice-acting (especially from Adrian Pasdar) is pretty sub-par, some moments between Tony and Cap have had nice character beats. Yet Avengers Assemble on the whole has been a dumbing down of the previous show’s canon, especially in the case of the Hulk.
Right behind Black Widow (who again, hardly shows up in Assemble) Hulk was the breakout star of Avengers and for good reason. Mark Ruffalo’s Banner was quirky and funny but still had the gravitas of of a man haunted by his inner monster and his journey to acceptance. And when he turned into Hulk he became a ridiculously fun brawler that never lost the character of Bruce. In many ways, the Hulk at the end of Avengers is a perfect synthesis between Banner and the monster himself, playing at the top of his intelligence. Over on Avengers Assemble, however, he’s a powerhouse who eats a lot of food. Rather than trying to transplant the character that millions of people loved The Avengers, that character has been watered down into an archetype that fails to feed the audience in any significant way, which is a shame since Earth’s Mightiest Heroes gave us a Hulk who encapsulated the Banner/Hulk combo that made Ruffalo so compelling. In fact, the simplification of many elements from the MCU (including Falcon who’s just a teenager and a high school-aged SHIELD trainee Iron Man picked up rather than the charming vet from Winter Soldier) is a large reason why Avengers Assemble fails to really be engaging.Continued below
Ultimate Spider-Man, meanwhile, is almost word for word the same case as Avengers Assemble. While Assemble had EMH, Ultimate Spider-Man was preceded by Spectcular Spider-Man. Spectacular perfectly captured the balance between super villain action and high school conflict that made the original Lee/Ditko comics so groundbreaking. Peter still had to fight off Doc Ock or Hammerhead, but he also had to take care of his tumultuous relationships with Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane, Aunt May, and the rest of a huge supporting cast. The domestic story lines never got in the way of the super heroics; if anything they strengthened them as seen by Spectacular’s interpretation of the Venom storyline which is, without a doubt, the best version of that arc. The relationship between Peter and Brock is built up over the years so the fight between the two becomes personal (even if the latter’s insistence on saying “Bro” all the time may have hampered things). Plus, in that same series, we received the wildest fight scene, some great character redesigns (Electro’s stands out most of all), and a years-long mystery revolving around the identity of the Green Goblin that still managed to feel fresh in the face of the obvious.
On the other hand, I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with Ultimate Spider-Man. Peter Parker, now voiced by Drake Bell (who to be honest is growing on me), is recruited by Nick Fury to lead a team of other young heroes (including Luke Cage and Iron Fist who are definitely not teenagers in the comics) while they fight a monster-of-the-week formula until the season finale calls for them to bring out Norman Osborn. They’ve definitely attempted some new stuff before (like Venom becoming Harry Osborn) and it’s a show that seems to be getting better but it falls to a lot of the pratfalls Assemble does, but characters are still reduced to boring archetypes and the lazy villain of the week formula becomes so apparent that episodes are just titled after whatever enemy they’re fighting that day.
Now, both shows have been reduced to this generic/toyetic style, both narratively and aesthetically. The Silver Age meets Modern Day style from EMH and the distinct redesigns and flow of Spectacular have been replaced with a new style both shows share that I would call “unsurprising.” They both look like the very baseline ideas of what both shows would be. When the designs first came out for EMH, there was internet backlash regarding how weird or too Bruce Timm-ish it looked. Eventually, that style worked to separate EMH from its peers and even more backlash occurred when the boring designs for Assemble came out.
What’s worse is, there seems to be a desire from the creators of both shows to reach beyond what I would call this editorially-enforced brand. Avengers Assemble had an excellent episode revolving around Dr. Doom taking over the Earth and Ultimate Spider-Man had the one of the best episodes of 2013 when he straight up just made fun of Boston for twenty minutes. When either creative team gets out of the formulaic wheelhouse they seems to be trapped in, they can put out some pretty good stuff. They might even be able to improve as time goes on, but for the moment I can’t find much to be too invested in with either show.
Hulk and the Agents of SMASH on the other hand is an indecipherable hot mess and my sole investment in it is fueled by spite.
I just mentioned that Avengers Assemble messed up its interpretation of Bruce Banner by turning him into a lugnut, but that’s closer to the truth of the character than having him be a lame dad who babysits Seth Green and a parade of fart jokes. Again, Hulk was the most popular part of Avengers and I can guarantee you that nobody, absolutely nobody, wanted this to happen to him. If Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk was a calm gentle giant who was the voice of reason and wanted to fix his public image by starting a reality show with Seth Green, blood would be spilt. Here though, that’s a thing that happens admist a bunch of tiring jokes alongside a Shining homage above that will likely never be explained.
Granted, it’s really easy to say that Agents of SMASH, as well as Ultimate Spider-Man and Assemble, are stupid for a reason: they cater to little kids and little kids don’t care what they watch. That’s probably true but it’s still definitely insulting.Continued below
There’s a term in improv I mentioned in reference to Hulk earlier called “playing at the top of your intelligence”. In its simplest terms (there’s a ton of interpretations and this is mine), it’s about making your humor (and thus, your narrative) come from a specific place of honesty so you’re finding the humor in your characters’ situations and their personalities rather than just explicitly making really cheap jokes. The same rule can be applied to narrative, and while EMH and Spectacular did this exceptionally well, respecting their characters and making confidently specific choices about where they should go, the new wave of Marvel shows really haven’t. Instead, they’ve turned their characters into broad stereotypes with generic designs that live for the function of getting really simple laughs or unimpressive fights with villains no one really cares about nor are given reason to care about.
Now, of course these new shows aren’t explicitly bad, but they’re not good either. They’re just mediocre, which is the biggest crime in entertainment. If I enjoy the experience of watching Avengers: United They Stand (which was certainly confident in its design choices) more than I enjoy watching Avengers Assemble, then there is a problem with Marvel’s current animation roster. Not a serious one, I guess, but one that can still thankfully be fixed in the future, just as Arrow made the transition between its first two seasons, from being afraid to cop to being a superhero show and feeling mediocre as a result, only to straight up have the Suicide Squad in season two. When Marvel Animation stops concerning itself with what they think a superhero cartoon should be and instead puts out the superhero cartoon they want to watch as much as we do, then they’re sure to find their place in the hall of good cape cartoons.
Except Agents of SMASH. That show’s just warm garbage.