Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Spandex Drawn in a Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare: An Analysis of the Improvements in Children's Television

For those of us who are fans of both superheroes and animation have much to celebrate.

There are, at present, a larger number of high-quality animated series in production than any time we remember. It is, for the geek, somewhat bewildering: we did not realize what was happening until these shows were upon us, and when they were, it took us a moment to regain our thoughts.

We were skeptical of most of what follows - cynical even - since all of the following, in some ways at least, struck us as unwelcome additions to the genre. But, in every case that follows, we were proven wrong.

Let us begin, as it were, with the newest of the bunch: Wolverine and the X-Men. When we first saw trailers for this work, we were of two minds. On one hand, the show appeared quite dark - a positive in our minds. But, at the same time, there were warning signs. Wolverine is many things, but a leader is not his strong suit. There is, however, an exception to this rule: in some apocalyptic future story, we've seen an older Logan leading the X-Men.

We were shocked to find that not only are the writers clearly familiar with this, it seems to be the very impetus for the series. While no huge catastrophe has befallen the world, things have grown darker than we'd have expected from a program appearing on Nicktoons.

This isn't to say the program is perfect: sadly, it is not. The animation, while exceptional at times, is uneven, and the writers have yet to prove their comprehension of some characters. In addition, no animated X-Men program has yet solved the problem of Wolverine not being allowed to kill on children's television... though this has done a better job than any other attempt we've seen.

In just two episodes, they've incorporated elements of Grant Morrison's wild Sentinels and Mutant processing plants from Days of Future Past. At the same time, there is a sense that these stories are new. Throughout the history of the comics, there has always been the threat that things could fall apart. The show is based in that world. The telepaths of Earth, including the professor and Jean, have been attacked and are missing. The mutant registration act has passed. We are fascinated to see how the story develops.

Two episodes have aired so far, and, for the time being, both are available free at Nicktoons' site.
These are recommended viewing for any fans of Marvel Comics.

It wouldn't do to bring up the subject of a post-apocalyptic Marvel Universe without at least acknowledging Marvel's recent direct-to-dvd movie, Next Avengers. The premise is surprisingly dark: an aging Tony Stark has raised the children of The Avengers in their parents' absence. And why are their parents absent?

Because, dear reader, Ultron killed them.

On the surface, Next Avengers is a simple legacy story of a team of young superheroes following in their parents' footsteps. But that was gleamed from previews, and it is far from the most interesting aspect of the film. We had assumed that The Avengers fell defeating Ultron, and we expected this to be the story of his return, when the children had to band together to fight him.

But we were very, very wrong. Ultron did not go anywhere. He began a worldwide conquest, as nations and continents fell before him. By the time the movie begins, he rules most of the world. The surviving humans are nomadic warriors, waging a battle against armies of robots.

Next Avengers tells an unusual story, one where the heroes have failed and a villain has won. In this regard, it is quite fascinating.

It would be better, however, were it a little darker. We never actually see the horrors that are suggested, a problem, I suspect, caused by a desire for a PG rating. Had we seen more of the impact of Ultron's rule on humans, we believe, it would have delivered a more fulfilling emotional punch.

There are other complaints we might make as well. For instance, some of the dialogue was a bit weak, and the ending felt rushed (though we found ourselves happy with the direction that was taken).

Marvel's earlier direct-to-dvd projects have left us disappointed. But Next Avengers was a pleasant surprise. If you've an opportunity to watch this, we happily recommend it.

As much as the above impressed us, we are even more taken with Cartoon Network's work on Batman: Brave and the Bold. Long time readers of The Middle Room will no doubt recall our concern when the program was initially announced.

Fans of Justice League Unlimited may recall an episode where Batman and Superman casually discuss a problem they've been having with Captain Marvel, all the while fighting a gang of supervillains. It is as if this one scene were stretched into an entire series, and that series is Batman: Brave and the Bold.

Never before has a DC animated series felt so embedded in a comic universe: not even JLU. This takes place in a world of established heroes and villains, some represent generations of crime fighters.

We are unsure exactly how many episodes of Brave and the Bold have aired, though we know we have missed at least a few. We have had an opportunity to view four episodes, however. Of these, two were good, though far from spectacular. The more recent episodes, on the other hand, floored us.

In our favorite episode, Deadman and Batman team up to battle Gentleman Ghost. In addition, Green Arrow and Speedy show up, as well, though they're in more of a supporting role. It was a surprisingly nuanced story, which includes an unexpected cameo by the spirits of Bruce's parents.

In another episode, the new Blue Beetle approaches Batman for help tracing the legacy of the scarab. The story is interspersed with flashbacks of the final adventure shared by Batman and the previous Blue Beetle, Ted Kord.

Both of these episodes dealt with the issue of death and were unafraid to address the subject head on. It is rare for animated programs to do so, even more so for a show that's ostensibly aimed at a young audience.

In addition, we would like to address the issue regarding which Batman appears. While the artwork of Brave and the Bold evokes the Batman of the fifties, the character himself, we contend, bares more than a passing resemblance to the work of Denny O'Neil, debatably the most significant writer to take on The Dark Knight. He may be operating in a brighter world, and he may not be quite as frightening, but make no mistake: this is Batman.

Cartoon Network seems to keep a few episodes up on their website at a time. If you hurry, you may be able to catch our two favorites before they are cycled out for something different.

Do not think for a moment that we've finished. Here, in this very room, we have devoted numerous postings in an attempt to draw your attention to The Spectacular Spider-Man. Frankly, after all this time, we are somewhat exhausted. And yet, we hear whispering that there are those of you who have yet to experience this program.

At present, it is on something of a hiatus. Reruns are still aired, though the time slot they've been placed in, 7:30 AM, if rumors are to be believed, is less than ideal.

As far as we know, WB has not seen fit to offer this program online. Nevertheless, we suspect it can be found in other locations.

Finally, we would like to draw your attention to a superhero program that's easy to overlook. For a few seasons now, PBS has aired the adventures of Word Girl, a superheroine with an exceptional vocabulary.

Oh, she also has the normal assortment of super-strength, speed, and invulnerability. Word Girl, we understand, is intended for six year olds. The action is typically stopped so that words can be defined for supervillains with a below average IQ.

And one more thing, dear reader: we love every minute.

It's difficult to explain why Word Girl is as good as it is. But there's something infectious about the dry humor of the program. The jokes, while certainly appropriate for young children, are surprisingly clever, and the characters, while simple, are intriguing and likable. Many of the conceits are clearly derived from The Powerpuff Girls, including the narrator's constant interference with the story.

In addition, there's a villain named Dr. Two-Brains, who has a second brain coming out of the side of his head. The second brain, it should be noted, is that of a mouse. His crimes are, logically, cheese related.

Any of our readers who have young children would certainly enjoy watching with them. Those without children are advised to tune in, as well, though we suspect most of you will ignore this recommendation. It is your loss.


Sam said...

Watching some of the Wolverine cartoon, I am forced to admit that it is quite good. Some pretty gutsy story structure, and this Wolverine is easier to stomach when you realize he is modeled directly on the Hugh Jackman interpretation.

But man, children's TV never fails. No matter how many injuries or how much wanton destruction Wolverine causes, I'll be damned if he doesn't have a helmet on every time he's on that motorcycle.

Erin Snyder said...

When riding a motorcycle, one should wear a helmet to protect one's head from blunt trauma, as well as thick, loose fitting clothing (despite their badass image, leather jackets are actually good in an accident: they can drastically reduce the severity of a scrape if one falls off a moving bike).

When fighting a giant robot capable of kicking over a tank, on the other hand, a spandex jump suit will do just fine.

You know, I'd forgive any number of helmets if once - just once - they'd let him light up a cigar.

Lindsay said...

ARRRGH. According to the internet, Spec Spider-man season 2 isn't airing til march, and worse, is airing on Toon Disney. GRRRR for stupid channels we don't get.