Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is an excellent step toward beefing up Marvel’s television output and is an exemplary series in how to keep the vitality and originality of the original Avengers stories while adding new and fresh elements to the mix.
I know many of you have been waiting with baited breath for my Avengers article, especially since I am only a few episodes away from finishing Season 5, yet with 25+ episodes of Season 4 remaining it may be a bit before the saga of Emma Peel comes to light. Instead I bring you a review of another Avengers series that just wrapped up and is now streaming on Netflix. I am, of course, talking about The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Marvel’s newest cartoon series running on Disney XD. I have to admit I was hugely skeptical about this series, especially since all Marvel cartoons have taken the same track as the films and set everything in the Ultimate Universe – a re-telling of old Marvel characters and stories, updated and changed to capture modern sensibilities and new readers/viewers. Pretty much everything about the Ultimate Universe sucks and the changes made are ridiculous, resulting in some truly unwatchable (and unreadable) stuff like the most recent Iron Man and Fantastic Four cartoons. I am a long-time Avengers fan, however, and an internal voice kept after me to watch the series, if only to get a wonderfully sarcastic review out of the experience. I am pleased to report that this is not the case at all and, though there are some changes that continue to baffle and disgust me, the series pulled of better than I expected and is one of my most recommended series of the last month.
The thing that immediately sets the Avengers apart from other failed Marvel cartoon projects is the attention paid to old Marvel continuity. Though updated, if you flip through the covers of the first ten Avengers comics you will quickly note that every threat encountered (though changed slightly) actually happens in the first season of the cartoon. From the formation of the classic team (Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk, The Wasp and Hank Pym) to Kang the Conqueror; from the Masters of Evil to the Asgardian menace of Loki, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes gets it right. This is the first time since the X-Men Animated Series (1992-1997) that so many actual events were translated to the cartoon and, unlike the X-Men, done in a much closer fashion to actual comic book continuity. The first several episodes are spotlight episodes, designed to give the viewer some background on the characters who would later make up the Avengers. Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America and The Wasp/Ant Man team all get solo adventures which draw you into each character and allow the writing team to foreshadow some events that would have significant impact toward the end of the series. The inclusion of Captain America in the intro segments was an interesting choice due to the fact he’s not actually found in suspended animation until the ninth episode but, again, it allows the viewer to understand Cap and his history when he finally joins the Avengers, as well as containing the seeds for the Asgardian storyline that endcaps Season One.
The story progresses rapidly through the Avengers‘ first years: forming the team, dealing with the Hulk’s membership and the inherent distrust that comes along with it, adding Captain America and discovering the threat of Baron Zemo is still with us, Simon Williams’ attack on Iron Man, the Black Panther and Klaw, the formation of the Masters of Evil, the introduction of the Kree, the machinations of AIM and Hydra, Kang the Conqueror’s bid for the 20th Century, the formation of the Cosmic Cube, the menace of Ultron and Loki’s bid for the throne of Asgard! Whew! The fact that the creative team chose the original line-up and stuck with it is amazing to me, especially after the pattern set by the X-Men series where the events and line-up were shaped after popular choices rather than continuity (kinda like Venom in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 film. Why?). The only change here is the Hulk remains a team member, rather than splitting for solo action as per the comic. For those who came to the Avengers later, have no fear. The creative team knows the Avengers line-up has changed millions of times and they smartly added several later characters to the mix, such as the Black Widow, the Black Panther, Hawkeye and Mockingbird to keep things fresh but didn’t immediately add them to the team. The events logically spring out of one another and nothing feels shoe-horned or rushed. Having 26 episodes allowed the creative team to take their time and really build an Avengers universe that is grounded in the actual events portrayed in the comic book and they did an outstanding job of not alienating long-time fans as well as allowing new fans to jump on board.
The art style is solid but I’m not entirely sold on it as of yet. The backgrounds are wonderful, utilizing the same style Archer does with real backgrounds animated over and their sense of speed and motion is second to none. Flight looks amazing and Captain America seems like he’s absolutely destroying people with his shield. The action scenes come off well but the animation seems to lapse when the characters are just standing around and talking. Nothing too terrible but it feels “off” on occasion. The writers have the characters down pat. Captain America is a man out of time, Iron Man is kind of a dick (though no evidence of being a drunk yet), Hank Pym is a pacifist at heart, Thor is a god struggling to understand mortals, Hawkeye is a rogue and belligerent, the Black panther wise and intelligent. The Hulk suffers a bit in my opinion. Gone is the brilliant “Hulk Smash” guy, sacrificed for a snarky, mostly intelligent behemoth who sticks around the Avengers mostly as a foil. The best change comes in the form of Janet Van Dyne AKA The Wasp who has long been dismissed by some fans as a useless and fawning character. The Wasp in The Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is tremendously aggressive and hugely funny. Voiced brilliantly by Colleen O’Shaughnessey, she still retains her dilettante-ish manner but is the first into battle and definitely not the Wasp of yesteryear.
The voice work in The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is superb. Aside from the primary cast (who all do excellent jobs), Marvel went out and hired a who’s-who of guest voices, most notably Lance Henriksen as the Grim Reaper, Kari Wuhrer as SHIELD agent Maria Hill, Clancy Brown as Odin, Mark Hamill as Klaw and Jeffrey Combs as the Leader! These are not just one-shot appearances, either. The dialog is well-done and every actor seems to have their character down. The theme song, however, is one of the worst themes I have ever heard from a cartoon opening. The song is “Fight as One” by Bad City, as near as I can tell. A more appropriate name for the band would be “Bad.” I cringe every time I hear it and the series would be better served with no theme song if that’s their number one choice.
The cameos are the single best part of the whole program. The creative team wanted to make sure they had a believable world for the Avengers to reside in and there are tons of nods to other Marvel series. In the solo Ant Man episode (#5 “Man in the Ant Hill”), a cabbie is reading a paper that mentions a vigilante Punishing the guilty while another article mentions a Man-Thing discovered in the swamp. A few episodes later, the same cabbie is reading a paper whose headline discusses a possible School for Gifted Youngsters. At the end of the Kang series, Mr. Fantastic and Herbie the robot are clearly seen and the very next episode, “The Casket of Ancient Winters,” both the Thing and the Human Torch appear fighting frozen beasts. The series is chock-full of these little cameos and nods (like the “Kirby Kibble” TV add, paying homage to main Marvel architect Jack ‘King’ Kirby), which not only provide fanboy thrills but make the world the Avengers inhabit feel more real and inclusive.
So what’s bad? Well, it is the Ultimate Universe. The Hulk does not leave the team. There are no Nazis during the WWII segments with Cap; instead they have been replaced by Hydra (what?). Nick Fury is not Nick Fury. He’s Samuel Jackson. I have been a HUGE Nick Fury fan my whole life and to have him portrayed in a flashback as “Jake Fury and His Howling Commandos” was a slap in the face. The episode was excellent, featuring all the Howlers like Dum Dum Duggan, Gabe Jones and Izzy Cohen yet they imply the Howlers all died rather than forming SHIELD and Jake Fury begat Nick Fury, current head of SHIELD. So, the Nick Fury I grew up with, the man who helped win WWII and later went on to head up the world’s finest espionage agency is now black and dead and named Jake and this new kid is now Nick? Eye-patch or not, it’s not Nick Fury and something I haven’t been able to get over since it happened. Occasional spottiness of the animation and the terrible, terrible theme song end out my surprisingly small amount of complaints.
Overall, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a stellar Marvel animated series that goes a long way toward making Marvel a player in the field of television cartoons. DC Comics has had a much better run at the comic cartoons than poor old Marvel, who seemed content to rule the box office rather than the small screen. The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is an excellent step toward beefing up Marvel’s television output and is an exemplary series in how to keep the vitality and originality of the original Avengers stories while adding new and fresh elements to the mix. Most likely 200% better than the upcoming Avengers film, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a wonderful series destined to be enjoyed by anyone who loves old comics and decent story-telling. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Any disappointment will be minor and mostly centered around Nick Fury.