Saturday, September 26, 2015

Review: Avengers Assemble Season 1

A little over a year ago, I posted a brief examination of whether or not Avengers Assemble was in continuity with Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Of course, when I posted that, I could only point out exactly why that couldn't be the case, despite what Man of Action said beforehand.

Specifically, I quoted from an interview from ComicBookMovie:

Joe Kelly: “[…] when we sat down to work on the show we were very conscious of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. As far as a direct continuation, we can't be really clear.”
Steven T. Seagle: “I think fans should know that we also worked on 'Earth’s Mightiest Heroes' so it's not a bunch of guys who don't care about or don’t like that show and just messed everything up, we worked on that show too. We love it too.”

Now, the reason they were being so wishy-washy with whether or not the shows are connected has a very simple answer, revealed a little over a month ago on ComicBookResources.

Originally, Avengers Assemble was a direct continuation of EMH that would have expanded the roster and probably followed up on plot points like the Red Hulk and the impending Civil War adaptation. But then The Avengers was a huge success, so Marvel came in and basically said "Stop what you're doing and just copy The Avengers." Which explains the designs and plot points that were just straight-up copied from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also kind of explains the show's lack of depth to a degree. After all, the final product was a relatively rushed version cobbled together from what they could scavenge from their original plans.

But that's an explanation, not an excuse. At the end of the day, they made a show and put it on TV. And regardless of the behind-the-scenes issues, I'm going to subject it to the same scrutiny that I would any other show.

Let the nitpicks begin.
Themes
Like pretty much every show focusing on a team, the two predominant ideas are "teamwork" and "family." Standard stuff; I really don't have to elaborate on what these themes mean. And I can just gloss over the whole "Tony Stark has to learn to work with a team," and "Hawkeye and the Hulk alternate between respecting and annoying each other" because those aspects of the theme are exactly what they sound like.

But what I actually like is how the lessons about teamwork are learned by the villain. For the longest time, the Cabal actually works together better than the Avengers do. But in the end, the reason that the Avengers succeed isn't just because they can work together. It's because they can trust each other like a family. In the end, that's the advantage the good guys have.

Subplots
Black Widow's S.H.I.E.L.D. Work

Well... it's not so much a "subplot" as it is the way they try to justify why she doesn't show up nearly as often as any other Avenger.

I get that her S.H.I.E.L.D. duties are supposed to be top secret... but surely, that should only qualify for the in-universe characters, right? You'd think the audience would get to see more of her S.H.I.E.L.D. work apart from a couple episodes.

Why not have her working on her own ongoing storyline in the episodes where she's absent? And you could even do an episode before the finale where the other Avengers confront her about what she's doing when it starts looking like she's betraying the team, only to have them realize that she was secretly reporting to Fury about them. Add a lesson about trust. You know. Drama. Character stuff. Suspense.

Tony Stark's Technological Dependence
After a buttload of episodes where Tony Stark found himself relying too much on his own technology, the season ends with Falcon paying the price for Tony's ego. But in the end, Falcon recovers, so Tony outfits him with a new set of Starktech armor and goes on to fight swaths of robots with a new application for his technology. And finally, the day is saved when he gets his armor back from the Red Skull.

So in the end, the lesson goes unlearned.

Doctor Doom's Asgard Obsession
On the other hand, I can totally get behind Doctor Doom's refusal to learn his lesson.

Doctor Doom's defining trait is his ego, so repeatedly trying to wield the power of the gods is completely in character for him. And unlike in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, this version of Doom realizes that perhaps going after Odin himself is something you simply don't do.

Doctor Doom coming back with a new scheme and new weapons has been a tradition since the original Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four run. So seeing Doctor Doom somehow make his way back to Earth after every defeat is a lot of fun to see. And unlike the Cabal's schemes, it's nice to see a villain who looks like he might actually win.

Still, it's a shame that Doctor Doom's machinations just sort of... stop. It'd be nice if, at the very least, Red Skull had tried to invade Doomstadt instead of Copenhagen. You know, get a little petty revenge while he's taking over the world. Speaking of that....

The Cabal's Schemes
...What is the Cabal's plan?

Red Skull can't have been planning the whole Tesseract plan since the beginning of the season, since the Tesseract only came along a few episodes from the end of the season.

His goal in the premiere was to prolong his life by possessing the Dorito-shaped wedge of flesh Captain America calls a body, but accomplished the same goal with Iron Man's armor. At that point, he realizes that he needs a team to accomplish his goals. Whatever those may be. So after spending a few episodes assembling a team, they win their first major victory by faking the theft of the Tri-Carrier in order to bring Hyperion into their ranks. Which then allows them to plant a bug to reprogram Tony's computer, which in turn allows them to reach the suddenly-appearing Tesseract first. Which in turn leads to the Red Skull's final scheme to eliminate the rest of the team he spent most of the season assembling.

So... he went to all the trouble to assemble his team of evil only to backstab them at the first major victory? Yeah, I'm pretty sure this is one of those things they never really got a chance to iron out after the show was retooled in pre-production.

Characters
Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Laura Bailey)

This S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is a festering ball of rage and "strong, female character" stereotypes. She doesn't get an episode focusing on only her, having to share with Hulk and Hawkeye. She doesn't show up more than any other character.

She is absent from 9 episodes out of 26. That's nearly 40% of the season.

"The Serpent of Doom"
"Super-Adaptoid"
"Depth Charge"
"Hulk's Day Out"
"Savages"
"Mojo World"
"The Ambassador"
"Guardians and Space Knights"
"One Little Thing"

Leaving out the only female character like this is simply inexcusable.

And I came up with a running gag where I was going to count her lines and see how many could have been said by any character, but I quickly gave it up after realizing that not only does she barely get any lines, but it's rarely stuff that only she could say.

But that's not to say she doesn't get lines unique to her, just like the other characters. Hulk yells about smashing, Thor misuses slang, Hawkeye makes dumb jokes.... and Black Widow belittles her teammates.

It's clear that Man of Action either didn't want to include the character or simply didn't know how.

They wrote her like this and called it a day.
Steve Rogers/Captain America (Roger Craig Smith)
While he has his moments as the voice of reason, he also has his moments of blandness. Though he definitely serves an important purpose by being, along with Black Widow, one of the few level-headed team members.

While he has a few episodes in the limelight, he also has to share that limelight with Iron Man in order to show their different styles of leadership, opinions on technology, et cetera. Except for "The Ambassador," which doesn't really feature Cap growing as a character, but does have a rather nice game of wits between Cap and Doctor Doom. ...where Iron Man helps Cap win.

Still, the core of the character is true to the source material, though I wish the writers had done more to flesh him out.

Sam Wilson/Falcon (Bumper Robinson)
The "audience viewpoint" character that gets ignored in favor of focusing on Iron Man. The token black guy. The token kid. The tech genius, which is pretty redundant with Iron Man on the team. The new character introduced to the team dynamic who ends up underused. And, of course, the guy who makes the series of idiotic decisions that lead to the events of "One Little Thing."

Honestly, I think that one of the main reasons they added him to the show was to have somebody who could fly in and rescue some of the non-flying team members every once in a while.

Yeah, just like that.
And the other reason, of course, was to try and silence the people pointing out that an Avengers roster based on the films up to that point would feature an entirely white cast. I mean, at least the film had Nick Fury.

Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Troy Baker)
Out of all the characters included from Avengers: EMH, Hawkeye is the one who changed the least. Which makes sense. The film version of Hawkeye spent most of that movie under Loki's mind control. So what we get here is pretty much the EMH Hawkeye. But with less depth.

EMH Hawkeye was a cocky snarker, but he had depths to him that would appear on a fairly regular basis. And he had a professional attitude, for the most part. This version of Hawkeye has most of that depth stripped, leaving him as a joke-cracking archer who acts more like a teenager than Falcon, the actual teenager.

He acts more like Johnny Storm than Hawkeye... and in the end, it works. His relationship with the Hulk is pretty much straight-up lifted from the Johnny Storm/Thing dynamic, but the dynamic works.

Still, I wish he had a modicum more depth. Except for his criminal background, what you see is basically what you get. Instead of acting like a jerk to hide his true feelings, he's mostly just a jerk.

Hulk (Fred Tatasciore)
I don't mind this version of the Hulk. He's a bit dumber, moodier, and punchier than he was in EMH, but at least he's not as bland as he will be in Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. And I love his collection of glass animals. That really is a wonderful little detail.

Point to Avengers Assemble.
"Hulk's Day Out" and "Hulked Out Heroes" are wonderful examinations of this not-so-jolly green giant, and there are some interesting plots with the character spread throughout the season.

Out of all the characters, this is the one that I would say Man of Action understood the best, though the lack of Bruce Banner is still a bit of an issue for me. The whole point of the Hulk is the Jekyll/Hyde relationship Banner has with a mind born of his own dark side.

And why wasn't Banner involved in this show? The Tony Stark/Bruce Banner friendship is one of the most popular parts of the entire MCU! Speaking of Tony Stark....

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Adrian Pasdar)
Because of the character's film popularity, they made him the focus of most of the episodes. I get that. What I don't get is why they felt the need to go over the same plot points repeatedly. But in order to avoid repeating my own thoughts about the show's repetition, I'll just skip ahead to my verdict on Adrian Pasdar.

Among the nerds, Pasdar was best known as Nathan Petrelli, a politician, on Heroes. And later, he took on the role of Glenn Talbot, a military man, on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Notice something? Both of those roles are straitlaced citizens.

So in the role of the rebellious, cocky, snarky, know-it-all Tony Stark, Pasdar suffers a bit. His tone of voice is too often just.. wrong. Too slow, too quiet, too introspective, et cetera. And the biggest problem of all, he doesn't really emote with his voice that much. I don't know if the voice director or the actor is to blame, but Adrian Pasdar's performance, while not "bad," is more often than not very samey. Definitely the weak link in the chain of excellent voice acting this show offers.

Thor (Travis Willingham)
Thor is little more than a vain, boisterous oaf. Loki was 100% correct.

While his subplot with the Midgard Serpent gives him a measure of depth in regards to his willingness to fulfill his destiny, he's actually less developed than any other character in the show.

Doctor Doom (Maurice LaMarche)
Doctor Doom was a welcome addition to the show whenever he appeared. This is exactly the Doctor Doom I'd expect in a Fantastic Four cartoon. Except... Doom's biggest motivation is his feud with Reed Richards, so they had to replace that with his Asgard obsession.

The feud of the ages.
But as I said, that fits with his character.

Out of the three sophisticated leader-type villains this show has to offer, I'd take Doctor Doom over Dracula or Attuma any day. Doom's too good for the Cabal and he knows it.

This Doom, on the other hand, would be more of a Cabal wannabe than Justin Hammer.
Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Liam O'Brien)
I still find it ironic that the only character who regularly learned his lesson by the end of an episode... was the Red Skull. And that made him more interesting than any other villain on the show.

Villains usually tend to decay over time. The undefeatable Borg get defeated nearly every time they show up, the Daleks get too bogged down in their own civil wars to do any exterminating, et cetera. But the Red Skull learns from each time he's defeated. And that makes him dangerous. While his masterplan is a bit questionable, let it never be said that he didn't almost win.

While it kind of sucks that they made Captain America's nemesis into Iron Man's nemesis, he's sufficiently villainous enough to carry the show, even when the rest of the Cabal has a few issues getting the job done.

The Rest of the Cabal
The individual members, apart for the Red Skull, have little in the way of character growth or even defining traits beyond their one thing. MODOK's a larger, angrier Red Skull, Attuma and Dracula are arrogant warrior-leaders, et cetera. And to top it all off, the Cabal has changed from the secret council of supervillains from the comics into an even more blatant Legion of Doom ripoff.

Even when you ignore the fact that they both have underwater bases….

Their leader is a bald madman in a suit of armor who's known for fighting a classic American icon...
There's a brilliant robotic technopath who has multiple bodies...
A thug who isn't Superman, but bears a striking similarity to him..
An evil aquatic warrior who's mostly known for fighting the king of Atlantis...
And a magical, fanged, inhuman blood drinker.
(Those of you who want to point out that the version of Cheetah I featured here is science-based? So is Dracula.)

Now, not to point fingers at anyone, but....

"Why is that guy pointing all of his fingers at us?"
Music
Normally, I wouldn't talk about the music in this series. I mean, let's face it, the background orchestration in a Marvel cartoon is just there to keep our ears from getting bored. But I still think it's important to bring up this show's awful sound balance.

See, I've had Avengers Assemble on my DVR since the episodes first aired, so I use those to do my first drafts of my Recaps. And I usually write my Recaps after the other people in my house have gone to bed. And with the volume turned down low, the dialogue can be nearly inaudible while the music comes through just fine. And on those occasions when I have the volume turned up to a normal degree, the dialogue is just quiet enough that I miss a couple words about every few lines of dialogue.

In fact, it's because I often have to watch the show with subtitles on that I noticed Falcon contradicting himself within five seconds in "One Little Thing."

Because it's not like I had enough to criticize.
Animation
It's okay, but still not that good.

While Ultimate Spider-Man was the first Marvel Animation show guilty of it, I'd say that this show really codified the big problem with any of the Marvel Animation shows.

The backgrounds.

They're not all bad, but many of them look like somebody took a photograph and stuck it through a "cartoonize" filter. Which is probably exactly what they did. It looks bad, but it's mostly unnoticeable. At least, I didn't notice it until the second season, where I saw a sign that was clearly supposed to say "Broadway," but just had a bunch of geometric shapes on it.

The CGI is less noticeable than in Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. so that's good.

As for the actual designs, they're... not good. The panels in Iron Man's outfit don't look quite right, Thor's helmet-wings are a little too angular, and the general aesthetic is a bit too realistic. I'm really not a fan of this not-quite-G.I. Joe quasi-realism look. The devotion to realism restricts the characters' range of motion, and as a result, the characters all look a bit stiff.

Avengers or statues? you decide!
Although, to be fair, Black Widow's hair is usually animated quite well, despite her bangs changing length onscreen. Because male gaze, probably.

Because she's worth it.
Best Episode: "Bring on the Bad Guys"
The villains finally chalk up a major win, raising the stakes while providing action and thrills.

Worst Episode: "One Little Thing"
"Avengers: Impossible" may have forced a character I hated down my throat, but "One More Thing" is just one giant exercise in wrong. The plot only happens because everybody makes terrible decisions, the characters act like parodies of themselves, and it's all done in order to bring us a comedic episode that really isn't that funny.

Most "Meh" Episode: "Depth Charge"
So forgettable that I forgot it existed until I went through my Recap archive. So forgettable that you could remove it from the season and nobody would probably notice. So forgettable that I forgot it's title while initially typing this up. I was calling it "In Deep" for a while.

Best Adaptation: "Planet Doom"
While it only keeps the vaguest outline of the comic story, the setting is used to its fullest while telling a good story.

Worst Adaptation: "Hulked Out Heroes"
It has very little to do with the "Hulked Out Heroes" comics, and Avengers: EMH did the basic premise better. Was it a bad episode? No. But out of all the adaptations, this one seemed to be the least inspired.

Most "Meh" Adaptation: "Ghost of a Chance"
It redid a classic Avengers story, but not in a way that made it very memorable or interesting.

Best Heroic Character: The Hulk
As I said, the Hulk is the one character the writers really understood. And really... Hawkeye the jerk? Iron Man the stubborn? Captain America the bland? Yeah, Hulk was really the only option.

Worst Heroic Character: Falcon
Falcon was underused and brought nothing new to the team dynamic. So while other characters were underused, Falcon was specifically brought in to be underused.

Most "Meh" Heroic Character: Thor
You could replace him with a talking cardboard cutout that repeated "Heimdall, portal!" and "For Asgard!" while getting tackled by Hyperion. Outside of a few episodes, he leaves almost no impression on the actual plot. Moreso than the other characters.

Best Villainous Character: Doctor Doom
Seeing him show up was always a treat. A well-written character who showed up in well-written episodes.

Worst Villainous Character: The Entire Circus of Crime
They really didn't have that... "oomph" that I expect villains to have. These are the calibre of villains that get taken out offscreen. Not to mention that they looked bland and didn't have much personality, apart from the Ringleader and Princess Python.

Most "Meh" Villainous Character: Super-Adaptoid
In the comics, the Super-Adaptoid is its own separate entity. An emotionless, shapeshifting, power-copying robot could have been made to be as terrifying as the T-1000 from Terminator 2. Instead it became a second body for MODOK, turning him into a blatant copy of Arnim Zola.

An albino, not-a-Nazi copy.
Best Guest Character: Justin Hammer
He might not have been the greatest villain, but seeing him be such a dork put a smile on my face.

Worst Guest Character: Impossible Man
Let us not dwell on this character further.

Most "Meh" Guest Character: Nick Fury
All he ever does is talk to Black Widow a few times. You could probably seamlessly edit most of those scenes out, too.

Best Thing About the Season
When its attempts at serialized storytelling succeed.

Worst Thing About the Season
Its devotion to the status quo.

Final Verdict
While it's far from perfect, the first season of Avengers Assemble certainly had its moments. Overall, I would say it was worth a watch if you're an Avengers fan. The action is decent, the characters are fairly good, and the overall plot is compelling enough to follow to its conclusion. While I'm squarely in the camp that prefers Avengers: EMH, this wasn't as bad as some people made it out to be.

Speaking of EMH, when we return to the show for its second season, the writing duties will have been passed on to veteran EMH writers. So will these writers make lightning strike twice? See you then!

16 comments:

  1. Other than an animation error or pg male gaze the only reason i can think for Widows expanding hair is that she is really Medusa in disguise, It would also explain her frequent absences, having to rule the In-humans and all. Though its doubtful that anyone involved with this show would think of a subtle marketing ploy for a movies years away instead of throwing it in your face and yelling LOOK! LOOK! IT'S POPULAR! YOU LIKE IT! like they did with the Guardians and later Ant-man.

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    1. Some of the best subtle marketing I ever saw was when Guardians of the Galaxy was first announced and EMH did that Guardians crossover right when people would start getting intrigued.

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  2. Best character, worst episode, yadda dadda. Get to the point, man: Does it make a good movie reference drinking game?

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    1. First two and last two episodes, yes. Hey, if "One Little Thing" had more movie references, a drinking game would make it easier to sit through.

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  3. Too bad this show didn't become the Justice League Unlimited of the Marvel Animated Universe (If Spectacular Spiderman and Wolverine and the X-Men were gonna be featured in it as well).

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    1. You know, that's what EMH wanted to be. The MRD from Wolverine and the X-Men are mentioned early on, right before W&tXM's cancellation. So the plans were quietly dropped.

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  4. You know what's ironic about Iron Man's "don't depend on technology" lesson he keeps learning? He ends up teaching it to someone else in another show. I'll leave it up to you to guess which one.

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    1. Don't worry, I know EXACTLY which episode you're talking about because that's exactly why I HATE that episode. Ultimate Spider-Man, Season 2, "Swarm," aka "The one where Tony Stark yells at Peter for building equipment that Spidey's been using in the comics for years."

      Yeah, I might have actually liked that episode if I hadn't endured Tony reliving the same lesson over and over in THIS show.

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    2. Well, you have to admit, the FrankenStark armor was awesome.

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    3. Oh, absolutely. I'm a sucker for the patchwork look.

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  5. Remember when superhero cartoons were good? I do. What happened to that?

    - That One Anon

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    1. DC stopped making shows.

      To be perfectly honest, I always felt that DC's animated material was far superior to Marvel's. With exceptions, of course.

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    2. (Cough cough Spectacular Spider-Man)

      - That One Anon

      - That One Anon

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    3. (CoughAndAvengers:EMHcough)

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  6. Alright, I'm done marathoning through Avengers Assemble...well, recaps anyway. Still, that was enough to make me realize something: there is some good stuff in here. Really good, and I do remember some more good stuff in season 2. So I asked myself - why do I have such bad memories of this show, why I'm not rewatching this? Were my opinions poisoned by the other two MAU shows? Here's what I figured out from my memory:

    1. Humor - There is more to TV then one-liners, but they do have impact on how much you're willing to put up with. And while no show is safe from groaners, and AA has good jokes, they tend to be outnumbered by weak ones and there is little to no really good jokes.

    2. Visual aesthetics - If I were to boil down shows to pretty keys jingled in front of my nose, I must complain that keys aren't very shiny and owner could put more enthusiasm in that jiggle. The artstyle isn't detailed enough to have gritty, mature tone of Young Justice, but it isn't stylized and bright like Spectacular. Designs are ok at best, and dull coloring isn't really helping things. Bigger shame, I'm not really all that invested in action, which is crazy. Around the time I watched The Batman I assumed no superhero cartoon will be ever boring again because we reached such advancement, I can just turn off brain and enjoy smackdown. And here I find myself watching beating that lack both creativity and energetic animation. Admittedly some fights might be ok, but then there is...

    3. Pacing - To put it simply, good moments are sandwiched between bad ones and blandness. "Space Knights" for example looks good on virtual paper but with good will, I bet it could be 10 minutes long. Other episodes like "The Ambassador" have similar problem. And then there is not matter of waiting for good part, and more like waiting for good episode. For each "Planet Doom" Or Hyperion, I have "Savages" and "Mojo World".

    At least that how I remember it, never really rewatching anything. Thoughts?

    - Faceless Enigma

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    1. I agree that the humor in Avengers Assemble can often be pretty good. I mean, feel free to take a shot every time I say, "Okay, that was funny." But I'm not a fan of the over-reliance on humor and action as opposed to the actual story.

      With the benefit of hindsight, I'd say that out of all the current Marvel Animation shows, Avengers Assemble had the most impressive rate of improvement. USM took a while to get better and Agents of SMASH only marginally improved before its cancellation.

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