Monday, February 29, 2016

Review: Avengers Assemble "The Arsenal"

Before I can talk about this episode in depth, it's only fair that I make a few things clear first.

Though certain parts of the internet make it sound like the Man of Action team began writing Avengers Assemble with absolutely no prior experience working with the Avengers, that's not exactly true. Man of Action worked on several episodes of the second season of the fan-favorite series Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Some of their episodes are generally considered to be okay, even pretty great. Others... not so much. Most notably, "Powerless!" The only episode of EMH that was never aired during the show's initial run.

And as I've mentioned many times before, Man of Action went on to give us Avengers Assemble. And while they didn't write every episode single-handedly, they have a writing credit on each and every episode of the first season.

When Season 2 rolled around, Man of Action got promoted to producers in what I can only imagine was an application of "the Dilbert Principle."

Essentially, the Dilbert Principle states that the competent employees are rarely promoted, because their actual skills are too valuable to lose. Meaning that the people who aren't as good at their job get promoted in order to remove them from the jobs where their lack of skills can actually do damage.

So while Man of Action still got to make executive decisions regarding the overall show and story, Marvel brought in some former EMH writers (many of whom had already been working on the show) to write the individual episodes, free of Man of Action's... "help."

Now, I've been implying something this entire time, so I'm going to address the big question.

Is Man of Action responsible for the sub-par quality of the first season?

Well... not entirely.

As I've mentioned before, Jeph Loeb was brought in during the second season of EMH to give the show a much-derided retool into being simpler and less story arc-oriented, a trend that continued into Ultimate Spider-Man, Avengers Assemble, and Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. So certainly, there's blame to go around.

But even so... well, let's just say that I don't think it's a coincidence that Avengers Assemble got better once Man of Action got promoted away from the business of writing each episode.

And with that out of the way, let's see if this episode's writers (EMH veterans and frequent collaborators Kevin Burke and Chris "Doc" Wyatt) were able to... well, to put it bluntly, fix the show.

Regardless of whether or not this episode is any good, it's a bit of a non sequitur when viewed in regards to the previous episode.  The first season ended with a few dangling plot threads, and very few of them are actually addressed in the episode itself.

1: Captain America's shield was broken.
This is resolved offscreen between seasons, despite how big of a deal breaking the unbreakable shield should be.  As I said, I can't really blame the writers for wanting to move on and tell their own story, rather than wrap up a detail from somebody else's. Still, a line of dialogue where Cap thanks Tony for fixing his shield before he went to fight HYDRA wouldn't go amiss.

2: The Red Skull's new partnership with Thanos.
Yeah, that didn't last long, did it?

Although, to be fair, Thanos and Red Skull operate on vastly different scales. Thanos probably would have treated Red Skull like a minion at best; no wonder the guy apparently rebelled against the cosmic dictator and stole the Power Stone.
3: Thanos now has the Tesseract.
Remember the Red Skull's last words in "The Final Showdown"?

Red Skull: "As you desired... Thanos."

Well, I can't help but wonder why he desired it. Because it will never be mentioned again. Unless Thanos ended up turning it into the Space Stone, like its MCU counterpart, but that's debatable. The gem in Loki's scepter is apparently not the Mind Stone like in the MCU, so I don't think we can simply assume that the Tesseract takes after its cinematic counterpart. Though I think we can assume it went toward some unseen, evil plan.

4: Black Widow's S.H.I.E.L.D. work.
This is more of a minor thing, but it was implied at the end of last season that Black Widow would be working closely with S.H.I.E.L.D. to search alternate realms for the Red Skull before someone else finds him. And... well, Thanos found him first. So I guess Black Widow's search didn't pan out.

5: The Cabal is still out there.
But let's be fair, the sheer amount of infighting prevents them from being a real threat.

As for what this episode did have, it was a nice little globe-hopping adventure.

There were many action scenes, but they didn't drag on, as was often the case in Season 1. Something was aways happening; the plot was always moving forward.

The arrival of the Red Skull and Thanos hints at subplots to come, and the introduction the Arsenal sets the stage for not only Tony's new subplot, but major plot developments later in the season.

This episode was mostly set-up for later developments, but still had a satisfying, self-contained story about Tony Stark rediscovering one of his dad's old inventions and using it to not only save the world, but change his own life for the better.

This episode definitely all about looking forward. The Avengers have definitely grown stronger and more unified as a team since last season.  Hulk and Thor have largely moved beyond their petty squabbles, becoming close friends instead of barely-friendly rivals (though the rivalry still exists). The main threat has escalated from a very-much Earthbound threat to a faceless armada from beyond the stars. Tony Stark's entire arc this episode is about moving forward past his preconceptions and other issues with his dad.

There's a very definite sense that things are generally moving forward toward a new frontier. With the change of writing staff and change of direction for the show, this seems very much intentional.

Red Skull
The Red Skull has returned from space, fruitier than a nutcake.

"It's not fair! I was the main villain of the first season!"
And this makes perfect sense. Red Skull is simply not used to operating on Thanos’ scale. Who knows what horrors he’s seen? And I must admit, seeing Red Skull reduced to such a mess goes a long way to make Thanos seem fearsome, even before he appears.

Tony Stark/Iron Man
Once again, the story’s all about Tony. But that’s not exactly a bad thing, because they’re finally telling a new story. This time, Tony’s subplot is delving into his daddy issues and exploring, essentially, what it was like growing up with himself as a father. Though Tony can’t see it initially, Howard Stark did care about his son; he just never had time away from his projects to show it. So he did what Tony ended doing in a cave with a box of scraps: He built something to fix the problem.

All things considered, we get to see Tony’s sweet, vulnerable side for the first time. And that’s a much-welcomed change from last season’s technology moral repetition. Even Adrian Pasdar’s oft-criticized sarcastic monotone manages to convey some genuine warmth.

Arsenal (Jim Meskimen)
Talk about taking liberties with the source material.

And maybe that was for the best, judging by Arsenal's glorious golden briefs.
In the comics, Arsenal was a robot built by Howard Stark and Allied scientists as a last-resort weapon against Nazi Germany. Here, it seems as though Howard Stark was designing Tony a friend… and didn’t know where to stop.

Seriously, why would a little kid’s robot buddy ever need to absorb a nuclear blast? It’s my personal theory that Howard Stark starting building his son a pal and then got sidetracked with experimentation as he added more and more bells and whistles until he had to repurpose his creation to avert further disaster at Poteryani Les. I mean, if Tony’s any indication, that sounds like a very Stark thing to do.

I like Arsenal. A polite, if stiff, robot is a pretty unconventional choice for an addition to the team. Which… yeah, it’s pretty obvious that something bad awaits Arsenal….

Hulk & Thor
Seriously, though, their budding bromance is a welcome change. Before this point, no Avengers had truly close bonds with one another. Not between Cap and Tony, or Cap and his comic friend, Falcon, or between Hawkeye and Black Widow…. But the Thor/Hulk dynamic really works as the two bond over their love of smashing.

"Fool me once, Hulk, shame on thou."
For really the first time, we finally see two Avengers who act like best friends. And that’s a dynamic that we haven’t seen yet from this show partially because of everybody’s constant snarking, but also because of the absence of Rhodey, Jane Foster, or any other non-Avenger supporting characters apart from the occasional Nick Fury appearance. And it's not like he's the nicest guy in the world.

Natasha Romanov/Black Widow
She’s definitely gotten nicer. She’s as snarky as ever, but not only does she contribute to the intel aspect of the adventure, but she actually seems like she wants to be there. There’s a lot less hostility than her portrayal in Season 1.

Well, he certainly seems impressive; He’s built up over the course of the episode. But, well, let’s just see what happens next time when he’s expected to carry an episode as the main threat….

Despite the general redesign, the actual animation quality is comparable to the premiere of the last season. Although, as a series premiere, extra effort was probably put in to get the audience hooked. Speaking realistically, the animation quality will most likely experience a similar dip to last season. And yes, the backgrounds are still just as lazy as ever, as if somebody took a photo of the background and put it through a quick "cartoonize" filter.

If I may go on a quick tangent regarding the redesign, I’d like to point out that this was a major missed opportunity.

The costumes.

I really think they should have made major changes as opposed to minor ones. As a whole, the Avengers are loosely based on their cinematic counterparts. The main difference is that the really detailed or complexly-designed part of the costumes (like Thor’s film armor, or the many subtleties to Cap’s film costume) are redesigned to match their comic counterparts. Except for Falcon, who got a completely new costume at the end of last season. Honestly, Falcon’s costume, with its construction seams, armor plating, and rivets, now looks too detailed when placed next to Hawkeye or Captain America, as opposed to when it looked far too much like spandex compared to the general leather aesthetic of the rest of the team.

This would have been the perfect time to tweak all the costumes to have the same level of detail, but nothing doing. And I’ll admit, this is probably because Marvel was marketing the heck out of the existing Avengers Assemble designs, so major redesigns were likely out of the question. Still, it would have been nice for Cap’s costume to look a bit more professional, or for Thor’s armor to be as detailed as Loki’s is.

Final Thoughts
While it's a little jarring that a couple of major dangling plot threads from last season are either quietly ignored, set aside for now, or wrapped up offscreen, I'd say that this episode is a vast improvement from Season 1. It improves on the flaws of the first season in regards to plot, character, and general story composition.

Only time will tell if this season can maintain this level of quality. And... well, time has already told.

The next episode will let us know if the arrival of Thanos heralds excitement and adventure... or a return to first season form. See you then.


  1. Ya I'll admit episodes here improved a fraction over season 1, but the end result here is.... very underwhelming. If not a bit insulting.
    Just keep on reviewing, you'll be fine

    1. Yeah, on a generalized scale of 1 to 10, this is nowhere close to a ten. But for Avengers Assemble, it's somewhere around a 9.

  2. Regarding Cap's shield, they probably did the same thing they did in EMH after the Skrull invasion was dealt with.

    1. Makes sense. Still would be nice to have a token mention of it.

      Tony: "How's that shield working?"
      Cap: "Good as new."

  3. This has little to do with the show, but what are your thoughts on the recent casting of Finn Jones as Iron Fist

    1. I don't really get too worried about casting decisions. I mean, people are upset that he isn't Asian, but neither is the character in the comics.

      But that's a whole 'nother can of worms.

    2. Yeah, it's an unfortunate carry over from his origin, but it also helps to make his stranger status on K'un-lun stand out, besides, as far as asian Kung-fu Masters go, which is also a rather unfortunate stereotype, I think they are also casting Shang-Chi, wonder what they'll do about his father

    3. Marvel has the unfortunate habit of going whole hog with any characters they get the rights to.

      Godzilla, Transformers, Micronauts, Doctor Who, Rom....

      Marvel loves integrating these characters in to their canon, leaving unfortunate gaps when they lose the rights. They'll find a way around it; they always do.

    4. Maybe they could use the Yellow Claw, and I'm not saying that only because I want an Agents of Atlas Netflix series