Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Recap: Avengers Assemble "Beneath the Surface"

I’m wondering what they came up with first, the plot of this episode or the title.

It’s one of those titles that has such an appropriate double meaning that if they didn’t reverse-engineer a story to fit it, then whoever came up with it must have gotten that indescribable feeling that writers get when they come up with an amazing title or chapter name.

You sort of get chills as you go “It works on so many levels!” And then you start typing it out, hoping that the handful of readers on your blog have enough of an understanding of particle physics to understand why “Coulomb Excitation” works as a metaphor representing the climax of The Incredible Hulk.

Or is that just me?
The episode begins with Hawkeye sweating his butt off next to a snow-covered mountain.... which is really just a billboard. Instead of living the spy's dream of skiing down a mountain, taking out armed goons, and finally parachuting off a cliff so nobody can track you back to the government you work for....
Subtle, Bond. Real subtle.
...Hawkeye has just arrived from the other Avengers' earlier fight with the Wrecking Crew to join Black Widow in her stakeout.

Hawkeye: "Check out Piledriver's face when he realizes he's holding an explosive arrow."

But Widow has more important things to do than look at Hawkeye's phone. She's spying on tourists (who look oddly like Ultimate Spider-Man characters) from her rooftop perch.

Hey, is that Danny Rand?
Is... is Squirrel Girl kissing Nova?
Whoa, is that an alternate-reality Peter and Mary Jane Parker taking a selfie?
Hawkeye: "So now we're avenging... tourism?"
Black Widow: "You read the dossier?"
Hawkeye: "Yeah, of course. Small-scale stakeout. In and out, no problem."

No, "in and out" usually presents problems.
Black Widow: "You and I both know small-scale espionage with HYDRA can unveil big-scale problems."

Widow spots the mark and leaps into position while Hawkeye watches his video of an arrow blowing up in Piledriver's face one last time. She confronts two tourists in a dark alleyway and demands "the package." When the look surprised and claim that they don't know what she's talking about, she charges up her stingers.

Hawkeye voices an objection to Plan: Shoot the Civilians, but when the tourist's faces open up to reveal HYDRA-painted endoskeletons, he changes his tune considerably.

I see HYDRA has some custom T-800s.
His explosive arrows prove useless, but Widow manages to take the robots down with a shock from her stingers.

After the fight, she chastises Hawkeye for whipping out the most attention-grabbing weapon in his arsenal on what's supposed to be a stealth mission. With the robot's luggage secure, Black Widow goes through it while Hawkeye makes fun of the Hawaiian shirt inside. Mainly because he doesn't actually know what they're supposed to be looking for.

As Widow explains, S.H.I.E.L.D. learned about a black market deal involving HYDRA. They learned the time and location, but there's no information regarding what HYDRA's selling or who they're selling it to.

Hawkeye: "We got to them before the sale. Mission complete. You're welcome."

Widow finds a strange crown shaped like a snake inside a straw hat, which immediately raises questions. HYDRA fences weapons, not valuables.

Look at her. She's already working out six ways to kill someone with that thing.
Back at Avengers Tower, the episode reminds us that this season has a subplot by showing us Tony's twelfth attempt to reactivate Arsenal's head.

Tony Stark: "Testing vox systems. Hello, Arsenal. Do you understand?"
Black Widow (comms): "Tony. I need your help."
Tony Stark: "Arsenal. Didn't expect your voice to be so... feminine."

"I like it! JARVIS!"
"Yes, sir?"
"Begin preliminary work on a new AI voice immediately. Extrapolate from your own matrix."
"When can you finish that up, JARVIS?"
"Friday, sir."
"Hmmm. 'Friday....'"
Widow asks Tony for help ID-ing the artifact, having apparently learned from "Molecule Kid" that Tony can be trusted to control his impulses around unknown tech. The tower's database has it sussed within a few seconds; it's called the "Serpent Crown."

Tony Stark: "Origin unknown. Although it's similar to the crown Doom used to control the Midgard Serpent."

Right, because these look almost exactly alike.
Black Widow: "Implying a similar function?"

You might think that Black Widow's making a big leap in logic by assuming that two "similar-looking" crowns happen to have similar functions when the only thing they have in common is being crowns.

And the show would actually agree with you while still setting up the possibility that the crown is for...

I just like this gif. Her Little Mermaid hair is hypnotic.
Tony Stark: "Not sure. But I'll wager whoever wants it isn't just looking to accessorize."

But Hawkeye has important news from his phone.

Hawkeye: "Thor's fighting giant robots on Bleecker Street!? Why didn't you tell me? I'm heading out."

Tony vetos that, since while the other Avengers can assist Thor (and presumably Dr. Strange), Hawkeye's needed to assist Black Widow.

Black Widow: "We need to find out who HYDRA was going to sell it to."

Right. Or while you, the greatest spy in the world, investigate that, Hawkeye can take the crown to S.H.I.E.L.D. for safekeeping, thus keeping HYDRA and their buyers from it.

But no, we have to have a plot somehow.

The tickets in the robots' luggage implies that the deal was going down on the cruise ship nearby, so the two of them change into the robot's clothes to disguise themselves.  And once changed, even Hawkeye can't recognize Widow from behind.

Black Widow: "That's the idea. 'Honey.'"

She couples that with a kiss on the cheek in what I believe is the second example of any romance between main characters in the Marvel Animation Universe.

Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. played with an attraction between Crystal of the Inhumans and A-Bomb, but that went nowhere fast. Ultimate Spider-Man made Peter and Mary Jane platonic friends and Guardians of the Galaxy hadn't replaced Agents of S.M.A.S.H. yet.

And... it's a sisterly peck on the cheek as part of a cover identity.

The absence of romance has to be on purpose to some degree. I mean, when you look back at the pre-MAU cartoons, you had the teenage drama between Gwen and Peter in The Spectacular Spider-Man, teenage drama between Tony and Pepper in Iron Man: Armored Adventures, Thor's relationship with Jane Foster in Avengers: EMH...

The MAU has a conspicuous lack of romantic pairings. Which I'm pretty sure is a byproduct of the massive culling of non-superhero side characters, like Pepper and Rhodey. Harry Osborn and Mary Jane skirted with disappearing from Ultimate Spider-Man forever, but have since bounced back. Kind of.

...Okay, I've gotten that out of my system.

To make sure that the audience is absolutely clear that there was no romance in that kiss, Widow berates Hawkeye on his lack of subtlety, saying that she might as well have brought the Hulk.

Hawkeye: "Um, I'm immersing myself in my cover identity."
Black Widow: "Being obnoxious isn't a cover."

Actually, it totally is.

Let's go back to some of Widow's own advice in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Remember when she started mackin' on Cap because public displays of affection make people uncomfortable? It's the same principle. If your enemies are looking for somebody blending into a crowd, they're going to try and ignore annoying or off-putting distractions, like an obnoxious guy who thinks he's the coolest thing since Fonzie, but just acts like somebody's lame uncle. Especially since touristy places are going to be filled with people like that. Hawkeye even points this out.

Hawkeye: "Haven't been on a cruise ship lately, have you?"

Once onboard, Hawkeye dances his heart out on the main deck, where a woman tells him he looks familiar. Luckily, Widow pulls him away by pulling the "dear" card.

Hawkeye: "Hey, I wasn't the only one of us on the dance floor."
Black Widow: "Yeah, but I was the only one of us placing trackers."

Hawkeye promises to get into "total spy mode," but a montage illustrates exactly how Hawkeye and Widow differ on what "spy mode" is.

For Hawkeye, it's blending in and acting like somebody who would actually be on a cruise ship. For Widow, it's looking mopey while doing... nothing. Hawkeye plays a ring toss game, Widow takes secret pictures. Hawkeye plays volleyball, Widow walks along the length of the ship. Hawkeye plays shuffleboard, Widow stalks room service. Hawkeye limbos, Widow... also limbos, if only to scope out the guy who's been following them.

Back with the Avengers, the giant robots are getting taken care of in the usual fashion. Hawkeye watches the footage on his phone in his cabin, wishing he was there. Widow comes in to tell him that the weird guy from earlier is probably HYDRA's buyer and wonders if Hawkeye's "rusty" spy skills even noticed him.

Hawkeye: "Yeah, I saw him. I'm just not convinced he's our guy. We'll probably never see him again."

Which is, of course, the cue for a knock on the door. Widow opens it to see who's out there, and... wait.

Aren't the doors to cabins on a cruise ship supposed to have peepholes?
Anyway, Widow asks if she can help the stranger man, and he quickly excuses himself.

Black Widow: "Wait. ...Hail HYDRA."
Strange Man: "I am prepared for the transaction. Show me the crown first."

And so, Black Widow's higher brain functions promptly shut down. I think. It would explain the stupid things she does next.

Instead of beating this guy up and demanding answers out of him, she shows him the crown. And when he offers her the briefcase of payment, she simply reaches out for it. Even Hawkeye can see that this is a trap, but they both end up gassed while the dude runs off with the crown.

Black Widow: "This one's on me. I missed that."

Once they exit the room and catch their breath, they run after the guy, trapping him between themselves and the ocean. Unfortunately, the ocean is his escape plan. He turns off his hologram generator, revealing himself to be an Atlantean. Crap. Atlantis episodes are never good.

He jumps into the sea, and Hawkeye asks how Widow knew beforehand.

Black Widow: "Double-palate speech patterns..."

She must be referring to his weird, distinctive voice. Which has never shown up before, nor will it ever again.

Black Widow: "Briny body odor..."

I'll take your word for it.

Black Widow: "Vaporizers hidden in his clothing to keep him moist."

"Hidden in his clothing"? His clothes were a hologram! 

You know what else was hidden in his clothing? His actual clothes.

Luckily, Hawkeye planned for this with some high-tech scuba gear... which he must have had during the Wrecking Crew fight, since he arrived at the docks straight from that fight, and I'm pretty sure he didn't have any time to go somewhere else and grab some of his S.H.I.E.L.D. gear.

Anyway, as they make their way into the depths of the ocean, they try to figure out what's going on. In their experience, "Atlantis" means "Attuma."

Black Widow: "Of course. He's HYDRA's former ally from the Cabal."

Remember that line.

Widow radios Iron Man for assistance, but there are still giant robots to fight.

Iron Man: "Just tell me you didn't lose that crown."

No, she gave it away.

Black Widow: "It's... still in our sights."

The Atlantean turns around to try and zap them with a primitive laser-trident he whipped out from nowhere, so Hawkeye counters with a crossbow built into his suit. I'm pretty sure that crossbows are terrible underwater weapons, due to the water resistance impacting the bowstring's ability to impart force to the crossbow bolt. But I could be wrong. Either way, you'd think that hard-light crossbow would serve him better underwater. Too bad he never uses it again.

The two Avengers manage to watch from a distance as the Atlantean gives the crown to to some lady with an eyepatch.

Hawkeye: "Uh, Attuma looks a lot different than I remember."

Yeah, well, you got a redesign since last season, too.

Black Widow: "That's Lady Zartra, a high advisor to Attuma."

The Atlantean apologizes for being followed, but Zartra (April Stewart) decides to use this opportunity to test the Serpent Crown. She puts it on and summons the magnificent whale-monster known as Giganto.

And he hasn't eaten since that old man and the puppet.
But that is not what the Serpent Crown does in the comics. In the comics, it gives you a few superpowers. Giganto is controlled through a horn. I'm not sure why they combined these two artifacts. It's probably so they could make that parallel to Dr. Doom's headband that let him control the Midgard Serpent. Maybe they didn't want to have another magic horn so soon after "Valhalla Can Wait."

Namor probably has it, wherever he is.
Hawkeye's excited to fight a giant monster, but quickly gets Jonah'd.

Black Widow radios in an emergency assemble to the other Avengers, who quickly finish up their fight with the giant robots in a massive explosion.

Iron Man: "Next time, let's not all hit the power unit at the same time."

With the Avengers heading to the ocean, Black Widow continues to dodge Giganto, luring its path of destruction right at the Atlanteans while Zartra struggles to keep control. The point becomes moot when Widow knocks the crown right off her head, beginning the episode's big girl-on-girl fight. Since it happens underwater, Black Widow is at a disadvantage.

"On land, you may command, but at sea, it is me."
Luckily, her wrist-tasers still work underwater.

Lady Zartra: "You're not HYDRA. Who are you?"

Instead of answering, Widow keeps attacking, prolonging the fight and padding out the episode until Lady Zartra can reclaim both the crown and Giganto. Giganto attempts to swallow Black Widow, but a bash from Thor's hammer stops him, followed up by a punch from the Hulk. Good thing the Avengers found the time to grab their breathing masks.

Hulk: "Yeah. Big fish."
Iron Man: "Technically, big mammal."
Hulk: "Big mouth."

Fighting, fighting, fighting, and Hulk rescues Hawkeye by punching the majestic sea creature in the gut, rescuing Hawkeye in a big blast of ambergris, which... actually looks really cool, since they applied underwater physics to Giganto's vomit.

Still gross, though.
Hawkeye's a little unnerved after that experience, but Widow snaps him out of it.

Black Widow: "S.H.I.E.L.D. gave you the code name Hawkeye because you never miss a target. Or a clue."

"Actually, I just really like The Last of the Mohicans. Good book."
More fighting, still more fighting (one of my favorite pieces of video game music, incidentally), and Captain America hands Hawkeye his bow and quiver, which he uses to knock the crown off of Zartra's head. Again.

But before she can put it on yet again, Black Widow kicks her in the head while Hulk gets eaten. But nobody seems to mind.

Lady Zartra: "You... are the Avengers?"
Black Widow: "Figured it out. Just in time for us to take you in."
Hawkeye: "Better late than never."

But Zartra begs for the crown, saying that it's the only way she can defeat their enemy.

Lady Zartra: "We wish to overthrow Attuma himself."
Black Widow: "Overthrow Attuma? You're his chief advisor."

Yeah. Betrayal and backstabbing is what royal advisors do. Just be glad she's on your side.

Lady Zartra explains that she defected and assembled a band of rebels to fight against Attuma's "cruel dictatorship," which seems to confirm once and for all that Attuma is the leader of Atlantis and not just an overzealous general.

So where is Namor? This show seems to be using every Atlantean in the Marvel Universe except the main one.

Black Widow: "But you made a deal with HYDRA. Attuma's allies."

Let's rewind. That line I had you remember from earlier?

Black Widow: "Of course. He's HYDRA's former ally from the Cabal."

So which is it, Widow? Ally? Or former ally?

Lady Zartra: "Air-breathers foolishly believe all Atlanteans are alike."

Hey, watch the "air-breather" slur if you're going to be playing the race card like that.

"It's because I'm blue, isn't it?"
Also... this is a problematic issue to deal with.

You could easily see this as a parallel for Muslims in the modern age, where racism, stereotypes, and pre-conceived notions can lead one to the erroneous conclusion that all Muslims are automatically terrorists. However... the parallel doesn't quite work, which is why this isn't going to turn into a discussion of real life issues.

Whether or not these particular Atlanteans are fighting against a cruel dictator, that doesn't change the fact that they acquired a weapon of mass destruction from HYDRA, a Nazi terrorist cell.

Somebody from an underwater nation currently engaged in a Cold War with the surface world made a deal for a weapon capable of leveling entire cities.

To put this in real-world terms, imagine if North Korea sold a nuke to ISIS. You're darn right we're going to at least investigate this instead of saying "Maybe a rebel faction wants to overthrow ISIS? You don't know! Let's not make assumptions, people!"

Anyway, Zartra starts discussing politics.

Lady Zartra: "The fall of the Cabal should have meant peace with the surface world."

Yep. The Cabal broke up. Offscreen. Between seasons. Despite the fact that MODOK took it over at the end of the first season. Just another in the long line of plot points that Avengers Assemble likes to jettison between seasons.

Lady Zartra: "But Attuma pushes only for war, and he'll destroy both our peoples to get it."
Hawkeye: "I don't know if I believe her. But I believe in you and those Black Widow instincts, Natasha. You make the call."

Because the laziest way to show how feminist you are as a writer is to make the female character the wisest one on the team. As long as people don't realize that you're just using the "woman's intuition" stereotype. Hence "Black Widow instincts."

Widow orders the team to stand down as the Hulk escapes from Giganto's gut. Widow hands the crown over in what would be a fairly satisfying conclusion, but there's a third more to the episode. So a moray eel nabs the crown and swims off, presumably to find Ursula the Sea Witch.

When an eel steals your crown and just leaves you to drown, that's a moray.
Instead, the eel finds Attuma, who relishes the opportunity to eliminate Zartra and the Avengers at once.

On top of replacing his goofy helmet. So today's a good day for him.
More fighting, and the Avengers decide to team up with the rebels.

Thor: "The Asgardians have a saying. The enemy of my enemy is my ally."
Iron Man: "Everyone has that saying, Thor."

Thor has a bit of trouble once he discovers that his lightning doesn't work underwater. Not sure on the physics of that. Mainly because nobody can really aim electrical bursts above water, let alone below it.

Attuma whales on the Hulk while the whale hulks out on Thor, and Black Widow and Hawkeye apologize. Black Widow was filled with pre-conceived notions, and Hawkeye was too busy goofing off. But he makes up for it by using an ultrasonic arrow to disrupt the mind control on Giganto.

Falcon: "Whales use certain frequencies of sound to communicate. Those sonics are overriding the crown. Genius."
Hawkeye: "Nah. Just perceptive."

With Giganto out of action and slamming into Attuma, Hawkeye nabs the crown and hands it to Lady Zartra, who once again removes the free will of an innocent animal to wreak havoc on her enemies.

But before she can kill Attuma, Black Widow gives the old speech about how killing bad guys makes you no better than they are. So Zartra stands down and spares Attuma's life. And with Lady Zartra's permission, S.H.I.E.L.D. prepares to come and get him.

Zartra gives that speech we've heard a million times about putting aside differences and making steps toward peace, and she takes the next step by tossing the crown into the depths.

Lady Zartra: "We will live in harmony with all our fellow denizens of the deep."

Which... was not even an issue until you decided to take control of Giganto's mind, lady.
Once back at the tower, Tony congratulates Hawkeye on his clever solution. Widow brings up the fact that tossing the Serpent Crown into a hole won't stop people from going after it. Luckily, Hawkeye had the common sense to retrieve it before they left the ocean.

Tony Stark: "You don't miss much, do you? Guess that's why they call you 'Hawkeye.'"
Hawkeye: "Just trying to live up to the name."

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