Y'know, I think this piece won't get as many views as some of the others because I'm one of the few people I know who puts this much thought into this sort of thing. And to that I say: Whatever. I write this blog for me more than anyone else. Anyway...
We live in a Golden Age of superhero media, where fans and comic writers are running the adaptations of their favorite medias. Of course, writing isn't a surefire process, and some shows will inevitably be better than others. I'm here to tell you which one goes where. Here's the Top 5 Superhero Cartoons of Today (I'm not doing "of all time" because you don't need another nerd on the internet telling you Batman: The Animated Series was awesome). Enjoy:
5) TEEN TITANS GO!
TIME FOR HISTORY!!!
From 2003-06, Cartoon Network broadcast Teen Titans, a cartoon which, by all accounts, should not have lasted the five seasons it did. It was an adaptation of a team who hadn't been popular in comics for over a decade, with characters who (aside from Robin the Boy Wonder) hadn't made a splash outside the geek community, in a distinctly anime-esque style at a time when Bruce Timm's all-American aesthetic was dominating TV with Justice League. And yet, against all odds, it worked. Thanks to some great character writing and acting, a diverse pantheon of villains, decent comedy, and just all-around fun, Teen Titans turned Starfire, Raven, Cyborg, and Beast Boy into characters that every kid worth their cartoon cred knew. The show was taken off the air in 2006, despite the fact that producer Glen Murakami had plans for a sixth season, but lived on in the hearts of its loyal fans.
Our story continues in 2012, when Cartoon Network began airing DC Nation Shorts, a series of animated shorts starring lesser-known DC characters or reinterpretations of more famous heroes. These included the return of the Teen Titans to television, in sixty-second comedy bits airing between commercial breaks, and you know what? They were pretty decent. No, they weren't the funniest thing on TV, but I got a laugh out of them and it was nice to hear the old cast doing the voices again. The shorts did, however, prove popular enough to greenlight Teen Titans Go!, a funnier, more lighthearted interpretation of the characters, playing up the comedy that was already in the old show.
I was actually sorta jazzed about TTG. The old cast was back, the animation looked decent, and there was the fact that there was potential for comedy. The Teen Titans are set-up like a family, so there's grounds for a sitcom-style presentation of the characters, plus there's humor to be wrung out of the fact that being superheroes is basically their day job and nobody in Jump City seems to give a damn about them. The stars seemed to be aligning. The only thing TTG needed to do was be funny and it'd be golden.
Yeeeeeeeeeeeeah, that didn't end up happening.
Teen Titans Go! subscribes to the theory of comedy that if you yell funny words a lot with little or no context, you will get laughs every time. What's worse is the fact that the character writing that made the original series so memorable is all but gone, leaving our protagonists as either contemptible or forgetful. Robin, once the driven and noble leader, is now alternatively a workaholic, a creepy hormonal teenager, an insecure douche, a petty whiner, or anything else the script needs him to be. Beast Boy, once the team's joker who would step up and get serious when needed, is now a lazy, responsibility-dodging slacker, making me question why he still elects to be part of the team. Cyborg, once a hardworking teammate whose energy and bravado covered up his insecurities about being more machine than man, now seemingly has two modes of behavior: speaking at a reasonable volume, and not doing that. Starfire, once the sweet and innocent girl who was still had much to learn about Earth culture but was fiercely loyal to her friends regardless of their differences, is relatively unchanged; the series just seems to have no interest in doing anything with her except say funny-sounding alien words.
The only character whose transitioned seamlessly and is still funny (far and away the funniest character on the show) is Raven, who is delegated to the role of straight-man, acting as a voice of reason in a world that otherwise seems completely insane. This is compounded by the fact that Raven has absolutely zero fucks to give about anything going on around her, and her detachment from the rest of the world usually gets a laugh out of me.
Without being compared to it's fore-bearer, TTG may have just been an unfunny comedy, bad enough on its own, but standing alongside Teen Titans, it's a confusing, disheartening mess of a show.
4) AVENGERS ASSEMBLE
With the film version of the Avengers making all of the money in the world, you can bet your ass Marvel made a cartoon about them, even going so far as to use the film's roster as the stars (plus the Falcon, adding a necessary element of diversity to a lineup whose only person of color is green). In addition, it has the same or similar continuity to other Marvel shows like Ultimate Spider-Man and Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. So why isn't it as good as them?
Let's start at the start: after an unseen period of time when the Avengers broke up (subtly attributed to Tony Stark being a dick), Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Falcon join forces to fight the Red Skull and his ever-growing Cabal of one-note supervillains, while also trying to live together under the same roof and tolerate each others' explosive personalities.
Assemble's major flaw is simple: it's a poorly written show. The pacing of each episode is off, devoting more time to the fight scenes than to the witty banter that is neither witty nor advances the characters beyond their single, most recognizable characteristic: Iron Man is an asshole, Hawkeye is snarky, Falcon is a newbie, etc. The most annoying of these is the treatment of Hulk, who is essentially there to punch things and yell the word "SMASH!" at least once per episode, which wears thin pretty quickly.
In addition, the shows fails the Bechdel Test harder than anything I've ever seen. For the uninitiated, the Bechdel test for representation of women in media was created by Liz Wallace and popularized by her friend, cartoonist Allison Bechdel, and is as follows: a film passes the Bechdel test if it a, features more than one named female character; b, has these two (or more) female characters have a conversation with each other; and c, has the subject of their conversation not be a man. Assemble doesn't even get past stage one, with the only female character being Black Widow, and she doesn't even show up for about half the episodes. This may be for the best, however, since her character is STUNNINGLY BORING.
There are some bright spots, of course. The animation is nice and the choice of villains is at least diverse, even if most of them are shallow and underwritten. And of our protagonists, the consistently best of them is Captain America, whose old-school morality and complete nonchalance towards the strangeness of 21st-century life are both likeable and actually funny some of the time. However, it's not enough to save this underwritten, overexcited, mess of a superhero show.
3) ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN
I had some degree of difficulty deciding which was better between this and Avengers Assemble. In the end, USM won out by sheer factor of having more ambition than "let's put Joss Whedon's Avengers in a cartoon". Unfortunately, the harder you try, the harder you fall, and Ultimate Spider-Man is nothing if not an ongoing series of small hits and big misses.
The conceit of USM is actually not that bad a starting point: Spider-Man, a.k.a. high school student Peter Parker, is recruited into S.H.I.E.L.D. by Director Nick Fury (following through on the promise made in the Ultimate Spider-Man comic book that, once Peter turned 18, he'd pretty much become government property). He is equipped with fancy new accessories (available at a store near you) and even given his own team of superheroes, posing as fellow high school students: Iron Fist, Power Man, White Tiger, and Nova. Together, the new Spider-Team fights whatever forces plague New York that the Avengers can't deal with because they don't have their own show yet.
The tone of USM is what turns a lot of people off of it; it is AGGRESSIVELY kid-friendly, with every character a joker or just a joke. Spidey gets the worst of it, as he copes with the strangeness of his life through asides to the audience and exaggerated fantasies that go on long enough to pass the point of "not funny" and cross into the territory of "do shut up now, TV". The show often feels like "Baby's First Family Guy", and not in a good way.
However, while the worst of it is the humor (which makes up a lot of it), there's also stuff to like. The animation and character designs are nice and the side characters actually come across as likeable sometimes. Particular points go to White Tiger and Iron Fist, the designated mature ones of the team - Tiger because of her nature as type-A overachiever, and Fist because of his mellow disposition and his habit of spouting pseudo-profound phrases that the writers presumably copied from a series of fortune cookies. There's also the fact that, unlike The Spectacular Spider-Man (the previous Spider-Man cartoon, which was produced by Sony), USM can have our intrepid teenage heroes fight bad guys from all over the Marvel universe without having to worry about rights. This is, of course, the ONLY quality USM has over Spectacular, as Spectacular was a golden gift from the Lord himself, sent through his vassals Greg Weisman and Brandon Cook, delivered by the CW and OH MY GOD IT WAS SO GOOD WHY WASN'T THERE MORE OF IT WHYYYYYYYYYYY
Sorry, got a little depressed there. Anyway, USM has faults...many, many faults...but it's more bearable than Assemble and at least it does a better job introducing kids to the Marvel universe. But it's still not that good of a cartoon, and definitely isn't Spectacular.
2) HULK AND THE AGENTS OF S.M.A.S.H.
Well this took me off guard.
As I mentioned above, I rather disliked the presentation of the Hulk in USM and Assemble. The moral complexity of the character was gone, as was (and still is) any mention of Bruce Banner, and instead we got the "fun" Hulk, who acts like a nine-foot-tall second-grader. He was grating, he was dull, and he got his own spin-off. And against all odds, it works. Mostly.
In the show, the Hulk has apparently relocated from Manhattan, center of all supervillain activity in the world, to Vista Verde, Nevada, in a super-secret base with a jet. Where'd he get this super-secret base and jet? Who cares! Maybe he got them from a toy store near you. Anyway, Hulk is joined by his best/only friend and number one fan, Rick Jones, who has been blogging and vlogging about the Hulk to try and prove that he isn't a monster, because that's what the young people do, yo. In the course of the pilot, Rick gets his own gamma powers and becomes A-Bomb, while Hulk recruits other gamma-irradiated heroes to help, including the gung-ho military man Red Hulk, the stable, down-to-Earth pilot She-Hulk, and the savage, simple-in-mind-but-noble-in-heart Skaar. Together, this unlikely group of heroes fight bad guys while also learning lessons about friendship and togetherness. Think of it as "My Little Hulks: Friendship is Smashing".
The thing that makes this series work? What makes it not only bearable, but compelling? The Hulk himself. Gone is the big angry stupid troll who compulsively tackles his teammates as well as his enemies. Instead, Hulk is...intelligent. He's regretful about his past as a mindless brute, eager to change his image to the public, aware of teammates flaws and wants to fix them, and, in a shocking but welcome addition, still loves being a superhero. THIS is what Marvel does best: balance the compelling character drama with the excitement and fun of fighting bad guys. It really is Hulk, the writers, and voice actor Fred Tatasciore (who's been voicing the Hulk since 2006 and whose last name is pronounced "Tah-tah-shorr") who brings this show home.
The supporting characters are also well cast and enjoyable. Eliza Dushku makes She-Hulk grounded but fun and engaging; Clancy Brown as Red Hulk is...guys, it's Clancy Brown, he can do no wrong; and Seth Green is perfect as the excitable fanboy Rick Jones, bringing with him the ability to make even the dumbest line sound charming.
It's not perfect, of course. The villains are still one note, the jokes are still aimed at five-year-olds, and most of the supporting characters aren't given much to do so far, beyond Rick making jokes and Hulk and Red Hulk arguing with each other in the most manly-sounding conversation your ears might ever hear. Still, when you compare it to it's contemporaries, S.M.A.S.H. is a diamond among coals, and even without those, it's a good bit of fun for the kid in all of us.
1) BEWARE THE BATMAN
Yep. Leave it to Batman to be the best.
Developed by DC Animation veterans Glen Murakami, Sam Register, Butch Lukic, and Mitch Watson, Beware the Batman puts the Caped Crusader back to his roots as an up-and-coming vigilante in Gotham City. The hook of Beware is that rather than give us the familiar cast of supporting characters and villains like Robin, the Joker, the Riddler, etc., it opts to shake up the formula with new characters and even uses some of the old ones in new and interesting ways. For starters, rather than introduce Dick Grayson version one-billion, it gives Batman a new partner: Katana, a.k.a. Tatsu Yamashiro, former CIA agent turned bodyguard to Bruce Wayne turned partner-in-crimefighting. This actually brings a different dynamic to the table, as rather than fight alongside a kid, Batman is teaching and training someone who's an adult, with years of dangerous fieldwork already under her belt. Their partnership is new at this point in the series, but I'm very eager to see it develop.
In addition, we've got new villains to fight. Professor Pyg and Mister Toad, Magpie, Anarky, Doodlebug, Junkyard Dog, and Lady Shiva all make their animated debuts in Beware as Batman's developing rogues gallery. But while it's definitely interesting to see new faces on the board, I can't help but feel that some of them feel like stand-ins for the more familiar faces we've come to expect. No matter how crazy you make her, Magpie's just gonna end up seeming like Catwoman in an even more revealing outfit (seriously, I feel sorry for this girl having to run around at night), while the presentation of Anarky just makes him seem like the Joker cosplaying as Moon Knight. Plus, a lot of these villains come from creepier, more grown-up Batman stories, so seeing someone as entertainingly twisted as Professor Pyg reduced to a well-mannered animal rights activist (rather than a demented surgeon who at one point does a strip-tease in front of a bound and gagged Robin, I am not making this up, it's Grant fucking Morrison we're talking about) just feels off.
Still, Beware has a whole lot going for it. While elements like a more action-oriented Alfred Pennyworth and the strange new CGI animation take some getting used to, once you let them, you really start to like them. Beware isn't the freshest take on the character of Batman himself, but it's a new look into his strange, strange world, and I for one am loving the ride.
HONORABLE MENTION: THE AWESOMES
No, it's not based on a comic, but I feel The Awesomes deserves a mention here, because I really like it.
After Mr. Awesome, leader of the world's greatest superhero team the Awesomes, announces his retirement, the rest of his team goes their separate ways; all except his son, Professor Doctor Awesome, and his best friend and teammate Muscleman. Together, the two set out to form a new team of Awesomes and keep Prock's dream of being a superhero alive, rounding up the most powerful and least mentally stable heroes they could find in order to save the world, all while the "reformed" supervillain Dr. Malocchio manufactures his latest scheme for world conquest.
Now, I'm someone who not only loves superheroes, but I also love myself a good parody. Rarely do these two things intersect successfully. The greatest of these is, far and away, the short-lived but well-remembered Marvel series Nextwave (or Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. if you wanna be all technical about it). The Awesomes reminds me quite a bit of Nextwave, and while it doesn't reach that book's level of out-there scifi or spot-on send-up of Marvel comics lore, it does aim for the same point Nextwave did: A person can't be involved in the hero/villain game if they are mentally regular. You'd have to be an idiot, or insane, or both, to think that the best way to solve a problem is to put on colorful tights and punch things.
Unlike USM, which too often feels like a comedy that just happens to have superheroes in it, The Awesomes is, at its core, a superhero show that's trying to be funny, and for the most part, it succeeds, thanks to solid character writing and a cast mostly made up of Saturday Night Live veterans like Bill Hader, Kenan Thompson, Taran Killam, and series co-creator Seth Meyers.
The Awesomes is a very pleasant surprise. The first season is currently available at Hulu.com and, if you can stomach the ads for Jack Link's Beef Jerky at the end of every episode (because in the words of Kevin Smith, "Somebody gotta pay fucking the bills around here."), I definitely recommend it.
So that's my list of the best superhero cartoons today. Now I know what you're thinking, because I've secretly got psychic powers: you're wondering why I didn't include other superhero shows of the day like Axe Cop and the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. Well don't you worry, I'll get to those soon enough. For now, I'll just say watch them both. Axe Cop is available on Hulu, while TMNT is a bit harder to find because Nickelodeon makes there stuff harder to get find, but it's still good.
Thanks for reading and I'll see you next time!