When I was small, I had “pokey fingers.” I had to touch practically everything. If a lamp shade had a texture that felt intriguing, I had to keep rubbing it. If a particular toy had a waxy feel to it, I had to keep handling it. I had to keep petting the neighbor’s cat or dog, I had to touch every other toy in the toy aisle at the stores, etcetera ad infinitum.
I have never quite outgrown this urge to keep fingering things that look like they have an interesting texture. Now I can look at many different physical objects without touching most of them most of the time (yay). I have gotten over my “pokiness.” One thing that reminds me of this youthful fascination is my attraction to the realm of stories. I cannot drop a story idea or a character that is interesting; I have to keep turning it over and over in my mental hands, poking and prodding it until even I am fed up with it. But once picked up, an idea or a character is even harder for me to release than that lamp shade or those toys I once handled when I was small.
I cannot say exactly why I have such a hard time letting go of these stories and characters. Perhaps it is because somewhere in my mind I am still a small child who looks on stories as elaborate Russian dolls – open the first doll and you find another one inside, and then you repeat the process until you reach the last doll.
Only, some characters do not seem to have a final hidden doll. Some stories always seem to have an extra surprise buried in them that I never saw before. No matter which way I slice it, there is always something new to be found in a previously explored good story. So I spend more time on them looking for the final doll than I probably should, until I get tired, distracted, or interested in something else entirely.
Today’s Russian doll – or rather, dolls – are three different Marvel TV series. I do not suppose many people would be interested in this subject (unless they have children), but as I said, once I get hold of a story or a character (or, worse, a set of characters) I have a very hard time letting them go. So I am sorry, readers, if you find this subject beyond dead boring. I do not – not as things stand now. Eventually, I think I will go as deep as I can into Marvel’s characters and then, finally, let them go. But so far, every time I think I have reached that point, something always brings me back.
It appears that I am stalling. Well, readers, here I go. You may follow me, or not, as you wish. This is going to be a long post.
Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was a children’s show that ran from about 2010 to late 2012. It wrapped up sometime after Marvel’s The Avengers was six or eight months old. The animation was not top-notch, but in comparison to some other shows I have seen advertised, it was a definite improvement over the norm.
As a story, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was fairly strong, from my perspective. Heroes followed the comics as closely as it could, using the “mainstream” Marvel Comics as the series’ backbone while adding some frills from more recent comics (Tony’s attitude and personality, Hawkeye and Widow’s S.H.I.E.L.D partnership and her betrayal of him, as well as the Skrull invasion).
So as a story, the series had a lot to work with in terms of plot. In terms of character, it excelled in several key points. For starters, Tony and Cap were much more respectful of each other in this series. Tony could mouth off and behave like a good-natured jerk, but he never “dissed” Cap in front of the other Avengers or in private. Why the writers have made him so much snarkier and disrespectful of Cap I do not know. It was nice in this series to see Iron Man defer to Cap’s greater experience and knowledge with good humor, the way he used to in the original “mainstream” comics; something that subsequent cartoon versions of Tony Stark have not done – not on a regular basis, at least.
Another plus to this series was Wasp. Portrayed in this series as feisty and as ready with a quip as Hawkeye, Wasp added a fun, generous, and feminine grace to the team that no other female member of the Avengers in the series seemed to achieve. Her woman’s instinct and ability to become serious was perfectly balanced by an easy laugh and a good sense of humor (which could become hilariously funny when she was fighting the bad guys).
Four other good characterizations in the series’ favor were Cap, Black Panther, Thor, and Vision. Although portrayed as somewhat quiet and distant at first, Cap grew to be the same sort of person he has been in the comics for the last seventy-odd years. Having Cap behave in his usual reserved but simultaneously kind and approachable manner was a “good mark” for the story, even when he was ‘replaced’ by a Skrull in the first season of this series and who posed as him for a good chunk of the second season.
Panther and Thor added the dignity of royalty to the series, along with some witty dialogue from time to time. Thor very rarely allowed himself a joke and had the weightier grandeur, while Panther’s kingly decorum was softened by his barb-infused friendship with Hawkeye and Tony Stark. Where Thor was the counterweight to Tony’s bouts of silliness, Panther stood in the middle of the scales of humor and gravity, proving that one actually can be dignified while making a joke or poking fun at someone.
Vision only arrived in the second season of the series, but he still had time to more than make an impression on this member of the audience. Vision possessed Panther’s gravity without the benefit of the other’s experience. Built by Ultron, Vision was a fully-formed adult who lacked the experience a human acquires growing to adulthood. Cap and the Avengers were instrumental in teaching him that humanity is a gift more than it is a flaw, and watching Vision trying to puzzle out his enemies – later his teammates – like an odd math equation was great. If Whedon and Bettany can imbue Vision with that same sense of childlike wonder and incomprehension mixed with adult power, I will be not only very impressed but extremely pleased.
The final star on Heroes’ record is the friendship that sprang up between the Hulk/Bruce Banner and Hawkeye. In Heroes, Hawkeye is practically taken straight from the early comics. He is an irascible jerk who usually speaks before he thinks, in part because he’s so overconfident, in part because past betrayals have made him wary of trusting anyone who shows up and says they just want to help him out. It takes some work, and he does not lose his propensity for either being testy or overconfident, but eventually Hawkeye does prove he has the fiber to be an Avenger, and a darn good one at that.
Similarly, the Hulk and Banner are very like their original counterparts in the comics. Banner does not like his alter ego initially; the Hulk feels vulnerable while Banner is in control, and Banner feels he cannot keep command of a situation when the Hulk is running the show.
How do these three temperamental people (Hulk/Bruce Banner and Hawkeye) become friends? In Gamma World, Part 2, Hawkeye has to go in search of Banner to stop the Leader from taking over the world. He and the Hulk trade temper tantrums, which convinces the Hulk to let Banner have control, as Hawkeye had hoped it would.
From there, the three move on to become great friends. Hawkeye gets along better with both the Hulk and Banner in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes than he does with almost everyone else in the series.
Two marks of Hawkeye’s friendship with the Hulk and Banner show through in later episodes. When Cap tries to teach Tony to box without his armor in the first season of the series, Hawkeye and Hulk sit in the rafters over the gym to eagerly watch the billionaire leader of the Avengers get his clock cleaned by Steve, who is being as easy on Tony as he feels he can be. In the second season of Heroes, just before the Skrull invasion becomes public knowledge, Hawkeye is on Banner-watching duty when the latter gets his once-a-month reprieve from being the Hulk.
The setting is not to Hawkeye’s tastes, since Banner’s idea of a day off is fishing on a quiet lake, whereas Hawkeye would probably rather be practicing his shooting or blowing something up. Later in the episode, Banner is jabbed with a serum that prevents him from releasing the Hulk. The Avengers must then work to protect him from the new Red Hulk, who is seeking a fight with Ol’ Green. For once Banner is not able to transform into the Hulk when he really has to. But Red Hulk is determined to fight the Hulk, so he picks Hawkeye up by his right arm – his shooting arm in this series – and starts squeezing. That does the trick, and Red Hulk gets more than he bargained for once Banner releases the Hulk in a fit of rage to save his friend.
Since Hawkeye is my favorite Avenger, this was the biggest selling point of the series to me. I am all too sorry that this friendship has not carried over into subsequent series very well, but you cannot have everything in life. Where would you put it?
Still, I am hoping someone can set this friendship up again in some future series. Hawkeye and Hulk seemed to get along so well in Heroes because of their shared quick-tempers, and Banner put up with Hawkeye’s temper better than most everyone else, probably because he knew it was often more bluster than real rage. Either that or someone who is “always angry” understands someone else who is seemingly constantly irritable better than people who are not endlessly touchy.
All these digressions aside, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was a pretty darn good series. I was sad to see it end; mostly because I had a feeling that whatever followed it was going to fall short of the high water (or high character) mark which Heroes had set. Still, the fact that it was made at all indicates there is hope. If they did such a good job on this series, then a subsequent series has the potential to come close to equaling Heroes’ at some point in the future. The only hard part about that is waiting for such a series to be written!
The second Marvel TV series I thought I would make mention of is Avengers Assemble. If you have followed my blog from the beginning, then you probably know that I wrote a post about the first eight episodes of this series when it first aired waaay back in 2013. I cannot say that all my questions about the series have been answered, or that it has satisfied all my wishes for the characters it presents, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Assemble is the series Marvel designed to take over for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. At the same time, this new series was meant to capitalize on the success of Marvel’s 2012 blockbuster The Avengers. Because of this, the Avengers’ roster in Assemble is dramatically shrunk from the one seen in Heroes. The team’s lineup is the same as in The Avengers with the exception of Falcon being part of the cartoon team. This is not, however, the same Falcon we saw and enjoyed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This Falcon is instead a greenhorn seventeen year-old who occasionally brings his mother’s oatmeal raisin cookies to the Avengers’ Tower. (And yes, the whole team salivates over those cookies and is quite willing to fight over who gets how many.)
I do not enjoy Assemble as much as I liked Heroes, though it is not a terrible series. In fact, Assemble has had several stellar episodes. I will not list too many of the episodes here, but I think episodes like Hulk’s Day Out, Planet Doom, The Ambassador, All-Father’s Day, Crime and Circuses, Valhalla Can Wait, Ghosts of the Past, Nighthawk, and most recently, The Age of Tony Stark, are pretty good installments in the series. Most of these are stand-alone stories and bear no relation to the overall plot arcs of Assemble’s separate seasons, which is actually part of what makes them so wonderful for me.
This is not to diminish the general plot arcs of the series; I simply prefer these episodes because they are good character episodes which show the heroes at their best, in the moments when they are growing. A strong overarching plot is great, but once a writer sacrifices the characters’ growth just to keep up with the plot, they are in big trouble. By doing this they kill the very thing the audience is interested in: how the characters evolve and grow as people.
This leads me to the facts about Assemble which I am unhappy about. As I said, Heroes was a winning series for its characters and the way they interacted with each other. Assemble has these as well, and some of its moments are truly fantastic, especially in episodes like Planet Doom and The Age of Tony Stark. But sometimes it is hard to find that positive aspect in Assemble because the characters are suffering from an overdose of juvenile humor.
Now, I know that Assemble is for young children, and that children respond well to humor. I also know that I probably should expect nothing less than this humor in Assemble. In fact, as I said above, I did expect it. I could not have anticipated exactly what it would look like, but I sensed it was coming. And as for Assemble being geared toward a young audience, the fact is that Heroes was also aimed at youngsters of generally the same age as those who watch Assemble. I cannot understand why one series treated children intelligently but the subsequent series treats them juvenilely and relies heavily on infantile jokes, almost to the point that the characters and story are buried underneath an avalanche of laughter. All I know is that it happened.
My biggest problems with Assemble’s giving the heroes an immature sense of humor is not focused on Cap (who has kept his integrity through worse storms), Tony Stark, Thor, the Hulk, or even Falcon. Every last one of these, aside from Cap, has bouts of infantile humor which are either easily explained or part of the way the characters are currently designed.
It makes perfect sense that Falcon, being a seventeen year-old genius, retains a youthful sense of humor. Thor and the Hulk’s constant competition for the title of the strongest would, of course, lead them into embarrassing scrapes that they would (eventually) laugh about. Tony has been revamped as a playboy with a snarky and, at times, childish sense of humor. Cap has a sense of humor, too, of course. He just does not let it control him.
My biggest problem with the series, however, is the treatment of the Avengers’ two super spies: Hawkeye and Black Widow. The writers may have given Hawkeye an almost fraternity boy sense of humor in order to make him appear more likeable to younger children, perhaps afraid that his original, prickly personality might turn youngsters “off” of him. Nevertheless, I find the fact that they usually make Hawkeye the focus of a joke, the center of foolishness, or a complete prankster very annoying.
The archer has always had a sense of humor and a quip to lighten almost any tense moment, but he has never been a joke. Turning him into one rubs me the wrong way and dampens my enjoyment of an Assemble episode even before it starts. So far his most serious moments have been in Planet Doom, Crime and Circuses and Beneath the Surface. The first of these three episodes showcases a changed world where the Avengers were never formed, and where Hawkeye is a battle-weary resistance fighter with little reason to be anything but serious. Crime and Circuses shows Hawkeye’s painful Assemble back story (his history was full of bruises and betrayals even in the original comics), which is of course a sobering trial for any character. The third episode which shows him finally demonstrating the more serious side to his personality is Beneath the Surface.
Hawkeye seems to be presenting Marvel with a huge dilemma these days. Originally a testy, brash jerk, Marvel made him taciturn and suicidal in its Ultimates comic line. Now, in the “mainstream” comics and Assemble, they have gone from making him a laconic tough guy or a prickly pear to portraying him as the supreme April Fool’s day prankster.
I like neither extreme of the character; Hawkeye is not a blond version of the Punisher, nor is he a fraternity fool. If Marvel wanted to soften his thorny personality, there were better ways to do it. Until they can find a way to balance his humor with his serious side, it appears Marvel’s portrayals of Hawkeye are going to leave me disgruntled for a long time.
Assemble’s portrayal of Black Widow is also in need of some work. While Widow is not a bubbly or giggly woman by any stretch of the imagination, Assemble tends to make her appear overly serious and unwilling to even smile. Black Widow is certainly cynical and solemn, but she is also as ready with a wisecrack as her old partner, Hawkeye. And she certainly does not lack the capacity to smile at a joke.
On top of that, instead of showing Hawkeye and Widow as partners who respect and value each other, Assemble treats them like siblings who cannot make peace, even in the deadliest of situations. Widow almost constantly rides Hawkeye like a big sister trying to control an unruly younger brother; in the comics and other stories the two have had their differences, but they never reached this scale of immaturity (to my knowledge). Also, in episodes Molecule Kid and Beneath the Surface, where the two have to work almost exclusively on their own, they behave like a long-suffering married couple. Throughout these episodes they are constantly arguing, with Widow almost endlessly reprimanding Hawkeye for his immature behavior.
What is so annoying about this is that Widow actually has a sense of humor, one she is rarely allowed to exhibit in Assemble. Though more formal than even Cap in certain respects and tending to be pessimistic, Widow is not the coldly superior older sister she is portrayed in Assemble. The writers for the series are so busy trying to make her superior to the men on the team that they fail to show her for what she is: her male teammates’ equal. Instead of obviously standing over her teammates like an Amazon queen, which the writers doubtless hope she will, in Assemble Widow comes across as the petulant older sister more concerned with getting everything picture perfect and controlling her rowdy brothers rather than in doing what she has to do with her own style and flair.
This is grossly unfair to the character, not to mention to women, but it does not appear that anyone else has really taken notice of it. Widow is a great character, but in Assemble her ability has been diminished to fit a stereotype, the same way that Hawkeye has been reduced to the Avengers’ version of the class clown.
More than the foolish bouts between Thor and the Hulk, more than Tony’s irritating repartee, more than Falcon’s youthful humor or Cap’s supposed stoicism; the reduction of Widow and Hawkeye to mere tropes and stereotypes absolutely grinds my gears. Assemble has proven it can give the characters a good showing, despite its heavy reliance on childish humor. I wish that the writers would wake up and realize what they are doing to the series but, unfortunately, I do not think I could make them see this. To change course at this point would also upset the whole applecart and very likely ruin the series. So, no matter how aggravating Assemble becomes, this is what I have to live with at the moment.
No, it is not the worst thing in the world – to be sure it is not! But I do hope Marvel’s next Avengers series actually treats the characters with real respect and not with an aura of intelligentsia-slimed derision. After all, the success of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes proves children are not stupid. They like character illustrations just as much as adults do. That Marvel treats Assemble in this manner is not just insulting to its characters; it is also highly insulting to their target audience. Alas, audiences today are regularly insulted. It is too bad that the audience of children must suffer as the adult audience does.
Marvel DISK Wars: The Avengers
Lest you think, readers, that I am totally despondent over Marvel’s current treatment of its characters, I can assure you I am not. I am very frustrated, but that is not the same thing as despondent. Frustration means one is dissatisfied with what one has, while despondent means one has given up all hope of ever gaining a thing. I am not satisfied with Avengers Assemble as it stands; I think it could have been done better. But I have not despaired and given up hope that Marvel can tell good stories.
Part of the reason for this is that I have found a third Avengers series which does satisfy my tastes for good storytelling on several levels. It has good characterization and strong plots. That series is Marvel DISK Wars: The Avengers.
DISK Wars is a series focusing on Marvel’s Avengers that is written, directed, and animated in Japan (when I watch it, I have to rely on episodes with English subtitles). Marvel has been teaming up with artists in Japan for the past few years, and in this way has made at least two animated films and three or four different animated television series. These last formats focused on the vampire hunter Blade, the X-Men, Iron Man, and Wolverine. DISK Wars is targeted at Japanese children of roughly the same age group as those for whom Assemble’s writers aim to please, but DISK Wars treats the characters and its audience with more respect than Assemble does.
My past experiences with animated Japanese TV series, namely the original Speed Racer and Zoids: Chaotic Century, led me to the supposition that this Avengers series might not be too bad. Japanese authors in these previous series had not disappointed me and, while I certainly cannot vouch for all animated TV series from Japan, I had a feeling DISK Wars could turn out about as well as Speed Racer or Zoids had. So far I have not been disappointed, though I am wary of committing myself totally to this series because, as I have said, so far it has not disappointed. I do not want to give full support to a thing only to find out later that what I thought was unobjectionable needed a second – or a hundredth – opinion confirming or disproving my own. Time reveals all things, so I shall only share what I have observed so far.
The name DISK Wars comes from a particular device Tony Stark and a Japanese scientist, Dr. Nozumo Akatsuki, developed to contain super villains. These devices are triangular containers about the size of a wristwatch’s face called Digital Identity Securement Kits – or DISKs for short. By pointing a DISK at a villain – or a hero – and saying “D-Secure,” one can digitally capture a villain or hero in digital suspended animation. To release a villain or hero, one has to raise the DISK above their head, call out the name of the villain or hero in the DISK, and throw the DISK to the ground with the command “D-Smash!”
It sounds a little odd to us here in the West, I suppose, but I do not think it is a terrible idea. A friend of mine likes to refer to this series as “Avengers: Pokémon Style,” and I suppose that friend is not wrong in naming it so.
DISK Wars begins with Tony Stark inviting Dr. Akatsuki’s two sons, Hikaru and Akira, to a party/presentation revealing the DISKs to the world. As with any carefully laid plan in history, this one goes down the drainpipe fast. In the middle of the celebration, Loki crashes the party and uses villains captured in DISKs against the heroes. Then, holding Pepper hostage to force the heroes to submit, Loki captures every hero present – Avengers and other heroes as well – in DISKs. Only Spider-Man avoids being “D-Secured.”
Loki’s plans, however, also have a monkey wrench thrown into them. Actually, make that five monkey wrenches. Hikaru and Akira, along with three other kids who won tickets to the party, end up with five of the Avengers’ DISKs. Akira gains Iron Man’s DISK while Hikaru receives Thor’s. The other three children – Edward Grant, Chris Taylor, and Jessica Shannon – each receive Hulk’s, Captain America’s, and Wasp’s DISKs respectively. Since the heroes are trapped in the DISKs, they have to partner with these five children in order to battle Loki and other villains throughout the series.
There are more particulars to the story, but if I have whetted your curiosity with this cursory explanation, readers, I will avoid spoiling the fun you will have hunting down the details on this series yourselves. Suffice it to say that DISK Wars has impressed me fairly well for two reasons.
One, the Avengers’ characterizations in DISK Wars are all spot on, or close enough to it. As someone I know pointed out, the Japanese are experts at writing comics, so it is unlikely that they would mangle a TV show based on someone else’s comic book stories. All true, but this tells you what a bad state our writers have reached. Our comic book writers are often quite willing to turn the characters they are supposed to preserve and strengthen inside out. Seeing Cap, Wasp, Hulk, Thor, and Tony reacting to a situation or a person as they should due to their respective past characterizations is almost bitterly refreshing for me. The characterization of Spider-Man, Black Widow, and several other heroes is also nailed almost perfectly, though Hawkeye is once again just a little too serious.
Second, I enjoy the way the DISK Wars’ writers show how the characters mature throughout the series. The kids bonded to the Avengers are naturally forced to grow up and become complete persons in the course of their adventures. But an interesting aspect to this is how the Avengers are forced to mature through their partnerships with these children.
Being bonded to Akira, Tony has to take responsibility for the headstrong youngster, something that seemingly softens his attitude toward children – if not towards fathers and fatherhood. (Marvel loves to give their characters daddy issues so much that is has become aggravating.) Thor is forced to keep his eagerness for battle and glory in check; otherwise he will land Hikaru in trouble. The fact that the two each have a younger brother who is a pain (Loki more so than Akira) also helps Thor to grow up and realize he is not alone. Cap is forced once again to mentor a youth, though Chris proves to be a harder man to mold than Bucky because of his stubborn determination to be his own man, not dominated by others.
Similarly, Hulk has to learn to keep his temper in check with Edward “Ed” Grant. Ed is the youngest and smallest of the children, and therefore the one most likely to be paired with the Hulk just to satisfy everyone’s desire for poetic irony. While learning to go easy on Ed, the Hulk comes to understand that he does not necessarily have to be hard on everyone to be a tough guy – as Ed points out through his actions rather than through any of his direct statements. Everyone knows the Hulk is not to be messed with.
Wasp matures less noticeably than some of the other Avengers, since she is already a well-balanced character. Partnered with the self-centered rich girl, Jessica, Wasp more often acts as a teacher/older-sister/mother-figure for her partner. Still, lest others think me grasping at straws to describe what is not present, allow me a moment to point out that this is also growth. It is no mean feat to fill three roles at once (!), and on occasion Jessica’s behavior has demanded Wasp be teacher, sister, and mother all in the same instant. And, on some occasions, Jessica gets to turn the tables and repeat one of Wasp’s lessons in such a way that Wasp also learns something.
Other Marvel heroes in the series are also forced to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones in dealing with the Avengers’ partners. Spider-Man, who is arguably one of the Marvel heroes most at ease with children, becomes something of an older brother figure for all five kids in the early episodes. Meanwhile Hawkeye, who is a staunch S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in DISK Wars, stays out of the team’s hair for the most part.
Regarding Ed and Hikaru, however, he makes special drop-in visits or speeches to boost the two boys’ confidence (probably because his own confidence has rarely – if ever – flagged, and he knows that confidence is essential in doing anything well, especially when one is fighting the good fight). The almost paternal friendship he forms with Ed is especially enjoyable (for me, anyway). While they do not appear to be as attached to him as they are to Spider-Man, all five children still come to rely on Hawkeye throughout the course of the series. It is a reliance he neither scorns nor complains about, he just accepts it and stays as faithful to the kids as he can.
Black Widow also gets introduced to the children. Where the others recognize the children as smart individuals, Widow at first sees them only as kids. When their unshakeable faith in their friends later proves correct, she is forced to realize (without saying as much) that childlike faith really can move mountains – or even remove “Venom-ous” symbiotes! Heck, even the Guardians of the Galaxy take to the children and grow because of that affection.
It is a pity Marvel’s other writers have not tried exploring these kinds of stories over the past few years, readers. After all, if there is one thing I have learned lately, it is that human beings are happiest when they are growing and developing – not just physically but mentally and in spirit. Therefore, the stories that make us happiest are the stories where the hero grows, where he or she learns just what they are capable of, just how much they can give. The process of becoming a complete person is hard, for them and for us. But, as the saying goes, “No pain, no gain.”
The growth of Marvel’s characters was very apparent in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but it is much hampered in Avengers Assemble. DISK Wars is, so far, the only current Avengers series where real growth, no matter how slow it may seem, is actually allowed. Maybe, someday, our writers on this side of the Pacific will remember how to let their characters mature and become strong. Then the stories they write will become really interesting, readers!
Until next time!
The Mithril Guardian