Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cartoons with a vengeance

This past weekend, as I mentioned, I did quite a bit of housework, yardwork and errand-running, much of it with the little guy in tow, and in order to balance that out I watched a fair amount of tv, which while it may be blisteringly obvious I will point out is ideal in its passivity for combining with wrangling a toddler. I’ve tried to make use of ostensible weekend downtime by reading or indulging some fiddly hobby or another, but that almost never works. Inevitably the little guy will try to pull the book out of my hands and replace it with something I might read to him, or I’ll get so engrossed in the book as the little guy wanders off to follow his own bliss that when I come to the end of a chapter I have a moment of panic as I realize I have no idea where my child is or what he’s doing, or a loud crash will give me an inkling as to what he’s doing and I’ll hurriedly put the book down, losing my page and/or train of thought. But television is just kind of there, and it’s easy enough to keep one eye on the little guy while half-watching it, and no heartbreak to wander away from it if parental duty calls. Obvious, like I said, and it goes hand-in-hand with how insidiously bad for us tv really is, something I’m aware of and forever struggling with, but these days, I can rationalize things pretty darn quick.

Of course there’s still some judiciousness required in the presence of the little guy; even when he’s scooting around on his push-truck and could care less about what’s transpiring on-screen, I’m still not going to linger on Kill Bill vol. 1 (even if it is expurgated for basic cable, and seemingly running in a constant loop with its sequel from Friday through Sunday). Mostly, as always, I stick to live sporting events because they seem harmless enough to an impressionable young mind, and the little guy gets a charge out of throwing up his arms and yelling “Touchdown!” along with me (for which there was overabundant opportunity during Saturday’s ridiculous Michigan win in triple overtime). But in our house, it’s never enough to simply turn on a football or baseball or hockey game and leave it on; one must keep the remote near and change channels frequently, for several reasons: to avoid commercials, to skip the boring downtimes, and of course to avoid jinxing the team Heisenberg-style by watching too closely.

So, once again taking into account little eyes and ears, when I flipped the channel away from ESPN I headed toward the kid-friendly band of broadcasting, and I noticed that Disney XD was about to begin an hourlong block of their new Avengers cartoon. A comicbook-loving buddy of mine had mentioned that he was DVR-ing Avengers and found it to be reasonably appealing to the adult sensibilities of longtime fans, so I gave it a looksee for myself.

Gentle readers, I ask you, if a cartoon based on a Marvel superhero comic were aiming to get its hooks in me, what elements would you suppose would give it the greatest chance of success? Would you guess that the involvement of Thor would be high on the list? Would you also include unblinking references to obscure continuity? How about monkeys? If so, you know me pretty well. You also would have outlined the cold open for the episode which was my introduction to the latest animated incarnation of the Avengers, which not coincidentally at all amused me to no end.

This was actually the third or fourth episode of the series, which has taken the bold step of actually telling a long serialized story that’s not exactly The Sopranos or The Wire in terms of narrative complexity, but still a notch up from traditional kiddie fare. My buddy was good enough, in singing the praises of the show, to inform me that the origin story for the Avengers team is rendered here as a bunch of disparate superheroes coming together because of a massive break-out from four supervillain prisons. (In the comics, it was disparate heroes coming together because of the sometimes-noble, sometimes-monstrous Hulk on a rampage.) The first couple of episodes concerned themselves, beyond the formation of the titular team, with tracking down and recapturing one particularly badass villain.

But with that done, the series still has momentum to burn because there are a hundred other supervillains still out there, and they are villains with criminal pasts notorious enough to have already placed them behind futuristic bars. Which is a nice parallel to the Avengers themselves, who as noted are all superheroes who have had adventuring careers prior to the moment of realization that they could be even more effective in aggregate. This is not a cartoon that is afraid of losing the kiddies if it doesn’t introduce every character in the most obviously self-explanatory way possible. It simply assumes the existence of a comicbook world rich in its own history and asks the audience to trust that if they need to know any given character’s backstory, it will be revealed, but if it isn’t revealed then it’s probably irrelevant. I gotta say I admire that approach. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I’m the kind of geek who already knows all the backstories anyway thanks to decades of reading the very comics which serve as the source inspiration for the cartoon’s backdrop.

Once upon a time, some writer and artist got paid to come up with this.  God bless America.
To wit: the episode of Avengers I saw opened in media res as a six-foot baboon in a blue blouse and red cape is on the run with a couple valises stuffed with presumably stolen money. A cop pulls a gun on the monkey and yells “Freeze!” but the monkey is somehow able to hypnotically paralyze the cop, and keeps running. Then one by one the Avengers appear, and while the Mandrill is pretty sure he can take down the Wasp, his confidence diminishes as Iron Man, Giant Man, Thor and the Hulk all show up in succession, and finally the Mandrill surrenders. The greatness of this scene is manifold:

- Absolutely no explanation of the Mandrill’s powers. Either you roll with it, “Hypnotic blue-nosed baboon, got it”, or you don’t, but there’s no overt attempt at selling it. (It’s possible that in the earlier jailbreak episode, Mandrill’s powers got a fleeting mention in some kind of running-down-the-inmates exposition, but taking this episode as a self-contained story, that wouldn’t count in any case.) And yet in a nice nod to the comicbook-loving Gen X dads out there, the portrayal of the Mandrill is pretty much spot on. In the comics, it’s not exactly hypnotism, but super-pheromones which let him mesmerize only women. The cop in the cold open is, in fact, a woman. And as I mentioned, when the Wasp first shows up Mandrill is fairly sure she’s no threat. None of this gets called out specifically, and it’s arguably inessential, but geeks do love their easter eggs.
- The cold open has zero to do with the rest of the episode (which ends up being the first appearance of the series’ version of Avengers Mansion and focusing on how Hulk doesn’t fit in and is being provoked over the edge by the manipulations of the Enchantress) but is just a little bit of gleeful randomness. Sure, like I said, it ties in to the overall gotta-catch-em-all superstory that proceeds from the origin-initiating jailbreak. But it does so with a villain character whose intro and heyday were in the 1970’s and has been a fringe-player at best ever since. It’s pure throwaway, and considering that Marvel Comics owns approximately ten thousand characters from its five decades of publishing, I wish more cartoons would reflect that similarly. (Yes, I have wishlists about the narrative aspirations of children’s cartoons. This is who I am.) Not every episode of Spider-Man needs to be about Dr. Octopus. Yes there’s a wide gap between truly great characters who can carry a compelling story in the antagonist role, and one-note characters who are rightfully considered jokes, but certainly there’s room in cartoons for jokes, if only to spice things up a bit.
- Speaking of jokes, after the Mandrill surrenders and the Avengers observe that apprehending him was pretty easy, Thor’s take on the whole thing is (possibly paraphrased as I try to remember it four days later, but more or less): “Verily, he bringeth shame on all monkeys with his craven ways.” Best Line of Dialogue 2010, hands down. Also why I love Thor, and also the voice actor who managed to put so much emotion into the reading that you could really feel the god of thunder’s deep sympathy for the suffering of the world’s monkeys.

So, yeah, I’m a convert and new fan, which of course doesn’t mean that I’m going to magically find the time to actually catch his cartoon on a regular basis, but still. Sometimes it’s enough just knowing that something this entertaining is out there. I can always track down the DVD collection some day.

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