Now available on DVD, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes! teams up Marvel’s best-known characters: Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America. The first 13 episodes (originally aired in the U.S. last fall) are collected across two DVDs, on sale separately.
Meet the Characters, Working Separately
Volume 1, “Heroes Assemble!”, contains the first seven 22-minute episodes:
- Iron Man Is Born!
- Thor the Mighty
- Hulk Versus the World
- Meet Captain America
- The Man in the Ant Hill
- Breakout Parts 1 & 2
As you can guess from the episode titles, the first five introduce key characters who will later form the team. The first title is a little misleading, since Tony is clearly comfortable being Iron Man, but there’s some suggestion that he’s revealed to the world here. We also meet Nick Fury, SHIELD, and Hydra. In fact, since this episode is cobbled together from four earlier mini-episodes, in the last part, Iron Man disappears entirely, turning the show over to a spy battle between Fury and the Grim Reaper.
All of the first five episodes are made up of shorter, previously aired segments, making their storytelling fragmented. The Hulk episode is the first with significant guest stars, as it introduces Hawkeye and the Black Widow. (I bet Hawkeye’s arrow that makes ice is a huge hit at parties.) I found myself wondering what kind of ethical training agents are given, as they seem to have no qualms shooting explosive arrows or taser stings at each other without concern for whether their target will be able to survive.
The Captain America episode is mostly a World War II-set adventure with Bucky against the Red Skull, while “The Man in the Ant Hill” introduces Ant-Man, the Wasp, and Black Panther, making use of Hank Pym’s scientific background in a storyline about discovering vibranium. Finally, the Avengers themselves come together in the last two minutes of “Breakout”. This two-parter combines plotlines from the previous episodes as they all fight Graviton, who has escaped (along with many others) from one of the four major supervillain prisons (The Cube, The Vault, The Big House, and The Raft — seriously?). At the end, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Ant-Man/Giant-Man, and the Wasp team up to hunt down the remaining 74 escapees, providing the series a purpose. (One that’s promptly forgotten.)
Strengths and Weaknesses
The animation is impressive. It’s classic and effective, without heavy dependence on a particular style or cheap-looking shortcuts. Viewer expectations are high, given the technology and what other animated entertainment is available, and this won’t disappoint. There are plenty of fights, technology, explosions, and eye-catching motion. It starts off as a cartoon for young boys — while there’s snappy patter and wisecracks among the cast, there isn’t a lot of characterization, although the young-at-heart of any age will enjoy seeing favorite superheroes in action. By the second volume, though, there’s a bit more going on.
The voices are not star-driven, and the previous credits for much of the cast focus on other animated projects and video games. These journeymen get the job done, but they don’t stand out in significant fashion. Iron Man is Eric Loomis; Thor is Rick Wasserman, doing British; Captain America is Brian Bloom; Ant-Man is Wally Wingert; and the Wasp is Colleen O’Shaughnessey.
The voice of Tony Stark, Iron Man, is clearly based on Robert Downey’s film portrayal in tone and approach. It sounds as though Loomis is doing an impression much of the time, but since the visual design is also based on Downey’s role, I don’t mind watching the character. Influences from the successful movie also are visible in terms of the inside-the-armor head shots and other similar sequences. The other voices didn’t strike me one way or another, with the exception of the Wasp, who sounds like a teenager. However, since she’s shown as more than just Ant-Man’s sidekick, even telling him off, I’m willing to cut her some slack. It is a shame that there aren’t more significant female characters, though. (And what’s with the Wasp’s odd extension radio antennae and Phoenix-feather hair?)
The Avengers Form a Team
Unsurprisingly, both discs open with a trailer for the Thor movie that opens next weekend. It’s a big summer for Marvel entertainment, and Disney wants to be sure that everyone has plenty of tie-ins to buy for more adventures with their superhero characters. If you love the heroes on their own, get the first disc. If you’re more interested in the adventures of the team as a team, you may want to skip to Volume 2, “Captain America Reborn!”, and its six episodes:
- Some Assembly Required
- Living Legend
- Everything Is Wonderful
- Panther’s Quest
- Gamma World Parts 1 & 2
The first episode of Volume 2 sets up the team in Avengers Mansion, organized by Pepper Potts, and staffed by the Jarvis artificial intelligence. Thor and the Hulk fight a lot, while Hank takes snipes at Tony’s money, before the Enchantress attacks, accompanied by the Executioner. “Living Legend” reintroduces Captain America. I love Thor trying to explain the computerized Jarvis to Cap: “The building has its own voice. ‘Tis very disconcerting.” Overall, this episode has more character bits than many of the other episodes so far, which I enjoyed and appreciated. That’s a welcome trend, and it continues onward, making each episode more interesting to me than the one before.
The third, “Everything Is Wonderful”, is the story of Wonder Man, with Simon Williams starting off as a business rival of Tony Stark’s, while the next episode brings the Black Panther onto the team. He requests the Avengers’ help in rescuing his land of Wakanda from Man-Ape. The last two episodes on Volume 2 are another “big threat” story, with a deserted, gamma-irradiated Cube requiring the return of Hawkeye and the Hulk and help from the green-haired Doc Samson. The approach is something like Alien, or another monster movie, with plenty of suspense.
Special Feature: An Ad for More
The only bonus feature on Volume 1 is a 7½-minute “sneak peek” at Season 2 in which two of the producers behind the cartoon talk about what’s important and distinctive about Marvel characters. It’s content-light and features more talking heads than actual cartoon footage. I did appreciate them plugging the upcoming appearance of Ms. Marvel to add another woman to the team, though. Also promoted: The Vision, more Nick Fury and Black Widow, and some character design tweaks for existing team members.
Volume 2 has a similar six-minute piece hinting at upcoming storylines and discussing how they use the comics as inspiration, but updated with “modern sensibilities”. The next season is planned to be more cosmic, with space threats; the return of Ultron and Kang; and the Fantastic Four guest-starring to fight Doctor Doom. Additional episodes beyond those collected in these two DVDs have aired on Disney XD, so presumably, they’ll be collected later, or you can check that channel for rerun showings. I’m unclear on whether those are considered “Season 2″ or just an extension to the first season.
I haven’t seen all of the Marvel cartoon series and movies — I’m told, for example, that X-Men: Evolution was pretty good, although I didn’t watch it — but of the ones I’ve seen, this is the best.