Sunday, April 1, 2012

DC vs Marvel - Weekend Show Lineups

DC has set their sights high, trying to out sell Marvel in comics, and also kick-starting once lagging movie and tv initiatives. They are doing a good job of it, too! But Marvel isn't taking this lying down - they are matching DC blow for blow. The latest stand-off between the two companies can be seen in their competing weekend animation blocks on TV. DC is framing their line-up, of Green Lantern and Young Justice as "The DC Nation", while Marvel is mimicking them, with Ultimate Spider-Man and the Avengers cartoons.

The thing is -- even for all of DC's former runner-up status over the years, the one place they have dominated has been with animation. Ever since the Batman The Animated Series, they have cemented themselves as not just the premiere cartoon-animation producers, but the premiere America-animation developers in general. I have to hand it to them, even after the long-standing "Bruce Timm"-universe of share continuity came to and end with Justice League Unlimited, DC has still managed to produce some incredible series. Batman Brave and the Bold, probably the most different take from all previous series, turned into an incredible romp through every corner of the DCU! It was just plain fun - seeing obscure characters guest-starring in each episode. They even got Paul Reuben, aka Pee Wee Herman, to voice Bat-Mite, an interdimentional, and 4th-wall breaking annoyance to Batman! Not content to make the best animated series possible, DC also is at the top of the game in terms of voice acting. Who on Earth would have ever thought Diedrich Bader, Oswald from the Drew Carey Show, would be a good choice to voice Batman?!

Marvel, quite frankly, has their work cut out for them in challenging DC in this area. Good thing they are airing on different days (Saturdays for DC on Cartoon Network, and Sundays for Marvel on Disney XD.)

DC Nation has been airing for the past few weeks, and Marvel's shows premiered yesterday. How do the two stack up?

DC Nation

Green Lantern

I have to tell you, I was really underwhelmed with the hour opening episode of Green Lantern. I was disappointed to see the story shunted off to the far ends of the galaxy, immediately removing Hal Jordan from Earth and the GL Corps in general. This is in part a cost-saving measure -- working in CGI, unlike with animation, throwing in a new character on the fly isn't as easy. (Just listen to the commentary of any Star Wars Clone Wars episodes - they describe working with CGI almost like casting actors and making sets.) Also - the Red Lanterns are very different from the comics. I think that's fine - mindless murderers, violently puking up a constant stream of burning plasma, isn't exactly going to work with the censors. Instead the Red Lanterns are acting more like political rebels, with Atrocitus taking the place Sinestro would have had, as he makes a mess of the universe in hopes of bringing down the Guardians of the Universe. I just thought Atrocitus, willing to kill an entire planet of innocent people - to send a message to the Guardians - just isn't in line with him from the comics. If anything - Atrocitus is like the Punisher. He ruthlessly murders people -- but they are all bad guys.

Anyway - I came on to the third episode with pretty low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised - as this sojourn away from the Earth and the GL Corps has turned into less of cost-saving measure, and more of an actual storyline. You wouldn't think their sentient ship Aya would work - as she either acts as voice to bounce characters off of, or as a linch-pin to help the heroes when they are in trouble; you simply wouldn't think it would work. Yet it is! Aya is becoming a valued member of the team, and has even become a third Green Lantern in the group as she assumes a humanoid robotic form. This character really should be ultra-annoying -- but she's turning out great.

I think the reason Aya is fitting in so well is because of the rag-tag group Hal Jordan is gathering together for this series. A young Red Lantern, disenchanted with Atrocitus' methods, reluctantly becomes a member of the team. So the hodgepodge mentality of the group helps a pseudo-GL character like Aya fit right in.

Hal Jordan's cocky attitude also comes off extremely well in the episodes so far. He was completely out of control in the opening episodes, defying orders to go out to the farthest regions of space - but now that they are on their own, sort of like in the wild west, Hal's gun-ho attitude suddenly becomes an asset. It also makes the decision to have a Red Lantern join team seem less bone-headed than it should.

Although we're only seen a few episodes so far, I'm impressed with the writing in the last two episodes. The morality-plays the scripts are utilizing make for great episodes, and harken back to the best of the Batman TAS days.

The biggest note of congratulations for this new series simply has to be for the stunning animation work. I never though Bruce Timm's 2-dimensional drawing style could work like this, but is it. The characters are simplified - but are utterly expressive as you'd ever need them to be. The first two episodes, being out in space a lot, made the animation seem a little lack-luster. Ever since they began going to planets -- we saw what they could really achieve; they have been doing some great ambient designing for the places they visit.

This series really does feel like a return to the Bruce Timm Paul Dini days.

Young Justice

One of the best things about DC's Animation is that, even if you don't entirely like the take or interpretation of a series -- you're going to get quality no matter what changes have been made. I wasn't that thrilled for Young Justice - which focuses on the side-kicks of the DCU forming their own team. The kids versus adults mentality seemed juvenile at first, and actually still does -- because beyond that the show has shown itself to be a dark, engrossing, thoughtful, and suspensiful series. This sort of feels less like kiddy show, and more a show for older kids and young adults. The subject matters have just been treated more seriously.

Also - there are tons and tons of nods to DCU fans. Red Tornado, a JLA supervisor of the group, is taken directly from the old Young Justice comic book, written by Peter David. Peter David even wrote the script for an episode - where a character from his series, "Secret", appears.

Obscure characters are introduced, sometimes leading to exciting new situations. Doctor Fate's helmet is introduced into the series - and its re-imagined as a much more unforgiving and demanding source of power, where Nabu, the spirit of the helmet, is unwilling to give up a potential host, once the helmet is put on. Zatara -- father of Zatanna (depicted as a young girl in this series), faces the difficult choice of willingly wearing the helm of fate - when Zatanna foolishly wore it in a time of crisis. Zatara was true to his word to wear the helmet, if Nabu would only release his daughter. This is such a wonderful re-twisting of the characters, and using them in new ways; it's very encouraging for the series going forward.

Another group of characters, who I hope return to the series, are the Forever People -- a group of youths from New Genesis, from Jack Kirby's New Gods and the Forth World. While the folks at DC Animation have shown their love for Kirby's characters -- even I'll admit the Forever People are not an easy product to sell.

The Forever People guest starring in the series seemed like serendipity -- and also allowed for the introduction of the Forever People's Super Cycle -- an element again right out of Peter David's original Young Justice issues.

I expect a lot of great things from this series going forward.

DC Animation Shorts

To supplement the hour-block of programing, DC Nation also features small shorts. They have some Plastic Man joke skits, "Super Best Friends" grouping of Supergirl, Batgirl, and Wonder Girl together, Tiny Teen Titans, and claymation characters. Most of the shorts aren't that great -- the Plastic Man and Super Best Friends being my favorite. Sometimes, though, it's a complete miss, as jokes or gags completely fail. The effort, though, is appreciated -- and it has made what would otherwise just be an hour-block of episodes seem more like an event than regular scheduling.

Although I do have to protest at this "lets see if super-hero things can work in real life?" segment -- they tested out wether a gas-arrow, like Green Arrow uses, could work. It was unimpressive on a number of levels; the first and foremost that they even wasted their time doing that.


Ultimate Spider-Man

Marvel tried to come out of the gate swinging with their premiere, featuring two episodes of Ultimate Spider-Man. This show is pretty much the modern-day version of "Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends". Using the Ultimate Universe as a frame-work, the show features Spider-Man joining Nick Fury in being trained to be a better Super Hero. Not just a better Spider-Man - but an ULTIMATE Spider-Man. (They at least succeeded in warranting that tag-like, beyond using designs from the Ultimate Spider-Man series.)

There's good news, and bad news. First the good. The animation is well done, there are several humorous jokes sprinkled throughout the episode, with a cartoony and less serious vibe.

Nick Fury acts as a commanding presence in the show, immediately commanding respect. This is all obviously suppose to tie-in with the Avengers movie (or at least closely mirror it) - and several other nods to the movies, including Agent Couleson. Since S.H.I.E.L.D. is such a big part of the show, I really hope they introduce Agent Woo -- and bring the Agents of Atlas in for a guest appearance.

Spider-Man is being trained along with 4 other young Super Heroes. These are his new "Amazing Friends": Luke Cage (Power Man), Iron First, White Tiger, and Nova. It's an OK line-up, but it does seem to scream "market driven diversity". Thats not a big deal. Though I thank heaven that a hispanic Nova resulted in a name change. (Seriously, look up the original Nova's name. Marv Wolfman stuck the character with that juvenile joke-name forever and ever!)

The characters voices seem to fit OK - but there are a lot of changes that seem very "off" to me. First of all, they once again have J Jonah Jameson as a TV personality (instead of a newspaper reporter). Not a bad alteration, except for the fact they shove his face on huge billboards throughout the episode. I remember they tried to make the Daily Bugle more media-savvy back the 90s Spider-Man cartoon. It didn't work then, and it isn't working now. Even worse - they have Mary Jane trying to become a photo journalist. REALLY?! Flash Thompson, who become an incredible character in the pages of Venom, is once again the jerk jock he use to be. I really think an opportunity for cross-promotion was missed here, where they could make a more heroic Venom as a future plot line. (After the bad Venom, of course!)

The bad part of the show? .....Where do I start? It really all seems indicative of many of Marvel's past direct to DVD animation projects. All the pieces are there - but they are never assembled quite like DC manages to do. That is made more apparent than ever - as this new cartoon tries to shove every single joke, or noise effect, at you. A lot of it falls flat. I'm all up for taking advantage of Spider-Man's humor, but this can all too often feel like an super hero version of Scrubs -- but without the quick whit and humor. There are funny jokes in the show - but they almost seem like they where managed by accident; like something had to hit the mark if they threw enough jokes into the show. I also don't like Stan Lee appearing as the Janitor. It's just not as funny - and having been on a Jack Kirby kick lately, reading his life story in Jack Kirby: King of Comics HC, I feel like Stan has gotten enough credit regarding Marvel Heroes. I don't need a weekly appearance each episode to remind me of him taking all the credit.

WHATEVER - all of that is trivial. I might have even said it's a worthwhile show if not for this all-encompassing damning addition: Toy Marketing! This seems like the ultimate in sell-out move, as elements obviously included purely for marketing toys are put into the show. I have no problem with toy marketing -- but making action figures of the characters should really be enough here. Did they really have to give Spider-Man a web-shooter, similar to the toy version they sell in stores? (That bulky-thing, that shoots silly-string.) They try and cover it up, saying it's a powered up web shooter designed by S.H.I.E.L.D. - but the look is unmistakable. Trust me, I can deal with product placement in shows. I watch Super Sentai, for heavens sake -- that entire show, while I love it, is designed around selling toys. But here, with Spider-Man, it just seems incredibly crass.

I could forgive the upgraded web-shooter, though. I really could have! It even cloaks itself, so we don't have to see the ugly thing all the time! What product placement crossed the line?

The Spider-Cycle!

I don't ever recall toy companies ever having trouble putting their characters on a motorcycle before, to sell as toy -- but to include it in the show? They tried and say it would help Spider-Man get across the city quicker --- but, NO! NO-NO-NO! This is like a worse-version of the Spider-Mobile, which at least became a delightful humorous joke over time. This Spider-Cycle? It's pure, unadulterated product placement - and it taints the entire show that they included it in. Spider-Man at least nearly killed a dozen pedestrians, being unable to control it -- so I'm hopeful it was a one-off joke. It's crass and disgusting to see it included in the show. Spider-Man is probably the opitomy of "Why do they make a toy of Spider-Man on a motorcycle?" Why do they do it? Because it sells! I don't care how many toy biker Spider-Men are released for sale -- just keep them out of the actual show!

The Spider-Cycle, really, just seemed indicative of the less than stellar presentation Marvel Animation is gives us, especially in the face of the cleaver and well presented DC Nation. Ultimate Spider-Man seems more boisterous and loud, if anything else.

The Avengers

What saves Marvel's Animation Line-up? The Avengers Animated series is beginning its second season - and while there are some costume alterations (don't know if they are permanent or not); over all nothing has changed. You what to know where Marvel was good, in regards to Animation? The 90s X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons. They didn't always have the best animation -- but they always had the best stories, representing classic concepts to a new generation. Narrative drive made those shows incredible. That's how good the Avengers are - it's comparable to the old X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons. Its been a long, long time since Marvel hit the mark like this, in regards to animation. After hitting gold with X-Men and Spider-Man, they had a regrettable series of horrible shows, from Iron Man, Hulk, to even an older Avengers series. (No Captain America, Iron Man, or Thor. With Antman as the leader!! Talk about awful!) So it pleased me so much to see this series do so well in its first season. This first episode features the Fantastic Four as guest stars. A plot-line, leading to the Skrull/Kree War is brewing. It seems like nothing has changed here, which is good.

The really stellar thing about the Avengers cartoon is that it never takes it easy on the heroes. No matter what situation they are dealing with -- it always seems like a threat that really is making them prove themselves. If it wasn't Graviton lifting Manhattan out of the water and into the sky, or the entire planet covered in ice from the Casket of Ancient Winters - the threats presented against the group are never small. Doctor Doom, who appears in this episode, is a good example of that. When they eventually fight Doom directly, he counters them for every blow. It really becomes a talent to choreographic the characters in such a way to make it all seem natural - which the storyboard artists and animators manage to do.

Marvel Mash-Up

So, Ultimate Spider-Man is depressingly suspect, while Avengers manage to continue a streak of quality storytelling. What else does Marvel's block of programming offer? Well, they do just like DC did, testing out super hero concepts in real life. They presented the new sport of slacklining (from Madonna's Super Bowl Half-Time Show), comparing it to Spider-Man bouncing off webs. They have a spot where Joe Quesada shows how to draw the Hulk, while also giving an over view of the characters history. In terms of familiarizing these characters to a new generation of kids, this was a decent segment. They also had a history for Hawkeye, telling his origin, but only through clips from episodes of the Avengers. Not great, but not bad.

What is bad? The final insult of this entire affair? Showing that this Animation Block was probably thrown together hastily, in response to DC Nation, Marvel chose a cheap method of Animated Shorts -- using old footage from the 60s cartoons, and makes jokes by adding new voices. It is.... HORRIBLE! I swear, it's like whoever wrote this and put it together where all giving themselves high-fives, thinking they where so cleaver and awesome. Every single joke is stupid, shrill, and unfunny! Called the "Marvel Mash-Up" -- I think it describes what they did to put it together in such a hurry.

DC Nation definitely wins. Seriously, Marvel -- let DC have the animation victory in this fight. Whatever group you have already (except for the Avengers series) simply isn't working. Marvel might be regaining the lead in terms of Market Share, but in terms of Animation DC is still winning, hands down.

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