In Brightest Day…Comes Great Responsibility

Their live-action films might frequently come under fire, but both DC and Marvel need not worry about the state of their superhero properties on the small-screen animation front, both of which have been blessed by two great new shows that do their respective mythologies justice and then some. Bruce Timm’s “Green Lantern: the Animated Series” officially kicked off in March, and Jeph Loeb’s “Ultimate Spider-Man” started up earlier this month. Read on to find out why kids today have it so good.

Green Lantern: the Animated Series

glasEarthman Hal Jordan and alien drill instructor Kilowog are Green Lanterns, part of an intergalactic police force headed by the Guardians of the Universe on the planet Oa. Ever the rebel, Hal “borrows” the Guardians’ new prototype ship that, like the Lanterns’ power rings, runs on the green element of willpower. They meet the ship’s computer Aya, an artificial intelligence, and in their travels, find themselves waging war against the ruthless Red Lanterns, powered by red rings of rage and led by the evil Atrocitus. The team later meets Razor, a Red Lantern unsure of his direction in life who slowly, begrudgingly becomes one of the group. The four travel the galaxy, giving help to those who need it and remaining determined to stop the Red Lanterns at all costs. The show stars Josh Keating as Hal Jordan, Kevin Michael Richardson as Kilowog, and others such as Tom Kenny and Clancy Brown in minor supporting roles.

I really love this show. 10-year-old me would’ve loved it for sure; I used to adore space-based cartoons as a kid, namely the Toy Story spinoff “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command”, which shares similar sci-fi aesthetics to GLAS.  Producer Bruce Timm’s eye for faithful adaptations of comic book superheroes really shines through in his Green Lantern take – characters have real emotions and real conflicts, all very well executed. Visually, while the traditionalist in me prefers the show be in classic 2D animation, the new 3D designs still look great and work well for the show’s format. GLAS is also timeless in its approach; just as Timm’s Batman, Superman, and Justice League shows will never be dated, neither will Green Lantern. Fans may have a bone to pick with the more simplified ring constructs and altered oaths, but I can appreciate the need for a more palatable dynamic for younger audiences.

Perhaps the best thing about Timm’s shows and Green Lantern TAS in particular is that the experience isn’t pandering in the slightest. It’s dark when it needs to be, it’s funny when the situation calls for it, and there’s no overlong exposition or not-so-inconspicuous product placement in the form of a giant, clunky green racecar track. Thanks to TAS, I’m slowly rebuilding my Lantern fandom after the colossally disappointing film adaptation last summer; I recommend anyone who hated the film to check out this series, as it manages to showcase everything great about the mythology that the film glossed over.

One episode in particular made mention of the yellow element, which I was particularly thrilled about. When it was still assumed the Green Lantern film franchise would be good enough to warrant sequels, Timm mentioned in interviews that Sinestro and his corps of yellow rings wouldn’t appear in TAS to avoid stealing the thunder of the film universe. Now, since any further GL films aren’t likely to take off anytime soon, I hope TAS picks up the torch and tells that story themselves eventually, albeit in their own take.

I applaud DC Entertainment for finally taking the initiative to get more of their superheroes out into the public conscious with the new DC Nation block on Cartoon Network, which TAS is a part of. Establishing a strong animation presence is, I think, a good move before DC makes another attempt at building another live-action franchise. Hell, a new Flash show would almost certainly be a good move to get that character ready for bigger and better things. Make it happen, DC.

Green Lantern the Animated Series has become my new Saturday morning ritual. There’s tremendous potential here for a long, prosperous series, especially considering the fact that Hal and Kilowog have only been on Earth and on Oa in one episode thus far. GLAS airs new episodes Saturdays at 10 a.m. EST, and I highly recommend checking it out.

8/10

 

Ultimate Spider-Man

m18Peter Parker is Spider-Man, teenage high-schooler by day, masked vigilante by night, and having been fighting crime in New York for a year now. After leaving a mess behind while stopping a robbery, superspy Nick Fury approaches Spidey and offers to mentor him into becoming the “Ultimate” Spider-Man. Convinced he’s better off alone at first, Spider-Man continues to fight his own battles. But when the Frightful Four (or three, as they end up as) stick a tracking device onto the hero and trace him to Midtown High, word gets out that a student at the school could potentially be the web-slinger. Peter realizes he could use some training and takes up Fury’s offer, teaming up with fellow teenage heroes Luke Cage, Iron Fist, White Tiger, and Nova, the latter of whom Spidey is constantly at odds with. Acting as part of a team for the first time, Spider-Man begins to learn the true meaning of responsibility.

While the show takes cues from the Ultimate Spider-Man comic by Brian Michael Bendis, it’s by and large an original premise. The first-ever Spider-Man animation produced by Marvel themselves stars Drake Bell as Peter, Chi McBride as Nick Fury, and even JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, reprising the role from the live-action films and proving once again how perfect he is for the role. Added to the already outstanding vocal ensemble is Clark Gregg as the inexplicably popular Agent Coulson from Marvel’s live-action Avengers universe, as well as the legendary Stan Lee as a school janitor in a series of rather amusing cameos.

Ultimate Spider-Man ushers in a fresh, innovative sense of style to the small-screen superhero front. Taking a more postmodern, self-aware approach, the show is a wholly unconventional, over-the-top, fourth-wall-breaking, Foley-effect crazy, comic book-y take on the Spider-Man mythos that’s both fun and energetic. It’s also got a very funny, contemporary sense of humor that works well – in a cutaway gag, Peter gets bored and randomly imagines himself with a jetpack, giving a thumbs-up to the camera with guitar music in the background. This style of animation won’t resonate with everyone, but those who do take to it will get a few good chuckles in.

There’s some great animation in Ultimate Spider-Man as well. In the show’s occasional aside, when Spidey addresses the audience, everything behind him goes black-and-white, and the screen he’s now standing in front of reflects his own shadow. It’s a clever visual that illustrates just how detailed the animators have gone with the design.

The show’s stylistic blessing, however, is also its curse – Ultimate Spider-Man borders on chaotic, dancing the line between loud and noisy. One sequence sees Spidey on a motorcycle jumping a giant semi truck in slow-motion, and with a deep voice in the background bellowing “OOOOH YEEAAAH”. It’s these moments that left me feeling like the show was simply trying too hard to be different and stand out amidst the many other Spider-Man cartoons of the past decade, including 2008’s widely acclaimed Spectacular Spider-Man series.

Like a hyperactive kid, Ultimate Spider-Man can be obnoxious in its attempts to be a hip and now thing, occasionally even coming off as desperate. The show also fails to sidestep the popular pitfall of using kiddie lingo that’ll be dated within the year, if it isn’t already. Paul Dini of Batman and Superman the Animated Series fame wrote the first two episodes of Ultimate Spider-Man, and while his attention to character shines through above all, I wish he’d gone for something a bit more timeless as in his aforementioned works.

New episodes of Ultimate Spider-Man air on Disney XD Sundays at 11 a.m. EST as part of the network’s new Marvel Universe block. Your mileage may vary on the show’s sense of style, but Ultimate Spider-Man is still worth a look for its new, unique take on a familiar mythology.

7/10

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