Thursday, July 10, 2014

Animated Autopsy - Iron Man: Armored Adventures

As Superhero movies have risen in popularity and box office draw, it's no surprise that an influx of superhero cartoons and TV shows has followed. The nature of the tie-in beast means that most of them draw material, characterizations and even plots from the film properties they're intended to point audiences toward. When it works, it works well; Batman: The Animated Series and Spectacular Spider-Man were both tie-ins themselves. On a tier below that one, then, we have Iron Man Armored Adventures.

Originally premiering between Iron Man and Iron Man 2, IM:AA is an all CGI show done with a cel-shading art style, similar to Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, to keep the animation more cartoonish and prevent it from sinking into the uncanny valley as many CGI productions do. With production done by a Canadian studio, Method Animation, most of the actors and producers involved aren't as familiar to audiences as the staff of, say, Avengers Assemble. The main showrunner was Christopher Yost, who also oversaw Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes and would go on to pen the film Thor: The Dark World. Aside from him, none of the other staffers or writers on the show have any similar credits to their name. The animators were primarily known for the Barbie DTV movies, and the voice cast is almost entirely unknowns unless you watch Canadian anime dubs.

Where the show made its mark compared to its peers was its re-imagining of Tony Stark from a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist into a high-school age science prodigy with laziness issues, a chip on his shoulder and an innate desire to do the right thing. When Howard Stark is killed in a plane crash that Tony only survives thanks to his prototype Iron Man armor, the teen is put into custody of Roberta Rhodes, Tony's best friend's mother and the Stark family attorney. Per his father's will, Tony is placed in high school and forced to maintain good grades or forfeit the loss of not only his inheritance but also his claim to the chairmanship of Stark Industries.

One would think from the synopsis that the crux of the show would come from Tony's struggle to balance superhero and high-school life, similar to Spider-Man. The real surprise of this show, then, is how casually they subvert that expectation. Tony is bored of school within the first few minutes of his arrival, and most of the show has him either passing his classes with ease thanks to his own vast knowledge of math and science, or leaning on his friends Rhodey and Pepper to squeeze him past the other classes he takes. The focus of the story is the varying interests of the characters affected by Howard's death: Tony, Stark Industries CEO Obediah Stane and a mysterious villain called The Mandarin, and how their interests meet, clash, part and meet again. Tony wants to discover the truth behind his father's death, Stane wants to keep control of the company he helped build at any cost, and the Mandarin searches for the equally mysterious Makluan rings, which are said to be the key to ultimate power.

Where this show surprised and pleased many viewers was its strong characterization and writing. Tony begins the show unconcerned with the idea of being a superhero, concerned instead with the matters surrounding his father, Stane and the company. It's only with Rhodey's urging that he decides to use his armor to do more than put a halt to Stane's schemes, his friend unwilling to let Tony succumb to a desire for vengeance and keeping his reckless, arrogant streak in check. Pepper Potts, re-imagined in this series into a motor-mouthed over-enthusiastic classmate of the two boys, annoys them as much as the audience before endearing herself to all with her enthusiasm for doing the right thing and refusal to be the damsel in distress. Stane, while an antagonist, is not evil, driven by a desire to better the company and improve its standing in the world market but lacking Howard and Tony's mechanical genius to make it so. The Mandarin (no spoilers) is almost as subversive a character in this series as he would turn out to be in Iron Man 3, though without the potential for the fandom raging against it.

As the show went on, more and more of the Iron Man gallery of rogues were introduced, including Whiplash, the Crimson Dynamo, Justin Hammer, Madame Masque and others, as well as giving cameos to other Marvel heroes, like Black Panther, the Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury and even Jean Gray. The spiraling escalation of hero and criminal technology ignited by Tony's armor played itself out over both seasons, with War Machine, Extremis, Titanium Man and War Monger all appearing as both Tony and his foes continually one-upped each other. And through it all went the show's strong character and myth arcs as Tony searched for any clues related to his father's death, gradually becoming a hero in his own right.

Overall, IM:AA wasn't quite on the level of Spectacular Spider-Man, but it was the closest we've gotten since that show was cancelled. Its willingness to subvert and re-invent large portions of the Iron Man mythos and stray farther and farther from the lead provided by the films it tied in to meant the characters and plots could grow and move in new and exciting ways, and the strong focus on Tony and the characters around him gave the show a driving point that kept it from losing itself through the more shallow episodes. The show ran for two seasons for a total of 52 episodes and is available on Netflix and DVD.

Monday, June 16, 2014

An FYI: Guest Posting

I've contributed a few articles to Mike Cooper's fantastic Star Wars blog Eleven-ThirtyEight, the latest of which went up today. I've discussed the upcoming Rebels show, Lucasarts and the video games they made, and The Clone Wars portrayal of General Grievous. Here's some links for the curious.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Animated Autopsy: Transformers Prime

How many franchises from the 1980s have been made or re-made into big budget movies recently? If your answer was "a lot", you'd be right. Nostalgia's twenty-year cycle is taking its toll on our movie theaters and wallets, giving us the G.I. Joe movies, RoboCop's neutered remake, Total Recall 2.0, a new Tron film of all things, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles re-imagining, the list goes on. I would hardly be surprised to see a Street Sharks movie at some point soon.

But there's one franchise that never really went away between the '80s and now. It went through iterations both good and bad, and sold enough toys to keep itself in the public eye. I'm talking, of course, about Transformers. Thanks to Michael Bay and co., the coolness of seeing a truck change into a robot and punch another robot is back, bigger than ever and on the big screen for better or worse.

Varying mileage on the merits of the films aside, the hype around their production and release was naturally enough to have another few TV shows based on the franchise greenlit. Logical, since that is where the franchise began and where most of the best advertizing is. But let's talk about one of those shows in particular: Transformers Prime.

Pictured: Awesome in a Can

Prime was helmed by two of the live-action films' scribes, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who were also responsible for the newer Star Trek films and Cowboys and Aliens, as well as animation veterans Duane Capizzi and Jeff Kline, who worked together on shows like Roughnecks: The Starship Trooper Chronicles and Men in Black: The Animated Series. The visuals are clearly inspired by the live-action movie "Bayformers", with their more jagged lines and pointed limbs, as opposed to the historical "blocky" look of the franchise.

Before I dive deeper into the show itself, let me discuss some aspects of the Transformers fandom as a whole. Transformers is one of the more rabidly enthusiastic fanbases out there, right alongside Trekkies and Star Wars fans. With Transformers, however, there has been far fewer wholeheartedly embraced media than with most fandoms; even the most rabid of Star Trek fans will agree that Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is a fantastic movie, just as you would be hard-pressed to find a fan of Star Wars who denounces A New Hope as being a bad film.

Nothing in the Transformers fandom is quite that clear-cut. Well, almost nothing. The original show, now often called Transformers G1, is loved by children of the '80s for is quality voice acting and colorful cast, even though by today's standards the animation is often shoddy and the writing poor; more recent comers to the fandom (myself included) simply do not connect with that series the same way. The various dubbed series' brought over during the late '90s and deep into the '00s are even more divisive, having both defenders and detractors in vocal measure.

The one iteration of the franchise that is almost universally loved, and my personal gateway show into the fandom, is Beast Wars.

Ah the memories
Beast Wars is a topic for another time. Suffice to say, it was a seminal work by the production team to turn a merchandise-based show meant to sell as many toys as possible and turned it into one of the best-written shows of the '90s, and the groundbreaking CG-based animation paved the way for Prime in a direct way, along with numerous other shows. But little else about the former show inspired the latter, or much else of the franchise direction after its conclusion despite fans' wishes and hopes.

Example: a common complaint about some entries in the franchise, the live-action movies especially, is the encroachment of the human characters into a movie or show ostensibly built around transforming robots. The problem, though, isn't with the human characters themselves; every Transformers show has had humans involved in varying degrees of usefulness, right from the start. The character of Sam Witwicky is inspired from a character in the original G1 cartoon. The only show in the franchise to have no humans in speaking roles through its entire run? You guessed it: Beast Wars.

The issue, then, is not whether human characters or other tropes common through the franchise are present, but how they're used. Prime manages to use some of the more commonly complained about elements of the franchise in a refreshingly competent way, with a quality of writing that is almost completely absent from the live-action movies that spawned it.

To follow up on the earlier example, let me introduce you to the main human characters of Prime.

Is this the audition line for Episode VII?
 Meet Raf, Jack and Miko. What are your impressions when you first see them or hear their names? Rafael seems like the prototypical "geek" kid, good with computers, not so much with people, possibly being bullied at school, perhaps even by the other two kids in the picture. Jack looks and sound more like the average teenager, at home on a skateboard and using words like "awesome" a lot. Miko looks more anime-inspired, with a pink stripe in her hair and sassy teenager clothing indicating the sort of scrappy character most shows sink under the weight of.

Well, let's break a few of those presumptions right now. Raf, Jack and Miko begin the show as good friends, and while those presuppositions aren't entirely false in all cases, they don't define any of these character through the show's entire run.
  • Raf is quiet and unassuming, but also brave and not willing to be pushed around or against taking risks, gradually becoming the most valuable and competent member of the human crew due to his ability to interpret and dissect technology, especially related to computer programming.
  • Jack, being old enough to legally drive, is the point man for the relations between Transformers and humans during most missions, and his teenage-inspired drive for a cool motorcycle to help him attract girls doesn't last past the first four or five episodes once the magnitude of what he and his friends stumble upon sinks in. He is the cautious one, and while not cowardly, is the voice of realism and reason.
  • Miko, unfortunately, is the most divisive character of the three. She is an adrenaline junkie who relishes the danger being caught on the front lines of a war between two factions of a species who could crush her at will. Her drive for thrills does turn into a desire to help her new robots friends, but her lack of danger sense causes more trouble than it solves. Her most redeeming factor is that her pure spunk keeps her and the rest of the team going even when things are at their darkest.
Other human characters show up throughout the series, but these three are the focus. And while Miko seems to fit in with her stereotypes (at least at the start of the show) the others tweak them or outright defy them in a lot of ways. And that only becomes more evident as the show continues, because if Prime managed to do one thing right above all else, it's character development.

The humans are not, of course, the only cast members. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee both make the jump from movie-verse to TV screens, with the former even being voiced by the great Peter Cullen in what is one of the greatest ongoing voice rolls of all time, dating all the way back to the G1 show. The other Autobots in the top picture (from left to right), Arcee (a terrific Sumalee Montano), Ratchet (the imitable Jeffrey Combs), Bulkhead (the also imitable Kevin Michael Richardson) and Cliffjumper (the one and only Dwayne Johnson), form Team Prime, a rag-tag group gathered on Earth after a referenced-but-never-seen war that devestated their home of Cybertron.

Already on Earth are Megatron (reprised from the G1 series by the great Frank Welker), Starscream (Steve Blum) and Soundwave, Decepticons out in search for powerful relics of their civilization mysteriously left behind on a planet none of them had ever visited before. As the story continues, more and more characters are added (and removed) from the cast as the stakes get higher and higher, Decepticons coming from all corners of the galaxy to join their leader on Earth, while the Autobots are left scraping whatever they can together to oppose them.

Make no mistake: this show may be rated for children, but it takes its inspiration from the movie-verse seriously. Plots deal with the loss of friends and the PTSD resulting from a centuries-long war, characters are killed off for good with shocking frequency, and the dangers the kids face is brought up very often, especially when one is nearly killed by Megatron himself and spends the better part of three episodes in the hospital. Things are done in this show that are not easily undone or reset by the needs of the status quo, something few kid-based shows are willing to do.

Transformers Prime isn't a perfect show, but it is a pretty good one; the characters are diverse, colorful and developed well over the series' run, the animation is top-notch and the writing, while suffering a few hiccups, is above-average for the most part, and occasionally stellar, especially in the finale for season 1 and through most of season 2. It's definitely worth a watch, especially for Transformers fans, but also for those whom the live-action movies left a bad taste in their mouths. The show has three seasons and a DTV movie that wraps up the story, all currently available on Netflix and DVD/Blu Ray.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Animated Autopsy: Green Lantern - The Animated Series

 So, this is going to be a shorter post, mostly just a review of an animated show that's ended its run but is still worth a look. Hence: Animated Autospy. I'll probably make this a semi-regular feature if I can nail down a format.

Recent animated shows based on DC comics haven't had the best time of it. Some shows have lasted only one season, the lucky ones get two. And some, like the most recent Beware the Batman, don't even get to air their first season before the plug is pulled. But thinking that any of these shows were cancelled because they were bad is inaccurate. Case in point: Green Lantern - The Animated Series, which ran for a single season spread out from 2011 to 2013.

GL:TAS was the first foray by DC's animation group into a show animated entirely in 3D via computers, and also marks the return to TV of Bruce Timm, he of Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League and most of the other shows in the DC Animated Universe that dominated the Saturday Morning Cartoon world from the early 90s up through the mid 00s. Also on its creative team was animator Giancarlo Volpe, who also worked on ratings rival Star Wars: The Clone Wars and currently works for Riot Games on "League of Legends"; James Kreig, a writer with over a decade of superhero writing experience, having worked on the Spiderman and X-Men series that ran in the 90s; and Sam Liu, an animation director and character designer who worked on shows like Godzilla: The Series, Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles and the movie Planet Hulk.

The distinctive Timm style of large, blocky male characters and slender, more feminine female characters transferred to 3D well enough, and while the show's early episodes lacked some of the detail and texture that shows like The Clone Wars had, the simpler designs and character models allowed the characters extra expression, and gave combat scenes greater flexibility and fluidity. As the show went on, the animation only improved, especially as the battle scenes gained in scope and more characters were introduced.

The show boasted a versatile and impressive voice cast as well. Josh Keaton, known best as the voice of Peter Parker/Spiderman in projects like The Spectacular Spiderman, was Hal Jordan, the cocky, proud fighter pilot gifted with the ring of the Green Lantern Corps because of his brash lack of fear. Kevin Michael Richardson, voice of Jolee Bindo in Knights of the Old Republic and Bulkhead in Transformers Prime, was Hal's buddy Kilowog, a bruising, by-the-book Sergeant of the Corps. Other voices, like Grey DeLisle, Tom Kenny and Jason Spisak were regulars, while Ian Abercrombie, Jennifer Hale, Tara Strong, John DiMaggio, Clancy Brown, Ron Perlman and Diedrich Bader came and went, among many others.

But where the show did its best work was in the writing (which is, of course, what this blog is focused on). Though it only had one season, GL:TAS managed to tell two sprawling arcs over thirteen episodes each, making its run feel more like two seasons than one. The characters of Hal and Kilowog, their crewmates Razer and Aya, along with all of their numerous allies and more numerous foes, were fleshed out and lovingly detailed; Hal Jordan makes more of an impression in his debut episode of the series than he did in all of the Green Lantern movie (no disrespect to Ryan Reynolds, he did what he could). Plots were self-contained, yet also referenced back and forward along the timeline, tying back to the overall arc without being dragged down by the needs of the story to spite character work.

While the show only had twenty-six episodes to work with, numerous plots and arcs were raised and completed within those thirteen hours or so of screen time, a large number of which tie back into the classic Green Lantern mythos. The omniscient but flawed Guardians, the rage-fueled Red Lanterns, the hope-inspired Blue Lanterns, the cold threat of the Manhunters, even the Anti-Monitor all got their time in the sun. About the only notable Green Lantern plot that wasn't handled in the first season is Sinestro's Yellow Lanterns, likely due to Sinestro himself being such a focus in the theatrical movie.

While a second season of the show would have been welcome, the first season is quite good on its own, and is well worth a watch for anyone who is a fan of the old DCAU, or superheroes in general. GL:TAS does a terrific job of explaining and detailing who the Green Lanterns are, what they do, and how they go about saving the universe, making it a great entry point into the mythos for a new fan as well. The show can be found on DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix.

Friday, April 11, 2014

"Lighter and Softer" - Star Wars: Detours and the Superhero Squad Show

Where does the line fall between shallow parody and self-referential fun?

When the trailer above dropped during Star Wars Celebration V, it split the Star Wars fandom right down the middle. Half of it enjoyed the light-hearted fun, the other pulled their hair out at the lackluster spoof. Detours was put together by Seth Green and a lot of the same minds behind the creation of Robot Chicken, who had already put together two (now three) specials devoted solely to sending up Star Wars' foibles. Detours was meant as a more family-friendly version of the same sort of humor.

Spoof, send-up, parody, all of it means approximately the same thing, but all of it has different connotations. Calling something a spoof equates it with movies like Epic Movie or Meet the Spartans, a specific sort of mockery aimed for a specific work, tearing all of the cliches and tropes apart with ruthless abandon. A parody like Dragon Ball Z Abridged is more light-hearted, referencing and deconstructing a work, but stopping short of outright mockery and giving it a respect most spoofs lack. A send-up is the lightest and most general of all of these, not taking itself or the work it's referencing at all seriously. That's where Detours falls.

Detours has yet to air, and no one knows if it ever will. Disney put it on indefinite hold, citing a desire not to over-saturate the brand, the same reason they held off the release of the 3D versions of any of the movies beyond The Phantom Menace. The fans who liked the trailer cried, and the ones who hated the trailer rejoiced.

I'm of the opinions that Disney was right to put the show on hold, but not for the reason they cited. I simply think that the brand isn't ready for a work like Detours. There simply isn't a big enough universe for the show to send up yet, all of the jokes about the Original Trilogy and Prequels alike have been covered ad nauseum. If it isn't Green's own Robot Chicken doing the jokes, it's Family Guy, the Big Bang Theory or any one of the numerous other geek-centric comedy shows.

Star Wars' existence as a movie-centric franchise is the same thing that keeps it from being an effective send-up property. Though a robust Expanded Universe exists with many more stories and characters than those portrayed on-screen, the reference pool for works like the Legacy comic series or the X-Wing series of novels is miniscule compared to those who saw Attack of the Clones in theaters. A show like Detours can only exist in the universe as portrayed in the films, or else its jokes are too niche for anyone but a small fraction of the fandom to laugh at them.

But imagine what else Detours can bring to the table if it's re-worked to air in a few years, say in 2016. The Clone Wars aired and ended some time ago, but the characters in it, Ashoka, Captain Rex, Cad Bane and others, have entered a much larger reference pool than any Star Wars characters aside from those of the films. Episode VII will have aired by then as well, and the upcoming Rebels TV show, a spiritual successor to The Clone Wars, will have at least one season under its belt, if not two. And more movies will be on their way, along with more books and comics about the characters in them.

How can a larger reference pool help a show like Detours? Let's look at one of the shows currently on the air with approximately the same tone and style going for it: The Superhero Squad Show.

Marvel and Hasbro's kid-friendly cartoon likewise rubbed a lot of comic fans the wrong way when it first started to air. It was accused of being a product of the Disney-ification of the brand, even though it was conceived and greenlit before the purchase. It has a lot of the same elements Detours has: overly exaggerated versions of familiar characters, self-referential jokes, a more kid-focused sense of humor and tone. The main difference is that, while Detours has only six movies of characters to play with, The SSS has far, far more.

Characters like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America are all seen right from the get-go, but along with them are the Falcon, who had yet to have a movie or even significant role in any other cartoon when this show began to air, and Ms. Marvel, who is even less represented. Jokes range from simple flatulence to references that only adults or aficionados would understand.

"It's only the Civil War, what could happen?" - Captain America, dressed in a Confederate jacket and on his way to a historical reenactment.

Because the Marvel universe is so vast, over sixty years of stories about hundreds of characters, the team behind The SSS has opportunities to bring in all sorts of characters, plots, ideas and plots, referencing them and making jokes that, as unlikely as it sounds in a show that seems so juvenile, are actually funny. Which, for a show so based in sending up the universe it's set in, is the biggest and hardest task set before it.

Detours might not have worked when it was originally supposed to air a couple of years ago. It might not work if it is set to air at some point in the future. But it would be well served to look at The Superhero Squad Show for its own tone and sense of humor, balancing references and slapstick and being willing to pull from even the obscure. It might not make everyone happy. But it would at least manage to be the most important thing a comedy show needs to be: funny.