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.