05 May 2012

The Staying Powers of Superhero Shows

This article was edited and accepted by Deseret News a week ago, but as it has yet to appear online or in print, and as the subject is somewhat time-sensitive, I'm posting a slightly updated version here.  It reflects standard AP style (i.e., titles of films are in quotation marks instead of the usual italics).

Last November I wrote an article for the Deseret News about “The staying powers of superhero shows,” highlighting Cartoon Network’s then-new or returning animated television series “Young Justice,” “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and “ThunderCats.” Of these revamped characters and continuities, I argued that older audiences just might appreciate them more than newer generations — or at least differently.

By way of update, Cartoon Network recently launched a special Saturday morning block for DC’s animated counterparts—what they’re calling “DC Nation.” Preceding DC Nation is the returning season of “ThunderCats,” a show that continues to take an independent detour from the cartoon it's based on.

I previously commented on the more mature nature of the plot, which holds true. One episode told the backstory of the cast’s comic relief siblings Wilykit and Wilykat, proving even their past is fraught with realistic tragedy. As predicted, my 6-year-old treasures a plastic Sword of Omens but can’t seem to stay interested in the show itself, which progresses somewhat slowly.

This has also been true of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which finished its fourth season in March. Viewers familiar with the Episode 1 prequel film may have (may have) gone giddy over the return of Darth Maul, previously supposed dead, but my kids had no clue who he was and couldn’t have cared less. As far as CGI goes, they prefer “Green Lantern” (which, in my opinion, is a very similar space opera) or “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness,” a far more comical show airing on Nickelodeon.

“Young Justice” has the edge over them all. Though filled with as many twists and turns as the TV show “Lost” and combining continuity from a variety of heroes’ backgrounds, the result is satisfying to adults and children alike.

We all cheered during the first season finale, “Auld Acquaintance,” when Robin and Batman faced off in a mind-controlled duel, Superboy and Superman reconciled their differences and all the guy-girl pairs stole a New Year Eve kiss. The show’s mixture of action and complexity is to thank. The questions I field from my sons lead to discussions as rich, even profound, as the ones we share while hiking through the hills near our home. Fortunately, the new season, subtitled “Invasion,” already premiered two weeks ago.  While my kids and I are baffled by the five-year leap forward, we're also loving the debuts of additional teen heroes like Batgirl and Beast Boy (both alluded to in the first season).

But what’s new to this discussion comes by way of comparison to other franchises. Over at Disney XD, Marvel has responded with the return of “The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” and the series premiere of “Ultimate Spider-Man,” which boasts writing by Paul Dini and its own supporting cast of teenage superheroes. This is an interesting switch-up because Greg Weisman, who brought us the last and possibly best Spider-Man cartoon (“The Spectacular Spider-Man”), moved on to co-create the tightly written and mostly serious “Young Justice,” while Paul Dini, best known for his work on the famously dark “Batman: The Animated Series” and the wildly successful video games “Arkham Asylum” and “Arkham City,” has traded over to Spider-Man.

It’s arguable that even Dini won’t be able to pull off a group dynamic for the hero known to work alone — that he’d have been wiser to get in on “Young Justice,” which, in all honesty, is doing just brilliantly without him. Now with several successful cartoon series under his belt, Weisman is becoming the man to beat.

But any competition between DC and Marvel is probably more fan-based than otherwise. More than a few comic creators have worked for both companies, and crossover undoubtedly occurs among their fans as well.

In an interview for the documentary “Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story,” Marvel mogul Stan Lee reminisces about going with the Batman creator to the 1989 motion picture premiere and laments that he didn’t live long enough to witness the big-screen success of “Spider-Man” in 2002. As for Dini and Weisman, they both wrote episodes to “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” with Dini penning last fall's self-aware, franchise-parodying (albeit praising his own contributions) series finale.

Superhero fanatics may follow all of the above shows with equal adoration, especially with the aid of a DVR. They may even add Nickelodeon’s new “Legend of Korra” to that schedule — and should, because the follow-up to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is just as spectacular and perhaps slightly more geared for adults, having grown with its fans.

But while that latter series’ embarrassing movie adaptation never should have been made, this year’s superhero theatrical line-up has generated so much hype that fans can’t help but get caught up in passionate debates. When it was announced that the newest trailer for "The Dark Knight Rises" would be attached to the release of "The Avengers," most commentators seemed to agree that the pairing constitutes an event you won’t want to miss.

Then there’s me, who at first admitted that the greater draw was that Batman trailer. Christopher Nolan showcased new footage recently at CinemaCon 2012, and according to Batman-News.com, one viewer Tweeted, “Avengers, you got nothing on this.”  But Warner Bros. made sure you don't have to see "The Avengers" to catch the trailer by releasing it online as part of their infamous viral marketing campaign.  I appreciated the separation.  Although I wore a Batman t-shirt to "The Avengers" last night, I still got caught up in the Marvel hype when the title appeared on screen and everyone cheered.  It was like ante-up time in a poker game: everyone wanted in.

And, if you ask me, they won their bets.  I'm a latecomer to Joss Whedon admiration, but in preparation for "The Avengers" I decided to sample his short-lived cult series "Firefly" on Netflix.  His trademarks are instantly recognizable: deft handling of an ensemble cast and well-timed combining of action and humor.  While this almost makes his plots too clean, too predictable ("Ah, hear that reference?  Hear that joke?  That's going to be important later."), it certainly doesn't take away from an entertaining movie-watching experience.  "The Avengers" is easily the best in the Marvel Universe franchise because this guy knows how to handle his heroes' strengths and weaknesses; the result is something real and even emotional but perfectly true to its comic book origins.

In the end, then, I'd say neither side in the Marvel vs. DC debate has gained any ground — or in other words, that your loyalties will lie with which heroes you like best.  This is a credit to the films because it means they bring out the best in what they have to work with.

The phrase “It’s just good business” comes to mind. Whatever the differences in characters and comic universes, it’s clear that the companies feed off each other. Nolan’s Batman franchise may have set a new standard in superhero films, but these would not have been possible without “X-Men” in 2000. And so on.

Now in one summer we’re getting new adaptations of the Avengers, Spider-Man, and Batman, with the rebooted Superman movie only a year away. In that case, maybe the question we should be debating is not which franchise is better, but whether any other genre will ever attain such staying power.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed the article, I am also a super hero fan. The "Firefly" reference was great, I have the series & movie on dvd and watch it often!