Tuesday, May 15, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (05/15/2012): Tron: Uprising, Young Justice, Ultimate Spider-Man, The Avengers and Motorcity

Jazz hands!
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I review five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone.

The series launch of Tron: Uprising, the animated prequel to Tron: Legacy, doesn't take place at the show's permanent home of Disney XD until June 7. But in a move similar to what Fox did with New Girl last fall, what Showtime did with House of Lies last Christmas and what NBC did with Smash earlier this year to increase the buzz for their respective shows, the channel unveiled all 31 minutes of "Beck's Beginning," Tron: Uprising's first episode, on YouTube over the weekend (for American viewers only), a few days before the episode's May 18 premiere on The Disney Channel and May 21 premiere on Disney XD.

The Beck of the premiere episode title is a teen "program" (Elijah Wood) who makes his living as a garage mechanic in Argon City, which is part of the computer world known as The Grid, the creation of software engineer Kevin Flynn, the Jeff Bridges character from the two Tron films. Flynn created a digital clone of himself named Clu (Fred Tatasciore, subbing for Bridges, who doubled as the evil clone via not-very-convincing CGI trickery in Tron: Legacy) to look after The Grid in his absence, but Clu went all Hosni Mubarak, imprisoned Flynn inside The Grid and has now ordered his forces to occupy Argon City.

When Beck's best friend is killed, or as the franchise's vernacular prefers to call it, "derezzed," by a guard who works for Clu's henchman General Tesler (Lance Henriksen), Beck seeks revenge. With the help of a Daft Punk helmet and a "re-coding tool" from the garage that he uses to change the appearance of his attire, Beck assumes the persona of the legendary warrior program Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), who, like Flynn, has been deposed by Clu. Tortured by the dictator and presumed dead, Tron takes notice of his impersonator's bravery and fighting skills and decides to secretly mentor Beck.

I don't really care for the Tron franchise or the undernourished screenwriting that was on display in both Tron films, but I did enjoy Tron: Legacy's dope Daft Punk score, the film's immersive visuals (especially when they're glimpsed in IMAX 3D, which is why I saw the film twice in that format) and Olivia Wilde's performance as Jules Verne-loving warrior woman Quorra ("Do you know Jules Verne? What's he like?"), so I've been curious about how Tron will turn out on the small screen each week. Will the show look as epic as Tron: Legacy did, even on a much tinier screen? Will the writing--shepherded by Tron: Legacy co-writers and Once Upon a Time creators Edward Kitsis and Adam "I Ain't Ad-Rock and by the Way, He's Horovitz, While I'm" Horowitz--be as undernourished as it was in Tron: Legacy?

Despite being in 2D, Tron: Uprising still looks incredible. The rainy nighttime metropolises and sleek glowstick aesthetic of Tron: Legacy are maintained here (and though none of Daft Punk's themes are repurposed here, composer Joseph Trapanese, who arranged and orchestrated the French duo's score over the course of two years, channels their sound with satisfying results). The highlight of "Beck's Beginning" is a gorgeously animated battle between Beck and one of Tesler's guards atop a speeding monorail. I wonder who the fight choreography consultant is for this show because the fighting moves in "Beck's Beginning" outstrip the choreography in Tron: Legacy and are reminiscent of Spike Spiegel's martial arts scenes on Cowboy Bebop. However, I'm not as enamored with the character design by Robert Valley. Why does Beck look like Matt LeBlanc? I keep expecting him to greet Tesler's second-in-command Paige (Emmanuelle Chriqui)--the show's most interesting character so far--with "How you doin'?"

This Beck isn't a musically talented but weird-ass Scientologist.
As for the writing on Tron: Uprising, many critics found the Tron: Legacy screenplay to be too colorless (I could see their gripes, although I thought the occasional flashes of humor, like Quorra's awkwardness around humans, Bridges' Big Lebowski-esque portrayal of an older Flynn and Michael Sheen basically playing Alan Cumming, actually helped to enliven the 2010 film), but Kitsis and Horowitz's exposition-heavy premiere episode is more colorless and humorless than Tron: Legacy. Unlike any of the Burners from Motorcity, Disney XD's other futuristic animated series with a young gearhead as the hero, Beck has zero personality. Sure, Beck is a computerized being, but so was Sheen's nightclub owner character, whose lively, scenery-chewing presence is sorely missed here. Hopefully, Tron will smuggle to Beck a personality disc in an upcoming episode.

(Because Tron: Uprising's online debut is a big deal and "Flight Club," the latest Green Lantern: The Animated Series episode, is a lighthearted trifle compared to Young Justice: Invasion's momentous newest episode and the other equally momentous superhero cartoon installments this week, I put the Tron: Uprising premiere in Green Lantern's spot in this week's column.)


Wow, that was quick. The very plot-heavy and action-packed "Alienated," the latest Young Justice: Invasion installment, immediately clears up the mystery of what Superman (Nolan North), Batman (Bruce Greenwood), Wonder Woman (Maggie Q), Martian Manhunter (Kevin Michael Richardson), Green Lantern Corps patrolman John Stewart (also Richardson) and the dialogue-less Hawkwoman were up to during the 16 missing hours when they were brainwashed by Vandal Savage (Miguel Ferrer). Neither hookers nor blow were involved. Under Vandal Savage's control, the six Justice Leaguers attacked the citizens of the planet Rimbor, and their actions--which neither of them have any memory of--made Earth a target for the Kroloteans, who landed on Earth before the events of the season premiere and have been impersonating Earth's politicians and scientists while preparing for their all-out assault on the planet.

And in a reveal that's shocking to this viewer whose last DC reading experience was an All-Star Superman TPB a few years ago but isn't as shocking to DC fans who are experts on who's-related-to-who in the DC universe, Kaldur'ahm (Khary Payton), the Atlantean formerly known as Aqualad, is now working for his terrorist father Black Manta (also Payton), the nemesis of Kaldur'ahm's former mentor Aquaman (Phil LaMarr, a.k.a. Green Lantern from Justice League Unlimited!). I thought it's because Kaldur'ahm is furious that Cartoon Network won't bring back Toonami, but the reason for his Theon Greyjoy-style turn towards villainy is far more dramatic.

Black Manta does his best impression of the brother in the Public Enemy logo.
During the five-year interim between Young Justice's first and second seasons, Kaldur'ahm learned of his parentage, while Tula (Cree Summer), Aqualad's love, joined Young Justice, took up the alias Aquagirl and died during a mission. Kaldur'ahm blamed the team for Aquagirl's death and was pissed at Aquaman for hiding the details of his parentage and then quit and switched sides. Some Young Justice fans believe that Kaldur'ahm's working undercover to bust his own dad. I hope not. Kaldur'ahm's genuine conversion to villainy would be a more interesting arc to me than Kaldur'ahm being in opposition to his supervillain father the whole time a la Runaways.

It turns out that the Kroloteans aren't the major players of this season's title event when Black Manta plants a bomb on the Krolotean base to get them out of the way, so that his allies from The Light, the consortium of supervillains that fought the Young Justice crew and their mentors last season, can step in and take over Earth with the help of a figure whom the Kroloteans referred to in their language as "The Competitor." Superman attempts to warn the Kroloteans about the bomb and offers to rescue them, but they prove how much of a dipshit alien race they are by firing their weapons at Supes in response. He's unable to save any of them from the bomb.

Meanwhile, Superboy (also North) continues to be unsettled by his ex-girlfriend Miss Martian (Danica McKellar) and her increasing reliance on telepathically torturing the team's enemies. Oh yeah, and the Justice League's popularity with the public is waning, thanks to anti-Justice League propaganda spouted by cable news loudmouth G. Gordon Godfrey (Tim Curry, the original voice of The Joker on Batman: The Animated Series before the producers opted for Mark Hamill). Will the six accused Justice Leaguers' departure from Earth to clear their names on Rimbor put them back in everyone's good graces again?

A busy Young Justice episode like "Alienated" is exciting to watch but a bitch to recap. I wish I could break down the episode's events in just less than 10 words a la the wonderfully terse recap of Superman's origin on the very first page of All-Star Superman ("Aqualad's a traitor. Nighty night, Krolotean dipshits!").

'Captain's log: supplemental. I just realized that mullet of mine in the '90s was such a goddamn mistake.'
Young Justice is largely more somber than previous animated DC shows, but luckily, this action-packed episode found time to insert a great quip or two (Wonder Woman to Wonder Girl, who's in such awe of her mentor's heroics: "A little less fangirl, a little more Wonder Girl."). (By the way, Wonder Girl is voiced by a much-less-sullen-than-usual Mae Whitman from Parenthood and Andre Braugher's Thief.) I don't know if "Maneuver Seven," a Fastball Special-style fighting move in which Nightwing (Jesse McCartney) hurls Batgirl (Alyson Stoner) at their adversaries and she kicks all of them in the face before landing on her feet, is a regular thing in the more recent Batman comics, but that moment in "Alienated" is especially badass. With this episode, Young Justice just Maneuver Sevened almost all my doubts about this series being a worthy successor to Justice League Unlimited.


Ultimate Spider-Man beautifully pays off an earlier cliffhanger ending involving the Venom symbiote and Peter Parker's best friend Harry Osborn (Matt Lanter) in its first decent episode, "Back in Black," penned by the Man of Action collective from the Ben 10 shows (Duncan Rouleau, Joe Casey, Joe Kelly and Steven T. Seagle). Three episodes ago, Harry secretly kept for himself a sample of the unstable symbiote, which, instead of being an alien entity like on previous Spidey shows, is a weapon invented by Harry's industrialist father Norman (Steven Weber) and Doctor Octopus (Tom Kenny) out of Spidey's blood to give Spidey-like powers to its host.

"Back in Black" opens with a Spidey imposter--clad in the still-cool-looking black costume from the '80s comics--emerging in the Manhattan superhero scene. J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) likes Black Suit Spidey much more than the actual Spidey, and the new guy becomes a social media phenom. Peter, who's much more egotistical on this new show, is, of course, jealous of the imposter, who turns out to be a Venomed Harry, whose addiction to Venom is reminiscent of Willow's addiction to magic on Buffy, but with little of the "Drugs are bad, mmm-kay?" non-subtlety of Willow's arc. The show's decision to have Harry fight his best friend not as a Green Goblin knockoff but as Venom is a great twist I didn't see coming (and had forgotten because Ultimate Spider-Man doesn't open with previouslies to remind viewers of past events).

How the hell did Roger Clemens' son manage to squeeze his arms into that extremely tight Halloween costume?
The tendency for Peter to be more cocky than mensch-y on this show is off-putting to me. The voice direction Drake Bell has apparently been given for this egotistical Spidey is "extreme sports-obsessed '90s Mountain Dew ad." But as long as the show mocks Spidey's ego, whether through the "WTF?" reactions of the New Yorkers he rescues or the reactions of his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. trainees (who were largely absent from this episode, and I missed their presence), instead of glorifying it, then I'm okay with it because this show isn't about a seasoned hero who's figured out how to be humble yet and is more careful about making mistakes. It's about a green-around-the-gills and privately insecure hero who learns to become the ultimate Spidey by being less douchey and making tons of mistakes along the way, and the fallibilities of most Marvel characters like Spidey are why so many comics readers over the years have declared, "Make mine Marvel!"

Speaking of green stuff, Peter suffers from the flu during "Back in Black," and his episode-long sickliness fuels another irritating part of the show, Spidey's quirky two-to-15-second cutaway gags. However, a couple of those gags in "Back in Black" are genuinely funny for a change. As a viewer who's gotten a kick out of animated shows parodying other animated shows ever since Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures' "Don't Touch That Dial" short in 1988, I liked the fake opening titles for a crappily animated cartoon starring Black Suit Spidey and his space-blob sidekick Doop (a great cameo by the cameraman--or rather, camerablob--from the satirical X-Statix comic). The moment I heard the old Superfriends scene transition sound effect, I laughed and I knew the episode's Superfriends spoof (which also parodies the Filmation version of Superman and The Mighty Hercules) was going to be a highlight.

The other standout cutaway gag mocks the first Iron Man film's memorable ending, in which Tony Stark outed his superhero persona at a press conference, by comedically showing the consequences of a superhero divulging his secret identity. Peter imagines Mary Jane (Tara Strong) and Aunt May (Misty Lee, the magician wife of Ultimate Spider-Man writer/producer Paul Dini) being stalked by supervillains in mundane places like the movie theater. Both MJ and Aunt May grumble to Peter, "You had to tell people."

Ultimate Spider-Man is getting mixed reactions from older viewers who aren't used to this single-camera sitcom-inspired take on Spidey. But "Back in Black" is showing signs that the series is starting to figure out how to effectively balance slapstick with darker material. The episode ends with the series' creepiest image to date: the Venom goo oozing out of Harry's ear while he sleeps.


The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes channels the blood-testing debate scenes from John Carpenter's The Thing this week for a paranoid downer of an episode, "Who Do You Trust?" S.H.I.E.L.D. director and opening credits narrator Nick Fury (Alex Désert) has been MIA for awhile, so Maria Hill (Kari Wührer) has been running things in his absence, but Fury finally resurfaces in this episode. He reveals to Avengers leader Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. soundalike Eric Loomis) that he went AWOL--and will continue to do so--to investigate which members of superteams and government agencies like his own agency are actually Skrull shape-shifters. It's part of Fury's strategy to trick the Skrull spies--particularly the Skrull who's currently masquerading as Captain America (Brian Bloom) and successfully fooling everybody--into exposing themselves.

"Who Do You Trust?" contains much less action than Young Justice's "Alienated" ep, but it exemplifies something this show does well (and which Joss Whedon has cited as why The Avengers particularly appealed to him): the tensions between these heroes who barely get along with each other but work well together when faced against a common threat. But what happens when that threat is much more subtle and isn't as easy to detect or fight, and anyone could be a menace?

Hey, Ms. Marvel, you don't need to defeat Hawkeye with your powers. Just grab that skirt of his and flip it over his head.
Another thing this series does well is depicting the Avengers as people first, heroes second. It often shows them unmasked or in civilian attire, like in the scene where Tony takes the team out for pizza to celebrate the heroic efforts of their newest member Carol Danvers (Jennifer Hale), a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, before the intel Tony receives from Fury about the Skrull conspiracy causes their laid-back night out to collapse into suspicion, bickering, minor property damage and then finally, team members resigning. These frequent glimpses of the Avengers outside of their costumes is a nice departure from older superhero cartoons where the characters never took off their suits because animators didn't have the time, budget or carpal tunnel remedies to change up the characters' appearance.

Instead of hitting the bottle after quitting the team he founded because he can't trust anyone anymore, Tony simply mopes in his office and angrily hurls his Iron Man helmet at the wall. Too bad Earth's Mightiest Heroes is a Disney XD show.


This Motorcity episode was heavily influenced by Metallica. All that bickering in that Metallica documentary must have been an influence on this episode too.
(Photo source: Clarke Snyder)
Discord between friends is also the theme of "Ride the Lightning," this week's episode of Motorcity, which Disney XD will move from Monday nights to Thursday nights starting June 7. When Burners leader Mike Chilton (Reid Scott) goes missing while trying to stop the "Climator" weather machine, the latest creation of evil Detroit Deluxe gazillionaire Abraham Kane (Mark Hamill), from wreaking havoc on Motorcity in the middle of the summer, Chuck (Nate Torrence), Julie (Kate Micucci), Dutch (Kel Mitchell) and Texas (Jess Harnell) attempt to find Mike despite grueling winter weather conditions caused by the Climator.

But without Mike's presence and guidance--and with the aggravating weather constantly interfering with their rescue mission--the Burners end up nearly killing each other. Julie blames Texas for his reckless driving. Texas hates Chuck's incomprehensible ideas and in a little moment of class resentment, dismisses Julie as "Miss Deluxe" (does he actually know Julie is Kane's daughter?). Level-headed Dutch tires of Texas' stupidity and ego. The pugnacious mechanic is like a cross between The Todd from Scrubs, who, like Texas, always refers to himself in the third person, and Dwight from The Office, who's extremely loyal to his boss Michael and is always hasty to appoint himself leader the moment Michael is out of the picture, much like Texas in this episode. (My favorite Texas-ism is his tendency to repeat aloud to the rest of the team everything Mike says.)

Chuck does even less whimpering in "Ride the Lightning" than in "Power Trip" and uses his investigative skills to locate Mike. He's also apparently straight--despite all those clingy Starsky & Hutch-esque moments with Mike in the previous episodes--because he's fallen in love with Julie's co-worker and best friend Claire (Dana Davis), a KaneCo intern who lives in Detroit Deluxe. Through Claire, we get a taste of what life is like for Detroit Deluxe citizens who are neither heartless businessmen like Kane nor complete dumbasses like Kane's flunky Tooley (Jim Breuer), who's handed the opportunity of capturing Mike and is, of course, tricked by Mike into letting him get away.

Planet Claire
(Photo source: gorillaprutt)
Claire's a bit standoffish towards the Burners, and we see why when older Burner and Motorcity hot dog stand owner Jacob (Brian Doyle-Murray) tries to make small talk with her and all Jacob can talk about is stuff about cars or making gross-sounding health food dishes out of junkyard items, not remembering that Claire comes from the part of town that banned cars and most likely has no junkyards. She spends most of her time at the Burners' garage to herself and doesn't join them when they try out the flume they built at the start of the episode. But she's not completely useless and she uses her obsession with fashion to explain to the Burners that they need to put aside their differences and concentrate on finding Mike ("You're totes not coordinating").

Julie's friend is only a tad clueless simply because of the self-absorbed section of Detroit she's from, while Texas and Tooley, with their room-temperature I.Q.'s, are much, much worse. "Ride the Lightning" is a great episode for those who can't get enough of dialogue from stupid characters, ever since the days of Woody from Cheers or Hilary from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Everything that comes out of Texas' mouth in this episode is comedy gold, even when Texas articulately expresses his giddiness for helping save Motorcity by yelling, "Texaaaas!"


  1. Jimmy these are great recaps. The only one I've seen is Tron and I was stunned by it's beauty. Seeing the water droplets floating up blew my mind. The story and character are great too. I'll have to catch Avengers.

  2. Speaking of Tron's visual beauty, check out these stunning production paintings and interesting model sheets from Tron: Uprising: http://www.cartoonbrew.com/tv/tron-uprising-preview-talkback.html