|She's got the body of a 21-year-old and the hair of a 71-year-old.|
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.
It's been an interesting week for superhero cartoons. One show is being killed, while another is coming back. I can't say I'm a fan of either show, but the latter used to open each week with one of the best TV theme songs ever.
Nothing Marvel Animation does surprises me, including pulling the plug on The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, which is what the studio did last week (Australian viewers, for some odd reason, have been receiving the show's second-season episodes several weeks before we do, while Disney XD will begin burning off the rest of the season later this summer--on Wikipedia, its return date is listed as June 24). Earth's Mightiest Heroes isn't a perfect show like most Marvel fans make it out to be--animation-wise, it pales in comparison to much of the work of present-day DC Animation--but due to the solid work of story editor and frequent writer Christopher Yost, it's better-written than most Marvel cartoons.
I particularly like how there's constant turnover in the team like in the Avengers comics and many other superteam comics, as well as the way Earth's Mightiest Heroes approaches the team members as what I call "people first, heroes second." For instance, most of them, particularly Iron Man, are frequently seen unmasked or outside of their costumes, a departure from older superhero cartoons where the heroes rarely took off their suits, which always looked stupid. If Superman took a nap in the Hall of Justice on Superfriends (which was exactly how that Superfriends episode where Supes was transformed into a boy ended), he'd still be wearing his effing cape.
And before live-action Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo finally figured out how to make the usually one-note and boring Hulk an interesting and complex character (three words: "I'm always angry"), my favorite version of Hulk was Earth's Mightiest Heroes' reimagining of him as a more intelligent brute and less like a man-child who demolishes English as much as he demolishes brick walls (sorry, '70s Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno version, but you were better at depicting Dr. Banner than you were at depicting his green self, who, to borrow a favorite Hulk word, looks puny compared to the Yostverse Hulk). This take on Greenie, which is closer to how Peter David wrote him in the Incredible Hulk comic in the '90s, reminds me of the brooding and laconic version of Little John on BBC's Robin Hood. I wouldn't be surprised if Avengers Assemble, Marvel Animation's next (and reportedly Ultimate Spider-Man-style) incarnation of the Avengers characters, goes back to dumbing Hulk down.
Speaking of unsurprising things, the theme tunes that open Marvel cartoons are typically wack or drab, except for the late '60s Spider-Man theme, Rooney's Iron Man: Armored Adventures theme and some of Bad City's "Fight as One," the Earth's Mightiest Heroes theme, which is too watered-down-Linkin-Park-ish for my tastes, but I like how the first few lyrics in the first-season version of "Fight as One" correspond to each Avengers founding member without using their names ("Tormented and attacked" represents Hulk, while "Lost from when we wake" is about Captain America). A far better theme than "Fight as One" is the banger of a theme that opened DC's Teen Titans. Although I loved that Puffy AmiYumi theme and any episode that pitted the Titans against Malcolm McDowell's '60s-obsessed Mad Mod, I wasn't a fan of the show. But I'm glad it's coming back, even though it's in that cutesy chibi character design I don't usually care for. On some weeks, the chibi-style New Teen Titans shorts, which reunited the original show's voice actors, have been the highlight of Cartoon Network's "DC Nation" block (my favorite of these shorts is, of course, the one that brought back Mad Mod).
Cartoon Network announced last week that DC Animation will be expanding these New Teen Titans shorts into a half-hour Teen Titans Go! series that will air next year during "DC Nation." In terms of superhero comedies, I prefer New Teen Titans over the forced wackiness of the recently renewed Ultimate Spider-Man, although I'd rather see the return of The Justice Friends from Dexter's Laboratory.
Even though everyone in The Grid is as obese as an ironing board, I'm starting to warm up to Robert Valley's stylized Tron: Uprising character designs, which we see more of in the series' second episode as it introduces other characters besides the principals. (If you peep Valley's site, it's full of even more impressive artwork by the Gorillaz "Feel Good Inc." video animator, including previews of a comic of his that features ladies who are too hot for Disney XD.) But the only Tron: Uprising character whose design still doesn't look alright to me is the lead character Beck's. His Matt LeBlanc face doesn't match Elijah Wood's distinctively Elijah Wood-ian voice.
|(Photo source: Cartoon Brew)|
In "The Renegade," Beck's heroism from the first episode has made enough noise in The Grid to cause gladiators to begin to murmur of a renegade who will save them and stand up against Clu the dictator and his henchman General Tesler (Lance Henriksen). Beck inadvertently ends up getting captured by one of Tesler's recognizer ships and is forced into the same kind of gladiatorial games he rescued his friends Mara (Mandy Moore) and Zed (Nate Corddry) from being shipped off to in "Beck's Beginning."
One of Beck's fellow prisoners is Cutler (Lance Reddick), a former soldier who fought in what was known as the ISO War (introduced in Tron: Legacy, ISOs are not "programs" like Beck and his friends but are human inhabitants of The Grid that their creator Kevin Flynn tried to protect from Clu, who slaughtered all of them for being human, except for Olivia Wilde's Quorra, the last surviving ISO). Beck plots to escape from the arena with Cutler, who believes the renegade is the presumed-dead Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) and is eager to fight beside him in the uprising he's started. The veteran isn't aware that the renegade is actually Beck, who's assuming Tron's mantle. Maybe Cutler should flee first to a barbershop in Argon City because his '90s flattop makes him look too much like Allen West.
Meanwhile, Able (Reginald VelJohnson), Beck's kindly boss at the Argon City garage, gets his hands on one of his favorite vehicles, a rare and vintage ENCOM 786 light cycle, the same kind of cycle Flynn kept stashed in his hideout in Tron: Legacy. Wanting to impress Perl (Kate Mara), a purple-haired hottie he met at a club, Zed shows off the cycle to Perl, who steals it from him to sell it to a shady cycle dealer, and he and Mara must get the cycle back before Able finds out it's been stolen.
Disney XD has already posted on its site both parts of this two-part "Renegade" episode before the second part has even aired. As a character, Beck is still a bit as bland as he was in the previous episode (which I recently learned was originally intended to be a series of short webisodes for Disney XD's site), but he's a little more relatable in "The Renegade." He's become less confident of himself as the enormity of Tron's meticulously planned uprising begins to sink in, which we see when Beck admits his doubts to Tron during a spectacular light cycle training sequence that takes place in a snowy and mountainous part of the Outlands that wasn't shown in Tron: Legacy (the sequence is another example of animation's advantage over live-action: it's able to expand on the settings from the live-action source material on a smaller budget).
But why does this teen mechanic possess so many fighting skills? Is that because Beck is actually a program created by either Flynn or Tron to take Tron's place someday, just like how on Justice League Unlimited, Amanda Waller had Bruce Wayne's DNA implanted into the father of Batman Beyond hero Terry McGinnis to ensure that Terry would grow up to become the next Batman?
"The Renegade" is a more enjoyable episode than "Beck's Beginning" because it contains a little more humor (while I dug the action sequences in "Beck's Beginning," the episode's grave tone got to be a bit much) and it features my favorite ancillary characters from the Tron movies. Bit, the CG entity from the first Tron movie that can only communicate through "Yes" or "No," makes a cameo and is cleverly deployed for one of the episode's best one-liners. "The Renegade" also brings back one of my favorite visual moments from Tron: Legacy, the synchronized movements of the Sirens, the hot female programs who outfit the gladiators (a scene that mostly wasn't in the film's script and was thought up during rehearsals).
The problem with prequels like Tron: Uprising is that we already know the outcome of the uprising, due to the events in Tron: Legacy (Clu remains in power and he has Tron reprogrammed into becoming the evil Rinzler), so showrunners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and their writers have quite a task ahead of them if they want us to become invested in the leaders of an uprising that ultimately fails to make much of a dent. We need more than just epic action sequences, rousing score music (series composer Joseph Trapanese needs to release a Tron: Uprising score album this instant) and nifty character or set designs to keep us invested, and "The Renegade" promisingly indicates that those elements aren't all that's up Tron: Uprising's neon-lit sleeve.
The Nielsen ratings for Disney/Titmouse's Motorcity in its new Thursday night time slot after Tron: Uprising are unfortunately not good. On Tumblr and deviantART, you'd think Motorcity is as popular as The Legend of Korra because of all the Motorcity fan art that gets posted on those sites, but it's not so popular with Nielsen families. I wish broadcast and cable networks would stop determining which shows live or die based on those out-of-touch families and their equally out-of-touch Nielsen diary system, which doesn't count Hulu/Netflix viewership, iTunes downloads or time-shifted viewing (the latter two methods are how I assume most Motorcity fans catch the show, just like how Community is mostly watched by its audience on DVRs or Hulu).
|(Photo source: Prosodi)|
It's too bad Motorcity's Nielsen numbers for its return after a two-week hiatus are underwhelming because "The Duke of Detroit," which features the entertaining debut of Twisted Sister frontman/ex-MSNBC announcer/recent Celebrity Apprentice contestant Dee Snider as the title recurring character, contains all the elements that have made Motorcity my favorite new animated series. All that's missing from "The Duke of Detroit" is the presence of Mark Hamill's villainous and douchily ponytailed businessman Abraham Kane, who I assume was too busy dumping KaneCo toxic waste near a Motorcity day care center to be involved in this week's story.
During a Kanebot attack on the Burners, Dutch (Kel Mitchell) nearly gets killed by the bots, which causes Burners leader Mike Chilton (Reid Scott) to panic and become overprotective. Mike butts in on tasks that his friends are capable of handling on their own during battle, which particularly annoys Julie (Kate Micucci) and Texas (Jess Harnell). At the same time, Mike has to deal with a Motorcity gangster and junkyard owner known as the Duke of Detroit, who's enraged over Mike damaging an auto from his Leno-size car collection during a shootout with the Kanebots.
When Mike refuses to bow down to this strange dude who makes showy Kid Rock-style entrances, lives in a mansion filled with portraits of himself and is obsessive-compulsive about his car collection, the Duke puts bounties on the Burners' heads. Soon, all of Motorcity's gangs go after the Burners to collect the reward, but with the help of my favorite prop in this episode, a giant tank of his that shoots stretch limos out of its cannons (designed by Motorcity prop designer Brandon Cuellar), the Duke beats out the gangs in the race to capture the Burners and intends to sell them to Kane instead of killing them.
|(Photo source: Brandon Cuellar)|
The Duke's decision to keep the team alive must be due to the fact that Motorcity is a Disney XD show, so that also means the Duke is a G-rated gangster who's fixated on cars instead of strippers and hoes. Off-screen, I'm sure the Duke is an objectum-sexual, much like Chris Parnell in his funniest SNL sketch, a car commercial parody that's so filthy SNL has rarely re-aired it.
"The Duke of Detroit" exemplifies the following reasons why Motorcity is my favorite new cartoon.
1. Motorcity isn't a superhero show. Though I think Joss Whedon's The Avengers is an above-average superhero movie and The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes and Young Justice are good superhero cartoons, I'm a bit tired of the superhero genre, and it's not just because of my politics. Does every new cartoon have to be a superhero show?
Motorcity feels like a breath of fresh air because its heroes aren't superpowered. The show doesn't have Mike and the Burners relying on magic weapons like the Omnitrix that Ben 10 uses or incantations like "By the power of Grayskull..." or "Thunder... Thunder... Thunder... ThunderCats, ho!" to help them. They're just ordinary mechanics, street racers and hackers who happen to be very skilled at what they do. The absence of superheroics--as well as the fact that Mike and the Burners are new to this resistance thing and are figuring it out as they go along, so they make mistakes from time to time, like Mike's temporary habit of interfering with the teamwork and being a ball hog during battle in "The Duke of Detroit"--both make the Motorcity characters more relatable than all those superheroes who are all over kids' animation.
2. Instead of tackling the superhero genre again, Motorcity tackles a genre that, aside from Thundarr the Barbarian, has rarely been given the animated treatment: the dystopic '80s sci-fi action genre. The show has channeled the Mad Max series and RoboCop (series creator Chris Prynoski has acknowledged the 1987 Paul Verhoeven film's influence on Motorcity's corporate-run Detroit backdrop), and the latest episode is influenced by Escape from New York (the Duke is partly modeled after Isaac Hayes' Duke of New York) and The Warriors. Among the highlights of "The Duke of Detroit" are the scenes that introduce Motorcity's Warriors-like car gangs, from the backwards-cap-and-overalls-clad Mama's Boys to the souped-up-RV-driving Weekend Warriors.
3. Motorcity isn't overwritten. None of the characters deliver unconvincing expository dialogue, which solid superhero cartoons like Young Justice and even great live-action dramas like Game of Thrones are guilty of.
For instance, in the latest Young Justice episode, Miss Martian is seen explaining to a reluctant Superboy why she just used her shape-shifting powers to disguise themselves as her uncle J'onn and Superman in front of reporters, more for the sake of bringing the audience up to speed than for Superboy's sake. "Conner, you know we have to maintain the illusion that Superman, Manhunter and the other Leaguers who went into space are still on Earth," she tells her ex-boyfriend, who I'm pretty sure doesn't need to be reminded about the Leaguers' situation. "We can't let our enemies know how short-handed the Justice League is right now."
Who talks like that in real life?
The characters on Motorcity rarely do that. The show's terse writing--like when an action sequence in "The Duke of Detroit" goes for a pretty-long-for-kids'-TV stretch with no dialogue--is a sign that Motorcity is made by grown-ups who, even though they joke about their lack of smarts, respect the audience's intelligence.
That conciseness is why the revelation that Julie is Kane's daughter in the middle of the "Battle for Motorcity" premiere episode was so effective. She simply says, "Dad, let go!," while Kane hugs her too hard. Other cartoons would have had Julie reveal her identity by saying something unnatural-sounding like "You're my dad. I'm your daughter. So listen to me. Those people are defenseless..." Also, there's a history between Kane, his former employee Mike and his former R&D scientist Jacob (Brian Doyle-Murray), but the show is doling it out piece by piece instead of delivering it via massive '90s Marvel cartoon-style infodump.
|(Photo source: F-Yeah Motorcity)|
4. Texas is Asian, which means the dumb guy on the show is Asian for a change. That's progress? Hell yes! I had no idea Texas, the Motorcity character Prynoski has said he feels closest to, is Asian until Titmouse animator Parker Simmons pointed it out on Tumblr. It made me love Motorcity even more.
For too long, Asian American males have been forced to put up with depictions of themselves on scripted TV as uptight and weak nerds, one-dimensional greaseball villains and in the most regressive kind of depiction, Engrish-speaking FOBs like 2 Broke Girls' extremely fobby Han Lee character, who was described by exasperated Yo, Is This Racist? creator Andrew Ti as "a tiny, greedy, sexless man-child" during a wonderful Grantland rant about 2 Broke Girls and the Korean Long Duk Dong. There are so many other kinds of Asian American guys besides those stereotypes. We can be dumb jocks too, and I went to school with quite a few of them, which is why I've gotten a kick out of Texas (another similarly dumb Asian guy on TV whom I've found to be unusually progressive is Rex Lee's Suburgatory character Mr. Wolfe because instead of being the same old generic Asian egghead, the recently outed guidance counselor is as dumb as everyone else in Chatswin).
Even Motorcity's dumbest Burner is a nuanced character too, which says a lot about the writing on this show. Sure, in "The Duke of Detroit," the dim and egotistical Texas continues to be under the impression that he has fans everywhere in Motorcity, but unlike the series' other dumbass, Kane's assistant Tooley (Jim Breuer), Texas is competent in battle, and he rescues Dutch when his ride is blown up by Kanebots.
5. Right now, the show looks like nothing else on TV--animated or live-action. Again, a tank fired stretch limos out of its cannons. What other show has done that?
Lion-O (Will Friedle) and the ThunderCats' search for the third of the four Power Stones that they need in order to defeat Mumm-Ra leads them to a city in the sky in the first half of the two-part "What Lies Above," which may or may not be the series finale of Cartoon Network's ambitious ThunderCats reboot. The bird people's home of Avista City is clearly an homage to Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, and series composer Kevin Kliesch, who once told IGN that "I take a lot of inspiration in John Williams, James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith and all the big stars of the film music industry," channels the Empire Strikes Back composer at his most epic during the ThunderCats' entrance into Avista by plane. If the ThunderCats do get put down by Cartoon Network, I'll miss hearing Kliesch's contributions to this show because even though I've caught only four or five episodes, it's been one of the best-scored cartoons on TV.
Avista's arrogant, cat-hating prefect Vultaire (Michael McKean!) refuses to lend the ThunderCats the Tech Stone, which powers his floating city and has made the birds the most technologically advanced animal race on Third Earth. Vultaire's hatred of felines stems not from allergies caused by cat dander but from the cats' past as oppressors of the planet's other races (when the races overthrew Mumm-Ra and divided up the Power Stones amongst each other, the cats chose the War Stone, a.k.a. the Eye of Thundera that's contained in Lion-O's Sword of Omens). One of the most intriguing differences between the '80s ThunderCats and the more richly written new version is the added twist that the ThunderCats' ancestors weren't always the good guys, so the rebooted saga is basically one long redemption story in which Lion-O attempts to undo his people's reputation as ruthless and racist.
The ThunderCats' efforts towards an image makeover are hindered by impatient loose cannon Pumyra (Pamela Adlon), who tires of Vultaire's refusal to help them--especially after Tygra (Matthew Mercer) challenges Vultaire to an aircraft race with the Tech Stone as the prize and he beats Vultaire in the contest, but the prefect goes back on his word and doesn't grant them the stone. Pumyra insists on stealing the stone, even after Vultaire discloses that removing the stone will deactivate Avista's anti-gravity emissions and destroy the city. Lion-O decides that putting the birds in peril isn't worth it, which pisses off Pumyra, who tells Lion-O, "If you won't make the tough choices, I will!" She makes a grab for the stone but is knocked out cold by the electric shield surrounding it, and Vultaire orders the ejection of the ThunderCats from his city as "What Lies Above, Part 1" comes to a close.
The biggest highlight--and funniest line--of "Part 1" is a brief shout-out to the company that produced the original ThunderCats. When WilyKit (Madeleine Hall) and WilyKat (Eamon Pirruccello) use their magic bag to replace some of Avista's questionable all-insect cuisine with something much more palatable, their incantation is:
In another amusing in-joke, the fruits that materialize in WilyKat's hands are shaped just like the dots in the Rankin-Bass logo.
Young Justice: Invasion is going on hiatus for a few weeks, but its last episode before the break, "Depths," concludes the half-season with a bang instead of a Chuck from Motorcity-style whimper by dropping a couple of bombshells about the three Young Justice members who left the team during the five-year interim. Before "Depths," which centers on a mission to stop Black Manta's forces from sabotaging an Earth-Mars comsat launch, we knew that Artemis and her boyfriend Kid Flash retired from superheroing to lead less dangerous lives as Stanford students, while Aqualad discovered his father is Black Manta and joined forces with him.
After the airing of "Alienated," I said, "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." It turns out those fans were right about Kaldur going all Wiseguy to take down Black Manta and The Light.
I was initially disappointed about Kaldur faking his conversion and the back-in-action Artemis faking what was a pretty convincing-looking death so that this staged killing of a Young Justice member would help Kaldur ascend in the ranks of his father's criminal organization. But then "Depths" relieved my concerns about the show chickening out with Kaldur and Artemis and not taking enough narrative risks by implying that this elaborate ruse by Nightwing, Kaldur, Artemis and Wally (who's using his retired status to help sell the ruse) could backfire and tear the team apart. As the A.V. Club's Oliver Sava said in his review of "Depths," "What happens when an increasingly Dark Phoenixy M'gann finds out that they lied to her about the death of her best friend?"
Speaking of M'gann, love triangles usually make my allergic-to-soapy-storylines eyes glaze over, but the Conner/M'gann/La'gaan triangle is given an interesting wrinkle when Conner further explains to his psycho ex-girlfriend why her abuse of her powers caused him to break up with her. "Depths" subjects us to some clunkily written dialogue--like M'gann's aforementioned exposition about disguising themselves as their absent mentors--to get us to this point, but wow, Nolan North, a former soap star-turned-voice actor, really does sell Conner's pain and resentment well when his character reveals how betrayed he felt when M'gann tried to use her powers to erase from his mind his objections to her increasing reliance on torture.
Maybe M'gann is turning into the supervillain I expected Kaldur to be.
Over on The Hub, viewers who are too cynical for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic or too old for either that show or the various incarnations of Transformers have a cartoon made for them: Dan Vs., the misanthropic creation of writing partners Dan Mandel and Chris Pearson. I'm an unemployed grouch who prefers to walk around in boots than in mandals, kind of like Dan (Curtis Armstrong, a.k.a. Eek the Cat and more famously, Booger), so in the last two weeks, after discovering this show, I've gotten attached to Dan's beefs with reality TV, screaming babies in movie theaters and weird parents, even though "Dan vs. Reality TV" opened with a racist joke about Chinese food that marred a dead-on parody of reality shows and all those lame contests they subject contestants to.
"Dan vs. Gigundo-Mart," written by Melody Fox, is even wilder than the last two Dan Vs. episodes. This week, Dan's beefing with a new superstore that's causing traffic to worsen in his neighborhood, hurting smaller businesses like his favorite store, Wally's Hardware Emporium and High Explosives Depot, and turning his best friend Chris (Dave Foley) into a bulk-buying addict. In one of my favorite gags, Chris sings the praises of Gigundo-Mart on the phone to his badass wife Elise (Paget Brewster), who's busy with her work as a secret agent, and he stumbles upon Gigundo-Mart's surgery department, which offers bunion removals for $29.95, tonsillectomies for $35.95 and appendectomies for $85.45. "Wow, that is a great price for an appendectomy!," says Chris to Elise.
|(Photo source: Dan Vs. Facebook page)|
Elise is frequently at odds with her husband's cantankerous friend, but in what I assume is a break from the show's formula, she and Dan have a common enemy when she sees how out-of-control Chris' spending has become. The episode beautifully ties together Elise's B-story about a top-secret shrink ray she's procured with Dan's attempts to take down Gigundo-Mart, which are continually thwarted by an elderly Gigundo-Mart greeter who apparently fought in both the Spanish-American War ("That's how we did it on San Juan Hill!") and WWII ("I learned this move on the be... on the be... *COUGH* ... on the beaches of Normandy!").
The senior citizen is voiced by a scene-stealing Maurice LaMarche, who appeared in the cartoon voice actors' Star Wars table read that became a viral sensation a few weeks ago (LaMarche's guest appearance on Talkin Toons, the podcast hosted by his Pinky and the Brain sidekick Rob Paulsen, is also worth clicking to). In a gag that's even funnier than the store's surgical center, the battle between Dan and the sprightly greeter leads to the world's least exciting forklift chase.
|(Photo source: Dan Vs. Facebook page)|
The episode's criticism of how Walmart and Costco are like crack for shopping addicts and hell for everyone else, especially small business owners, is pretty subversive stuff for a cartoon that airs on a Hasbro-owned network that basically pushes kids to buy Hasbro products. Another subversive touch on this series is how even though it often takes Dan's side, he's not really the hero of the series, and it shows how out-of-control Dan can get in his schemes. The far more level-headed Elise is the real hero of Dan Vs., exhibiting calm under pressure even while saving her husband and other equally vulnerable shopping junkies from the clutches of Gigundo-Mart with a shrink ray.