Tuesday, July 3, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (07/03/2012): Tron: Uprising, Motorcity, Gravity Falls, Ultimate Spider-Man and The Avengers

Maybe this gnome shouldn't be wolfing down Skittles while suffering from stomach flu.
I felt the same way after having to sit through an episode of The Killing, except it didn't look like rainbows.
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. And yes, this week, they're all shows that aired on Disney channels. As Motorcity creator Chris Prynoski said to USA Today, it feels like Disney is a good place to be for small-screen animation right now. Even when the jokes don't land (*cough*Ultimate Spider-Man*cough*).

Tron: Uprising's "Identity" episode introduces a Kryptonite-style Achilles heel that's new to the Troniverse: if a program in The Grid is separated for prolonged amounts of time from the identity disc that's supposed to be always attached to the back of his or her suit, he or she will experience temporary periods of amnesia before permanently losing his or her memory and turning into one of The Grid's "strays." And that's the predicament Beck (Elijah Wood) faces when a Black Guard security check on lightrail passengers' discs allows a thief (Adam DeVine) to trick Beck into losing his disc.

Because Beck's frequent memory glitches make it difficult for him to function as the new Tron, the real Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) re-assumes his own identity and must help his protégé retrieve his disc in the black market on the sleazy streets of the city of Pergos. They're joined on their search by Lux (Lake Bell!), a white-suited warrior program who at first appears to be helping Tron and Beck. But she's actually trying to capture Beck for her evil employer/lover Cobol (Sons of Anarchy's Mark Boone Junior), who procured Beck's disc from the thief so that he can deliver Beck and others like him to General Tesler's army, where, without their discs, they'll be repurposed as soldiers.

Scarecrow tries to save Mrs. King.
"Identity" undoes one of the Tron franchise's biggest flaws--the title character is its least interesting and most underdeveloped character--by allowing Boxleitner to express more emotion as Tron than he ever did in live-action during the two Tron movies. The episode further develops the mentor/protégé relationship between Tron and Beck, who doesn't like how distant and chilly his mentor acts towards him when his disc is stolen.

We learn that Tron's reluctance to treat Beck as a friend and call him one stems from the time Tesler's superior Clu betrayed both Tron and Kevin Flynn to take over The Grid, which was shown in a flashback during Tron: Legacy. Tron blames his former friendship with Clu for causing both Clu's despotic rule and his own current torture-scarred condition, but in the end, Tron realizes that his reluctance to trust another program again could also endanger Beck's life. Identifying Beck as his friend ends up being the only way to save him from permanently losing his memory and being converted by Cobol into one of Tesler's grunts.

The B-story once again centers on Beck's friend Zed (Nate Corddry), whose growing resentment of the Renegade--whom he doesn't know is Beck--has attracted the attention of Bartik (Donald Faison) and Hopper (Paul Scheer), programs who are working for Tesler's lieutenant Paige (Emmanuelle Chriqui). She, Bartik and Hopper are trying to form a task force to hunt down the Renegade. The possibility of Zed joining them and betraying his friend is too easily resolved in this episode, which fares better with its A-story about Tron, Beck and Lux.

The other highlights of "Identity" are a thrilling point-of-view shot where the camera follows Beck as he accidentally deactivates his light cycle in mid-air and crashes into an office building--God, I wish this show was in 3-D--and Bell's guest shot, even though her character is on the underdeveloped side. So the mournful wordless singing and slow motion that attempt to accentuate the tragedy of Lux's sacrifice at the end feel kind of unearned for a character we barely got to know during "Identity."

I love me some Bell ever since she's displayed great comic chops as one of TV's most vacuous doctors on the hilarious Childrens Hospital and has become unafraid about nudity on both that show and How to Make It in America. Of course, Bell's character doesn't show her software on Tron: Uprising, but it's nice to see that this show is starting to make an effort at baring the souls of its previously chilly lead characters a little more.


Penned by Megas XLR co-creator and Star Wars: The Clone Wars writer George Krstic and directed by Prynoski, "Going Dutch" is Motorcity's inevitable zombie episode, but what the show does with the zombie genre is the most interesting and novel twist on zombies on a sci-fi action show since a pre-Shield Shawn Ryan transformed racist LAPD officers into the undead in Angel's "Thin Dead Line" episode back in 2001.

Instead of spreading a zombie virus through bites or Community-style tainted meat, Motorcity introduces a virus in the form of nanites that embed themselves into human flesh. We realize it's not a typical zombie virus when it infects not just humans but also machines, particularly the Burners' constantly trembling robot assistant Roth, which is transformed into an even more trembly, spider-like monstrosity straight out of John Carpenter's The Thing. The nanites are, of course, another invention masterminded by Abraham Kane. Donald Trump is a troglodyte in a shitty combover compared to the Burners' scientific genius/industrialist nemesis.

'And now, back to Style Wars 2162 on Ovation 3-D.'
(Photo source: wait, was that slutty?)
"Going Dutch" gives ample screen time to a previously underwritten character--in this case, Dutch, the Burners tinkerer who built Roth and looks after the team's rides--and has him save the day. That leaves Julie as the Burner we know the least about, other than she's Kane's daughter, she works at her father's corporation to spy on his plans when she's not in Motorcity and her favorite gadget can create holographic duplicates of anyone or anything (when's her spotlight episode coming?).

Dutch returns to Motorcity from a vacation away from the Burners that Mike recommended to the burnt-out mechanic--for a creative workaholic like Dutch, a vacation is concentrating on his mural artwork--and discovers the city is under attack by zombies, including the Burners, who have been infected as well. His knack for bringing to life the silliest of ideas, like a pre-infected Texas' pre-credits suggestion to an artist's block-afflicted Dutch that he should paint "a dragon shooting like some lasers out of its eyes," ends up being the key to putting a stop to Kane's virus (and Texas helped save the day too without knowing it).

My favorite moment in "Going Dutch" isn't zombie-related. What's up with this series and its allergy to awkward exposition? It continually finds clever ways to avoid having its characters deliver unnatural-sounding expository dialogue like on other action cartoons. Motorcity's latest remedy for the infectious writers' disease of clunky exposition is a wordless sequence that's worth freeze-framing and is even cleverer than the flashbacks in "Vendetta" because it details Dutch's backstory through his artwork, which is fitting for a character who enjoys expressing himself through art and technology.

Here's what we learn about Dutch:

The 22nd-century equivalent of Ed Koch gives Dutch a hard time about his tagging.
As a kid, his artwork constantly got him in trouble in Detroit Deluxe, much like how I once got punished in first grade for doodling a Star Blazers battle sequence on my schoolwork while the teacher was talking.

Fortunately, Afros didn't disappear like the parts of old Detroit that Abraham Kane shitcanned.
Purple Afro! Future Afro! Duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, Afro!
Dutch's father is a KaneCo employee, and Dutch amicably left home when he felt better suited for life as an artist in Motorcity, where he befriended the Burners.

Mike teaches Dutch a white handshake.
(Photo source: not actually pants)
Again, Dutch's past is beautifully unveiled without dialogue and through the artistry of Titmouse. Why do I feel like Motorcity, even though it's spawned on Tumblr so much badass fan art and interesting posts like "I wonder how the state of literacy is in Motorcity," is the most slept-on cartoon on the air right now?


Gravity Falls, which The Disney Channel sneak-previewed earlier this summer in both prime time and on iTunes, with both its second and third episodes debuting in the same premiere weekend, has been described by many as a Twin Peaks for tots (as a shout-out to that show, the lead siblings have the last name Pines, so they're the Pines twins). At times, I like to think of Gravity Falls as more like an X-Files for viewers too young to understand what auto-erotic asphyxiation is.

But what this surprisingly sharply written cartoon reminds me the most of are Eerie, Indiana, Joe Dante's live-action one-season wonder (or two-season, if you count the Canadian sequel series), and the moodily lit Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, the most entertaining incarnation of Scooby to date and a show I'm eagerly awaiting to return to Cartoon Network so that I can cover it for "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner" (also, I dig any cartoon that names its Deep Throat equivalent after Mr. E from Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures' Scooby-spoofing "Don't Touch That Dial" episode and then hires Lewis Black to voice him). There's even a connection to Scoob: Linda Cardellini from the first two live-action Scoob movies voices sulky teen Wendy.

The odd thing about this shop is its less creepy and awkwardness-causing than Abercrombie & Fitch.
Like Eerie, Indiana, Gravity Falls centers on siblings who move into a small town full of strange but not-too-dark-for-kids supernatural goings-on. In this case, 12-year-old city kid Dipper Pines (Jason Ritter) and his ditzy twin sister Mabel (Kristen Schaal!) have come to Gravity Falls, Oregon to live with their fez-wearing great-uncle Stan (series creator Alex Hirsch), or "Grunkle" Stan, for the summer. Stan runs a gift shop full of odd local knickknacks called the Mystery Shack, and in between helping out Stan at the shop, Dipper and Mabel encounter evil, rainbow-puking gnomes disguised as emo goth teens, sea monsters and wax museum figures that come to life, which are the monster-of-the-week in the most recent episode (and the most amusing of the three stories that have aired so far), "Headhunters," which pairs the always funny Schaal with her fellow Daily Show correspondent John Oliver, as well as the not-as-busy Larry King and the equally not-as-busy Coolio.

What makes this cartoon more than just a pleasant time-waster with gags for both kids (Mabel's ditziness) and older viewers (a random Kirk Douglas-in-Spartacus reference in the background of a local bar) are its hints at an elaborate mythology behind all the weirdness. There's more to Stan than the bad joke-telling, constantly-seen-in-his-underwear grunkle whom Dipper and Mabel are familiar with. At the end of the premiere episode, "Tourist Trapped," Stan is seen entering a secret lair beneath the shop. Is he a spy or an alien? That orange nose of his that's supposed to imply drunkenness is definitely not human.

Also, the end credits of each episode contain Futurama-style cryptograms that can be decoded by taking each letter and replacing them with the letter that's three letters back on the alphabet. "Tourist Trapped" ended with "zhofrph wr judylwb idoov," which turned out to be "Welcome to Gravity Falls." The second episode, "The Legend of the Gobblewonker," flashed "qhaw zhhn: uhwxuq wr exww lvodqg" ("Next week: Return to Butt Island"). "Headhunters"' hidden message, "khv vwloo lq wkh yhqwv," was "He's still in the vents," which refers to the wax Larry King's disembodied head. Speaking of which, it's hard to dislike a Disney cartoon with a line like "I decapitated Larry King!"

Sir Dippingsauce sounds like the name of an overweight nerdcore MC.
The summer vacation setting makes me wonder if each season of the show will focus on a different vacation in Gravity Falls for the Pines twins (and gradually age them like Adventure Time is doing with Finn) or if it will take a cue from another Disney cartoon set during summertime, Phineas and Ferb, and keep its time frame in the same summer. If Phineas and Ferb ever gets to cross over with another cartoon, it ought to be Gravity Falls, just so that Dipper and Mabel can investigate both the source of Phineas and Ferb's suspiciously huge brainpower and why the kids in Danville have been experiencing a summer vacation that's lasted three damn years.


The same day Ultimate Spider-Man dropped its latest installment, "Me Time," Boomerang repeated one of the looniest and most entertaining episodes of "Me Time" director Alex Soto's earlier show Teen Titans. In Teen Titans' Fourth of July holiday episode "Revolution," which first aired in 2004 (in October of that year instead of July, in another of animated TV's countless bizarre scheduling decisions), America-hating Titans nemesis Mad Mod (Malcolm McDowell) crashes the team's Independence Day celebration in their homebase of Jump City and uses holographic trickery to transform America into England. The British supervillain turns the sky into a ginormous Union Jack flag, replaces the presidents' faces on Mount Rushmore with the Beatles' faces and at one point, he stomps on the Titans with a huge Monty Python's Flying Circus opening credits-style foot.

As I re-watched "Revolution," I thought, "Why can't Ultimate Spider-Man be this inventive or relaxed when it tries to be funny? Why does it have to rehash Teen Titans cutaway gags? And why is the Drake Bell-voiced Spidey such a smug douchenozzle? None of the Titans are smug like him."

Sometimes, I wish the new animated Spidey didn't speak at all like the Electric Company version.
I understand this Bugs Bunny-fied version of Spidey is a not-so-seasoned superhero who needs lessons in humility, but does he always have to be so pleased with his own wisecracks--even when they tank--like in "Me Time"? Bugs was never this self-satisfied. When I'm rooting for primary "Me Time" villain Doctor Octopus (Tom Kenny) to shut Spidey up with one of his metallic arms, that's a sign that somebody on the show needs to dial down the overly cocky chatter. (Speaking of Spidey's wisecracks, over on the big screen, I'm kind of jazzed to learn from Gamma Squad that with this week's release of the live-action Amazing Spider-Man reboot from Marc Webb, "we finally get the smart-ass Spidey we always wanted.")

Elton John needs to stay away from Garth Brooks' Chris Gaines wig collection.
Ock, reimagined here as a long-haired mad scientist who's been working for Norman Osborn (Steven Weber), is a rather boring foe, like most of the reimagined adversaries on this show. The more entertaining villains tend to be the secondary baddies Spidey fights during the Bond movie teaser-style pre-title sequences, like the French-accented Batroc (Rob Paulsen) and Whirlwind (also Kenny), whose confrontation with Spidey at the start of "Me Time," under Soto's clever direction, is given some visual panache that's reminiscent of the badass Motorcity sequence where Mike and his car Mutt are both swept up in a tornado and the separated-from-his-car Mike uses the winds to float himself back to Mutt's cockpit.

Float, float on.
This fast-paced Motorcity tornado sequence was a bitch to freeze-frame and capture.
The reclusive Ock finally comes out of hiding to attempt to capture Spidey for the increasingly impatient Osborn, who still wants to create an army of Spider-Men even though he failed to do so with his botched invention of the Venom symbiote. If Osborn wanted to terrorize Manhattan with an army of hacky comedians, he could have just gone to Ha! Comedy Club on West 46th Street and found his army there.


The straightforward Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes is such a relief from anvillicious narration and superheroes who talk like corny '90s Mountain Dew extreme sports ad copy. The latest Earth's Mightiest Heroes episode that aired in America, "Prisoner of War," is one of my favorite installments of this series because like last year's Captain America: The First Avenger, it takes a character I never cared for--wholesome Boy Scout Captain America (Brian Bloom)--and makes skeptics like me who have beefs with superhero comics understand why so many Marvel fans enjoy the character.

I guess Film Roman and Marvel Animation couldn't afford to draw in and animate the fight scene onomatopoeia.
At the end of last season, the devious Skrulls abducted the super-soldier and replaced him with a Skrull duplicate, as part of their plot to infiltrate Earth organizations and conquer the planet (because, as this episode reveals, Galactus destroyed their homeworld Skrullos and they chose Earth as their new abode). In "Prisoner of War," scripted by Kevin Burke and Chris Wyatt, we finally catch up with the real Steve Rogers, who's been imprisoned and tortured on a Skrull prison ship for two months. But the Skrull interrogator (Troy Baker) has failed to break Steve, who's been quietly plotting his escape. When it appears that Steve's Avengers teammates have arrived to rescue him from his cell, Steve doesn't fall for what he correctly surmises to be a trick by his shape-shifting captors to break him, and he takes his interrogator hostage and finally manages to bust out of the cell.

Alright, so Cap's escape from his cell is a bit too tidily written, but fortunately, "Prisoner of War" ramps up the suspense, thanks to the uneasy alliance that ensues between the heroes and villains who were also held prisoner on the Skrull ship and replaced with doubles on Earth. With the initially reluctant assistance of one of his enemies, HYDRA agent Madame Viper (Vanessa Marshall), Cap leads the likes of another costumed U.S. agent, Mockingbird (E.G. Daily), Serpent Society member King Cobra (James C. Mathis III), S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Quartermain (also Baker), Dr. Getz (Kyle Hebert), a member of the terrorist organization A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics), dirtbag S.W.O.R.D. director Henry Gyrich (Jim Ward) and a weakened and largely unconscious Invisible Woman (Erin Torpey) on a jailbreak.

The heroes and villains are united by a threat that's bigger than their past feuds back on Earth, just as how a similar menace led the disparate personalities of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Giant-Man and Wasp to form the Avengers. But because Cobra and Getz are far more concerned with saving their own skins than with helping other members of the ragtag group, their self-interest puts Cap and Viper in danger when they try to prevent the others from stalling the group's getaway spacecraft to wait for Cap and Viper, who are busy dealing with an unstoppable Super-Skrull warrior (also Hebert) who's absorbed all the powers of the Invisible Woman's Fantastic Four teammates.

The last two Skrull-related Earth's Mightiest Heroes episodes ended with the Skrulls triumphing over the team. So because of Earth's Mightiest Heroes' recent willingness to end things on a downbeat note, which is gutsy for a kids' show but standard-issue for superteam comics, I wasn't even sure if Cap was going to make it onto the getaway craft during the climax of "Prisoner of War," and that uncertainty over the outcome of his escape attempt makes for exciting TV.

Madame Hydra considers letting go of Captain America's hand because his uncleaned-for-two-months breath is so goddamn unbearable.
The First Avenger film effectively conveyed Cap's soldier mentality of prioritizing others' lives over his own, and we get a taste of his sense of sacrifice again when the Super-Skrull grabs Viper while she's trying to board the craft, and Cap leaps off the craft to rescue her. The Super-Skrull is so powerful Cap alone can't stop him, and in a moment that, along with Viper's tense exchanges with Cap, illustrates how bizarre it is that the depiction of women on this Marvel cartoon is more progressive than the ways most of the women are depicted so far on Aaron Sorkin's retrograde Newsroom, Viper and the Invisible Woman end up helping Cap to fight off the Super-Skrull and return to the craft. Earlier, Getz noted that Sue Storm is more powerful than all the inmates combined, and she remains formidable even when she's so disoriented from her deep sleep that Viper has to prop her up while she creates a forcefield to shield Cap from the warrior.

The human captives' escape is ultimately not much of a distraction for the Skrulls, who move forward with their plans to infiltrate ex-Avenger Black Panther's homeland of Wakanda and use their Cap duplicate to trick Earthlings into submitting to their rule. So the real Cap has quite a task ahead of him. How will he get the world to listen to him when the fake Cap has done a bang-up job tricking everyone there, including his friends? And how will he re-assemble his disbanded team? The rest of this second and final season of Earth's Mightiest Heroes is sure to be as epic as Joss Whedon's version. And I hear the Skrull invasion escalates so badly that Spidey has to step in and team up with the Avengers at some point, which should be interesting, even though it's a Bell-voiced Spidey. Uh-oh. I get the feeling Hulk doesn't have much patience for '90s Mountain Dew ad-speak.


  1. "...the start of 'Me Time'... is given some visual panache that's reminiscent of the badass Motorcity sequence..."

    Is probably the best compliment I can imagine for that sequence. Thank you sir; glad you liked.

    1. Though I've been disappointed with the writing on Ultimate Spider-Man, the show always looks great, especially during fight sequences like that one with Whirlwind (Earth's Mightiest Heroes has also been visually impressive). Nice to see a Film Roman storyboarder dropping by my blog.