Tuesday, July 10, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (07/10/2012): Tron: Uprising, Motorcity, Gravity Falls, Ultimate Spider-Man and The Avengers

ISO horny.
Olivia Wilde vamps it up as Jordan in the Disney remake of The Great Gatsby.
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.

Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Transformers Prime have been more satisfying than their much-maligned live-action counterparts, and Tron: Uprising has joined them as another example of an animated show that's superior to its live-action counterpart, thanks to its best episode yet, "Isolated." The story puts the spotlight on the animated Tron: Legacy prequel's most compelling creation so far: Paige, a lieutenant in evil General Tesler's army whom Tesler has assigned the task of hunting down Beck, a.k.a. the masked Renegade.

'On my signal, begin!,' says Paige. Yeah, I hate how I remember word-for-word dialogue from '80s Lazer Tag ads.
The straight-arrow Beck's evolution from mechanic to hero has been a less interesting arc than Paige's desperate bid for her ruthless general's respect, which has put her in competition with Tesler's supercilious right-hand man Pavel (Paul Reubens) ("Isolated"'s "previously on" segment amusingly counterpoints narrator Tricia Helfer's recap--"Tesler rewards Paige's hard work with praise"--with a montage of clips of Tesler and Pavel both belittling Paige). "Isolated" reveals why Paige chose to work for Tesler and ties her backstory to Quorra (Olivia Wilde, reprising the most interesting character from Tron: Legacy).

Trapped on a slowly disintegrating island with Beck and forced to work with her enemy (and if Tron: Uprising lasts past a season, inevitable love interest) to find a way out before the rock sinks into the sea, Paige flashes back to her time as a hospital medic. Back then, Paige dabbled in composing instrumental music, even though as another character told her, she's not "programmed" to be a musician.

Her instrument reminds me of the Tenori-on used by electro artist Little Boots in the viral video for her track "Stuck on Repeat":

(Someone on the Tron-Sector fansite forums noted that Paige's instrument is a variation on the Tonematrix, a sweet music-making tool that will prevent you from getting anything else done for a couple of hours.)

Paige was once encouraged to pursue music by Quorra, whom she briefly befriended when Quorra brought in to the medical center Ada (Meagan Holder), a friend of Quorra's who was injured while escaping the genocidal purge of the ISOs that was ordered by Grid dictator Clu. Introduced in Tron: Legacy, the ISOs were a race of advanced beings who were unique in The Grid for not being programs and were an accidental but miraculous creation by software genius Kevin Flynn.

Quorra watches Paige demonstrate her skills at playing the old Milton Bradley game Simon.
Clu, Flynn's evil clone, resented his creator's attachment to the ISOs and considered their humanity an imperfection, so he derezzed all of them, except for a few ISOs who managed to survive Clu's attacks, including Ada and Quorra, who, to evade capture, hid ISO markings on her skin from the medics. Paige's greatest quality as a soldier--her loyalty to whoever is her superior--is also the reason for her tragic flaw: her inability to question anything that appears to be wrong, whether it's whatever lie Tesler tells her or the lies about the "crooked and dangerous" nature of the ISOs that Clu's forces have spread across The Grid.

Paige too easily accepted as truths those lies about the ISOs, so when she spotted Quorra's markings, she considered snitching on Quorra's whereabouts to the authorities. However, Paige didn't go through with the snitching. Her medical center co-workers did. Later, when Paige awoke from being knocked out by Quorra during her escape from Tesler's guards (she believes that Paige betrayed her, so I'm betting Wilde will resurface later in the season for Quorra's inevitable battle against Paige), she discovered her medical center staff was massacred.

The aftermath of the attack was where Paige first encountered Tesler, who told her that her co-workers were derezzed by Quorra and Ada and offered her a spot in his army as a way to seek her revenge. Paige doesn't know that Tesler lied to her and was the one who derezzed her co-workers right after they reported Quorra and Ada to him (he deemed any program who came into contact with ISOs to be too "contanimated" by them).

Wilde's guest shot is a treat for those of us who enjoyed her performance in Tron: Legacy. Quorra's love for the works of Jules Verne, her curiosity about the world outside The Grid and her wish to see an actual sunrise helped keep the film from becoming a way-too-chilly-and-dull sci-fi actioner, and even though those character touches bordered on Manic Pixie Dream Girl Syndrome, Wilde did a nice job bringing to life those aspects of her character. In "Isolated," Paige's music brings out in Quorra the same kind of curiosity she expressed about Verne and the Flynn family's non-digital world.

An even more surprising credit in "Isolated" than Wilde's name belongs to André Bormanis, who scripted the episode and whose name is familiar to those of us who pay attention to the credits of sci-fi/fantasy shows--he's a veteran of Legend of the Seeker and the Star Trek spinoffs. That era of Trek when Bormanis served as a writer and science consultant can be a chore to watch because of the later spinoffs' overreliance on the same kind of impenetrable technobabble that makes the first Tron film a chore to watch too.

Bormanis takes a crucial and less irritating element of the writing on those Trek shows since the '60s--incorporating past and present real-world issues into the Trek heroes' missions--and brings it to "Isolated." The racially tinged treatment of the ISOs parallels both the harsh treatment of illegal immigrants in Arizona and the persecution of Jews, right down to the ISOs' markings (although those are birthmarks instead of prisoner number tattoos imprinted by their captors).

If you derezzed the virtual setting of The Grid and the terms "program," "ISO" and "derezzed," the flashback portion of "Isolated" could easily be a story about a medic in a Nazi-occupied part of Europe who discovers the patient he's befriended is a Jewish refugee and is faced with the dilemma of turning the refugee in to the authorities. The episode's final scene poignantly shows Paige clinging to one of the few remnants of both her old life and her humanity, as she secretly reactivates the old melody that used to automatically play on her instrument. All this is pretty weighty stuff for a Disney XD show.

Both "Isolated" and last week's episode, "Identity," which deepened the previously boring character of Tron himself ("Tron isn't a character, he's an impossibly virtuous program," complained the A.V. Club about the 1982 movie's screenplay in 2010), have shown how far the Tron franchise has come from the flat writing and convoluted, barely-comprehensible-when-you-were-a-kid gibberish about programs and their "users" that characterized the first movie. Tron is evolving into a more relatable and mature--as well as far less technobabble-plagued and far less alienating--franchise. It's like the live-action Star Wars franchise in reverse.


I first learned about LARPing culture--an aspect of many sword-and-sorcery-obsessed nerds' lives these days that I had no clue about and am still kind of clueless about--from the hilarious Paul Rudd movie Role Models. My education about LARPing continues with Motorcity's "Ride of the Fantasy Vans" episode, where Chuck's secret life as a LARPer is outed while he and the other Burners search for a pair of younger LARPers (Jake Short from The Disney Channel's A.N.T. Farm and Tyrel Jackson Williams from another Disney cable sitcom, Lab Rats) who vanished from the streets of Motorcity.

LARPer than life
(Photo source: all aboard the idiot wagon!)
The underground city itself has seemed rather underpopulated and underdeveloped as a setting despite the visual sumptuousness Titmouse brings to the setting each week ("What exactly do the kids who don't drive around in cars do to entertain themselves in Motorcity?" is one of several questions about old Detroit that have been nagging me lately). Fortunately, "Ride of the Fantasy Vans" remedies my concerns about the underpopulated setting by focusing on a subculture of Motorcity that doesn't involve the other Burners, the car gangs, the Duke of Detroit's vaguely criminal empire or the Terra eco-terrorists.

"Ride of the Fantasy Vans" contains more expository dialogue than usual, like in a sequence where a LARPer recalls one of Chuck's battles as "Lord Vanquisher" and a flashback to Jacob's partnership with a much younger and thinner Abraham Kane. But the episode's glimpses into LARPing culture, the casting of unapologetically nerdy stand-ups Brian Posehn and Blaine Capatch as LARPers (all that's missing from the guest cast is Posehn and Capatch's friend Patton Oswalt) and the series' recurring thread of Chuck's struggles with his cowardice (which will resurface in a slightly more dramatic fashion in the "Fearless" episode later this season) are so enjoyable I don't care.


Gravity Falls ought to change where it places its weekly hidden message. Deciphering it each week is the most fun part of the series after the episode's over. The producers quickly flash the cryptograms at the very end of the closing credits. Unfortunately, like most channels and a certain former Disney star these days, The Disney Channel has a lateness problem. It often doesn't begin its shows right when the DVR starts recording, so the cryptogram at the end of this week's "Hand That Rocks the Mabel" episode ended up getting cut off. I wish the producers would flash the cryptograms during the opening titles, the same spot where Futurama posts its textual gags at the start of each episode.

She just discovered a colorful way to conceal her acne.
In "The Hand That Rocks the Mabel," Mabel develops a crush on her great-uncle Stan's business rival Lil' Gideon (Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack creator Thurop Van Orman), a pompadoured psychic kid who's got the townspeople under his spell--literally--thanks to a mystical amulet embedded in his bolo tie. But Mabel's crush on the egotistical entertainer fades when she becomes uncomfortable with his constant smothering and wants to break up with him.

Mabel doesn't have the guts to do it herself, so she sends her brother Dipper to Gideon to tell him of the break-up at a restaurant that's a shout to The Red Room from Twin Peaks. Like other psychic kids we've seen on TV, whether it's the kid in Twilight Zone's "It's a Good Life" episode or Charlie X from Star Trek, Gideon doesn't take rejection very well.

All that's missing is Lil' Gideon dancing and snapping his fingers to saxophone music.
There's a little less sleuthing in this episode than I'd like, but we get a couple of closer looks at the mysterious journal from the opening titles (Gideon has in his possession what appears to be the second volume, and the logos on the books' covers are six-fingered hands). Also, the former Lindsay Weir, Linda Cardellini, who will probably still sound like a teen when she's 50, gets some more lines as Wendy the hunting cap-wearing gift shop clerk, whom we learn has dated half of Gravity Falls' teen male population. Wendy looks like a red-haired Kristen Stewart, but without that nervous tic of touching her hair.

Gravity Falls is awash with Easter eggs, and my favorite Easter egg in the opening titles that's neither a hidden message nor a hint about the show's mythology is the cameo by Bat Boy from the Weekly World News. Speaking of which, this week's Gravity Falls hidden message is "fduod, zkb zrqw brx fdoo ph?" After about five minutes of the "three letters back" decoding process, I ended up with "Carla, why won't you call me?," a callback to a Gideon TV ad where the announcer (Stephen Root) declares his unrequited love for someone named Carla. It's a suitably clingy closing gag for an episode about clinginess gone wild.

'This cartoon is an advertisement for Satanism!'--some joyless fundamentalist Christian shithead somewhere


Now that's more like it, Ultimate Spider-Man. In the enjoyably surreal "Strange," which pits Spidey and Iron Fist against Nightmare (Mark Hamill), the show's most powerful villain so far due to his ability to put everyone in the City That Never Sleeps to sleep, the show keeps the often pointless cutaway gags and the overselling of jokes to a minimum this week and gives Spidey more to do than constantly reiterate plot points to the littlest viewers and get a boner over his own wisecracks.

He's the Sorcerer Supreme, but he doesn't have the power to give himself a better-looking haircut?
As far as episodes about villains who terrorize people in their dreams go, "Strange," scripted by Man of Action and James Felder, is no "Only a Dream" from Justice League (for my money, the first great episode of that DC cartoon), but it's a nifty tribute to the work of Steve Ditko, who created both Spidey and guest hero Doctor Strange (Jack Coleman). Also, "Strange" finally devotes screen time to two words I've been waiting to hear on this show: Uncle Ben.

Peter's deceased uncle (Greg Grunberg, Coleman's old Heroes co-star) ends up becoming the key to his defeat of Nightmare. He misses his uncle, but he's learned to turn both Ben's murder and his accidental role in it--his worst nightmare brought to life--into a way to empower himself while serving as one of New York's protectors. So when Nightmare tries to torment Peter with a vision of Ben, he's immune to Nightmare's mind-tricks. Like the casting of Coleman and Grunberg in the same episode (although they don't share any scenes), Hamill's presence as Nightmare is a clever bit of casting because Hamill's no stranger to characters who are skilled at mind-tricks.

Now that the Drake Bell Spidey's become a little better at that power-and-responsibility stuff--as we see during "Strange"--he's got to work on not being that annoying guy at the office who laughs at his own jokes.


Last week, I noted that the depictions of women on The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes are more progressive than the ways Aaron Sorkin depicts most of the women on The Newsroom. The Disney XD cartoon's knack for intriguing female characters who, except for the excitable Wasp (Colleen O'Shaughnessey), aren't irritating flibbertigibbets--a word I learned from reading so many Newsroom reviews--continues with "Infiltration," which is mostly told from the point of view of S.W.O.R.D. agent and new Avengers member Ms. Marvel (Jennifer Hale), who's been an enjoyable addition to the roster this season.

She's still trying to figure out why a giant flashback montage was trying to attack Hulk during the incomprehensible climax of the Ang Lee Hulk movie.
"Ms. Marvel to S.W.O.R.D. base. What the hell is up with this flibbertigibbet shit Sorkin's giving to Emily Mortimer and Alison Pill?"
Carol Danvers has also functioned as an audience surrogate for viewers who missed Earth's Mightiest Heroes' first season or viewers like myself who caught the prequel series of micro-episodes and a few first-season episodes but didn't catch the rest of the season. As the Skrull duplicates of her Avengers teammates attack Black Panther (James C. Mathis III) and his troops on his homeland of Wakanda, Carol's confusion and frustration over who to side with are very relatable. We'd be crippled with an inability to do anything and very pissed off too if we were new to the team like Carol and we were suddenly faced with two sets of our teammates who are difficult to tell apart.

The scene where Ms. Marvel finally unleashes hell on the Fauxvengers is the highlight of "Infiltration." Last season, Disney XD posted behind-the-scenes featurettes that contained some wonderful footage of male Earth's Mightiest Heroes voice actors performing their characters' fight scenes. I would have loved to have seen how Hale acted out Carol's cathartic moment against the shape-shifters.

T'Challa prepares to kick the shit out of dumbass studio execs who want to tinker with the live-action version of his life story.
While Ms. Marvel deals with the Skrull invasion in Wakanda, Tony Stark (Eric Loomis) has basically turned into his real-world counterpart Howard Hughes, but without the SWV fingernails and the pissing-in-jars thing. He hasn't removed his Iron Man armor since he quit the team three weeks ago, he hasn't showered and he hasn't left the lab in his crib because he's been busy trying to build a Skrull detector and has been unsuccessful at it.

Tony's experiments are interrupted by Doctor Doom (Lex Lang), who comes to Tony not to attack him but to provide him with tech to enhance his detection gizmo. Doom hates the Skrulls because they're interfering with his plans for world domination, so he wants their scaly asses off his planet. I don't know if DOOM the rapper watches this show, but if he saw his animated counterpart's badass assertion that "This world is mine to rule and mine alone. These reptiles may not have it," I'm sure DOOM would have exclaimed at the screen, "Yeah. My [N-word]!"

Next week on Earth's Mightiest Heroes, they're finally getting the band back together.

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