Ever since the beginning of the landmark Justice League animated series, comic fans have been wondering when Marvel was going to step up to the plate for their characters. Sure, there were a handful of animated direct-to-DVD movies, but they were never quite satisfying enough to leave an enduring impression. But with the impending release of an honest-to-goodness live-action Avengers movie, the animation department had to get with the program. So now, at long last, we have Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, a series that so far has been dynamic and deep enough to get itself in that upper echelon.
The DVDs that arrived in stores this week give us the building blocks of this Marvel animated universe, starting of course with movie star Iron Man, voiced by Eric Loomis doing his best Robert Downey Jr. Gradually, we get back stories for Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, Ant-Man, the Wasp and the Black Panther, not to mention a couple of callbacks to the Wolverine and the X-Men series that preceded this one with a similar style. before we finally get to the big kick-off entitled "Breakout," which riffs directly from the pages of New Avengers to have four simultaneous prison breaks in four different locations, spilling supervillains out into the world, and unleashing the mega-powerful threat of Graviton that forces all these disparate, dysfunctional superheroes to join forces against him.
Almost the entire second part to "Breakout" is just one big giant slobberknocker between Graviton on the nascent Avengers, and the action is intense and fantastic, as it absolutely needs to be to make a superhero show work. That's one thing the Justice League gang really knew how to handle – making us feel the impact of these thundering blows and amazing powers, and A: EMH is definitely up to the task as well.
The series also strikes a really good balance between paying tribute to the classic tales and origins that defined Avengerdom while also incorporating ideas and plots from the modern comics, going for a 'best of both worlds' approach that works beautifully. The villains are always treated like credible threats – even the Leader gets the creepy and brilliant Matt Frewer treatment, MODOK manages to build a Cosmic Cube down the line, and we even get a Man-Ape episode in "Panther's Quest" – and even that title is taken from a classic Don McGregor T'Challa story. It's respect for the past with the sensibilities of the present and it just clicks.
The show has had some growing pains, of course. The visual style of the characters borrows heavily from Bruce Timm's barrel-chested designs, but it's hard to fault them for that. Nor can you question them for utilizing some of the JLU vocal talent pool as well, including Clancy Brown as Odin and Mark Hamill as Klaw The animation itself isn't always as fluidly flawless as the DC guys managed, but when it's on, it's on, and that's most of the time. There's also the godawful theme song from Bad City that sounds like a whinier Blink 182, but you can't really go looking to Disney for good music, and thankfully, the actual score of the show is just fine and unobtrusive. The WWII Nazis are also softened into just being Hydra, but one supposes a concession or two has to be made when making a show on a Disney channel.
Unfortunately, the Disney XD handling of this series so far has been a bit frustrating. Not only are there still six episodes in Season 1 that haven't even aired yet in the United States (and the last new episode they DID show aired way back in January), but their debut on DVD leaves plenty to be desired. Apparently, Disney doesn't release their animated series in full-seasons like every other TV series ever does, but in volumes. In this case, Volume 1 and Volume 2 DVDs, containing only 7 and 6 episodes, respectively. No blu-ray, of course.
Also, on Vol. 1, it's not the first 7 episodes of the series, but instead the 20 minisodes that are freely available on Youtube have been combined into 5 episodes, and then the actual two-part series premiere finishes off the disc. Vol. 2 only takes us up through the awesome "Gamma World" two-parter, leaving us with 13 episodes from the first season yet to come to DVD. So there will likely be a Vol. 3 and Vol. 4 before we MIGHT get an actual full-season release. But if they're being this stingy about even airing all the episodes, don't hold your breath for anything better on the shelves.
The bonus features are also slim pickings – just a couple of trailers and one Season 2 preview featurette each, but what Supervising Producer Josh Fine and Story Editor Chris Yost reveal in those pieces is tantalizing. First, the downside: Captain America's costume is going to go Ultimate. And that's about it for the downside. Thor and Nick Fury will also get costume makeovers to get closer to the movie looks, and a Black Panther costume change was hinted at, but is apparently story driven so no spoiler was given.
These featurettes assume you've seen all of Season 1, by the way, so I've now been spoiled for the Black Widow's intriguing arc as well as some Ultron action. True, if you love these characters, the spoilers aren't really spoilers, but I'm just grousing that Disney XD hasn't shown those eps yet.
Fine and Yost say that Season 2 is going to be a lot more cosmic in nature as the Avengers are faced with being Earth's champions against extraterrestrial threats – including a direct riff on Secret Invasion as far as introducing the Skrulls, as well as Ms. Marvel vs. Ronan the Accuser and the Kree. Most exciting is the news that we're even going to get the Guardians of the Galaxy – Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Phyla and the whole gang! Yay! Not to mention a Fantastic Four episode featuring Dr. Doom! Of course, we're getting more Ultron, more Kang, more A.I.M. and more Masters of Evil, too – and more Mockingbird. The Vision's going to appear as well, but Fine would not confirm nor deny reports of the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. There may be some "mutant rights" issues, so to speak, with the copyright holders of the X-Men, but that didn't stop them from sneaking in a Wolverine cameo during the introductory Cap episode. I can't wait to see what they have in store.
Of course, I also can't wait to see what they've already made and just haven't shown. Last rumor I heard was maybe sometime around the Thor movie, so my fingers are crossed that we'll get the new stuff starting next weekend. So fire up your DVRs and check this show out. In the meantime, if you want completely no-frills DVDs of part of the first season all at once, you can pick these things up. The show is worth it.