Everywhere you go these days folks are talking about the Avengers. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes from Marvel Comics are ultra-hot. The big screen movie is just a month away. The comics event of the year, Avengers Vs. X-Men is just getting underway. And here in the United States, this past weekend marks the season two premiere of Disney XD’s animated TV series “The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”
Of course animation is no big deal for the Avengers. They have been animated almost as long as they’ve been around. In fact, the Avengers have been animated as long as Marvel Comics has been animated.
Marvel Super Heroes 1966
There have been some very cool motion comics done by Marvel in recent years, Spider-Woman Agent of S.W.O.R.D. and Astonishing X-Men stand out to me as some of the better ones. Now imagine if the same kind of technique was done back at the dawn of the Marvel Universe. Really, you don’t have to, because it was. The cartoon was called “Marvel Super Heroes” and it aired afternoons in 1966, in the midst of Batmania when the public just couldn’t get enough superheroes. Each day, kids and adults alike would thrill to the adventures of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, and the Sub-Mariner, pulled directly from their favorite Marvel comics.
Many folks today dismiss these as bad animation because they were static images moved across the screen with only an arm or mouth moving, but it was just motion comics with limited technology. I know I myself love seeing all that Jack Kirby and Don Heck art moving around, sometimes together. Not only were they doing real stories from the comics, it was those comics come to life.
The Avengers were there right from the start. One Hulk adventure told the story of the Space Phantom and how the green goliath came to leave the Avengers, but it was all creatively presented from the Hulk’s point of view. Fun stuff, and a whole new perspective on the classic Avengers #2. Hawkeye and the Black Widow both appear in a handful of Iron Man episodes, as they were both tentative foes of the Golden Avenger at the time.
Most of the Avengers stories were presented in the Captain America episodes, and like those above were taken straight from the comics in question. We see the return of Captain America from the classic Avengers #4, the continuing battles against Baron Zemo and the original Masters of Evil. Later on we get to watch Cap’s Kooky Quartet take on the Swordsman, the Commissar, and Power Man from issues #18-22.
There are also episodes featuring earlier battles with the Lava Men, and later against A.I.M. and the Super-Adaptoid. Hank Pym takes on the Goliath identity in that latter one. Again, say what you will about the limited animation, I still love these comics come to life.
Believe it or not, it takes almost thirty years for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to take to the small four-color screen again, and that’s not counting split second cameos and mentions in the various cartoons of the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. The next major exposure is in the “Marvel Action Hour,” an hour shared by Iron Man and the Fantastic Four equally.
The problem is they are rarely, if ever, addressed as the Avengers. They’re hardly ever even called Force Works, the Avengers spin-off they most resemble. That said, it should be noted that the 1994 series was an Iron Man cartoon, the Avengers characters were at best side characters, almost sidekicks if you will.
The cast includes War Machine, the Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, the mysterious Century, and the second Spider-Woman. War Machine plays the buddy, Hawkeye the opposing viewpoint, Spider-Woman the romantic interest. Century, probably because the writers didn’t know what to do with him, doesn’t get much play. The Scarlet Witch has an annoying accent (carried over into the next cartoon), and like Century, isn’t used much because they didn’t understand how she works. Iron Man, for the most part, is a jerk.
In an almost Legion of Doom-like move the heroes are opposed by a group of villains led by Iron Man foe, the Mandarin. Most of them are Avengers enemies like Whirlwind, Grey Gargoyle, and the Living Laser, but the rest are Iron Man baddies. Not a bad cartoon, not a great cartoon, but again, not really an Avengers cartoon either. That would be coming down the road in 1999.
“Avengers: United They Stand” should have been the Avengers cartoon we were all waiting for, but unfortunately a number of elements conspired to keep it from living up to its potential. In a post “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” animated world, much was expected from this ‘toon, it’s a shame it couldn’t make the grade.
The setting was in the near future rather than the present. This was confusing for viewers old and new, and those who knew the comics and not. The annoying costume switching, armor-wearing sequences a la the Power Rangers went on for more than a minute, sometimes more. The character designs throughout were all slightly off if not completely different. No reason was given for this.
The line-up, included the big three, but only in the opening credits. Ant-Man led the team that consisted of the Wasp, Hawkeye, the Falcon, the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Tigra and Wonder Man. A tragic and truly messed up love-hate triangle between Wanda, Vision, and Wonder Man became a twisted mirror of the comics. Traditional foes abounded like Ultron, Kang, the Swordsman, the Absorbing Man, and Zodiac, yet nothing could save it from veering so far from the source material, not even guest appearances by Iron Man, Namor, and Captain America.
The 21st Century
The new century brought new hope in the form of straight-to-DVD movies featuring the Ultimate Comics version of the Avengers. The first DVD was a close to the source retelling of the first six issues of The Ultimates, with the sequel picking up the loose ends and telling a new tale with Ultimate Black Panther joining the team. A third DVD, Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow, showing the adventures of a future generation of Avengers, trained by Tony Stark, avenging their parents against Ultron is just as good. These three DVDs are excellent additions to any collection.
The jewel of the Avengers animated collection however is the latest incarnation – “The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” This intriguing Disney XD series takes an almost start from scratch approach to the Marvel Universe. The heroes are at the beginnings of their careers and join together to stop a massive jailbreak. And that right there is what makes this series so cool, it has Silver Age settings and intentions yet blends current plotlines seamlessly in, like the New Avengers origin for instance.
Throughout the first season (and the mini-pre-season) we have watched characters, and relationships, and plotlines grow. It is an organic series, blending old and new while still keeping both old and new comics fans pleased at the same time. This season we have been promised the classic stories of the Vision, the Secret Invasion, and the Kree Skrull War – something for everyone. I can’t wait!