There’s no episode of “Avengers Assemble” this week but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any animated Marvel Comics superheroes on the TV this week. Today’s episode of “Ultimate Spider-Man” offers up a nice holiday selection of monstrous Marvel. Join me after the jump for my spoiler-filled thoughts on “Blade and the Howling Commandos.”
I have to say up front, in the spirit of full disclosure, I am not a fan of “Ultimate Spider-Man” the animated series. I’m a strong believer in the idea that if the source material is strong enough and popular enough for someone to want to make a cartoon or TV series or movie about it – it does not need to be changed. If it ain’t broke, why ‘fix’ it? Whether we’re talking about Ultimate Spider-Man here, or the regular 616 version, somebody sure done some fixin’.
The premise here for this series is that S.H.I.E.L.D. has recruited Spider-Man and is training him so he can be ‘the ultimate Spider-Man he can be.’ Yeah, I know. I threw up in my mouth a little too. So with the cinematic version of Nick Fury in charge, and Agent Phil Coulson posing as Peter Parker’s high school principal, Spidey now trains with teenaged incarnations of Marvel superheroes Nova, White Tiger, Power Man, and Iron Fist. At least half of this group was young when they were heroes, the other half just makes me mad.
The show also has a very flippant attitude, much like the real Spider-Man’s quips, but the scripts are just written almost as if they were sitcoms. I imagine the same folks working on this show think the “Marvel Mash-Ups,” making fun of earlier animations, are a good idea. The occasional superdeformed anime and videogame references also put me off, but that might just be me being old. If we fans really wanted this kind of humor, why haven’t the comics lightened up? Uatu knows they need to.
The Real Blade and the Howling Commandos
Blade was originally Eric Brooks, a half-human half-vampire African-American vampire slayer, who first appeared as a supporting character and opponent for the Prince of Darkness in the 1970s Tomb of Dracula. While stereotypical for the time, as Blade continued to show up in Marvel Comics, his appearance became more like that of Wesley Snipes in the Blade films. Thanks to the movies, and the resurgence of the character in the comics, Blade became one of Marvel’s more popular characters.
The Howling Commandos have just as an obscure origin, and like Blade, coming from the horror genre rather than the superhero realm, the Commandos come from the war genre. The aforementioned Nick Fury is rather long-lived, thanks to something called the Infinity formula, and he fought, alongside Captain America, in World War II. His squad of non-super soldiers were called the Howling Commandos. Their ranks included folks like Dum Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones, both of whom would later join Fury in S.H.I.E.L.D.
However, a later Howling Commandos was formed that fit in more with the ‘howling’ part of the name. This team was made up of monsters. Among its members were some familiar creatures from Marvel’s 1970s horror boom, like the Living Mummy and a smart clone of the Frankenstein monster. From the 1950s Atlas Comics, and later the Agents of Atlas, Gorilla-Man was also there. They were joined by Warwolf, who changed form in the presence of the planet Mars; Nina Price, half-vampire half-werewolf; and John Doe, a smarter than average zombie.
The Spider-Man Halloween Special
As I watched the two-part episode, beginning with Spider-Man and his new amazing friends meeting a S.H.I.E.L.D. contact in a cemetery, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to other seasonal ‘toons. This has the same flavor, and humor, of a Fat Albert, a Flintstones, or a Peanuts Halloween special. I had to wonder if that’s what the creators were going for or not.
The contact turns out to be Blade the Vampire Slayer, a slightly more modern version of him though. Much like the other characters in this cartoon, no one wants you to mistake them for the ones in the original comics. Vampires attack, combat ensues, and Blade and Spidey kinda get into a, ahem, measuring contest to see who’s the better leader. Yep, that’s what I think of when I think of the loquacious loner Spider-Man, leadership qualities.
As it turns out, Blade and the ‘teen titans’ face a common foe, Dracula, who is seeking a magical MacGuffin to make vampires invincible so he and his armies can take over the world. Fury and Coulson go into detail about the Prince of Darkness in a briefing but leave out anything about the Avengers. Didn’t they just fight Dracula a little while ago?
When Spidey learns that Blade has a personal vendetta against Dracula, he and his crew insist on following him, and of course, by acting like asses, almost allowing the king vampire to get hold of the magic whatsit. When was Spider-Man ever so incompetent? Blade and Dracula are the only ones taking the museum battle seriously, everyone else just makes jokes.
Things get bad as the fight ends. Dracula uses mesmerism to enthrall the ‘super friends,’ all save Spider-Man and Blade. They’re all now his slaves. Spidey doesn’t seem to know what mesmerism is. Isn’t Peter Parker supposed to be a brainy nerd? Straight A student who built his own web shooters and processed his own super strong web fluid? I guess not here.
Either way, they need a new team to fight a save the old team – enter the Howling Commandos. Rather than going with any previous incarnations, cuz remember the creed of the show – source material is bad, we get an even newer spin on the concept of the Howling Commandos. The Living Mummy is still here, joined by a cybernetic Frankenstein’s monster, the original Werewolf by Night, and the Man-Thing. This is more Legion of Monsters than Howling Commandos. However I did like that they used the old 1970s logos when introducing them. And yeah, against my better instincts, I dug the Monster Truck.
Giant Monster Battle
Now for all the bad things I have said about this show and this episode, there were things I liked. S.H.I.E.L.D., Blade, Dracula, and the Howling Commandos are all essentially in character and take things seriously. They are all presented well. I also liked the Halloween scene with Aunt May.
The best part however, spoilers for those who haven’t seen the episodes yet, but the best part was the ending. Who wouldn’t love a daikaiju style giant monster fight between the Living Monolith and… yeah, I gotta say it… Giant-Size Man-Thing? In execution and concept, this rocked!
Next week, “Avengers Assemble” returns, with the Impossible Man, and shawarma…