In Praise of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes

For over a year and a half, I had been following an animated series that has excited and provoked me so much as Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’. The series was originally created as a supplement to the Avengers-fever created by the recent Marvel Studio films from around 2008-9 onwards which culminated recently by the ‘Avengers Assemble’ team-up film. In this post I want to address a few issues as to why this series will be sadly missed as it has been cancelled (for another Avengers animated series – go figure). This series was a study on relationships between different hero archetypes.
 
Watching this series reflects the ongoing cultural influence of the Marvel mythology, continuity and comparisons with previous Marvel cartoon ventures. Finally, this series contained a lot of plain old absurdity which reflects how fantastically impossible and bizarre many of the characters and predicaments are in this universe.

Post-teenage audience

Avengers’: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (EMH) was a series that had an appeal to a wide audience: people new to Marvel and completely unfamiliar with the comic universe; people who have come to know the characters through films such as Iron Man or Thor; casual nerd types like me who have followed and enjoyed the series of yesteryear like Spiderman: The Animated Series in the mid 1990s, X-Men Evolution in the early 2000s; and finally the big comic book nerd types who enjoy details like obscure references to characters and Marvel Comic storylines.

One thing I must admit is that Marvel series have so many different continuities that I don’t even try to understand it. There are so many current series of X-Men, so many Spiderman titles and I don’t know how they have explained how continued characters like Iron Man’s Tony Stark or Captain America (Steve Rogers) are still saving the world in 2012 even though they’ve been at it for over 30 years (even with Captain America’s cryogenic freezing, Rogers will have to be physically over 50 yet retains a perfectly young appearance). I think that’s left to what people may call a suspension of judgment.

EMH represented an animated series that a certain audience had been waiting a long time for: a mature and engaging superhero narrative that didn’t patronise or appear overly child-like. Many people in their 20-30s (or older) who grew up with the strong series of X-Men in the 1990s or Spiderman TAS have not been met with particularly good efforts by Marvel in terms of animated series or plotlines. While this is a show definitely marketed to children, one may find, as this is the case for a lot of children’s programming these days: something that adults can appreciate.

Character development

Perhaps the one true strength of this series is the depth of characters. It’s fair to say that this series (and Marvel Comics in general) doesn’t always get it right in terms of ethnic and gender diversity, I suspect that its better than most. There is a distinct homoerotic/bromance feel to many of the partnerships made between characters, this makes the characters relatable even when they possess obscenely inhuman abilities.

There has been an interesting discussion in recent weeks on the Bloggosphere critiquing exactly how positive ‘strong female characters’ are. For instance, are female characters over-the-top with their abilities to the extent of not being realistic (more super than hero) to the effect of being unrelatable. Likewise, there was the recent piece by Laurie Penny about the unhelpful role of sexual assault as an aspect of character development. There were very few female characters in the EMH Avengers roster.

I am curious if the dialogue between women passed the Bechdel test. I must say that Carol Danvers’ ‘Marvel Girl’ was a particularly good female character. Danvers, like Steve Rogers/Captain America, was a career soldier before she became a superhero, there is even a joke that her rank (Major) is higher than Rogers. Except for her relationship with Mar-Vell, there is hardly any suggestion about her romantic life nor was it considered appropriate to comment on it. Contrast this to the sleazy character of The Flash in the 2000s Justice League series who always hit on his female colleagues and we can see a little bit of a sea change with contemporary superheroes

Characters that I think showed real depth include Hawkeye, who as one of the only heroes with no powers at all, holds his own against freakishly strong supersoldiers. Clint Barton’s one big virtue was his heroic attitude and determination against the odds. Characters such as Thor and Iron Man exhibit flaws and opportunities for change and growth, Thor’s second season encounter with Beta Ray Bill, a lone alien against an impossible foe, taught the God humility. Perhaps the most interesting character of all is Steve Rogers, whose reputation is destroyed after an impostor abused the reputation of Captain America. Captain America represents an old style hero who embodies nobility and a commitment to the moral good, however this version of Captain America is slightly different. The disputes between Tony Stark/Iron Man and Rogers in the comics are legendary, and this is mildly reflected in a clash of big egos. Rogers also exhibits self doubt, living in a decade far different to his original timeline and exhibits a sense of pathos by surviving long after his comrades had died. Of course with so many characters introduced in a series such as EMH, its no surprise that not every character is given as much attention.

Plotlines

One engaging point of the series would be the immersive and continuing plotlines. While some episodes are open and shut vignettes, they often have currents and reverberations in later episodes, such as the episode with “Prison 42”, an extradimensional prison holding foes of the Avengers, which later was used as a containment device for defeating Galactus. There are hints and allusions to recent Marvel storylines, such as the Civil War and Secret Invasion. This serves as a form of fan service to the adult audience, as well as of course offering engaging interpretations of Marvel stories, without appealing to the same tired old stories (c.f. Spiderman’s origin story).

Previous Marvel series

When it comes to Marvel series, cancellations have been controversial in recent years. EMH replaced an already running series, Spectacular Spiderman, which at the time was well recieved. Another Spiderman series is now running, which is, with some conviction I deem terrible. This recent history of cancelled ventures with Marvel is met with unpopularity with fans, especially due to the appeal of EMH. This series revives a certain nostalgia of the team-ups depicted in Spiderman TAS, as well as the engaging plotlines of X-Men. In my view this series also enters dark psychological territory which makes these most superhuman of people, human.

Plain old absurdity

Perhaps the most amusing part of this series is the comedy, and the situations depicted. Certain Marvel characters make cameos such as War Machine, Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. These characters bring a sense of difference in their attitude and outlook, often pointing out how ridiculous the Avengers on occasion are: having their headquarters in public, or the identity of Iron Man the worst kept secret. I suspect that the writers saw the success of the 1960s spiderman meme as an inspiration for the bizarre situations in this series.

Summary

It is with sadness that this series had been cancelled at a second season when so many televisual series last for so long these days. I appreciate that the series cancellation ended on a high note, and while not all plotlines were resolved, the series ended at a zenith, this cannot be said for many other series that go on for so long, animated or otherwise. Even though I watch this series as a post-teenager, I will remember it with the same fondness as I did as any cartoon from the 1990s. As this series passes the torch to something else, it consolidated all of the elements of success about the past two decades of Marvel Cartoons, while also making its own stamp. It also got me back into comics!

Sinistre*

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