Watching: Avengers: United they Stand (1999)

On the start of any kind of discussion about this 1999 Marvel venture, this cartoon was universally deemed an average at best television show. Avengers: United they Stand serves as an example of how the flaws of an aesthetic work serve as interesting aesthetic features.


I knew of this show when it was originally out but I had little interest in it. In an age nearly 15 years later where there’s a big cultural interest in comic characters and franchises/intellectual properties/money-making commercial properties (delete as appropriate), the Avengers: United they Stand (UtS) serves as a lovely obscurity.


After I finished episode 13 I then found out that was actually the final episode. I was then reminded of a discussion in the TV series ‘Toast of London’ (starring Matt Berry [a subject for a future blog post I’m sure]) in which the titular character, Steven Toast, wrote a book without an ending. The literary agent loved the book but said that it couldn’t not have an ending. Toast made this decision to write a well considered feminist novel but left it without an ending. As if its incompleteness left it complete.


I feel the same about this show. The premature ending with the unresolved plot lines and even an unresolved episode arc was a masterstroke of story. There was an unresolved romantic storyline between Vision, the synthetic lifeform created by Ultron (one of the main villains); and Scarlet Witch.


It is certainly true that the female characters left much to be desired in terms of developing a back story or sense of an inner world, but as far as 1990s kids shows went, it fared a hell of a lot better than most. The gender ratio was about 3:5 or 3:4 (if you consider vision as normatively male – which technically you shouldn’t as a robot is genderless). The flaw of having poorly developed female characters was not so much an issue of poor gender representation but poor representation of the character roster in general, as almost all of them hardly had much back story.


Perhaps the big thing that people point out was the obvious thing: How can you have an Avengers lineup that does not include Captain America, Iron Man or Thor? This notion made me think really hard. In recent comics (Uncanny Avengers, Uncanny X Men, All New X Men, Avengers, or in their unique cases: Wolverine and the X Men and Secret Avengers), characters such as Wolverine and Captain America are basically present either as main characters or significant background characters. Having a world where certain characters have so much of a role in that universe evokes a cult of personality about them. This could be said of world leaders or public figures who seem to be in multiple discourses (say, celebrity culture and political discourse combined).


Thinking about the B-team, or the other guys is a really neat angle for a TV show. Thinking back in 1999 when there was a dearth of big Marvel shows: X men TAS had finished, Spiderman TAS had finished and shows like X-Men Evolution or Avengers: EMH (which I have discussed in a previous post) had not arrived; having this bunch of B-teamers was inherently underwhelming for a comicbook franchise which put a high place on the heavy hitters.


There was something inherently equalising about the UtS lineup. Contrast UtS’s Hawkeye to the Hawkeye character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic world was basically a pawn, the lowest fodder of a chess board and his abilities in the final fight were…staying on a high vantage point with arrows? Contrast this to ARC powered Iron Man who flew all around the city; Thor and Hulk who are comparably invulnerable to anything resembling human. There’s probably a good reason why Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye hasn’t found the right time to re-appear in the Marvel Cinematic universe and that is because it’s hard to have a place in such a super-powered world.


UtS’s Hawkeye is perhaps the best character in the show by contrast to his MCU counterpart (next to maybe Vision, but I’ll get to him). Hawkeye has a rough edge to him, being a former criminal trained in the circus (sensitive to his comic book origin). Hawkeye is very much a loose cannon, with legitimate trust issues and complex loyalties. Except for the ridiculous costumes they had (which were a very thinly veiled toy commercial), Hawkeye’s character made a Marvel character look…human when it is not desirable to be so in such a superpowered universe.


Vision is perhaps my favourite character in this show. Vision has the developing humanity and exists in a show where acting wooden was actually a benefit in the context. Some of the flaws of the ‘main’ characters who appear in the show are quite notable because they reveal something very human and real about them. Captain America’s cameo in one episode shows him as brash, and an inadequate leader compared to Hank Pym’s Ant Man. Even though Cap is the universal hero he is trapped by his own reputation and seen almost as if he were a better leader than he actually is. Kids watching this show probably would have lost this level of nuance.


By contrast, Hank Pym appears jealous, vindictive and self-doubting as a leader, and it makes him look like a very ugly person. In addition he spies on his wife visiting a family friend of hers in the penultimate episode and when she finds this out she is a little annoyed but shes seemed to let it go pretty easily. Hank Pym does look like a pretty horrible person in this show. Finally there was the appearance of Iron Man in a one episode cameo. Iron Man seems so single minded (as he was working in one of his commercial projects) that although he appreciated the help of the Avengers and joined in the action, he had no time for small talk, reflection or even acknowledgment that he was once on the Avenger roster. This shows an interesting side of Iron Man – flawed but not like the usual flawed depiction of an hedonistic and distracted Tony Stark, who lets his personal failures have implications on his professional life.


To close I thought I’d mention the honorable and noble aspects of the show. Although I’d think this show was absoutely rubbish as the 13 year old that I was in 1999. There are bits of the show that are farcical. For example, the NSA liason, Raymond Sikorski (who serves as a representative of the real world) continually notes things such as the poor public perception of the Avengers; how they caused millions of dollars in damages to public property. Not to mention the episode where Big Ben  is destroyed and nothing is mentioned of it at all afterwards, except to find out how it was caused. Have no doubt that this is not a great show nor is it a good show. It’s my view though that there are interesting psychological gems in the character development (or lack of) that as an adult (who probably should be doing better things), gives an interesting complexity to the show.

‘New media’ is now old hat

I remember when I was still in university there was a lot of talk about ‘new media’ as some emerging thing, or even of web 2.0 discussed with some sense of open hope and anticipation towards pastures new. I thought about this when I was at a planning meeting for the community garden that I’m involved with, when we were talking about outreach.


Somebody said that twitter and facebook are a bit old hat in terms of social media (the preferred term of today). We all understood what was meant, in the sense that we would hit at an audience who already know about the garden and using such media mostly retains our base of interested persons and who are already informed of most of the community garden’s activities.


Getting involved with a community garden is as grassroots as things can get. I mostly got involved because somebody said they didn’t like lifting things. Now we are talking about having a co-ordinated strategy for tweetdeck posts, preparing copy for upcoming mail-outs (we use mailchimp). One of the great liberating features of the social media is that it has enabled such a broad form of expression. Taking the perspective of the community garden, I can live-tweet about garden events or things going on; garner attention and new interest from tweeting about and being seen tweeting and take part in a wider discussion. The community garden twitter account has a follow from our local MP, various councillors in local government, and even a transition town group in Latin America. The fact that others in the garden share the tweeting means I can get on with what I particularly enjoy at the garden: lifting stuff and playing my clarinet in an open space.


Although perhaps not part of the ‘new media’ but more of the late 1990s and early 2000s zeitgeist, I’ve found blogging (both writing and reading) and podcasts as a big staple of my life these days. I have come from seeing podcasts as an obscure infant medium to an established form. I recently listened to a radio programme on the podcast recently, which made me reflect on how the evolution of the medium has aged as I have aged. I suspect however that the podcast will outlive me and morph into more fandangled and interesting things than I ever can.


Podcasts used to be something really scarce. Back in 2005 I would re-listen to episodes of Philosophy Talk and go through the whole archive of ‘In Our Time’. I would eagerly follow Marc Maron’s WTF in mid-late 2009 as Maron’s life was in dire straits and wondered what the next episode would tell. Nearly 5 years on, Maron’s podcast has a TV series based on it and he’s gone from strength to strength, even to the point of broadcasting an episode with Josh Radnor on the day that How I Met Your Mother had its finale. I would dare say that after WTF, Maron’s podcast format has had many imitators.


I wonder if the ‘wild west’ or Californian gold rush of podcasting is over at least in terms of the solidification and establishment as podcasting as a medium. But with it another gold rush might emerge, perhaps a less figurative commercialisation and profit-making set of models. I love the podcast for the same reasons as the radio. I can feel connected to the world despite distantly listening in without taking part in the things that are discussed. I am also starting to find there are a few too many podcasts to listen to in the world! I can’t listen to them all as attentively as I used to listen to every episode of Melvyn Bragg and I can’t give all the philosophy podcasts as much attention as they deserve or that would require a good amount of learning from.


And here comes the other ‘old hat’ of blogging. I have said to myself that when I get a smartphone I will be able to read blogs quicker with the (now defunct) Google Reader App. Then I said to myself that I could get a lot of reading done on Feedly with my new Tablet, although both of these are true, it is also the case that these new devices allow me to reach a much much wider pool of information so plentiful that I end up not reading the stuff that I planned to.


Blog reading is a big part of my life, it’s become both a leisurely pursuit and in some cases for friends, necessary for their work. Because of the ubiquity of ways we can access the internet the stream of blogs and RSS feeds is soaking human experience, perhaps for some, too much so. Lately I’ve set time limits for myself for blog reading and catching up on articles. I’ve found that I use my time more efficiently that way.


Perhaps its time to be more deliberate about blog reading and podcast listening. Time to be more mature about facebook profiles and twitter accounts. As the medium has grown up so have I and I see so many pitfalls with these media (or rather put – more ways people can be silly with them). Perhaps like the 19th century after the wild rush comes an age of more deliberate and considered usage and perhaps regulation. It almost looks like an historical narrative repeating all over again.