Case Study 33: The Six Wives of Henry VIII–“Anne of Cleves”

Original Airdate: January 22nd, 1971 on BBC

The ill-starred marriages of 16th century English king Henry VIII have long been a subject of fascination for the reading and viewing public. Shakespeare made his life into a play. Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory have climbed the bestseller charts on the back of these stories, and both of those books have been filmed, one for theaters and one for television. Jonathan Rhys Meyers played an ahistorically sexy Henry in a soapy cable drama. Even Homer Simpson has taken on the role. Hell, even this show requires a hefty disambiguation page on good old Wikipedia, since it also lends its title to a movie, a documentary, two books and a prog rock album.

Henry’s pivotal role in British history doesn’t quite explain the appeal, partially because Henry is as much an international symbol as anything else. Our cultural image of Henry–regardless of the historical record–makes him synonymous with monarchy: tyrannical, bloated, lustful, larger than life…unless it’s telling a story about a heroic statesman. In particular, second wife Anne Boleyn captures an equal share of the public imagination–whether as an interfering historical villainess or a kickass heroine with agency in an era where society did everything possible to prevent the creation of kickass heroines with agency depending on who does the telling. To some extent, Henry and Boleyn are both ciphers onto which we can project our fantasies and desires about England’s history and the history of royalty more generally.

Tonight, we examine the story of the less popular Anne. Wives is of some significance in its own right–though originally televised in America on CBS, it was a key component of the first season of Masterpiece Theater, and it merited a sequel, the equally popular Elizabeth R. It also spawned the aforementioned feature film of the same name.

Strengths

  • Robust characterization. I’m not sure if the historical source material makes this easier or more difficult, but as I discussed in my review of Marco Polo, my concerns about fidelity to the historical record are limited provided the creators refrain from getting egregiously lazy. As it stands, Wives really brings its central characters to life. Henry (Keith Mitchell) is alternatingly callow and foxy. He’s plausibly a canny leader and an overgrown child. If you know anything about Anne of Cleves (Elvi Hale, True As A Turtle,) it’s probably that she’s the queen that Henry deemed unfuckable. This is particularly rich if you’ve ever seen their portraits. I chose that second portrait carefully, as the more famous portrait by Hans Holbein (James Mellor, Marat/Sade) is a subject of controversy. You see, Henry prefigured the deceptions of online dating by hundreds of years, for he claimed that he was hoodwinked by a fraudulently sexy painting of his new wife. Again, Hale is much more attractive than Mellor, but the show lends some credence to the theory of the comely portrait, as chief minister and master manipulator Thomas Cromwell (Wolfe Morris, The Abominable Snowman) nudges Holbein in the right direction. In any case, the first meeting between the newly minted husband and wife has gone down in the annals of bad first date history. You see, Henry had the bright idea to surprise Anne by showing up to meet her in disguise. We only have second-hand accounts of what happened next–only Henry and Anne know the real truth–but Wives puts its own unique spin on events. Anne is perfectly receptive of the man she thinks is a mere messenger for the king and Henry is not initially put off, but when he gleefully throws off his robes to reveal his splendid royal garments, the look on Anne’s face is one of unmistakable disgust. Soon, Henry flees to Cromwell to make his famous pronouncement: “I LIKE HER NOT.” The show has us believe that Henry’s famed disgust only manifested itself because he was stinging with rejection. It’s a great scene, deftly executed, and it’s not even the most excruciatingly awkward moment in the episode–that would be the wedding night, where Anne is even more horrified by the prospect of being slowly crushed by the royal personage. She finds a way to preserve the dignity of everyone involved, and it’s genius–but more about that below. Any discussion of the characterization at hand in this show must address Anne herself. Hale does a simply exquisite job here and she adds depth and richness to an already quite well-written Anne. Anne’s personality is decidedly happy-go-lucky–we first see her laughing gaily despite being soaked in dog piss–but it doesn’t sacrifice any range. She’s chastened by the miserable gravity of her situation, but she’s hardly defeated by it. She takes great pleasure in cultivating kindly relations with Henry’s children and her handmaids. She has the best line in the episode when she dismisses the religious schemes of Cromwell and Robert Barnes (Robert James, Jane Eyre) by telling them their priorities are misplaced: “I would rather comfort a shamed child than save a dozen churches.” Most brilliantly, Anne spends a good deal of time in the early running worrying about how she’s ill-suited to be queen–she doesn’t know dances or fashion or manners. Her passion is politics.
  • Scheming. Speaking of which, you know I love a good scheme. Cromwell’s angle here–because of course he has an angle–is to protect the throne in the event of an anti-Protestant alliance among Catholics in France and the Holy Roman Empire. In the event of a holy war, Henry’s name would be near the top of the list due to his prominent break with the Catholic Church as chronicled earlier in Wives. Anne was a great choice as a bride for Henry because she was part of the royal family of what’s called the Schmalkaldic League, or as the show calls it, the League of the Protestant Princes, since “Schmalkaldic” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. On the eve of their wedding night, Anne makes a last-ditch attempt to distract the lusty king by telling him that the ruler of Hesse, a key member of the League, was about to break away and that by refraining from consummating the marriage Henry could keep his options open. Henry sees the wisdom in this plan. The other major piece of scheming at hand is against Cromwell. The Duke of Norfolk (Patrick Troughton, Doctor Who) and his allies resented the rise of the working class Cromwell and rightly saw him as a threat to the nobility, so they framed him for the charge of conspiring with Barnes and others to further the cause of Lutheranism in England. But this isn’t Cromwell’s story. It’s Anne’s, and therefore…
  • Telling a story about history & politics through the lens of a marriage. There’s a scene I loved very near the end of the episode–Anne brilliantly convinces Henry to grant her a divorce and allow her to remain close to the court as his beloved “sister”–after all, she doesn’t want to go back to the provinces to get married off again by her unsympathetic brother (William Maxwell) and she wants to be able to continue spending time with the king’s children. This means that she won’t be able to serve as a pawn in Cromwell’s scheme for a Europe-wide Protestant alliance. She tearfully notifies the Archbishop (Bernard Hepton, Secret Army) that she can’t help Cromwell, only to be told that, oh yeah, Cromwell and Barnes have already been executed. Dying ignominiously offscreen is a startlingly anti-climactic end to Cromwell’s story, but it does allow for an appealingly tight focus on Anne.

Weaknesses

  • Keith Mitchell. I was somewhat surprised that Mitchell won an Emmy for this role. It’s not that he’s terrible–he nails the king’s bearing and presence–but the voice he puts on for this role is so hammy and over-the-top that it’s really quite off-putting. Not to mention annoying–it’s this sniveling whine, and while it does reinforce the theme of the King being a giant shitty baby, it’s hard to believe that any viewer would take him seriously.

Motivation: Power. I’m not just talking about Cromwell and Norfolk’s tangle over who will have the king’s ear. This is also a story about Anne trying to find her footing in an unenviable position in a strange and foreign land–and how she ultimately comes out on top despite it all. Relative to Anne Boleyn, anyway.

Final Episode Judgment: 8/10. This is a compelling version of the story of Anne of Cleves, but there are newer and flashier versions out there. If you like historical dramas, check this one out but keep your options open.

NEXT TIME: I’ll be writing about a very different unhappy marriage as I cover Married…With Children.

Case Study 33: The Six Wives of Henry VIII–“Anne of Cleves”

Case Study 32: Dragon Ball Z–“Broly–Second Coming”

Original Airdate: March 12th, 1994 on Fuji TV

Dragon Ball Z, along with Sailor Moon, might be one of those shows that the average uninitiated Westerner calls to mind when the subject of anime is brought up. It also fuels a lot of prejudice about the overall low quality of anime. This is a shame, because there’s a good deal of excellent anime out there—but it would seem Dragon’s reputation is well deserved.

Like Lupin the Third or Gundam it’s also part of a massive, decade-spanning ultra-franchise. It’s the second of four series about the collection and curation of dragon balls, and under review tonight we have the 10th of 15 “films” centered around Dragon Ball Z alone. I put that in quotation marks because like the so-called “films” of Danny Phantom, Angelina Ballerina and Teen Titans, it’s simply an hour-long version of a cartoon that is normally half an hour long.

Strengths

  • The empowerment of children. This is a pretty common trait for kids’ entertainment. In the real world, kids are constantly at the mercy of adults and have little control of the major aspects of their lives. This is even more true today than when this episode aired thanks to modern trends of helicopter parenting and nosy neighbors calling the cops if they see a ten-year-old at the park on her own. In the world of Dragon, though, tiny children can fly and fight gigantic supervillains. For reasons too dumb to explain, our normal Dragon-tagonist Goku (Sean Schemmel) is dead at this point in the series and the main characters in this outing are his son Goten (Kara Edwards) and Goten’s pal Trunks (Takeshi Kusao.) They’re ultimately outclassed in the climactic brawl against demigod Broly (Vic Mignogna, Fullmetal Alchemist) but not before they single-handedly win a fight against a gigantic fucking dinosaur. This doesn’t hold true for every episode of Dragon, but “Second Coming” offers kids the pleasure of a) seeing themselves as the protagonists and b) seeing those protagonists kick ass and keep the big bad on his toes.

Weaknesses

  • Witless, childish banter. This is the downside of having kids as protagonists–at least when your show is badly written sludge. Accompanying the kids is the teenager Videl (Yuko Minaguchi) and the little kids constantly bicker with her. At one point Goten demands to eat some of the bait in the trap they’ve set for the dinosaur by screaming and crying like a shitty-diaper baby for what seems like an eternity (which, by the way, is what wakes Broly up in the first place, so thanks, Goten.) Later, he tells the dinosaur that it needs a manicure. By defeating the dinosaur they win a dragon ball that a local charlatan (Robert McCollum, Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings) wears as a necklace; Trunks quips that if they had a second monster he could win the guy’s jacket, too. High-larious.
  • Bathroom humor. Again, maybe this is supposed to seem charming because the protagonists are little kids, but it really ain’t. When Broly shows up, Trunks urges Goten to summon the aid of the dragon with their newly complete set of dragon balls—but first Goten has to take a leak. Later, Trunks manages to wriggle out of Broly’s clutches by covering him in some manner of liquid bodily waste, and based on the color it looks like it’s the less savory of the two options. And nothing can help me unsee Trunks taunting Broly with his bare ass.
  • Endless, pointless battles. Look, I realize these are a central part of the Dragon brand. That doesn’t make them any more watchable. It’s all the more frustrating because at first it looks like this episode is actually going to be about something. You see, that charlatan I mentioned has convinced his village to sacrifice children to the gods in order to protect the villagers from the dinosaur. Videl challenges them on the ignorant barbarism of this practice and our heroes set off to prove the charlatan wrong. But they do this really quickly and it’s all over and done in the first 20 minutes, complete with a feast of glistening red dinosaur meat. The rest of the show is spent in an interminable fight with Broly. Instead of wanting to achieve power by preying on people’s fears and forming violent religious practices to bolster that power and create psychological barriers to rebellion, Broly’s just your garden variety evil asshole. The only thing worse than a show wasting your time with inane action sequences is the show teasing you with an actual story before burying you under inane action sequences.
  • Videl/Yuko Minaguchi. Minaguchi’s voice acting is just awful. She struggles with line readings as simple as “No thanks! I can’t wait to see what you screw up next.” She gets the cadences wrong. She emphasizes the wrong words. She runs it all together into what sounds like one word. She can’t even make “My name is Videl” sound natural. The show’s writing doesn’t do Videl any favors, either. She’s the only female character here and she’s constantly shat on. Goten and Trunks treat her like a nagging mom. She’s got superpowers of her own, but apparently they’re not as strong as those of the kiddies, because Broly almost instantly throws her into the water and leaves her to drown, taking her out of the action for the entire second half of the show. At the end of the episode, Goku’s other son and Videl’s love interest Gohan (Kyle Hebert) shows up to help fight Broly. The comic denouement has Videl henpecking him and chasing him around for leaving her to die—which is an entirely legitimate grievance, but the show acts like she might as well have curlers and a rolling pin. Yuck.

Motivation: Survival. After Broly mistakes Goten for Goku, who had defeated him in a previous hour-length episode, it’s all that Goten can do to hold his own. Only the intervention of a dragon ex machina saves the day.

Final Episode Judgment: 1/10. This was real bad, folks. Hopefully your kids never find out about it, because I could feel my brain cells dying the entire time.

NEXT TIME: It’ll be a gear-grinding transition from this to Masterpiece Theatre as I review The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Case Study 32: Dragon Ball Z–“Broly–Second Coming”

Case Study 31: M*A*S*H, Episode 241–“Hey, Look Me Over”

Original Airdate: October 25th, 1982 on CBS

If the rock you’re living under doesn’t get syndication, M*A*S*H is a sitcom about the Korean War based on the popular Robert Altman movie of the same name, and it’s frequently included in lists of the best TV shows of all time. More than anything else I’ve discussed here, M*A*S*H has a central place in television history. It was one of the most widely watched series of the 1970s and its series finale in 1983 drew over 100 million viewers, making it the single episode of television viewed by the most people on broadcast in the history of scripted TV. In comparison, the much-ballyhooed Seinfeld finale drew only 76 million viewers. 

However, it’s also widely acknowledged that by Season 11, M*A*S*H had well and truly run out of gas. Harry Morgan, who played Col. Sherman Potter, had acknowledged that “the cracks were starting to show” by Season 9, and by season 10 CBS was begging star Alan Alda to hang on for one more year. So we come to “Hey, Look Me Over,” the Season 11 premiere of M*A*S*H.

Strengths

  • A sense of humor well matched to its tone. The issue of M*A*S*H’s laugh track was apparently a long-running source of contention. As Mental Floss explains, M*A*S*H’s single-camera style and mixture of war drama with sitcom didn’t seem like a great fit for a laugh track to the creators of the show, but CBS couldn’t countenance the idea of people enjoying a sitcom without being told when to laugh. The producers did manage to get the network to agree to keep the laugh track out of surgery scenes and certain key episodes, and after season six they toned it down immensely. The DVDs also feature an option to turn it off altogether, and I’m wondering if the episode I watched was ripped from a DVD with that option turned on or if by Season 11 the laugh track was so diminished as to be unnoticeable. In any case, a laugh track would have been painless suicide for this episode. You see, there are a handful of genuinely funny moments—without the supervision of the nurses, Hawkeye Pierce (Alda) manages to break the door off the autoclave—but there are also several rather weak attempts at jokes that would surely have had the laugh track rolling in the aisles. Axing the laugh track makes the show seem more realistic, and it’s certainly true to real life that people often say and do things that are nominally witty but not actually funny. Without the laugh track making like Jeb Bush and pitifully requesting a response, everything is more immersive and every lame joke is more forgivable.
  • Engaging storytelling around female characters. Okay, I wasn’t expecting this. Is there any institution more traditionally masculine than the American military? Nevertheless, both storylines in this episode center around the nurses in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. One storyline is about Head Nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) scrambling to get the surgical unit up to snuff for an incoming inspection from the hardass Col. Bucholtz (Margaret Feury, The Witch Who Came From The Sea.) There’s not much going on there beyond Houlihan learning a valuable lesson about the balance between diligent discipline and pushing people too hard. I get the sense that the later seasons of M*A*S*H featured a lot of valuable lessons, because Hawkeye gets one too, but at least his is a bit more interesting. You see, the reason he got a chance to break the autoclave in the first place is because the nurses were evacuated out of an abundance of caution and the surgeons are left in charge. When the nurses return, they plan on celebrating by dancing to a bunch of hot new jukebox records from the likes of Nat King Cole and Hank Williams. Hawkeye sees this as a golden opportunity to get his dick wet and begins dispensing cookie-cutter pickup lines to every woman in sight—except the one woman who really wants to hear them, Kealani Kellye (Kellye Nakahara.) Eventually, she calls him on the fact that he’s only interested in sniffing the hair* of pretty white girls (well, she describes them as blonde with perfect noses, anyway) and that he hasn’t even bothered to get to know her. If he had, she says, he’d realize that she’s compassionate, intelligent, fascinating and “cute as hell.” This was pretty awesome, and it’s instructive to the world of television today that writers were coming up with substantial stories to tell about women of color in 1982, so TV writers today really have no excuse. Eventually, Hawkeye gets a glimpse into Kellye’s hidden depths when he sees her comforting a dying soldier by gamely pretending to be his sweetheart at home, so he shows up at her door later that night with a bouquet of flowers and a tux, but she’s not into his consolation bone—she’s already got a dude with her. Wamp wamp. Seriously, though, I’m glad the show took the opportunity to avoid having Kellye leap into Hawkeye’s arms the second he gets around to acknowledging her as a valid subject of sexual interest.

Weaknesses

  • Loretta Swit. Look, she must have been doing something right—her and Alda were the only actors to hang on for all 11 seasons in a show that was known for shaking up its cast. But she’s the only example of someone really being out of step with the tone of the show. She sells her cheesy one-liners like she was on a vaudeville stage and makes their humorlessness all the more conspicuous. I’m going to be charitable and chalk up this mugfest to the fact that this was episode two-hundred forty one and she was probably tired. No one is holding out for the idea that their best work is going to happen in year eleven of any given project.

*One amusing moment in this episode has Kellye telling Hawkeye a story from her childhood only to look over and find him literally sniffing the hair of one of those pretty white girls. Gross!

Motivation: Houlihan is motivated by work—she wants to impress Bucholtz—and Kellye is motivated by love. Not that she loves Hawkeye, per se, but she does have a crush.

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. Not the worst M*A*S*H, not the best M*A*S*H, but it’s interesting that even an installment from what is widely acknowledged to be this show’s shittiest season is still better than half the crap I review on this blog.

NEXT TIME: I continue to review the juggernauts of the anime world by taking a look at Dragon Ball Z!

Case Study 31: M*A*S*H, Episode 241–“Hey, Look Me Over”

Case Study 30: Mayday, Episode 18–“Mistaken Identity”

Original Airdate: October 19th, 2005 on Discovery Channel Canada

Even if you’re a fan of cable TV documentaries about airplane crashes—and who isn’t—you may not be familiar with Mayday, but that could just be due to nomenclature. It’s called Air Crash Investigation in the UK, other European countries, Australia, South Africa and Asia. Here in the US, it airs as Air Emergency…and also as Air Disasters, for some reason. But all these shows stem from Cineflix, a Canadian production company specializing in filling the hours on the cable dial with somewhat lurid nonfiction. I’m glad to get another chance to look at a documentary, because I haven’t gotten a chance to do that since all the way back in the first case study.

Strengths

  • Telling an important story. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in July of 2014, killing nearly 300 civilians, there was justifiable international outrage and quite a lot of grumbling about Russian imperialism. It was also a good time to remember that back in 1988, the US shot down a passenger plane, killing nearly 300 civilians. This was the sad fate of Iran Air Flight 655, and Mayday attempts to explain how it happened. While I have quibbles with how Mayday went about doing this, it’s laudatory just to get the word out that, yes, this happened. As Max Fisher noted in a relatively conservative recounting in The Washington Post, you’d be hard-pressed to find many American teenagers who are aware of this incident—and you’d be hard-pressed to find many Iranian teenagers who aren’t, because it’s understandably considered a national tragedy.

Weaknesses

  • Reenactments. I complained about Monsters We Met doing this, and many of the same criticisms apply here. It’s cheesy and not terribly immersive. Time spent watching dramatic reenactments is time that could have been spent going more in-depth on the subject matter, and as you’ll see, there was plenty of room to go more in-depth. I think the reenactments here serve a slightly different purpose than they do in Monsters. There, they’re meant to buttress scanty information about our long-dead ancestors by turning them into tangible people we can see and thrusting a narrative onto them for the purposes of making the material easier to grasp. Here, it’s meant to dramatically convey what the producers apparently felt was a key part of the story—the intense time pressure that Captain William C. Rogers III was under as he was trying to make the decision about whether to fire on the airliner. The problem here is that these reenactments create an aura of reality that isn’t necessarily supported by the facts. As the documentary wears on, we learn that the two main rationale provided by the crew of the USS Vincennes for firing on Flight 655 turned out to be entirely baseless when investigated by the Pentagon. The crew claimed that the plane was broadcasting a transponder signal identifying it as an Iranian military plane—they assumed an F-14A Tomcat—but, no, it had been broadcasting the civilian airliner code the entire time. The crew claimed that the airliner had been descending towards the Vincennes in a classic attack profile—data from the Vincennes itself established that this wasn’t the case. In light of this, many Iranians—and, indeed, the Iranian government itself—hold that the attack was intentional and designed to elicit Iranian concessions in a ceasefire being negotiated between Iran and Iraq during their ongoing war. Two months later, the Ayatollah obliged, probably due to some combination of this incident and the fact that then-US ally Saddam Hussein was cheerfully deploying weapons of mass destruction in the form of mustard gas on Iranian troops and civilians. I realize that Discovery Channel documentaries aren’t as eager to embrace ambiguity as Errol Morris or Werner Herzog, but these reenactments create a master narrative of truth where there really isn’t a reliable one to be had. In some cases, there seems to be pure invention happening—the version of Rogers we see in the reenactments seems a lot more aghast about the events of that day than the Rogers that they actually interview for the show. Indeed, on the show and in public he seems 100% defensive and 0% remorseful. Not surprising, since the Navy gave him a fucking medal.
  • Shallow and one-sided. Mayday spends an awful lot of time diving into the nitty gritty of a moment by moment reenactment of what happened aboard the Vincennes, and this takes valuable time that could be used to provide some larger contextual information. No airtime is given to talking about the larger story of the Iran-Iraq War, or really about Iran in general. Exactly one Iranian person gets to talk in this documentary: the grieving brother of Flight 655 captain Moshen Rezaian. Everyone else is, to a man, a current or former member of the United States Armed Forces. It’s almost as though Iranian lives don’t matter. It certainly doesn’t discuss the fact that the US was hardly a neutral party in this war, supplying arms and intel to Hussein’s Iraq. It also doesn’t mention that only nine short years prior to the downing of Flight 655, the Iranians had overthrown a US installed dictator and torture enthusiast, which is really an essential fact when reckoning with any modern Iranian history, especially a piece of Iranian history so essential to understanding the fraught relationship between Iran and the US. It doesn’t mention that it was Iraq that took the war to the Gulf through a strategy of aggressive blockades—it makes it seem like the Iranian gunboats the Vincennes confronted that day were just more rogue state terrorists harassing poor, innocent Kuwait. I was hoping for a bit more neutrality from Canada, but this documentary about an American war crime is unabashedly pro-American.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. Mayday supplies mostly accurate, if biased information, so it wouldn’t be out of place in a course of study about Iran Air Flight 655—but definitely don’t make it your only source. Otherwise, don’t bother. I suspect Mayday fares a bit better when avoiding political subjects.

NEXT TIME: Martial law continues as we examine TV canon: M*A*S*H!

Case Study 30: Mayday, Episode 18–“Mistaken Identity”

Case Study 29: Iron Man, Episode 24–“Hulk Buster”

Original Airdate: February 10th, 1996 on first-run syndication

Since I’ve already covered multiple varieties of off-brand superhero cartoons as well as a key entry in the DC animated universe, it was only a matter of time before I got around to Marvel. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become inescapable in pop culture circles over the last eight years, and the Iron Man franchise has been a key component. In addition to more than 50 years of Iron Man comics, the metal-plated hero has appeared in five MCU movies and was the headliner in three. The 1990s animated series is not the only television credit for Iron Man—he’s also the star of offerings from 2009 and 2011, plus countless appearances in various versions of The Avengers on the small screen. 1992’s X-Men comes in for almost as much critical praise today as Batman: The Animated Series so theoretically, other 90s Marvel offerings could be just as good. How does Iron Man fare?

Strengths

  • The Hulk. As the name implies, this episode of Iron Man features another signature Marvel character—The Hulk (Ron Perlman, Hellboy.) In fact, if you’ve seen Avengers: Age of Ultron, you’re already familiar with Iron Man’s special suit of Hulk Buster armor, which was only a relatively recent innovation in the comics at the time this episode aired. Let’s lay our cards on the table here–The Hulk is fucking awesome, both thematically and on a practical level. The Hulk represents the duality between the analytical, scientific mind of his alter ego Bruce Banner and the unchecked, raging id of his persona as The Hulk. The Hulk’s capacity for reason and restraint is very small and Banner is a geeky scientist incapable of smashing through walls like the Kool-Aid Man, though the show manages to shit in the Hulk duality punchbowl at a couple points, as I’ll point out below. The saving grace is that even badly written Hulk is pretty damn entertaining, and while the fights between Iron Man (Robert Hays, Airplane!) and The Hulk in this episode don’t compare to the jaw-dropping cinematics of the fight in Ultron, it’s always an amusing twist when the heroes have to spend as much time fighting their nominal colleague as they do the Monster Of The Week. The Hulk is also put to reasonably good use in other respects. Much of the episode hinges on his atomic origins and thanks to time travel Iron Man gets a front row seat. He gets the chance to save Bruce Banner from a life consigned to monstrousness, which is something we know Banner would want—but The Hulk stops Iron Man out of self-preservation. It has implications on the constant tug of war between intellectual misery and idiotic selfishness, though I doubt “Hulk Buster” is making a sally into arguments about the nature of happiness.

Weaknesses

  • Voice acting. Look, I love Airplane! as much as the next guy, but either Robert Hays is phoning it in like he’s Ma Bell or else he wasn’t cut out for this line of work in the first place. Especially when compared with Robert Downey Jr., Hays’ Iron Man has all the charisma of one of those damp, lonely socks you see lying in the gutter. It’s not just a Hays problem, though—outside of Perlman everyone delivers a pretty lackluster performance. For instance, Iron Man’s pal James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Dorian Harewood, Full Metal Jacket) manages to muster only mild concern upon seeing that Bruce Banner has suddenly turned the color of Ecto Cooler in the backseat of the chopper that Rhodes is flying. But, hey, it’s a kids’ superhero cartoon—I can kind of see why no one brought their A-game.
  • Lazy writing. Iron Man makes no effort to avoid even the most careworn of cliches, and it manages to make them seem even stupider in the execution. Some of this can be attributed to one of the pitfalls of adaptation. The villain of this particular episode of Iron Man is a guy who calls himself The Leader (Matt Frewer, Max Headroom.) Now, it’s Marvel universe canon that The Leader’s origin story entails an accident at a nuclear waste disposal facility—specifically, an entire barrel of nuclear waste gets dumped on the poor guy headfirst in a rather comical fashion. This is a pretty damn stupid origin story. It was lazy in 1964 and it’s lazy now. The comics are married to fifty years of history and can’t fix that without retconning, but this show was a fresh slate and anyone out there who would get themselves up in arms about this cartoon rewriting The Leader’s history is too nerdy to function. This was an opportunity to improve, and it was a missed opportunity. This story fits into a plot arc about The Mandarin’s (Robert Ito, Quincy M.E.) quest to regain the ten magical rings which will give him unspeakable powers but which were previously scattered around the Earth. Again, the quest for a complete set of magical McGuffins spread to the four winds is another hoary cliche and it doesn’t speak to great storytelling ability. This is also true to the comics, though, which brings us to another law of adaptation—when you’re doing an adaptation, you have the power to fix bad writing in the source text and it’s on you if you instead decide to mindlessly reproduce it. As I said above, the writers also manage to fuck up the classic Hulk duality. For one thing, Banner is inexplicably beefy, which sort of undercuts the whole scrawny nerd bit. For another, The Leader’s entire evil plan is predicated on travelling back in time so that he can get the fateful blast of gamma radiation that led to Banner’s transformation into The Hulk, on the logic that then he’ll have super-intelligence AND super-strength. Maybe the problem here is that The Leader is more of an idiot than he realizes, because as I said, the whole point of The Hulk is that he’s intelligent as Banner and strong as The Hulk but he doesn’t get to be both at the same time. So the whole affair doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense and just seems like a big waste of time.

Motivation: Power. The Leader wants that sweet, sweet gamma so he can be more effective at supervillainy.

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. This is a pretty mediocre and lifeless outing, but chances are your kid and/or slavering, unwashed fanboy will stare blankly at it for 22 minutes and it won’t annoy the pants off of you, so you could do worse.

NEXT TIME: We pick up our long-neglected nonfiction coverage by flying into the heart of Mayday!

Case Study 29: Iron Man, Episode 24–“Hulk Buster”