Case Study 67: Gotham, Episode 35–“A Dead Man Feels No Cold”

Original Airdate: March 7th, 2016 on FOX

Comic book superheroes have been filling airtime on your television since the 1960s, but the 21st century bore witness to an endless flurry of entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the concordant money blizzard meant that TV shows weren’t far behind. In Hollywood, there’s one thing that’s better than beating a dead horse, and that’s beating someone else’s dead horse, so Warner belatedly caught on and introduced us to their own “extended universe.” DC has been less vigilant about brand synergy, so Gotham kinda-sorta stands on its own, disregarding the fact that it’s soaked and dripping with Batman intellectual property jizz. Between 2012 and today, a whopping total of 10 MCU/DCEU properties have darkened our screens, and that’s not including shows based on comics from DC’s Vertigo imprint, like iZombie, Preacher, and Lucifer. Really, the impressive thing is that I went through 66 other shows before arriving at the groaning board of comic book grimdark that made action movies (temporarily) obsolete.

Strengths

  • Impressive special effects. It’s nice to live in an era where the special effects necessary for a vaguely supernatural action-adventure crime procedural don’t reduce the viewer to Manimal-grade fits of hysterics. The nice people behind Gotham are quickly digging through their supply of famous Batman villains, which I’m sure will lead to an excellent confrontation with Calendar Man in season 7. Tonight’s offering, along with its immediate predecessor, tells us the sad tale of the rise and fall of Mr. Freeze, aka Victor Fries (Nathan Darrow, House of Cards.) And where would Mr. Freeze be without blasts of icy death? Gotham’s finest stumble upon a victim who was shooting his gun mid-freeze, and the bullet is captured mid-air like an icicle emerging from the gun. At one point Fries throws an ice grenade into the For-All-Intents-And-Purposes East River, and the instantaneous appearance of giant icy spikes is very satisfying. The show doesn’t waste all its industrial light & magic on Freeze, either—Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) is briefly subjected to questionable mad-science based therapy and some fun color filters and deft camera-work does a lot of heavy lifting on behalf of the audience’s atrophied imagination.
  • Strong ensemble cast. Taylor’s Penguin is the real discovery here, and his range is fantastic—mincing, brooding, menacing, sycophantic and downright maniacal—but the cast is almost exclusively (see below) excellent. I can never get enough Donal Logue (Ghost Rider) and he inhabits the role of the Bad Cop nicely. B.D. Wong (Jurassic World) is delightful as the cartoonishly fiendish Hugo Strange. Erin Richards does well as Barbara Kean in what could have been a very dull role, although in this episode she’s in a coma, so it’s not going to show up on the sizzle reel. You may also have heard about how Jada Pinkett Smith made an enormous splash as Fish Mooney in season one, so, yeah, the casting directors know what they’re doing. For the most part.
  • Atmospheric. At least 50% of any given Batman narrative is nailing the feel of Gotham City and environs. It’s a caricature of the most forbidding parts of New York in particular and the urban experience in general. It’s outrageous wealth and intimidating architecture. You get the sense that the show understands this even in its stock transition shots, which swoop across the forbidding skyline. Arkham Asylum is an experience unto itself, a total institution straight out of the nineteenth century and packed to the gills with colorful sociopaths. Once again, Gotham gets it right—the sets, the lighting, the classic jailbird outfits. The bat cave is also everything you’d want in a bat cave—stalactites, mysterious water source, late Victorian lighting fixtures and all the trimmings of a research laboratory perfect for a weirdo who hangs out in a cave under his mansion.  
  • Making the best out of a tired Mr. Freeze story. The way the show handles Freeze is something of a disappointment. Every other villain you’d care to name gets a unique origin story—Penguin, The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith), Catwoman (Camren Bicondova), Poison Ivy (Clare Foley, Sinister). What does Mr. Freeze get? Dying wife, same as in town. Why reinvent the canon everywhere but here? Tip: If for some reason you’re trying to bring Mr. Freeze back into the public consciousness of people who don’t read comic books, the last thing you want is to remind anyone of Batman & Robin. At least they managed to resist ice-related puns. This episode has a fun twist, though—Victor’s long-suffering wife Nora (Kristen Hager, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) decides she’s had enough of her husband’s crime spree and her own terminal illness and kills herself with Victor’s own defective cryogenic solution. I’m choosing to interpret this as a political victory for the death with dignity movement.

Weaknesses

  • Bruce Wayne. Here’s another tip. Thinking about using child actors? Think again, motherfucker. It’s not really actor David Mazouz’s fault—the least interesting thing about any Batman story is Batman himself, and I assume Bruce’s flat affect and critical lack of a personality is as written. The thing is, this story is about the world of Batman before Batman is a major player on the scene. I would be thrilled if Bruce was featured only occasionally and when absolutely necessary. He is not necessary here.
  • Gordon. And while we’re at it, there’s a major exception to the praise I’ve doled out for the casting on this show. Ben McKenzie’s Gordon has the charisma of a deck of beige paint samples, which would be okay if he were a minor character. Instead, he’s the main event. This isn’t the first network drama to have a painfully bland white man holding down the top billing—I see you, Lost—and God knows it won’t be the last. It does take the wind out of the sails for many of the storylines, though. I know I’m supposed to care about Gordon’s slow descent into the dark side. I understand how Gordon and his lover, Leslie (Morena Baccarin, Deadpool) are meant to form a thematic pair with the Frieses. I remain unmoved.
  • Contrivance. The big set piece in this episode entails Freeze taking Arkham by storm to rescue Nora. Why is Nora there? Oh, because the cops decided that they couldn’t secure a room in a regular hospital or at the police station, so clearly the best thing to do was to take her to a prison for the criminally insane. This yields dividends—seeds are planted for the ongoing relationship between Strange and Freeze, Gordon is forced to come face to face with Penguin after letting Penguin take the fall for a murder they were both involved in—but it feels pretty cheap since the whole reason all the characters came to Arkham in the first place was complete fucking nonsense.

Final Judgment: 6/10. The media landscape is saturated with superheroes right now, and DC is as usual behind the eight ball, but based on what I’ve seen of the rest of their TV shows, Gotham might be the best of a bad lot. Team Marvel for the win.

NEXT TIME: Hey, it’s been a little over a year since I reviewed The Wrong Mans, so in honor of that I’ll review another British buddy comedy: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere.

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Case Study 67: Gotham, Episode 35–“A Dead Man Feels No Cold”

Case Study 51: Spider-Man (1967), Episode 19–“To Catch A Spider”/“Double Identity”

Original Airdate: January 13th, 1968 on ABC

Previously in this space we discussed an episode of the Iron Man cartoon from 1996, and the gold standard in DC and Marvel animated series’ are 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, respectively, so the Snake People among us would be forgiven for thinking that the 1990s invented cartoons based on comic books. Nope, the Boomers can take credit for this one—both DC and Marvel have had cartoons based on their libraries as far back as the 1960s. Spider-Man is one of the more iconic examples, if only for its fun and oft-parodied theme song. I’ve actually spent a decent amount of time lately catching up on prehistoric Marvel comics and for long stretches of time in the 60s Peter Parker was the best thing going. The show takes many cues from the comics, but like the comics, it is far from perfect. Heavens, no.

Strengths

  • Classic comic book plots. So each episode of Spider-Man is divided into two ten minute segments, which are either parts one and two of a longer story or are two discrete entities. This flexibility is smart—it means that the writers aren’t stuck stretching out a thin plot into an entire half-hour and can be more judicious about pacing. Here, we get two separate stories. The first features four established bad guys teaming up to tackle Spider-Man (Paul Soles, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer) and the second centers on a two-bit actor with the groan-worthy name Charles Cameo (Carl Banas, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.) Cameo uses his impersonation and disguise skills to steal precious baubles and at various points he takes on the guise of Spider-Man, Peter Parker and J. Jonah Jameson (Paul Kligman.) The “supervillains combine their forces” and the “someone is out there doing a defamatory impersonation of our hero” are standard comic book tropes for perfectly good reasons. It’d be uncharitable to dismiss them as mere cliches, because it makes perfect sense that the various bad guys would at some point get the idea to combine forces, and identity theft is a natural outgrowth of a masked public figure with a mysterious background and questionable motivations. The show does reasonably interesting things with these tropes, too—Spider-Man can’t defeat his rogues gallery on sheer physical strength because they have him outnumbered, so he manipulates them and plays them against one another to foster infighting, and Cameo capitalizes on the paranoid Jameson’s ever-present Spider-Panic to the point where Jameson gets the cops involved. Not bad for a low-budget kids show, especially considering the actual comics from the period handled some of these things in a more clumsy manner. For instance, when six villains team up against Spidey in the 1964 Spider-Man Annual, for some dumb reason they all fight Spider-Man individually in a Chamber Of Secrets style gauntlet. Of course he beats them all, because he beat them all before one-on-one and why would anything be different now just because they formed an LLC? I dunno, maybe Stan Lee created an artificially low bar for spider-related excellence here.
  • J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson’s fun. He’s a big windbag with a Hitler mustache who likes to work himself up into hysterics, yelling and waving his arms around. Spiderman always outsmarts him. His employees crack jokes at his expense. In that same issue I just talked about, you can see him yelling at an actual spider. As usual, Spider-Man makes him look like an asshole here when it turns out that Cameo was the bad guy all along and Jameson’s back to square one on his lifelong quest to prove that Spider-Man is the Ayatollah. As Dolly Parton would say, he’s as mad as an old wet hen.

Weaknesses

  • The bad kind of camp. Look, camp is always going to be something of a bugbear, and there was no hope that any superhero property anywhere in the temporal vicinity of the 1966 live-action Batman was not going to be dripping with camp. However, it never reaches quite the level of art that ends with Batman getting into a surfing contest with The Joker. If you’re going to be campy, you damn well better lean into it. We can’t just settle for a visual of Spider-Man web-slinging through the suburbs, shooting webs up into the empty night sky and swinging around like there were skyscrapers instead of two-story rowhouses. I won’t be soothed by the sight of The Vulture (Soles) somehow producing missiles and explosives from between the feathers on his wings mid-air. It’s not even good enough to have Cameo escaping Spider-Man’s clutches by squirting him with tubes of paint until he becomes all flustered and painted. No, you really have to step up your game if you’re coming for Cesar Romero.
  • The Green Goblin. So The Green Goblin (Len Carlson, The Racoons) is one of Spider-Man’s more iconic nemeses, and I’m sure over the years various artists and writers have done interesting things with him, but for this reviewer he’s corny as hell. But he killed Gwen Stacy! Yeah, he also throws pumpkin shaped bombs. He buys his outfits at the pop-up Halloween superstore where the old Sears used to be. He looks like an off-brand garden gnome. He drives a shitty little sky scooter. I’m not buying it. It doesn’t help that Carlson’s voice acting makes him sound like the Wicked Witch in a theatrical production of Hansel & Gretel for pre-schoolers.
  • Under-explained plot points. At one point Jameson needs to deliver a “police memorial statue” to the police, and he needs to go pick it up at the artist’s studio. This gives Cameo an opportunity to impersonate Jameson, but what the hell is a “police memorial statue” and why is the editor of the local newspaper responsible for ferrying it across town?  And it’s not like this was the only way to get Jameson involved—a few scenes later he’s checking out a local antique show as advance publicity, but this time Cameo’s disguised as the antique dealer. Is there some reason Jameson needs to be integral to all of Cameo’s plots, even when it doesn’t make any goddamned sense whatsoever?
  • Doubling down on the theme song. Sure, everyone loves it. Listen, bud. He’s got radioactive blood. Sure. I’ve heard it all before—literally, because once we’re out of things to do in the second segment and still have a minute left to go, they run out the clock by showing us another 30 seconds of miscellaneous Spidey hijinks while we enjoy an encore performance of the theme song. Look, I get that there’s only so many ways we can watch Cameo steal stuff, but pacing is important because otherwise you get embarrassing shit like this.

Final Judgment: 3/10. Regardless of how catchy the song is, I really can’t recommend that you watch the 1960s version of Spider-Man. Paul Soles is no Tobey Maguire. He’s not even Andrew Garfield.

NEXT TIME: I’ll review the controversial German World War II miniseries, Generation War! Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be back to watching ridiculous cartoons for undiscriminating children soon.

Case Study 51: Spider-Man (1967), Episode 19–“To Catch A Spider”/“Double 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”

Case Study 25: Teen Titans, Episode 66–“Trouble in Tokyo”

Original Airdate: September 15th, 2006 on Cartoon Network

After forays into the world of ill-conceived watered down superhero cartoons, it’s refreshing to get to watch a show based on classic comic book heroes. DC and Marvel comics are the foundation of the superhero genre for good reason–they offer detailed, well thought out worlds with a rich internal history, frequently backed by considerably talented artists and writers. Of course, no decade spanning enterprise is entirely consistent, but at least the characters here have more resonant mythology than some nonsense cranked out to sell action figures or to keep something airing on the Nicktoons network.

It’s somewhat inaccurate to call this an “episode,” since as with Danny Phantom and Angelina Ballerina I’m reviewing something intended to be a “TV movie,” although since none of these things cracks an hour thirty, that distinction may be somewhat dubious. The Teen Titans television franchise continues to thrive–in 2013 Cartoon Network started airing a spin-off entitled Teen Titans Go!, which is enjoying considerable critical acclaim among critics sad and nerdy enough to spend all their time reviewing children’s cartoons. Ahem.

Strengths

  • Animation. It’s really quite stunning. The combination between DC and Warner Brothers is a winning one, since both are entities with a long-established reputation for making their mark in a visual medium. The coloring, the level of detail, the fluid sense of kinetics–it’s a feast for the eyes, and it really plays to the show’s strengths as an action-oriented thrill-ride with one foot firmly in the world of fantasy. It’s hard to capture in a still, especially when I only have Google Images to rely on, but here’s a taste.
  • Action sequences. Speaking of this show being action-oriented, Titans nails the fight scenes. The show opens with a no-holds-barred battle in the Titans’ generic urban home of Jump City as they face off against the mysterious, ninja-esque Saico-Tek (Keone Young, Men In Black 3.) Saico-Tek deploys modified shuriken bombs that emit gorgeous clouds of multicolored smoke on impact as everyone races through the city and struggles to capture him. The Titans travel to Tokyo to determine who sent Saico-Tek. Eventually, Robin (Scott Menville) and Saico-Tek reprise the initial battle by engaging in some impressive rooftop acrobatics, and the climactic scenes feature each member of the Titans facing off against unique, day-glo colored nemeses. I mean, chances are the average eight year old is not tuning in for the scriptwriting, and for those viewers these action sequences are guaranteed to satisfy.
  • Superpowers. These sequences are amplified by the fact that the Titans have some pretty badass powers. It won’t surprise people with a passing franchise with the Batman franchise that Robin uses hand-to-hand combat skills and the usual high-tech gadgetry to best his enemies, but Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) is essentially an Animorph without all the weird terms and conditions. You’re lying if you tell me you have no interest whatsoever in seeing a pterodactyl fight a ninja. Raven (Tara Strong, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic) is equally badass, using her command of black magic to astrally project, teleport, generate force fields, manipulate objects and generally kick ass, and because the visuals are so on point you can bet it looks cool as fuck.
  • Meta-commentary. So it turns out that the animating force behind Saico-Tek and his cohorts is very literally an animating force. He’s Brushogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Mortal Kombat), a manga artist whose rapacious desire to see his creations come to life led him to eventually gain the ability to actually bring monsters to life using ink and paper. Corrupt police commander Uehara Daizo (Young) traps Brushogun inside a cursed printing press and uses him to generate monsters to keep the police force looking necessary and useful. Of course, all the monsters the Titans fight are merely ink and paper brought to life by twisted minds, and the creatures that Brushogun spawns are all riffs on well-known anime characters. Daizo himself looks an awful lot like Inspector Zenigata from Lupin the Third. Clever!

Weaknesses

  • “Humor.” Unfortunately, I wish there was more of that cleverness to go around. Now, the show’s not without its risible moments–Raven bemoans not having a steady supply of gas-guzzling SUVs to hurl at an attacking Godzilla-esque monster, since all the streets of Tokyo have to offer are sensible fuel-efficient sedans. Later, she ends up becoming the incongruous celebrity spokeswoman for “Super Twinkle Donkey Gum.” Meanwhile, Cyborg (Khary Payton) pulls a Homer Simpson at an all-you-can-eat restaurant, so the chef (Young) tries to slow his roll with an endless variety of disgusting foods, including “an old boot stuffed with wasabi.” But once again, Titans offers us a case study in a non-comedy’s inability to restrain itself from trying to tell jokes when it doesn’t have any good jokes to tell. The main offender here is Beast Boy, who is aggressively telegraphed as being Wacky and Irreverent. The writers seem to have been instructed that every appearance by Beast Boy on screen must be accompanied by dreadful attempts at lulz. Upon landing in Tokyo, he asks when they’ll get to see the Great Wall. When Robin instructs Saico-Tek to put his hands in the air and Saico-Tek flies off instead, Beast Boy rejoins “Hands in the air, man, not your whole body!” He even gets a stupid and entirely pointless musical number so we can enjoy an extended riff on Engrish karaoke lyrics. HO HO HO
  • Unnecessary romance. Regular visitors to this space will know if that there’s one thing I love, it’s stupid tacked on romance plotlines. I mean, what 8 year old wouldn’t want smoochies in her action packed superhero cartoon? Clearly that is why one watches action packed superhero cartoons! Especially when the romance features the least charismatic character on the show, i.e. Robin. Sure, Robin is the de facto leader of the Titans–probably because he’s the only one of them the casual fan has ever heard of–but he’s also a humorless prig. The main obstacle to his burgeoning romance with Starfire (Hynden Walch, Adventure Time) is the fact that he believes he has to devote 100% to superheroism related activities and can give no quarter to the frivolities of romance. How, uh, relatable. I mean, he doesn’t even have eyes. Why not Starfire and Cyborg? I suppose I complained because Ballerina didn’t take the opportunity in its final movie-length outing to explore the romantic potential between Angelina and William, but that’s not so much something it was missing but something it coyly teased at on its way to having no plot whatsoever. It could have easily been just as boring as the Robin/Starfire romance.
  • Orientalism. So I understand the strong appeal of telling a story about Americans in Japan–the two countries have a similar quality of life but are almost completely antipodal in terms of culture. It’s an especially good fit for Titans because its animation style is dripping with anime tropes. (I don’t think it’d be unfair to say that Titans offers the best of both anime and western animation.) For the most part, Titans manages to avoid the gigantic steaming pile of racist/orientalist/exoticist tropes that frequently come along when the west looks at the east. There are definitely some stinkers, though. How did Brushogun get his powers? Oh, by dabbling with “Japanese black magic,” of course. The disgruntled sushi chef doesn’t just serve Cyborg the old boot full of wasabi, he also feeds him eyeballs and other various Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-grade bullshit. I mentioned above that each of the Titans faces a custom nemesis as designed by Brushogun. Beast Boy’s nemesis lures him onto the battlefield of her choice by appearing to him as a comely Japanese schoolgirl, and of course Beast Boy can’t resist the primal forces of lechery. What 8 year old doesn’t want to fuck a Japanese schoolgirl?

Motivation: Knowledge. Saico-Tek attacks the Titans and they have no idea why. There’s an excuse for an investigatory road trip if ever I heard one!

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. Titans is far from a must-see, but it gets the meat and potatoes of the superhero genre right.

NEXT TIME: I review Gracepoint to see how well it compares to its ancestor Broadchurch!

Case Study 25: Teen Titans, Episode 66–“Trouble in Tokyo”

Case Study 19: Max Steel [2000], Episode 7–“Snowblind”

Original Airdate: May 20th, 2000 on The WB

Conventional wisdom dictates that children’s programming designed to shill toys in easily-digestible 22 minute infomercials disguised as narrative are the nadir of TV for kids. I can definitely sympathize with this line of thinking, but the more time that’s gone by and the more I think about it I’m not sure how persuasive it really is. The entire business model of broadcast television is an inundation of advertisements with blandly inoffensive dancing monkeys inserted periodically. Now we have DVRs and streaming and other technological magic, so instead we’re treated to lovingly detailed portrayals of the features of Alicia Florrick’s Lincoln Town Car and desperately self-aware gags about Snapple in 30 Rock and Subway in Community. And you might say that at least these shows aren’t conceived out of whole cloth to sell tie-in merchandise, but the networks are currently inundated with shows designed to get you addicted to an endless parade of superhero movies, not to mention prestige shows determined to sell you board games and comic books and an endless variety of things that look like relics of British public infrastructure from 50 years ago. In addition to shilling Lincolns, my beloved Good Wife will gladly sell you a $6000 dollar sofa that looks exactly like the generic leather couch in Will Gardner’s office. When it comes to our offspring, though, we expect them to eagerly swallow tepid moralism and sage life advice about not doing shots before a marathon. So if you’re going to judge Max Steel, judge it by its own unique failings, not because it was intended to make money selling crappy toys. Make no mistake—I’m a dyed in the wool pinko, but we can hardly afford to get doctrinaire about the relationship between art and commerce in the hot light of 2015. After all, Powerhouse was brought to you by a non-profit organization and look how well that turned out.

Having said all that, Max Steel may be more successful as a media franchise than as a line of toys. The reason I had to specify up in the title that this is the 2000 Steel is because it’s just been rebooted, although the fact that it’s been on the air for three seasons and each season has seen it on a different network doesn’t exactly bode well for its health and welfare. Still, there have got to be 12-year-old Steel superfans out there, because they’ve also cranked out 9 straight-to-DVD movies.

Strengths

  • Intrigue. Hey, have you got a generic superhero story filled with generic superhero nonsense? Do you lack the rich and varied history of decade-spanning comic book franchises? Do you want to avoid the Danny Phantom or Murder, She Wrote trap of having an improbably large amount of excitement and adventure occur in a flyspeck town? Well, take a page from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and have your superhero adjacent antics take place within the context of a secret international crime fighting agency! By mixing a bit of intrigue in with your superpowered action, you’ve got a whole new well of stories to draw from, and it’s even better if you’re an animated show like Steel—you can use settings from all over the world without cheesy soundstages, green screen effects or unpersuasive attempts to replicate the Mongolian steppes in the outskirts of Vancouver. This also has the effect of making the heroes’ adventures seem more substantial and grounded in an existing and tangible reality. Despite the show’s inevitable silliness, the insertion of the counter-intelligence agency–here called N-Tek–turned out to be a great decision.
  • Sly metacommentary. So the main event of this episode of Steel centers around criminal mastermind John Dread (Martin Jarvis, Titanic) luring our eponymous hero (Christian Campbell, Trick) into an ominously unstable Aspen ice cave by pretending to be N-Tek’s resident teenage tech prodigy, Dr. Roberto Martinez (Jacob Vargas, Next Friday.) The show uses this plot device to slyly and ingeniously subvert some of the hoariest cliches of potboiler action/adventure. Since it’s Berto’s job to spew an endless stream of technobabble, Max credulously believes the patent nonsense Dread makes up on the spot, just like he does every week. How many times have you seen a show with a scene something like this?

 

RUGGED HERO: Nebulously Qualified Science Geek, we need a way to defeat the Asshole of the Week in time to save the Civic Center, and we need it NOW!

NEBULOUSLY QUALIFIED SCIENCE GEEK: Well, my calculations have shown that if we just apply [string of gratuitously made up jargon] to the [actual scientific concept that makes no sense whatsoever in this context] we should be able to triangulate the signal!

ALLEGEDLY SASSY SIDEKICK: Give it to us in English, you friendless virgin!

NEBULOUSLY QUALIFIED SCIENCE GEEK: I made a map of the building he’s in, I’ve circled the locations of the plastic explosives and I somehow installed a GPS chip in his urethra!

RUGGED HERO: LET’S MOVE

 

As we near the end of the second act, Max begins to put it together, but it’s hilarious how easily Dread tricked him with the usual handwavey TV nonsense. And Steel doubles down on another cliche-one-note characterization, often hung on a very tenuous hook. As far as I can tell, Berto’s character has two traits: he’s a wildly unrealistic teenage super-prodigy of the Doogie Howser variety and he’s Colombian. Since this is TV, of course he loves the Spanglish. Again, it takes Max to the end of act two to figure out that Dread’s version of Berto is using the wrong variety of Spanglish salutations. It’s very easy for Dread to trick Max into thinking he’s Berto because Berto is a cardboard cutout. Of course, by foregrounding the glaring flaws in the fundamental properties of their own TV show, the writers of Steel may be shooting themselves in the foot to a certain extent. And it’s entirely likely that your average 8 year old isn’t going to pick up on or remotely care about tongue-in-cheek lampshading. But you’ve got to take your thrills where you can find them when you’re reviewing eminently forgettable children’s television from the past.

Weaknesses

  • Hilariously bad animation. Animation in the mid-to-late 90s is a classic case study in “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” The wonders of digital animation with 3D effects were only just being discovered. There was Pixar, making that shit look gorgeous. Of course, Toy Story cost $30 million goddamned dollars. Did the creators of Steel have $30 million dollars? They did not. Look, I realize this was 15 years ago and the people who made this show can’t hear me, but please don’t do this kind of thing unless your show is set in the uncanny valley. Watching this was like watching a Let’s Play of Deus Ex. And the thing about Deus Ex is that it’s not really contingent on acting. When you’re making a TV show wherein people feel emotions, it often helps if their face and/or body moves in a vaguely realistic way. I will also tell you that despite the illustrious cast of people who peaked in the 90s, the voice acting leaves something to be desired. They could probably have saved a lot of time and money if they had just made characters in The Sims. Compared to this, Super Mario 64 looks like Gustave Courbet. And what the hell is wrong with good old fashioned 2D animation? If it worked for Walt Disney, Hanna-Barbera and Hayao Miyazaki somehow I think you clowns can piece something together.

Motivation: Even when his life’s on the line, Max is on the job. Preventing Dread from poisoning his hometown with some sort of magical ice artifact or whatever the fuck is all in a day’s work.

Final Episode Judgment: If you’re a hopeless superhero TV junkie and you’ve somehow managed to exhaust the mountains and mountains of name-brand material out there, you could actually do a lot worse. Like Danny Phantom, for instance. 6/10.

NEXT TIME: I dive into the over-chlorinated swimming pool of “historical” drama for a game of Marco Polo!

Case Study 19: Max Steel [2000], Episode 7–“Snowblind”

Case Study 9: Danny Phantom, Episode 28-29–“The Ultimate Enemy”

Original Airdate: September 16th, 2005 on Nickelodeon

Danny Phantom is the second Nickelodeon original animated series or “Nicktoon” from Butch Hartman, the creator of the wildly successful The Fairly OddParents as well as the more recent T.U.F.F. Puppy, which is still airing new episodes albeit in the deep cable ghetto of the Nicktoons network. During its three season tenure Phantom enjoyed four hour-long double episodes—this was the second.

Strengths

  • Interesting concept. This show takes place in a universe where intrusions into everyday life by visible ghosts from another dimension are a known quantity, if not necessarily a commonplace occurrence for the average person. The otherwise unremarkable Danny Fenton (David Kaufman) is destined to become intimately familiar with ghosts, however. His parents Jack (Rob Paulsen, Animaniacs) and Maddie (Kath Soucie, Rugrats) are flat-footed investigators of the paranormal, and when Danny finds their disused portal to the ghost dimension he manages to activate it. This results in his transformation into a half-human half-ghost entity that can change forms at will. The show gets grist for the plot mill from Danny’s attempts to keep the Ghost Zone at bay. This episode adds the additional complication of time travel, introducing Clockwork (David Carradine, Kill Bill) an immortal, omnipotent ghost ally tasked with saving the human world from a timeline ending in destruction. So far, so good—this is a unique premise with plenty of potential.
  • Unique visual style. While the character modeling and the general style of animation on display is strongly reminiscent of Fairly, the ghosts and the Ghost Zone are distinctive and appealing. In general the show is a pleasure to look at and excels at using the powers of its medium to go above and beyond in terms of presentation. Clockwork’s animation is particularly choice as he regularly vacillates between three different life stages to reflect the fluidity of time that permeates the nature of his character. It’s just really well thought-out. As we go on you’ll find out that I found this show profoundly disappointing, but the animators and artists have nothing to do with that.
  • Deep worldbuilding. Much of this episode relies on Danny’s interactions with his extensive rogue’s gallery and the deployment of various ghost hunting/interfacing gadgets designed by the Fentons. This broad and richly developed world is the show’s most rousing success when it comes to imitating the thrills of superhero comic books. It’s the kind of thing that makes a fan want to come back again and again—the sense that all the pieces matter and that the show’s universe lives and breathes and doesn’t just reset or disappear in between episodes. It’s the difference between a static world and a dynamic one and I’m glad Phantom recognizes the importance.
  • David Carradine. In a show with otherwise unremarkable vocal performances, Carradine steals the show. Through nothing but the magic of his performance he lends a nuanced, brooding gravitas to a time-travelling ghost. A great actor can elevate the most tepid writing or the most ludicrous premise.

Weaknesses

  • Dreadfully unfunny. Oh, man. This show is peppered with wretched attempts at humor at every junction—I think they’re going for a Spiderman thing where the mild-mannered teen protagonist turns into Don Rickles when he takes the form of his more confident alter ego, as Danny is constantly trying to banter with his foes. Here it mostly takes the form of uninspired time puns, which get beat into the ground in various permutations. “I guess I’m going to have to give you a TIME OUT!” Fozzie the Bear has better material than this. It’s not that I don’t want the show to have a sense of humor, but in the words of Jack Donaghy, “Don’t start unless you’ve got something.” The overall sense of hackiness is compounded by the way the show handles Danny’s principal, Mr. Lancer (Ron Perlman, Hellboy.) Apparently one of Lancer’s character traits is that he just exclaims the name of media properties that are tangentially related to the matter at hand. I’ll give you an example. In this episode, the safety of Danny’s loved ones (and Lancer) is imperiled by an explosion caused by the overheating of a volatile special sauce analogue at the local McDonald’s analogue, which is called “Nasty Burger.” (Satire! Do you get it!?! Fast food is gross!) When Danny uses a small amount of a to-hand serving of the sauce as a weapon in a fight against the ghost Box Lunch (Soucie) the ensuing explosion starts the boiler overheating process and causes cataclysmic property damage. Lancer is eating lunch at the franchise. When the shit hits the fan, Lancer busts out with “Fast Food Nation!” Get it?! Because that’s a thing?! I mean, where’s the fucking joke? Family Guy is often used as an example of a widely maligned trend in comedy where a propos of nothing some pop culture artifact is injected with “edgy” humor—a Sesame Street/Homicide: Life on the Street crossover, or a reimagining of the Dick Van Dyke Show opening credits where Rob’s trip over the ottoman results in a series of increasingly violent blunders. The criticism is that this is a lazy grab at cheap laughs based on the fact that the audience is pleased with itself for recognizing a parody of the Van Dyke opener and mildly scandalized by a twist. (Being overly pleased with yourself and empty grabs at falsely edgy comedy is pretty much the Family M.O. in a nutshell.) But this is a step beyond—it’s just randomly throwing out the names of various referents. I didn’t realize it was possible to be this lazy with pop culture references in comedy. Kids may not get or appreciate reference-based comedy, especially when it’s this profoundly unfunny, but they do enjoy comedy that stems organically from who the characters are. A great ensemble creates a zany and exciting environment for kids to get invested in. But transparently out-of-character comedy squanders that potential. There’s more. At one point Danny’s friends, Sam (Gray Delisle, 2006’s The Replacements) and Tucker (Ricky D’Shon Collins, Recess) are saved from certain death by hasty removal of the time medallions they’re wearing. Tucker marvels that Sam was able to remove the medallions in time, and Sam “jokes” that she “doesn’t accessorize well.” Despite the fact that this is an incredibly tepid excuse for witty banter, Sam is visibly wearing at least four different accessories when she says this. If you insist on barraging me with dreadful “humor,” can we at least have it not be visibly out of character? The jokes are also brazenly out of touch—at one point the allegedly tech-savvy Tucker’s PDA plays a role in things, because he is a fortysomething middle manager from 2001. Or so I surmise. Another joke is made about “bling.” Part of why this is so frustrating is that occasionally, the show will come tantalizingly close to an actual risible moment and then hammishly oversell it. I’m thinking specifically of the moment right at the end of the episode where Danny and his sister Jazz (Colleen O’Shaughnessey, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) are having a conversation about how she’s known about Danny’s secret identity for some time. Danny gets called away to fight a giant tentacled slime monster, and Jazz gets soaked with green goo, with just her eyes and her lips visible in inimitable cartoon fashion. It’s a hilarious visual and a great undercut to a sappy moment—and then they ruin it by having her say “This is going to take some getting used to!” What does that add?
  • Overbearing soundtrack. In an action-oriented cartoon, I sort of expect the musical side of the soundtrack to be obnoxious, and indeed it was, but within fairly acceptable levels. The really grating thing here is the over-the-top SFX work. The show has great animation and the character modelling is very expressive. This show does absolutely nothing in a subtle fashion, which shoots it in the foot over and over again. It would hurt absolutely no one to just have the characters have visibly dismayed or amused or suspicious facial and physical reactions to things. We don’t need the sound of their eyebrows shooting up. It comes across as condescending, and, again, adds nothing. The dramatic music during fights and stuff is typical and unobtrusive, but we also don’t need wacky little stings after every flaccid attempt at comedy. You’re not helping, SFX. It’s never going to be funny.
  • Convoluted plot. Oh sweet Jesus. This is going to take some time. So let me summarize the story here as briefly as I can. Ten years into the future of Danny’s home of Amity Park, the world is a grim dystopia. Amity Park is now behind a force field and the surrounding land is grey and barren for as far as the eye can see. In this timeline, the adult Danny Phantom (Eric Roberts, The Expendables) is a tyrant terrorizing the residents of Amity Park and is presumably responsible for the current state of the rest of the world. Dark Danny breaches the forcefield, and Clockwork is tasked with destroying present-day Danny to prevent this from ever becoming a problem. Back in the present, Danny and friends are notified by Lancer that they’ll soon be forced to take a challenging and all-important standardized test. Danny is nervous about the test and very unsure about his chances at success. Clockwork’s first attempt on Danny’s life involves dispatching Box Lunch. Danny does battle with her at the Nasty Burger, deploying the previously mentioned improvised condiment explosion. During the explosion he turns into his intangible form to avoid getting hurt by flying debris and manages to pass through Lancer’s briefcase, where the test’s answers are concealed. Now in possession of the test’s answer key, Danny considers cheating and discusses it with his friends at school. Lancer overhears and is persuaded not to take immediate action by Jazz. Clockwork sends a second ghost to attack Danny, one Skulltech 9.9 (Paulsen & Kevin Michael Richardson, The Cleveland Show.) Skulltech traps Danny in a giant metal claw, but is presently incapacitated when Tucker uses his PDA to hack Skulltech’s operating systems. As Tucker and Sam struggle to free Danny from the claw, Skulltech’s mysterious time amulet falls from his neck, transporting them to what I guess is supposed to be Clockwork’s base of operations. Clockwork attacks them and they escape through a portal to the future. There, Dark Danny attacks the trio, and as mentioned above Sam & Tucker manage to escape by removing the time medallions they were wearing after taking them from Clockwork’s lair. Meanwhile, Dark Danny takes regular Danny’s time medallion, ties him up with magic ropes or some shit and banishes him to the Ghost Zone. Dark Danny disguises himself as regular Danny and travels back in time to regular Danny’s timeline. In the Ghost Zone Danny is confronted by his rogue’s gallery, all of whom have been fucked up in one way or another by Dark Danny’s misdeeds and want revenge. Dark Danny and Jazz run into each other and because of Reasons Dark Danny reveals that a) he is in fact not the Danny that Jazz knows and loves but an evil, all-powerful super-Danny from the future and b) that Danny’s only hope of returning to the present is by going through his archenemy Vlad Masters (Martin Mull, Hollywood Squares.) Jazz conveys this information via tying a note to a Fenton family gadget keyed to Danny’s ectoplasmic signature or whatever the fuck and throws it into her local ghost portal with the hope that it finds Danny in the future Ghost Zone. Danny defeats the vengeful ghosts with a powerful, newly developed technique known as the Ghostly Wail, a weapon that Dark Danny has been using liberally. Meanwhile, Dark Danny proceeds to cheat on the test that will eventually lead to the fiery death of the Fentons, Sam, Tucker and Lancer in that boiler explosion, despite Jazz’s attempts to stop him with more Fenton gadgets. Regular Danny gets Jazz’s note and tracks down future Vlad, who is a shell of his former dastardly self and who delivers an exposition dump about how when everyone Dark Danny loved got violently killed he broke down psychologically and demanded that Vlad excise his human portion, eventually becoming an evil, all-power ghost bent on destroying the world. Now certain that (Dark) Danny cheated on the test, Lancer summons Dark Danny and his parents to the Nasty Burger for…Reasons, where they are promptly joined by Sam & Tucker, who are rushing to warn the adults about the imminent boiler explosion. Jazz shows up with Fenton gadgets and reveals Dark Danny’s identity. Regular Danny shows up to do battle. Dark Danny prolongs the battle as long as possible but ultimately regular Danny uses a Ghostly Wail and incapacitates Dark Danny long enough to put him into a secure Fenton ghost thermos. But it’s too late—the boiler explodes anyway. The deus ex machina that prevents the next season and a half of Danny Phantom from being super-dark is Clockwork, who shows up at the last minute, makes a dumb speech about how time isn’t a parade, and the upshot is that he’s decided since he can’t seem to outright kill Danny he might as well just reverse time to the tipping point of Danny cheating on the test. He does that, Danny doesn’t cheat, the world is saved. If I read all that shit aloud to you it would take about 6 minutes. A plot summary should never take 6 goddamned minutes. And this is far from a satisfying plot! Any story involving time travel is going to involve a certain amount of convolution, which is why it must be done extremely carefully. A show for 8 year olds shouldn’t be on the level of Primer, for fuck’s sake. We also spend a huge amount of time dicking around with two unrelated ghost battles and the rogues in the Ghost Zone to boot, as well as listening to a bunch of exposition in a third location from yet another character. That’s time we could spend actually getting at the emotional cores of the story. There are two. 1) We learn that Danny’s misdeed leads to a chain of events that essentially destroys his life and 2) he subsequently becomes monstrously powerful and evil. The show spends plenty of time establishing the latter—too much time. The opening scene makes it obvious that Dark Danny is wreaking hell. Danny and his friends see direct evidence of this in Clockwork’s lair. Clockwork tells them. Dark Danny tells them. The fucked-up rogues in the Ghost Zone convey this. Vlad tells Danny. Dark Danny tells Jazz. Great. Pick two of those, maybe. And spend the rest of the time here earning the first plot point. We’re never given any explanation of how the cheating would have led to the boiler explosion in the first place. How would Danny have gotten the answers and destabilized the boiler in the first place if Clockwork hadn’t sent Box Lunch to attack him? Why would Jazz, Tucker and Sam have been at the inexplicable parent/teacher conference at the burger place? This chain of events only makes sense when Clockwork intervenes, which presumably he didn’t do the first time around, because why would he deliberately be trying to create a chain of events resulting in Dark Danny? Since none of this makes any fucking sense, it doesn’t put any power into what should be a very powerful revelation—that Danny inadvertently destroys everything he loves. This could have been salvaged, and instead it’s a particularly coiled hot brown mess.
  • Cheap moralism. For that matter, it’s kind of gross that this decision to cheat is presented as a be-all-end-all moral cataclysm. This is a common feature of kids’ programming and it’s pretty wildly unnecessary. What anyone will tell you about working with kids is that they know when they’re being patronized. Let the kids have their damn ghost-fighting/gadgets/superpowers/explosions cartoon without trying to force them to eat morality flavored vegetables, at least not this didactically. I’m reminded of a recent article I read on the original Nicktoon, Doug. To quote: “That story always deliberately found its way to a moral center. [Doug creator Jim] Jinkins would have his writers specifically identify the kid issue they were addressing a top of each individual script. ‘It sounds a little self-righteous,’ Jinkins said, ‘But I always knew there was going to be a moral foundation to the series.’…In the adult world, the notion of truth and not-truth is complicated, but I didn’t want to debate it. I didn’t want to show all of the ambiguity of the adult world to kids. I wanted to show kids a world where everyone took honesty seriously.’” Well, I haven’t seen Doug in a while, but that sounds pretty shitty and boring. It’s easy to be a moral absolutist in a universe where you make all the rules. That’s a universe we don’t live in. Acting like there aren’t shades of grey is insulting to kids who don’t need to have your weird conservative Christian family values moralism jammed down their throat when they’re just trying to watch a fun cartoon. Jinkins is now working on a kid’s cartoon about the 10 commandments. Can’t wait for the adultery episode! As far as Phantom’s status as a morality play, why does it have to be cheating on the standardized test that determines your entire future that leads Danny down a path of sin and iniquity? Having his whole family die isn’t bad enough? You might object that we’re told the deaths would never have happened without the cheating—but, uh, show, don’t tell. Rule number one. Instead, we’re treated to the scintillating fact that Dark Danny put rogue Johnny 13 (William Baldwin, Sliver) into a wheelchair. That’s great. That’s dark. Whatever. But you know what packs a bit bigger of a punch? The fiery death of Danny’s entire family, a very big moment that the show doesn’t earn in the slightest.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. Phantom has potential, but this was a deeply annoying hour of television. A particularly sad fact is that my internet research tells me that this episode is considered by fans to be Phantom’s zenith, which I dearly hope is not the case. Part of the reason for that appears to be that this is an unusually grim turn for a light-hearted show, but if light-hearted means more hacky jokes Danny’s loved ones should die every week.
NEXT TIME: We look at our first show from one of the big four networks, Early Edition.  

Case Study 9: Danny Phantom, Episode 28-29–“The Ultimate Enemy”