Monday, April 5, 2010

My Life As An Unwilling Super Hero Squad Addict

I am a professional graduate. That's not to say that I'm in grad school, I'm not, but rather that my occupation can best be described as enduring the ennui and malaise that comes from being overeducated and underemployed. And unlike my profession's cinematic avatar Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate, I have not spent my post-college days engaged in an affair with a sexy older woman. No, Charge Shooters!!!, I am ushered into the throes of adult life not between the thighs of a Mrs. Robinson but in front of the idiot box watching The Super Hero Squad Show.

The Super Hero Squad Show is the latest multimedia push by Marvel Comics. It's a show airing on Cartoon Network featuring an Avengers-esque team aimed at the kindergarten set. And I am for some reason addicted to it. It may be because I am a lifelong devotee of the Marvel Universe and the House of Ideas or it could just be that it happens to be on at my usual lunch hour of 1:00 PM CST. Whatever the reason, I can generally plot my week based on the developments of the "Squaddies" and my love/hate relationship with them.

The Super Hero Squad started out as a line of super deformed-esque figures targeted at the 3-and-up demographic. Last year, the innocent merchandising enterprise spawned the aforementioned animated series that has brought me so much joy and misery in these, my salad days.

At the time when I was probably at the older end of the SHSS' target audience, I was waist deep in the jewels of the 90's superhero cartoon renaissance: Batman: the Animated Series, X-Men, and Spider-Man. These three shows, to varying degrees but fairly consistently thought their respective runs, utilized storylines and characters from their parent comic books and made generally faithful adaptations of their source material on the small screen. Most of the knowledge I have about their title characters and their half centuries or so of history can probably be attributed to the cartoon versions I would watch when I came home from school. By the time of our current superhero movie golden age, I was incredibly well-read on post-war superhero lore, even though I had only been reading comics published since 1992 or so.

Super Hero Squad is not so much a translation of Marvel stories from page to screen as it is a giant advertisement for Marvel itself and for the upcoming film projects that are its bread and butter. The eponymous team, consisting of Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Wolverine, Falcon, and the Silver Surfer does not exist in any form in the comics (though it should be said that Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk are early Avengers mainstays and Wolverine is one of the, at least to me, blasphemous New Avengers) and if anything is more a cross-section of Marvel's stable of heroes than anything resembling an effective superhero team.

Allow me to go off on a tangent here: Falcon. The goddamn Falcon. Falcon is a third-string superhero at best. His powers you ask? He can fly (and talk to birds, making him in essence an airborne Aquaman). You know who else can fly? Iron Man, Thor, and the Silver Surfer (though I guess he surfs, really. Also, why was the second Fantastic Four movie called Rise of the Silver Surfer? He really descends if anything...). So why include him? I can only regretfully suggest a need for a token black character. But why Falcon? Why not one of the legitimately cool black Marvel heroes? Black Panther! Luke Cage! Instead you opted to include a superhero whose real ability is that he's Captain America's black best friend.

Anyway, back to the discussion at hand. Since it is in fact a show for, you know, children, SHSS' sins of including a simplified superhero team can be forgiven, I suppose. But there remains an insidious notion that that the show exists solely to indoctrinate kids into love for upcoming Marvel productions. Three years ago, Iron Man would never lead an ensemble superhero cartoon. Sure, he'd had his own cartoon in the 90's as well, but until 2008's Iron Man, nobody really knew anything about him. Also included on the team, Thor who has a Kenneth Branagh-directed movie coming down the pipeline as well. Thor is way too weird to be the second-billed in a show like this under normal circumstances. There's also the Incredible Hulk, who should be included in the upcoming Avengers movie as well.

Also, there's a supporting "junior Squaddie" named Reptil, who was introduced in the throwaway post-Civil War event The Initiative. His power? He can turn into dinosaurs. Yes. There is actually a superhero out there, who was created less than five years ago who morphs into dinosaurs. He's like something out of the goddamn Dino Squad. He's also Latino (which I'm sure has nothing to do with his inclusion on the show) so he does things like shout "¡Que bueno!" and "¡Muy excelente!" when he gets excited and spends entire episodes teaching Ms. Marvel how to make quesadillas.

Speaking of Ms. Marvel, she's a recurring guest star as well. But she's wearing pants. Whoever made the call to cover up Ms. Marvel's amazing gams deserves to be dragged into the street and shot in front of their family.There's also some (somewhat hilarious) issues of including rather "mature" characters and tidying them up for child audiences. Take Wolverine, for example. His power is that he stabs people. He also used to be a CIA killing machine. It's just kind of weird to see him be "the grumpy one" when anyone who's ever read an X-Men comic knows that he's doing everything in his power to keep himself from flying into a berserker rage and painting the wall with Reptil's insides.

On the subject of violent characters in dumbed down family-friendly versions, the Punisher makes a brief appearance in an episode when the Squad needs to him to drive them somewhere (and this is literally the plot for an entire episode) so that Hulk can take a shit because the toilet on the SHIELD Helicarrier is broken. Just check out his brief appearance which is just full of nods to his brutal take on vigilante justice, toned down with kid-friendly metaphors of course.

For those of you not in the know, this is a typical panel from a Punisher comic these days.

My love for comics is something that I hope I can pass on to my kids. I only that when I reach that point in my life, there is better television representation of the characters I love than a half hour Iron Man 2 ad.

And besides, any show that has goddamn MODOK as a major character is doomed to fail on some level.