The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes Volume1 and Volume 2

Just in time for a certain thunder god’s appearance in theaters, the Avengers assemble to take on some classic supervillians who will probably never rate the silver-screen treatment themselves. While it’s not the worst bit of animated storytelling Marvel’s ever been involved with (Thing rings, anyone?), it’s definitely not the greatest. So, a quick roll call for the less geeky folks in the audience.

Tony Stark, better known to the world as Iron Man (voiced by Eric Loomis), is on a quest to reclaim the weapons and technology he created that have gotten out into the world and are being used by bad folks to do bad things. Thor (Rick Wasserman) is the Asgardian god of thunder, struck with the need to protect fragile, mortal lives... especially the life of paramedic Jane Foster (Kari Walgren). Captain America (Brian Bloom) was the iconic superhero of World War II, thought lost in an explosion near the end of the war but actually frozen in a block of ice up near the Arctic Circle. Henry “Hank” Pym (Wally Wingert) wants to make the world a better place through scientific research, but keeps finding himself forced into becoming Ant-Man or Giant-Man (depending on which order he uses his amazing shrink/grow technology in). Hank’s girlfriend, Janet (Colleen O’Shaugnessey), is all for becoming a full-time superhero as the Wasp. And the Hulk (Fred Tatasciore)...well, the Hulk and Bruce Banner (Gabriel Mann) are still debating what they want to do, aside from staying out of the custody of S.H.I.E.L.D. and its director, Nick Fury (Alex Desert).

For the first few episodes, these folks don’t cross paths much. Each hero gets a stand-alone story to give us a sense of who they are and why they do what they do. One oddity is that none of these are origin stories (despite titles like “Iron Man is Born!”). Yeah, it’s a safe bet that these days everyone already knows how Iron Man came to be, and odds are this time next week a lot of people are going to have a better grasp of Thor. Even the last Hulk movie took it as a given that everyone knew the origin of the green giant. But the pacing and structure of these tales does leave you with the sense that you’ve walked in at the middle of the story, or at least missed the first few chapters.

These heroes are finally brought together six episodes into the season when the various super-prisons S.H.I.E.L.D. is maintaining all malfunction at the same time. Close to a hundred supervillains are set loose on the country in a mass “Breakout.” Some of them want to fight. Some of them want to get away. And some of them have bigger plans altogether. When the immediate threats are dealt with, the heroes decide to stay together to help hunt down the escapees. And thus, the super-team known as the Avengers is born...just in time to face the threat of the Leader (Jeffrey Combs) and the looming super-villain team known as the Masters of Evil.

Now, as a guy who grew up on comics, there’s one thing I have to give these episodes credit for. These stories live and breathe the Marvel Universe. In the same way you could pick up an issue of Amazing Spider-Man and see Spidey swing past the Fantastic Four’s office building, there are a bunch of cameos and Easter eggs for hardcore comic fans. Many of you will probably recognize a Canadian soldier who pops up briefly during a WWII adventure with Captain America. Not as many will catch the hidden meaning of the B headline on a modern-day New York newspaper about a mysterious vigilante punishing the underworld, or understand the title reference to Hank Pym’s first episode, “The Man in the Anthill.” Heck, the dozens of recognizable background characters during the prison scenes could serve as the basis of a drinking game for the truly nerdy.

Not that I would know any of that stuff. It’s just what I heard from... somebody.

Anyway, this leads to two issues (comic book pun intended). First is that the writers are cherry-picking story elements to set up their overall arc, and it makes for some very disjointed episodes (some of this undoubtedly comes from these first five episodes originally airing as almost two dozen “micro episodes” on Disney XD). We see the Captain America episode through the viewpoint of time-traveler Kang the Conqueror, who ends up becoming the focus of the last act. Ant Man’s story skews off to focus on tribal politics in the African nation of Wakanda, giving us a glimpse of yet another potential Avenger. Heck, the first few episodes almost spend more time setting up the idea of S.H.I.E.L.D. than they do setting up the heroes. It’s cool to see all this stuff, but it would’ve been cooler if it made sense to someone without a doctorate in Comicology.

That’s really the biggest problem with Volume 1. Since the show is all about the Avengers, the first five episodes feel more like an attempt to establish backstory for the characters and the world. As fun as all the references are, though, those first episodes are just clumsy collections of plot points, character moments, and foreshadowing. It isn’t until the team has formed in Volume 2 that we start to get some coherent stories and a sense of who these characters really are.

Second, it’s not really clear which Marvel Universe these stories are taking place in. There’s the classic versions of these characters that began back in the ‘60s, but there’s also the Ultimates version that was started up a decade back as a sort of parallel reboot of many characters. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal. After all, every adaptation is going to tweak a few elements here and there. The Avengers, however, depends heavily on the audience knowing a ton of facts about these characters already. So knowing if we’re dealing with (so to speak) Sean Connery Bond or Daniel Craig Bond is kind of important.

While the Hulk covers a lot of these issues, nowhere is this confusion more apparent than with Nick Fury. He wears the old blue-and-white jumpsuit of classic Marvel, and also sports his trademark silver stripes in his hair -- but he’s a black man. He’s also not connected to the Howling Commandos, even though the writers make sure we see Fury’s old Army team in Cap’s WWII episode. To make matters more baffling, in some of the previews for next season (more on them down below), we see that Fury’s going to grow a goatee, shave his head, and start wearing a trench coat -- effectively turning him into the Ultimates version of the character.

Now, I know right now some of you have no idea what I’m talking about, and I sound like Comic Book Guy nitpicking little details. But that’s kind of my point. The series is targeting that hardcore fan niche that already knows these characters, but it’s doing it with a scattered, shotgun approach that tries to hit the broadest appeal possible, and fails because of the lack of coherent storylines.

If I had to make a guess as to who the target audience is, it’s probably people who grew up reading comics in the ‘70s and ‘80s who now have kids of their own. Mom and Dad (okay, probably just Dad) will get lots of fun flashes of nostalgia and some cool inside jokes. The kids get to see a lot of superhero fights with a healthy amount of property damage. But no matter who you are, these initial episodes are going to make you feel like you’re seeing something that could’ve been fantastic but instead took the easy path and settled for okay. Personally, I’d skip Volume 1 and go straight to Volume 2. With all the hype that’s been going on, it’s probably not too much of a shock that both of these discs begin with a preview for the live action Thor movie opening this week. (You can read Katey’s review right here.) There are also a few trailers for some upcoming Disney projects, including Pixar’s Cars 2.

Past that, each of these discs only has one extra (although I give them credit for proudly declaring their Bonus Feature -- singular). Volume 1 has “New Looks, New Heroes,” where writers Christopher Yost and Joshua Fine discuss the new character designs for the show’s second season, and also how they selected some of the new Avengers we’ll be seeing from the decades-long roster of potential heroes. Volume 2’s special is “New Stories, New Threats,” where they go over a couple of the arcs they’ve got planned and some of the villains we’ll be seeing (two words -- secret invasion). For some reason, these two featurettes are set up so you can’t skim through them -- they’re on or off, that’s it. It’s also important to note that these interviews assume you’ve seen the entire first season -- not just the half on these two discs -- so there are some spoilers peppered through there.

It’s probably also worth noting that if the second half of the season is released the same way the first one was, it’s going to be two more discs retailing at around 15 dollars each. So the first season of this half-hour show is going to cost you well over 60 bucks with tax. Or you can wait for the inevitable multi-pack which will probably end up selling for less than half that price.