Saturday, March 5, 2011

Animating the Superhero universe

Superhero cartoons have been riding a serious high since Bruce Timm brought Batman to the small screen. Currently there's a nice mix of action, whimsy and intensity in superhero animation.

The Avengers is a slick production, re-telling the earliest days of the Marvel super-hero team but with an eye to backstopping and reinforcing the big screen interpretations in existence or pending. Young Justice (Don't call them the Teen Titans) brings the more realistic and glossy design and animation of recent superhero straight to video movies like Justice League: Earth 2 and Batman Under the Red Hood to television animation. Batman The Brave and the Bold goes a completely different direction emphasising the campy kid friendly approach that is an equally valid take on Batman as the grittier, darker versions are.

The Avengers is a straightforward superhero action cartoon with great hero/villain battle set-pieces. It's essentially the classic 60's line up but with the enjoyable and interesting narrative decision to ask what if The Hulk, the sullen but not completely stupid version he was at the time, hadn't left the Avengers and had actually stayed on the team.  This offers a clue that suggests that Joss Whedon's take on the Hulk in the Avengers movie will be based on a smarter more talkative version as he's been portrayed in the comics lately.

Classic Avengers villains and stories are referenced but with the advantage of being able to take years worth of continuity and incorporate them into a cohesive story arc.

Some great voice acting - Lance Henriksen as the villainous Grim Reaper is a standout - kid friendly designs and kinetic animation make this one of the best of the animated Marvel universe cartoons.

Young Justice adapts the Peter David written comic series with the addition of recent DC Comics interpretations of Aqua Lad and the new character Miss Martian.  It's also Peter David who brought back the intelligent but mean version of the Hulk in a big way although others explored it before him.  More people see the cartoon version of these characters than read the comic book versions, so Peter David is exerting a lot of influence on the public perception of both the DC and Marvel universes right now.

The Superboy is the cloned version introduced in the death of Superman story-line with lots of young teen clone angsty goodness.

By far the darkest and most superhero realist take on the comic book hero genre, Young Justice features dark conspiracies, complex character beats and grand cinematic scale to lesser seen corners of the DC universe.  A high point was the most recent episode with its in depth exploration of the Atlantean society of the DC universe with a beautiful visual interpretation of an underwater city.

Batman The Brave and the Bold goes the exact opposite way with an appropriately boldly cartoony version of Batman and the DC universe.

Some fans of superhero cartoons have been taken aback after the more quasi-realist approach has been so dominant for so long but in fact The Brave and the Bold succeeds and it does so completely precisely because its creators bring the fun.

Most recently, the impish other dimensional fanboy Batmite who perfectly personifies this sunnier Batman cartoon hosted a special episode animating some of the odder interpretations of Batman in comics and cartoons including an early Kurtzman  Mad Magazine Batman parody, Bat Manga and another sequence celebrating the long alliance of mighty heroes between Batman and Scooby Doo.

Writer Grant Morrison has suggested that the DC universe can be viewed as a real universe constantly accreting detail and even sentience.  Universes are vast, they can contain multitudes.

Honorable mention to a cinematic version of the classic superhero/supervillain diad in Megamind, just out on DVD.  This is the hero/villain war paradigm as joyful game and simultaneously unresolved childhood complex.  Fun and well worth picking up.

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