The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (which is currently in its second season on Disney XD) returned to U.S. television last Sunday after a month-long hiatus, and as I was watching the return episode, "Nightmare in Red," a realization hit: It’s probably the most enjoyable comic book superhero series on TV right now.
Now, before any accusations start, I'm not just some Marvel fanboy raving against DC’s animated properties. Considering that I own most of the DCAU on DVD, have picked up more than a few of the more recent animated films, and currently read DC comics, I wouldn’t say that I’m a Marvel fanboy by any stretch. It’s just that Avengers is a bright, lively series with plenty of good comic book action and plotting. It’s by no means a deep series, but it offers a pleasant contrast to the DC Nation block of programming (Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Young Justice) in its tone, charm, and consistency.
And I think if you’re a fan of comic book series, or just animation in general, you should probably be watching The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
To make a case for the series, I’m going to provide quick overview of Season 1 and Season 2 as it stands so far. If you’re very spoiler-phobic, you should stop now. I’ll give away as little as possible, but since I know people’s spoiler ranges can vary, I just wanted to make that clear.
Season 1 is very much about how the Avengers would come together as a team. There’s Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, and Ant Man and Wasp. Black Panther and Hawkeye later join the team as well. Now, if you’re even passingly familiar with the Marvel universe, whether it be through comics or the wildly popular movies, you can skip the first five episodes of Season 1 (which are sometimes listed as "micro-episodes," depending on where/how you watch them) and start with “Breakout: Part 1” (Ant Man and Wasp may be unknown characters to many; if that's the case you may want to start instead with “The Man in the Ant Hill”).
Those first episodes are, frankly, rather rough and not the most pleasant origin-ish experiences, and that’s why I recommend skipping to the meat of the season, which deals with the team trying to recapture nearly every villain in the Marvel universe who isn’t a regular foe of the X-Men or Spider-Man after someone simultaneously sabotages every SHIELD super villain prison. On top of this, there are various intergalactic and intertemporal threats as the Kree and Kang the Conquerer (a favorite villain of mine) also arrive to cause problems.
And in this season the series establishes itself nicely. The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes is a very vibrant, fast-paced series that is very action-centric. If you watched Disney XD’s The Spectacular Spider-Man, Avengers is very much in the same vein, both in animation style and in overall tone. There’s a lighteness to the series as everyone on the team is competent and confident in their abilities, and they risk their lives with quips (it’s a very funny series) and gusto.
Bits of Season 2 are established in Season 1, demonstrating that the series has a bit of a broad plan in mind. Kang’s arrival is motivated by one of the Avengers turning out to be a traitor and ruining the timeline, and it turns out—as we learn at the end of the Season 1 finale—that the Skrulls, a shape-shifting race of aliens, are invading and taking the place of many superheroes around the world, including an Avenger.
And so Season 2, thus far, has been dealing with the team trying to figure out how it can sustain itself when it is divided not only by geography but also by trust. It isn’t a deep interrogation of these particular issues, but the team is practically down to Wasp, Captain America, and Hawkeye at this point in the, so things are becoming a little dire
I mentioned up front that I think Avengers is better than the DC Nation block airing on Cartoon Network, so I suppose I should back that up. Young Justice is probably the most instructive example. Both Avengers and Young Justice are team shows and both engage in arc-style narratives (to varying degrees); the team aspect is a big issue for me since it’s a tricky thing to balance so many characters, both in development and in action sequences. Avengers wisely doesn’t always use the whole team all of the time (even when they are all on good terms with one another), but even when it does, I feel like each character shines, and when it comes to full-on team brawls, the action choreography is more skillfully storyboarded and cut together on Avengers than on Young Justice (though YJ has improved on this front, thankfully).
I've noted the ease with which Avengers shifted rather seamlessly from the rounding up of villains to falling victim to a secret alien invasion, and I feel that Young Justice hasn't made similar pivots as seamlessly. Its Season 1 finale undermined a lot of the dramatic heft it gathered toward the tail end of the season, and while it set up this whole mystery of what the senior members of the Justice League did for 16 hours, it hasn’t done even a good job of making internal sense of those 16 hours due to the big reveal at the start of Season 2.
Admittedly, comparing the two series isn’t completely fair. YJ does also balance significantly more character work against its action than Avengers generally even attempts. And while I don’t feel that YJ has ever been all that successful with its character drama (it is successful in spurts but never consistently), it does at least make a concerted effort to expand its characters’ lives beyond their costumes.
I do think, however, that Avengers has crafted a different type of character arc in the case of Ant Man, who spends much of Season 1 grappling with his pacifist ideology and what that means in terms of being an Avenger. It’s not a character story we see too often (if ever) in a lot of superhero series, and Avengers shows the effects that Ant Man’s decisions have on the team and on himself in very specific and rather nuanced ways.
If there’s one last thing I think that Avengers does well compared to other, more recent superhero series, and this is true regardless of its owner/publisher/whatever, it’s that Avengers offers up strong female characters. Many of the comments on my review of The Legend of Korra's first season mentioned how much they liked having a central and complex female character, and I’d encourage those people, or parents with young girls interested in superheroes, to check out Avengers.
Between the dedicated and can-do spirit of Wasp—probably my favorite character in the series—and the confident, powerful, no-nonsense women of Abigail Brand and the Carol Danvers incarnation of Captain Marvel (voiced by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Jennifer Hale, respectively, women known for voicing strong female characters) made prominent in Season 2, the show offers up the rare opportunity to see positive representations of women in a genre that often fails to do so.
However, it’s not perfect in this regard. Black Widow is featured prominently in the series, and she is oddly and overtly sexualized (she routinely enters the frame so that her posterior is the most prominent thing in it) in a series that otherwise steers clear of that type of unnecessary and unmotivated representation.
The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes is not going to see a third season, as Marvel has announced that a new Avengers series, Avengers Assemble will start in 2013, and that it will be more in line with the tone of the movies. But I think it should be telling how highly I think of it that I am essentially recommending a dead show walking. There are still more than 15 episodes left, and that’s more than enough to enjoy it while it lasts.
The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes airs Sunday mornings on Disney XD (but double check your local listings). Season 1 is available on Netflix Watch Instantly as well as through Netflix’s disc-by-mail service. If you don’t have Netflix, both Amazon and iTunes sell digital copies of Season 1 and the currently airing Season 2 on a per-episode basis.