As a fan of superheroes and cartoons, I tend to feel cheated here in the UK. Unless I pay a subscription to Sky or Virgin, I can’t get the cartoon channels, particularly Cartoon Network and its Toonami section. Terrestrial channels occasionally get some cartoons but never the really good ones. DVDs don’t seem to be collected here in the UK either; for example, the Justice League series has a handful of collections of two-part episodes, but not the entirety of the seasons. And although I can watch them on YouTube, I’m an old fuddy-duddy who prefers being able to watch television programmes on, you know, the television, the specialist piece of equipment I have purchased for this specific task.
It’s mainly due to the purchase of a PVR that I’ve been able to see any cartoons on a regular basis. The Batman and Fantastic Four are on at ridiculous times of the morning, but the series link means I don’t have to worry about that. The Batman is an updating on the Batman concept, which you’d think wouldn’t be needed after the near-perfect job done by the Batman: The Animated Series, but I know that times change.
This cartoon is obviously for the youth market because of the ‘funky’ visual updating of certain characters, such as the Joker and Clayface, and because everyone has to fight Batman, even the Penguin (who, although still short and podgy, is somehow a wushu expert who can go several rounds with Batman in a gymnastic fighting style). The strangest change to the mythos is giving Bruce Wayne a best friend who is a black cop (but who later gets turned into Clayface), which seems an odd choice. There is no Jim Gordon, and the cop’s female partner (who always seems to wear the same shirt and jeans combo for work) is a prominent character who becomes Batman’s inside help in later episodes.
The animation style is quite nice, neither manga or derivative of Bruce Timm’s Batman, and it’s weird to hear a theme tune written by The Edge. However, a lot of the stories don’t really hold up, the popular characters get recycled too often and the new villains (such as the rather pointless Firefly – a flying character is not really a Batman villain and just gives them an excuse to do Batman in a flying device that essentially makes him a flying superhero, which misses the point) don’t warrant repeated appearances. They’ve only reached season two here in the UK, so perhaps things perk up in the later seasons (a quick Wikipedia search reveals Commissioner Gordon and Justice League appearances).
The Fantastic Four cartoon is a bit of a mess, taking the same approach as The Batman and updating the concept for the youth market but going one step further by having a very manga-influenced animation style. How the characters don’t stab themselves to death with their pointy chins is beyond me. There is also the fact that they don’t feel like a family, just people who stay together, and the relationship between Reed and Sue doesn’t have the feeling of love that should be there.
The cartoon also mixes old villains (updated for kids) with newer ideas without getting the balance right. The stories don’t connect or grip, and there is never a sense of danger or wonder at the marvel of what they get up to. There are occasional nice touches (I liked it when She-Hulk turned up to sub for the Thing for an episode) but other things are completely distracting, like Doom’s Latverian embassy building in the middle of Manhattan. Johnny is relegated to one-note idiot, drooling over girls and cars and shouting stupid things. Sue’s powers are expanded to exponential levels, allowing her invisible shields to do practically anything. Reed always gets the weakest use of his stretching powers, having him stretch his head to look at something in his lab to remind you that he can stretch. The Thing comes off best, but you can’t really mess him up. I’m not sorry that they aren’t showing this on ITV anymore, except for the fact that I want superhero cartoons on terrestrial television.
I’ve been sampling other stuff via my online DVD rentals, but the pickings are slim. I’ve watched some old Justice League cartoons (with the really lame 3-D credit sequence and John Stewart acting like a total dick most of the time) but only the early season one episodes appear to be available. The thing that freaks me out is the size of the chest and shoulders on the male heroes – they are as wide as they are tall at the shoulder region, and I’m amazed then can get their hands together. It’s nice too see bits of the DC universe, and animation has a suitably heroic feel to it, but the stories always seem to involve these accomplished heroes not paying attention and getting easily beaten up to allow the story to have dramatic focus for the fight scenes.
Another show that appears on actual DVDs is X-Men: Evolution, but not in any kind of order or sense behind the episodes, and seemingly only seasons one and two (would it kill them to have the later seasons over here?). I really like the animation style for the show, and I have to confess to being an X-Men fan of old, but this misses the mark on several points.
The choice of characters who are artificially older or younger for the sake of having the series set at a school seems bizarre – Charles, Logan, Storm (and later Beast) are adults, while everybody else is high school age. Having them at the same school as the ‘bad’ mutant kids (Avalanche, Toad, the Blob, Quicksilver) seems to require a huge willing suspension of disbelief in mathematical distribution of mutants.
The show is also hampered by its desire to make every episode have a message about being kids and how things affect them – nothing is more off-putting than trying to be relevant. However, the worst offence is the character of Spyke – a black skateboarder whose mutant power is to grow spikes from his body. The other characters in the show are from the comic books and feel like they belong whereas Spyke just feels like Poochy – look kids! He’s got a skateboard! Isn’t he radical? He’s hampered with a ridiculous blond haircut with shaved bands in it, and the lamest and most embarrassing power ever seen. Poor, poor Spyke.
The gist of this email is: it’s nice to have some superhero animation but I want to be able to watch other things, such as Justice League Unlimited and The Legion of Super Heroes (but not The Teen Titans – that was a bit too manga and cute for me) on television. They look good and are stuffed with DC universe people (although I am amazed that Bouncing Boy got into the main team on LSH) and look like a lot of fun, but I can only watch them online – where are the DVDs for us Brits? Bring me superhero cartoons on a regular basis – is that too much to ask?