Or, Avengers Begin. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is to date the most satisfying animated incarnation of Marvel’s superhero superteam as it (for the most part) faithfully follows the origin story conjured by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby before it explores material from other eras of the comic’s run as well as from the Marvel live-action films. The series begins with the original Avengers roster of Tony Stark/Iron Man, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Thor, Hank Pym/Ant-Man and Janet Van Dyne/Wasp before branching out to include Steve Rogers/Captain America, Clint Barton/Hawkeye and T’Challa/Black Panther; throughout Season One, the team fights various enemies who have managed to escape from all four of the Marvel Universe’s major fictional prisons (the Vault, the Cube, the Big House and the Raft) until the season finale in which Thor’s trickster brother Loki orders Amora the Enchantress to form their own league of supervillains, the Masters of Evil. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, which originally debuted on Disney XD in Fall 2010, is a treat for comic book and superhero fans of all ages; all of the episodes are smart, witty and feature some terrific voice work, particularly from Eric Loomis’ as the endearingly arrogant and ever wisecracking Tony Stark/Iron Man and Phil LaMarr as Stark’s sardonic A.I., JARVIS (named, of course, after Tony’s butler from the comics, Edwin Jarvis). Fun trivia: Rick D. Wasserman, who voices the mighty Thor, also voices the Hulk in Planet Hulk.
Okay, so it’s not quite canon, but it sure is a lot of fun. Tony Stark finds himself in an Indiana Jones movie (or maybe it’s more like those goofy Mummy movies) as he attempts to raise an ancient Chinese city, a project that gets the murderous attention of the Jade Dragons, a band of warriors dedicated to preventing the return of the evil Mandrin, who ruled China 30 centuries ago. After suffering near-fatal injuries at the hands of the Dragons, Stark reveals his secret side project to his friend James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes: a suit of armor that might indeed make one “invincible” — and turns Tony into the “Iron Knight” that was prophesied to one day battle the resurrected Mandarin. Drenched in a bunch of mumbo-jumbo that probably makes even Stan Lee scratch his head, The Invincible Iron Man makes up for its sometimes incoherent creative liberties with its wow-wee Saturday matinee spirit and often extremely imaginative and surreal animation style, making for a curious “What If?” adventure that’s rather enjoyable if you just go with it. Marc Worden reprises his Tony Stark voice role from the two Ultimate Avengers movies while Fred Tatasciore (who voices the Hulk on The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) provides villainy as Iron Man’s classic archenemy, the Mandarin.
“Hulk Smash!” becomes “Hulk Spartacus!” in this strange animated adaptation of Greg Pak and Carlo Pagulayan’s equally strange comic book miniseries that ran from April 2006 through June 2007. Planet Hulk begins with the Illuminati deciding that the big green monster is too dangerous to stay on Earth and launching him into space; our hero ends up crashing on the planet Sakaar, where he’s imprisoned into slavery and forced to engage in gladiatorial battles for the amusement of the planet’s ruler, the Red King. Hulk ends up being as popular as Russell Crowe in the arena as he forms a Warbound pact with his fellow warriors and becomes involved with a group of insurgents; later, he faces (and fights) quite a challenge in the form of Beta Ray Bill (filling in for the role played by the Silver Surfer in the comic). It’s as silly (and derivative) as its sounds, but Planet Hulk, both the film and the comic, deserves credit for trying to do something completely different with one of Marvel’s more difficult characters, making for an interesting experiment that ends up having its own unique surprises and pleasures (including, yes, plenty of “Hulk Smash!” moments). Rick D. Wasserman, who voices Thor on The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, makes for a fine Hulk; Marc Borden also reprises his Invincible Iron Man role with a Tony Stark cameo.
Based on Loki, the 2004 comic book miniseries by Robert Rodi and Esad Ribic, Thor and Loki: Blood Brothers chronicles the age-old power struggle between Marvel’s mightiest sibling rivals over control of their home world of Asgard. This isn’t an animated series but rather a “motion comic,” in which original artwork from the graphic novel is manipulated in Final Cut Pro (or equivalent software thereof) to add subtle movement and other low-key flourishes; while not the greatest gimmick in the world, it most definitely casts a hypnotic spell if you’re in the mood to just sit back and immerse yourself in its trippy strangeness. The style definitely works for this odd and brooding story that actually focuses more on the God of Mischief than his heroic brother, getting into the classic Marvel villain’s head as he mopes around the royal palace and encounters various characters that often prompt fascinating flashbacks to his earlier years. You know, maybe Loki’s really not such a bad guy after all! Aye, it’s a good yarn, even if you’re not a fan of the way in which it’s presented; the voice work is also especially strong, though the actors involved — most of which come from Broadway — all appear uncredited due to union restrictions. By Odin’s beard!
While it’s nowhere near as subversive, fiercely creative and surprising as The Ultimates, the thirteen-issue comic book miniseries created by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch on which it’s based, Ultimate Avengers still counts as more than just a nice try as it reimagines how the team that would later become known as the Avengers came into being. The main focus here is on Steve Rogers, the WWII soldier who became known as Captain America after his highly successful response to the experimental “Super-Soldier Serum,” as he prevents a missile launch instigated by a race of aliens disguised as Nazis; he’s rescued from the icy waters of the North Atlantic decades later by a S.H.I.E.L.D. team led by Nick Fury (looking a lot like Samuel L. Jackson both here and in the comic, long before Samuel L. Jackson was actually cast in the role for the live action movies) and revived to lead a team of superheroes, including Iron Man, Giant Man, Wasp, Thor and Black Widow (and the Hulk, sort of), in foiling an invasion by the Chitauri, the same alien race Cap encountered during the war. Ultimate Avengers, not surprisingly, streamlines the more in-depth character aspects of the comic (including Rogers’ uneasy and sometimes heartbreaking transition into the “modern world”) and dumps a lot of the comic’s now-dated pop culture references (Hulk doesn’t fly into a rage over Bruce Banner’s ladylove Betty Ross going out on a date with Freddie Prinze Jr.) in favor of having as much superhero action as possible, which it delivers with style, skill and enthusiasm. Highly enjoyable if you let it be — and do — its own thing.