The old idiom "don't judge a book by its cover" could easily be adapted for modern forms of entertainment to "don't judge a show by its channel." Produced for Disney XD, if you asked me what the chances of "The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" not only being good, but age defying, I'd have had serious doubts. Now, just recently concluding it's 26-episode premiere season, Disney has released the first two volumes of episodes of this new series that is some of the best Marvel animated fare to come out in recent memory. Initially debuting as an internet micro series, Disney has reassembled those 20 initial, two to three minute episodes into five standalone introductory episodes to Marvel's original squad of heroes, which not shockingly has a live-action movie coming next year.
In volume one, viewers get thrown into a kid-friendly, but still intelligent and genuinely fun Marvel universe. The first five episodes focus on a sole member of the Avengers, which has yet to be formed. Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, and Ant-Man, and Wasp are introduced here, drawing off decades of source material, but not remaining a slave to tradition, allowing for some surprises along the way. Only Captain America's story resembles anything of an origin tale, following an adventure of the Captain's WWII exploits against dreaded foe, Red Skull. Instead, the episodes jump straight into the action, introducing villains and highlighting what makes each hero unique. Clocking in at around 22-minutes each, the pacing is perfect, allowing for a handful of action sequences and engaging exposition.
The show, created by Joshua Fine, appears to work largely do to the efforts of the writing crew, with Christopher Yost, a comic and "cartoon" writer himself, having his hand in many episodes. At the end of the day, what matters is the writers understand the characters, understand why people love the characters, and understand how to make these characters appeal to all ages. It's refreshing to get to see these heroes come alive on screen and not be bogged down with the continual sense of dread and brooding that has found its way into the live-action superhero films. That's not to say the series doesn't have it's darker points, especially when it comes to The Hulk, who struggles with issues of acceptance, in the final two episodes on the disc as The Avengers finally come together in the wake of a super villain prison break.
The animation isn't cinematic, but a huge step-up from the old Fox "X-Men" series. The character design is just slightly stylized and the worlds are as colorful as one would expect from a vintage Marvel book. It's a visually pleasant show that won't have young minds wandering, even when the characters are just standing around talking. Aiding the fine animation, is a memorable voice cast, with Iron Man sounding very much like Robert Downey Jr. (the team got Eric Loomis who has been handling the character since the second live-action movie video game), while the other characters are unique and become identifiable even when not on-screen.
The combination of quality animation, more than competent voice work, and consistently thoughtful writing makes this initial foray into "The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" a blast several times over. When the worst aspect of a series is a terrible theme song, that is easily skipped with the press of the 'next chapter' button on the remote, you know you're in safe hands. The episode distribution Disney has chosen for this initial release is incredibly sensible: we get give episodes of character introduction and then two, proper episodes setting up the squad and some villain threats to come. It's a series that simultaneously leaves you wanting to see what happens next and willing to go back and revisit the existing episodes in the mean time. With a whole universe of supporting characters (Nick Fury, Hawkeye, and Black Panther are all briefly introduced in this round) and villains to draw from, the show runners show no signs of rushing things, allowing stories to develop naturally, and if the quality of the start manages to hold, I see this series having a nice long life ahead of it.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer would be reference quality if it weren't for two glaring technical hiccups. A very primary colored series, compression artifacts are occasionally noticeable, resulting in a less than smooth image. Additionally, aliasing is a minor but noticeable issue, and in animation where smooth lines can be key, this is a bit frustrating. That aside, the transfer is strikingly clear and vibrant, with strong clarity.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track is solid, with strong sound design and appropriate usage of the surrounds. Dialogue is well mixed and clear, while action sequences never feel overpowered or underplayed. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
A brief featurette entitled "New Looks, New Heroes" is a preview of stuff to come in season two. It's relatively spoiler free, but if you don't want to know where season one ultimately ends up (in terms of who shows up and becomes a major player), I'd skip it.
A very welcome breath of fresh air, "The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" dishes up seven introductory episodes to a wonderful looking and playing series. It's what superhero series should aspire to be, with all protagonists getting logical billing. The scripts are smart, well paced, and never guilty of alienating the young or old comic book fan alike. Hopefully Disney will hurry up and get the rest of the season out soon, because this volume and the second volume of episodes leave you wanting for more, very quickly. Highly Recommended.