Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Why Young Justice is better than Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes

This show is better...

...than this show
Having just finished watching the first season of Young Justice, and having previously watched the first season of Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, I think now is a good time to pause and consider what makes Young Justice a better show.

I'll admit right from the start that Young Justice is aimed at teens, while Avengers: EMH is aimed at younger children, which is a point in Young Justice's favor. It deals with more complex characters in more serious situations. The characters are nuanced teenagers, as opposed to the slightly dopey, one-dimensional heroes in Avengers: EMH. In an early episode of Young Justice, you see villains whose bodies go through disgusting transformations as a result of combat drugs. In Avengers: EMH, you get villains who chew the scenery so much you'd think they were Cobra Commander in the old GI JOE cartoon. If there is conflict within the Avengers team, you know it will be resolved by the end of the episode and they'll all be best buds again (except Black Widow, but she's not a member of the team). In Young Justice, jealousy, mistrust, and secrets are ongoing challenges for the team.

I loved the designs of the heroes in Young Justice. Robin's is probably my favorite: it's iconic, but modern. It looks functional while also looking heroic. The series creators clearly put a lot of thought into giving each character his or her look, while maintaining a unified design aesthetic for the group. I read a post from one of the show's designer describing how Aqualad's costume is designed to be sleeker than Robin's to reflect that Aqualad is at home underwater, while Robin is used to urban combat. Then you have Superboy, who doesn't need any sort of costume, so he goes around in a shirt and jeans.

Compare that to Hawkeye's purple getup in Avengers: EMH, which they try to pass off next to Tony Stark's high-tech armor. These characters don't belong in the same show. Half the male characters are as wide across the shoulders as they are tall. There was a scene in which Tony Stark, with his normal human proportions, spars in the ring with Steve Rogers, whose shoulders must make him have to turn sideways to walk through doors. I wanted to tell Tony, "Get out of there, dude! He's going to crush you into paste!" But what's even worse are the designs of the female characters. Both the Wasp and Black Widow are stick-thin and have eyes that cover half their heads.

I can't go through each character's design, because there are too many. But that's another point in Young Justice's favor. If you count the number of characters in the images above, the Young Justice team is shown with six characters, while the Avengers have eight, and that's not counting Black Widow and Nick Fury, who get more screen time than some of the major characters. No wonder so many episodes had trouble finding interesting things for each character to do. Poor Black Panther always seemed to just be along for the ride. One episode focused on the tension between the technology-loving Tony Stark and the magic-wielding Thor. At the end of the episode, it was Black Panther, whose people use both technology and magic, who showed them how they could use their respective strengths to overcome their foe. With this valuable lesson learned, Tony and Thor had a bro moment where they each apologized for the way they had treated the other... and then completely forgot to thank Black Panther, whose idea saved the day in the first place.

One of the things that irked me most about Avengers: EMH was that one of the main story arcs in the first season focused on the relationship between Hawkeye and Black Widow, as they alternate between trusting and betraying each other. Now, I don't have anything against bow-using superheroes or even super spies, but when a show features bigger-name characters, I expect more of the focus to be on them. There is a reason there has never been a Hawkeye movie. Alas, the show makes it plainly obvious that Hawkeye can hold his own among his betters, and even points out in one scene that he has taken out more bad guys than the Hulk. When a non-superpowered guy with a medieval weapon can take out more goons than the strongest creature there is, it makes super strength seem pretty lame. And the last thing you want in a superhero show is to make your superheroes feel lame.

I went into Avengers: EMH expecting to like at least Iron Man and Thor, based on how much I liked the characters in the films. Unfortunately, I found the TV characters to be bland shadows of their movie counterparts. Thor is a big guy who talks weird and Tony Stark is a billionaire with a heart of gold. Maybe some more character flaws would have helped: some more of Stark's narcissism, or Thor's thick skull.

Conversely, I am pleasantly surprised by how much I like the characters in Young Justice. Robin is the most experienced member of the team thanks to years of working with Batman, but he is also the youngest, which shows in his enthusiasm and rash decisions. I really appreciate the way the writers allow Robin's knowledge of computers and use of gadgets to overcome his lack of superpowers while still contributing to the team, without letting his tools make his teammates' powers redundant. For a large part of my childhood, Robin was my favorite DC hero. In later years, I decided that it was a terrible idea for Batman to have a kid sidekick, and Robin was even my least favorite character in the otherwise excellent Teen Titans series. Well, the Robin in Young Justice redeems the character in my eyes.

I am even more surprised by how much I like Aqualad. At first, I rolled my eyes at the thought of Aqualad being on the show. Aquaman is infamously the lamest superhero, so surely his sidekick would be even worse. But in Young Justice, Aqualad's character has both the wisdom of maturity and a great warmth toward his friends, making him probably my second favorite character. I like the way his character combines innate Atlantean superpowers like super-strength and breathing underwater with magical knowledge he had studied to learn. It gives him added depth (no pun intended).

I should give some credit where credit is due. I liked the way the Hulk is introduced in Avengers: EMH. It shows Bruce Banner as a self-imposed outcast from society, traveling from place to place as he tries to escape the people who are looking for the Hulk.

I also have a soft spot for MODOC (Mental Organism Designed Only For Conquest... I guess MODOK with the K for Killing was too much for the Disney-produced show). While the other ridiculous villains are played with a straight face, the hilariously villainous MODOC is constantly derided for his bizarre appearances by the show's heroes. It doesn't feel mean-spirited, though, as MODOC is gleefully antagonistic toward the heroes as well.

I'm looking forward to seeing the next season of Young Justice. They're adding a lot more heroes to the roster, so it will be interesting to see how the dynamic of the show will change to accommodate the additional characters. Some day I might even check out the second season of Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Maybe just the MODOC episodes.

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