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Why The Action Cartoon Era Ended – And How We Can Bring it Back

Cartoon Network’s “DC Nation” is a joke. Literally. As of this post, the only cartoon aired in during this block is Teen Titans Go!, along with a smattering of various DC shorts, which are cute, but primarily entertaining to the Youtube crowd (this is not an insult – most of the DC shorts are great). Yet with Young Justice, The Green Lantern, and Beware the Batman cancelled, there is something sad in listening to the deep, booming voice announcing the intense, upcoming “DC NATION” during the interstitial graphic, only to be led to another wacky episode of Teen Titans Go!. Teen Titans Go! is actually a really funny show (albeit from the Adult Swim template); its hated reputation stems from how its goofy approach to superheroism is really the only thing on Cartoon Network that’s related to superheros.

Beware the Batman

I wrote about this briefly over on my tumblr, but I wanted to expand upon this more, especially in light of a recent comic post made by the showrunner to The Green Lantern, Giancarlo Volpe. I sort of wish Volpe had a bit more insight on the superficiality of the testing process, and the portrayal of Bruce Timm as a cigarette-smoking, too-cool-for-school badboy irks me at a gut level, but the directness of testing and its poor scientific procedures (everything is geared towards a specific outcome, from the lack of a control to splitting boys up by ages but not girls) is notable. If testing is a creative hell that animation showrunners are going to go through, then they’re already at a disadvantage. That being said, testing is only a part of the issue – toy lines, marketing, ratings, and word of mouth is another. Beyond that, let’s be honest: Cartoon Network was never committed to DC – that much is obvious. The general vibe among all the kids’ network is clear:

1) The action cartoon is dead. Of course, I’m exaggerating. But let’s take stock of the action cartoons currently on the air. There’s Ben-10, Legend of Korra [NOTE: as of July 24, 2014, Nick has removed this show from its schedule], Agents of SMASH (UPDATE: no longer on hiatus), Ultimate Spider-man and Avengers Assemble (which apparently is terrible), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and, if we’re reaching, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness). Note that everything has a strong comic element to it, save for Legend of Korra – none of the other shows listed delve into more serious, dramatic matters. (It’ll be a while before any of those cartoons pull a “The Man Who Has Everything.”) All of these shows have mixed reviews; Legend of Korra tends to have the most buzz when it airs, and even so, there have been issues with the current books. Time was that the major kids networks aired a block of action cartoons that mixed well with the comedy entertainment. Now, it seems like networks are scrambling to get rid of them – or, at the very least, to make them sillier and cartoony. I like my cartoons to be cartoony. I don’t like my action cartoons to be cartoony.

2) MARVEL killed the action cartoon. It’s the sad truth. The thing that made action cartoon thrive in the 90s was their ability to engage directly with their comic book aesthetics, delving to the more bizarre conceits like time travel, aliens, robots, and multiple dimensions. CGI was pretty much shit back then. Cartoons were where you went to see the cool stuff. Advancements in CGI took place in the 2000s, but movie studios still believed that superhero fare could only succeed with the right degree of campiness (give or take a Batman Begins). The seeds were planted when X-Men and Spider-man did well at the box office; Marvel simply doubled down on their movie properties, to great success. The kind of rich visual aesthetics that were only available on the animated screen were now visible on the big one. Of course, these films were PG-13, so children of all ages could see it, and they were so enamored with the films that the cartoons look like crap in comparison. It doesn’t help that the writers, producers, animators, and executives of the last vestiges of the action cartoons were amateurish, working with low budgets and dwindling ratings and mediocre scripts. As Marvel films took their products seriously, action cartoon creators didn’t.

3) Action cartoons didn’t help themselves. Going up against a behemoth like Marvel is a daunting task, but it’s doable. The cartoons didn’t do themselves any favors though. Marketing research has emphasized comedy – apparently this is exactly what kids want to watch. So everyone – from executives to creatives – got caught up in the need for their action cartoons to be a few action scenes inserted in the middle of a vaudeville act – heavy on the jokes, goofy on the visuals, and silly on the set pieces. Which, in all honesty, is fine. The last thing we want is the brooding male mentality to seep into our animated fare. That being said, not every episode and not every scene need to be built around a million punchlines. Action cartoons have room for drama, for heart, for real character development, and of the shows mentioned above, I hardly see it (again, save for Legend of Korra).

Beyond that, the actual action is questionably portrayed. The thing about action scenes is that they’re a physical extension of the dramatic beats of the current scene (it’s why thugs in Batman are dressed similar to the current rogue Batman is up against). Action scenes, like any scene in entertainment, needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They need to have a clear goal and clear obstacles. What is the protagonist trying to physically accomplish? How are the villains actively trying to stop him/her? My rant against the second season of TMNT is antagonistic but clear, and I’ve questioned a few action scenes in Legend of Korra. Thundercats failed because it never took full stock of the seriousness of its premise; Beware the Batman took way too long to get to its admittedly intriguing story arc.

The future of action cartoons look grim, but there may be a way to save them. Primarily, we need networks willing to commit to them, in a way that goes beyond toy sales. From a critical perspective, though, action cartoons need to do the following:

1) Hit the ground running. You have about two or three episodes before you lose the attention of kids. So your first few episodes should hit some serious dramatic beats. Don’t only establish the world you built. Establish the characters we’ll be introduced to AND the kind of action scenes we’ll be seeing. Go big, don’t go ridiculous. It doesn’t have to be dark, but it does have to mean something. It has to be appealing. Blow their minds. And everything that you establish – action, drama, comedy, world-building, tone, and atmosphere – has to travel to the next few episodes. Beware the Batman had tonal issues and its rogue gallery had potential but never amounted to anything but various villains with different voice actors. All that has to be clear in the aesthetics, so make sure to —

2) Bring your A game (in storyboarding, animation, and writing). I find myself noticing more and more hiccups in storyboarding – the staging of the action is unclear and muddled, the animation tends to get lazy at time, and the writing feels forced and goofy. Both Beware the Batman and TMNT have passable action beats, but it’s obvious that both shows feel the need to have brawling actions scenes all the time, despite the fact that the heroes of these shows are ninjas and should be working more in the shadows. There’s a discrepancy here, when everything has to be working on all cylinders. The writing has to display why action is happening, the boarding needs to make every move and beat clear (why is he jumping out the way vs. running away?), and the animation should make every impact and near miss feel real and tense. That being said —

2) Stakes must be huge. Early and often. Thundercats’ pilot was dark, deep, and intense. It involved the murder of a leader of a kingdom, a kingdom that was isolated from the rest of the world and treated outsiders like shit, which was then followed by the mass genocide of said kingdom. Subsequent episodes pretended like that didn’t happen. It took till the second season before actually characters were developed, the genocide/hated-strangers-in-a-strange-land aspect was downplayed, and what started as a murky grey area quickly changed into black-and-white heroes and villains. (Probably due to that stupid testing?). The lesson we can learn from this is —

3) Don’t pander. Kids will know when you pander. Enough with mustache-twirling villains, charmingly-vague heroes, solitary female companions, and goofy sidekicks. How are we still working with this template in this day and age? I suppose that there’s plenty of marketing out that saying kids want to see goofy, comic versions of themselves in the characters on-screen. That may work now, but kids – especially those older kids – need to be challenged if we’re ever going to “earn” their respect for cartoons. If we can show them that cartoons can be as dramatically appealing and audaciously diverse as their live-action counterparts, we can work towards breaking down those “anti-cartoon” barriers. Do you know what else would help with that? Action cartoon should —

4) Appeal to adults and “trickle” the admiration down. Cartoons have a “trickle up” approach right now. Appeal to a specific demo – 6-11 boys mostly – and hopefully bring in girls, older boys, and ultimately, not irritate the adults who watch them with their children. Maybe we should work backwards. I’m not saying action cartoons should be super-serious. But maybe if action cartoons caught the attention of adults first and spread across word of mouth, then children (who want to be “grown-up” like their parents) would follow suit, watching it along with their parents instead of parents watching it along with their kids. That’s a bold call, but in some way, that’s exactly what Marvel is doing. I would argue that’s what Dreamworks managed to do with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon as well (in some ways, this is exactly what WB did with their DCAU properties in 1990s-2000). Applying this approach to action cartoons today may save them. With so few studios willing to commit, though, this most likely may not happen anytime soon.

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Lloyd In Space

Lloyd in Space is a disappointing show that never allows the audience to connect to its characters. How Lloyd in Space fails to follow in the brilliant footsteps of its predecessor, Recess.

Lloyd in Space screenshot

The Lloyd in Space episode entitled “Neither Boy nor Girl” has become somewhat of a rallying cry for the transgendered community. In the episode, an alien reveals that members of its species, upon reaching their thirteenth birthday, get to decide which gender its going to be. The episode breaks through the silliness of designating specific items and activities as “for boys” and “for girls,” showcasing the alien character genuinely enjoying both. It portrays the male and female students battling over which gender the alien should be, up until the point that the alien, politely, tells the other students to shut the fuck up – the decision is really up to him/her. In the end, the alien makes the decision, but doesn’t tell anyone, because its rightfully no one else’s business. It’s clear why the transgendered community has taken this episode as their own, battling to convince an unfortunately bigoted world that their gender is not up for everyone else to decide. It’s a personal, deep, insular decision, and we as a society should respect that.

As an episode for social change, it works wonders. As an episode of Lloyd in Space, it’s representative of an overall flawed approach to a surprisingly weak show out of the minds of Paul and Joe, two creators who had their hands in some of the best cartoons of the 90s – Rugrats, Recess, and Hey Arnold. (They also worked on the 2012 Pound Puppies remake, which I still claim to be one of the best cartoons of the modern era.) Paul Germain and Joe Absolabehere usually have a rich, distinct insight on young people, creating shows and writing episodes with a quick sensibility and a warm pathos that delve into a specific element of growth, not focused on hormonal changes but interpersonal ones. Paul and Joe characters are smart and resourceful, yet deeply flawed, constantly struggling to improve themselves through the wild creative stories they come up with. Paul and Joe create CHARACTERS, so it was tough to see Lloyd in Space and note how lacking these characters were, even for aliens.

When you watch cartoons, beware of what I would call “broad exposition intros,” or BEIs. BEIs are signs of weak writing, and if a majority of episodes contain BEIs, nine times out of ten, you’re going to have a bad show. BEIs occur at the beginning of an episode. Your main characters are sitting around or walking together, without any context of being in their current location, and they witness either another character doing their job/task/daily routine, or maybe they witness an event occurring. Completely unprompted, they begin to talk SPECIFICALLY about that character or event, for no other reason than to alert the viewer that the episode is CLEARLY going to be about that character or event. BEIs don’t count if the characters are actually involved in that character’s life or in the event, but if they suddenly just start heaping praise on the character or event, then things are going to be rough.

BEIs happen all the time in cartoons. Once in a while is okay, but when BEIs go overboard, it creates a problem. The main characters don’t seem to be living their own lives, but instead seem to be vocal catalysts to prompt the direction of the episode. Paul and Joe resorting to BEIs for Lloyd in Space is surprising, but indicative of a weak, single-approach premise at the core of this show. Lloyd in Space lacks real, in-depth female characters, Lloyd’s friends are shallow and kind of selfish, and the stories are frustratingly weak without the humor to back it up. It feels like Lloyd in Space was created as a nothing show, forced into more episodes, where the writers and animators scrambled with create subsequent episodes without properly developing them.

Lloyd himself is an generic character, a green alien known as a Verdigrean who is going through the turmoil of turning thirteen. Using this alien/space set up, Lloyd in Space tries to use its intergalactic premise to metaphorically tell its stories. The problem is 1) the show is so aggressively metaphoric that neither Lloyd or anyone else register as real characters in this space station, and 2) the stories are so drastically simple, lacking the secret depth that is usually present in a Paul and Joe show. The writers seem uncomfortable attempting to let Lloyd and his friends stand on their own, spelling out the lessons directly, as if to say “SEE THIS ALIEN BEHAVIOR IS REPRESENTATIVE OF THIS LESSON” instead of having the audience draw this conclusion themselves. (This causes some real problems down the line.) The stories around these lessons are surprisingly lame for such a rich, potential premise as well, focusing primarily on the improvement of class reputation and wildly shallow love stories.

Lloyd and his friends – Eddie the human, Kurt the Blobullon, and Douglas the Cerebellian, are way too concerned with being cool, finding ways to be cooler, and reaching the top of the school’s caste system. (Eddie in particular instigates so many of the conflicts with his behavior that he’s actually a really fucking bad influence instead of the occasional troublemaker). Part of what make Paul and Joe shows work is their commitment to characters pushing through bullshit caste systems and abstract ideologies, allow characters to connect as people, not ideas, or concepts, or metaphors. Yet here’s Lloyd in Space, doing exactly that. “Neither Girl Nor Boy,” in this light, is less a symbol of transgenderism and more a re-iteration of how shallow the characters are, and even episodes that address exactly that mean nothing as everyone returns to their usual shallow selves.

Lloyd in Space begins with an episode where Lloyd turns thirteen, which begins a pretty straight-forward “what does it mean to be a man” type episode, which is typical for a pilot. It allows viewers to get used to the cast and gives the show a generic plot to follow as all the major players are introduced – Lloyd’s sister Francine, his mom Nora, his friends, his schoolmates, his teachers, his grandfather. The episode is focused on Lloyd’s belief he’s finally grown into an adult, but ultimately realized he still has a few years ahead of him. His teacher, Miss Bolt (and the most notable character in the show, voiced by the GREAT Tress MacNeille, cribbing a bit from Miss Krabappel by way of Bender), makes him write an essay on what it means to be a man, and the episode ends with him gaining some insight on what that is, yet doesn’t explicitly say. There’s a case to be made that the meaning is personal, that “being a man” isn’t something one can merely say but encompasses the entirety of growth, responsibility, learning, and relationships, but in reference to the whole series, it comes across more as if Lloyd in Space simply doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t really grow in that respect in subsequent episodes, nor does the show dismiss the disingenuous designation of “being a man” in the first place. For a jumping off point, Lloyd in Space barely moves an inch.

As the show chugs along, Lloyd in Space’s weaknesses become more pronounced, which in turn inspires some insipid, misconstrued lessons. The second episode, “Double Date,” involves Lloyd developing a crush over a two-headed female alien, where one head is nice and sweet, while the second head is mean and crude. “Double Date” WILDLY misreads this situation. The second head treats Lloyd like shit and the first head allows the second head to continue its verbal vitriol. Finally Lloyd stands up to her, telling the second head to shut up and yelling at the first head for ignoring this behavior. Please, note, Lloyd reaction is correct. And yet the episode has the audacity to imply, somehow, Lloyd was in the wrong. How? Well, cause when you date someone, you have to accept the good and bad sides of that person, or at least that’s what the episode claims. Yet there’s a marked difference in connecting with a person that has flaws, and a person who demeans your character. Lloyd in Space here tries to metaphorically represent this dual-headed female as one person, but this metaphor completely falls apart, and that’s mainly due to the obnoxious behavior, but also the one-note characterization. If we knew about Trixie’s life as a dual-headed alien, if that concept kept her at arms length from people for years, if the episode treated that dual-head as one “humanized” character, then we’d have something. Right now, we have a poorly established feminine unit that ought to be respected because, apparently, explicit verbal abuse is the same as having a bad side. No one is buying that space trash, guys.

Female characterization is a huge sore point on this show. Granted, most of the characters are poorly developed but here, females get an uncomfortable amount of asinine, one-note traits. Women are only important in how they are romantic eye candy for other male characters. The growth and understanding that Lloyd goes through is established often through really shallow, poorly done love stories. In “You’re Never Too Old,” Lloyd is forced to hang out with his grandfather at his retirement home. Of course, Lloyd grows bored of the place, but episodes like this tend to really work by connecting their young protagonists to their elders through a commonality, through something strong and unspoken which allows the characters to see each other in a new light. Lloyd in Space opts for Grandpa Leo to have a childish crush on another elderly person. Like, he runs and hides from her when she gets too near and everything. I’m not exactly sure how old Leo is supposed to be, but that’s pathetic. Also, it’s boring! Lloyd’s only insight into his grandfather is that he acts skittish around other girls? That’s just depressing.

Then there’s “Nora’s Big Date, ” which only reduces Lloyd’s mother, who is the tough leader and respected commander of the space station upon which Lloyd’s lives, into, yet again, a skittish, doe-eyed victim to some random visitor. One of the most profound realizations a child can make is acknowledging that the adults in their lives are not just authority figures but people with feelings and flaws, people who once were young and grew up in similar albeit temporally different environments. That the writers here can only call attention to this acknowledgement via “adult crushes” is incredibly disappointing, indicative of material that they cared very little about. This is apparent in “Lloyd’s Lost Weekend” – note Lloyd doesn’t come to understand his family on their own terms, but only in how he fails to connect with his friends’ families, for obvious reason. Rarely do we see Lloyd come to terms with his family at a personal level; it’s always through some other contrived situation.

The best the show can manage are a few surprisingly nice moments between Lloyd and his sister, Francine. “Babysitter Lloyd,” “Lloyd Changes His Mind,” and “Francine’s Power Trip” all work in some part to subvert the “annoying younger sister” dynamic, showing Lloyd taking responsibility in keeping his sister safe and acknowledging how scary the world must be to someone so young and unaccustomed to change. The problem (and it’s a bit obvious that the writers realize this) is that giving Francine telekinetic abilities was a HUGE mistake. It seemed like it was intended to be a one-off, comical advantage that she would have over Lloyd, adding to the elements that would drive her brother crazy. That they would have to work through it to develop a sibling connection really throws them off. They do their best, but it always comes off half-assed because Francine has such good control of her powers – up until she doesn’t. The extent of her abilities is arbitrary, and since every episode reverts to the status quo at the end, any connection the two have are thrown out the window, as if it didn’t happen.

Then there’s the school. I don’t want to get too much into Lloyd’s class situation – that’s worthy of a blog post all by itself – but overall it’s just shallow and underdeveloped. Beyond Lloyd, Kurt, and Douglas, the only other “real” character is Brittany, a stuck up socialite who is the most popular girl in school. (There’s also Rodney, who seemed like someone the show would delve into more, but he’s pretty much dropped up until the point they need him.) Other characters are randomly name-dropped for the sake of various gags and throw-away plot points. Some characters are even introduced as A BIG DEAL even though we’ve never seen them before! (Looking at you, “Go Crater Worms.”) And the less said about the “unrequited love” between Lloyd and Brittany, the better. Lloyd in Space tries to suggest that they liked each other at some point, but the strict popularity lines of sixth grade rendered it moot, and everything about this is awful (there’s even a Love Potion episode, and yes, it’s cringe-worthy.)

That’s just it though. The characterization in Lloyd in Space is shallow and marginally sexist, so of course an non-gendered alien arriving to call them all out their awful behavior comes off satisfying. Too bad the show never lets such points stick, continuing wildly misguided and awkward lessons go unabated. The various creative alien/space concepts and designs are marginally interesting, but nothing really is allowed to stand on its own; the show constantly wants everything to be connected to a real life concern, sacrificing subtlety for simplicity. Since everyone and everything is a metaphor, no one is a character. No one learns, grows, or even seems to exist on their own terms. The few times the show Lloyd in Space reaches some kind of dramatic “truth,” it feels unearned. With no reason to grow attached to anything, Lloyd in Space floats ably along in uncomfortable mediocrity.

[Episodes of Lloyd in Space are available online via a quick Google search, but they’re hosted on a questionable website. Be forewarned if you wish to seek them out. Also the series is available on DVD, which is obviously the safer route.]

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Gargoyles “Avalon”

Gargoyles Avalon screenshot

Wow.

Wow wow wow wow wowsers.

After a couple of straightforward, semi-exciting, semi-bland episodes, the three-part “Avalon” is a smack in the face of totality, of aggressive forward momentum that I somewhat complained was lacking since “City of Stone,” really. “Avalon” is a multi-layered, densely-packed saga that is intensely complicated, lying somewhere between a Moffat season of Doctor Who and the sheer audacity of Primer. I actually wondered what it would have been like watching this live as a kid, without the ability to rewatch, rewind, or record. It must have been mind-blowing and frustrating.

I quite enjoyed “Avalon” in the broadest sense, and I certainly will never fault any show for being ambitious and daring. I think it works much better to look at “Avalon” as on full unit instead of each episode separately, mainly because the first two function primarily on flashbacks, and there’s no reason to re-hash past episodes. Needless to say, “Awakenings,” “Long Way to Morning,” “A Lighthouse in the Sea of Time,” “Eye of the Beholder,” “Vows,” “City of Stone,” “The Price,” and other episodes all have a part in what occurs in “Avalon,” and I’m much less interested in how it all fits together (since time travel, like a tower of cards, falls apart the second you start to poke at it) and more interested in how it develops its plot, characters, and themes.  “Avalon” works as three episodes of incredible mind-fuckery; at a narrative, personal, or thematic level, it’s a tad bit more hit or miss.

Thinking about these episodes more, I realize that “Avalon” is really about Magus. I mean, of course it’s about Goliath and his eggs, the mysterious Avalon and the Weird Sisters, the Archmage and the Tom the Guardian. Yet Magus’ role in all this feels the most complete, the most substantial. It is his story of regret and redemption, of pride and unrequited love, and how he went from a slightly insecure, bratty mage-in-training to a powerful, tragic sorcerer. Part of me wish we really got more on Magus’ role in all this, but part of me absolutely loves the restraint put on his story, revealing everything we need to know, and ending his life in perfect tragic fashion. But I digress.

“Avalon” begins with Tom, the little blond boy from “Awakenings,” arriving in New York all grown up and all clad in armor, convincing Goliath, Bronx, and Elisa to return with him to the mystical Avalon. While traveling he recounts the entire tale of how things played out after “Awakenings.” It’s pointless to go over EVERYTHING, but the broad strokes are that Princess Katherine, Magus, and, uh, Tom and his mother (who kinda seem randomly as chosen guardians to bring along) take the eggs to Katherine’s uncle, King Kenneth. Here we get some more DELICIOUS Shakespearean drama, what with the king’s lover, Finella, actually in love with a Lord Constantine who only cares about himself and power, and then he incites a riot, kills the king, and takes control of the kingdom. He then demands Katherine as his wife, but SHE AIN’T HAVING IT, so she and her crew (along with the king’s lover, who finally got over her jealousy and own sense of betrayal), sneak out of the castle with the eggs on their way to Avalon. As soapy as all this is, the episode definitely works through those plot points really fast, which honestly is probably for the best. I mean, half the lover’s quarrel plot is exposited by Tom’s mother randomly, Lord Constantine kills the king rather easily, the king’s son is barely involved, etc. The whole thing was basically “City in Stone” condensed to one-third of an episode, just so we can get the hell out of there.

Before I continue, I feel like I have to mention that Gargoyles has a particularly negative view of not just New York, but the overall world. It’s seems to always be on the verge of danger or violence, which is a bit odd during a time period when New York was specifically fighting its way out of the drudgery and chaos of the 70s and 80s and building itself up into the commercialized, sell-out vision of early 2000 (the city that never sleeps is the city that never wins). The gargoyles seem to fight crimes every night. Tom’s arrival is immediately met with a violent encounter with three thugs seemingly out of nowhere. I know that there are some vicious thugs out there, but even the violent 80s criminals would steer clear of armor-wearing, Scottish-accented, sword-wielding characters. I bring this up to point out that the fight here seems forced, but also to note that, for a series of episodes that should have been produced by Disney’s signature animation studios, we instead are given their third best, Koko (their second best being Jade). Koko does great backgrounds and handles wide shots fine; close-ups they seem to struggle with, especially with spacing out the pacing. The battle here goes from intense to joking, really jarring the viewing on how to interpret the tone of the moment.

Tonal shifts hurt Avalon than it believes. When Princess Katherine head over to Avalon with her team, they face the Weird Sisters, who are apparently just the guardians of Avalon. The reveal that these powerful beings are simply guardians is somewhat disappointing, especially when “the sleeping king” of Avalon fights like a regular guy. These powerful beings lose to Magus, and there’s something off here, what with the sisters being transformed into owls after Magus reflects their spell. I don’t know. It seems like the sisters lose too easily. I guess it’s because the Grimorum is really powerful, but “Avalon” kind of implies that its nothing compared to the magic of Avalon, a place where one hour equals one day. I think its because there’s no rules or scale to the magicks in this show, no clarity of power. Like, no outside magic is allowed on Avalon, but it’s never explained why.  Does Magus read spells from the Grimorum or can he just cast them? Later in the saga, the Eye of Odin, which caused Fox’s physical transformations in “Eye of the Beholder,” allows the Archmage to control the power of the Grimorum when he eats it (I’m going to get to that in a second). Since when does the Eye have that ability? It was created on Avalon, so now we’re back to Avalon’s magic being stronger than human magic?

This becomes more convoluted when present-Archmage, who is a magical badass, travels back in time to teach his wussy past self how to be awesome. This is really where all those episodes I mention above come in, as the Archmage works a Xanatos-like scheme in gathering the magic items, as well as pulling the Weird Sisters, Demona, and Macbeth to their side. Seeing if all this works out at a narrative level is beside the point; the important thing is how the show pulls this off, which it does with a bit of skill, comedy, and oddness. Watching the pieces come together is definitely fun, and present-Archmage shitting on past -Archmage is humorous. “Bending the rules without breaking them,” however, doesn’t work really, because it isn’t as if they found loopholes so much as the show reached way out there to make things work. I mean, the Archmage gets the Grimorum onto Avalon by eating it, which is the kind of logic that allows dogs to play basketball (the rules didn’t say you couldn’t DIGEST the book!).

Disappointingly, the entire Archmage character is simply a mustache-twirling villain. He just wants power and revenge, which is surprisingly shallow from a show known for complex, fully-realized bad guys. Gargoyles, as always, is a show about finding a purpose for moving on, for living and powering through even the roughest of circumstances. The Archmage’s purpose is certainly driven, but it’s buffoonery at the most simplistic levels. I mean, the guy, who is basically a god now, keeps toying with his victims on Avalon, which includes a half-assed invasion of the castle and a ridiculous (and poorly animated, even for Koko) sand/beach fight. I think the Archmage is supposed to be laughable though, since see says stuff like, “At dawn, you will die. Get used to it.” How was that not followed by a maniacal laugh?

The Archmage’s lack of character is tragic because it crushes an angle to Magus’ story, a man who secretly loved Katherine and cursed the gargoyles for a thousand years in a fit of emotional rage. He was torn by this act, as well as his feelings for Katherine, which greatly affect his confidence in magic. He struggles with spell casting and age, reflecting his battled feelings, watching his love fall for Tom over the years on Avalon. He doesn’t believe his magic is strong enough to go up against the Archmage or the Weird Sisters. The guy is in a tailspin, keeping up his facade for the eggs and the hatched gargoyles running around, and it’s wonderful stuff to watch. He was a student of the Archmage, and it sucks that this part of his story wasn’t explored further – how would he feel about his teacher becoming a monster? He should’ve been the one finally going up against him. Instead, he fights off the Weird Sisters, who come quite close to besting him, but he draws power from the sleeping king’s parlor, sacrificing his life to save everyone on Avalon. Watching him fade away with Katherine and everyone by his side was a truly powerful moment, ending one of the better character arcs on the show’s run.

The other battles are fairly uninteresting. For one thing, I’m still unclear why Demona and Macbeth are so hard to beat. Yes, they have weapons. Yes, they’re trained in battle. Yes, the gargoyles are not fighters. But they have sheer numbers and know the layout of the land and magic of their own. The fights feel strangely isolated, with scenes of Demona going up against Elisa and Macbeth going up against the sleeping king, which everyone else standing around and, uh, watching? Oh, the sleeping king is King Arthur, who is awoken by Elisa and Magus after a bunch of trials and tribulations. Yet he’s useless (without Excalibur) and doesn’t seem particularly powerful, but he does beat Macbeth, so that happens. Demona is beaten when Katherine fires a laser gun so a shitload of debris falls on the gargoyle, which I guess was supposed to be an AWESOME FEMALE MOMENT, but, I mean, Katherine doesn’t know how to use a laser gun, and why not shoot Demona instead of wall above her (yes, I know, S&P, but the whole point of laser guns is to get away with shooing other characters without repercussions). Also, Goliath beats the Archmage with ease, which of course he would, and it’s also uninteresting because the Archmage does all the stupid-villain stuff you see in lamer TV shows, like talk too much and be arrogant and make terrible decisions in battle. (Goliath rips the Eye of Odin off the Archmage’s head, and he can’t control the power of the Grimorum he ATE, and I guess this goes against the rules of Avalon so Avalon kills him. Again, the rules of magic are rather unclear and arbitrary.)

I feel like “Avalon” also missed out on re-acclimating Goliath to the gargoyles on Avalon. The gargoyle seeing his clan’s eggs hatched and all grown up should’ve been something significant, but it kinda feels glossed over for that silly sand/beach fight. It’s especially odd, considering Goliath has met his daughter for the first time. I’m not too worried about this, since I imagine he’ll be learning more about her later. Still, I feel like the show kind of did a disservice here, especially in keeping Demona under a spell and unable to react to seeing her old clan’s descendents. They kinda have a moment where Goliath snaps Demona out of her trance, but the Archmage immediately resumes control. The ending simply flops Macbeth and Demona onto a boat and ships them off, which finalizes what seems like a missed dramatic opportunity .

Despite my criticisms, though, “Avalon” handles it all fairly well, via great pacing and fun characters with excellent VO work, selling every moment with A+ appeal. It’s really just a lot of fun, which is the most important thing, animation and plot points aside. At this point, Gargoyles begins what is known by the fanbase as the “World Tour,” where Elisa, Goliath, Bronx, and Angela (who is his daughter) travel to random locals and deal with stuff. It’s CRAZY that the show completely decides to shift gears to more randomized episodes; I guess they too found “Protection” a lot of fun and wanted to do more of that. I’m sure that the will be more serialized aspects in the upcoming episodes, but the emphasis will be more on being episodic, and hopefully this will allow things to be looser and freer, in a way. Unfortunately I will have to get to those episodes at another time, as I will be taking another break due to work, vacation, and the upcoming episodes of the remaining television season. I’ll be back to you this summer, Gargoyles!

“Avalon” A-

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