Sunday, June 29, 2014


Avengers Assemble!
Right up front, I'll admit that I probably had the same thoughts most everyone had when hearing the premise of Disney Japan's latest attempt to expand the Marvel franchise into the Japanese market; AVENGERS POKEMON sounds crass, banal, and more than a little stupid.  Now, having watched the show, I am going to convince you's still crass, banal, and more than a little stupid in that it's an obvious marketing ploy to sell an addictive Pog-like game to little kids...but it's also smart, fun, and really nerdy!  I actually sort of love it.

 MARVEL DISK WARS: THE AVENGERS is a co-production between Disney  Japan, Bandai (who produce the tie-in game), and Toei Animation (who produce the show, and are famous as the studio that also produced DIGIMON, DRAGONBALL, and SAILOR MOON), and overseen by Marvel "talent scout", CB Cebulski, who's is known for his love of Manga and anime and has done international outreach for Marvel in the past, such as convincing Tsutomi Nihei (BIO-MEGA, BLAME!, and my favorite KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA) to write and draw a really bizarre Wolverine mini-series in the early 2000's, putting Kia Asamiya on X-MEN, etc.  As such, it's a very Japanese show, and made to appeal to a Japanese aesthetic, marrying the tropes of shonen (boys) adventure to the Marvel characters; and it's a marriage that works.


WARNING: Spoilers Follow


The basic premise is this; Tony Stark, working with the father of the lead protagonists Akira Akatsuki and his elder brother Hikaru Akatsuki, creates a revolutionary new technology called DISK; a device that can digitize a person and store their information on a small disk.  The purpose of DISK is to allow superheroes to more efficiently capture supervillains and safely contain and transport them.  Disaster strikes when the Norse trickster God, Loki, attacks the Stark Enterprises presentation which is taking place on the Raft, the largest supervillain prison in the world, and turns the DISKs against the Avengers, trapping them inside.  He also digitizes all the he has an undetectable army of supervillains that he can carry around in his pocket who can appear anywhere!

Akira and Hikaru, and a group of other children, Jessica Shannon, Edward Grant, and Chris Taylor, become enbroiled in the conflict when Dr. Akatsuki is injured and entrusts the DISK biocode installer to his sons; the DISKs are biometically locked and can only be used by someone who has the correct biocode installed into their DNA.  During Loki's attack, the children had imprinted with random biocodes locked into various classifications (bringing the game elements into the show); Akira is Tech, Hikaru is Energy, Jessica is Animal, Ed is Power, and Chris is Fight.

"With all the heroes captured, who is there to punish me?"
They manage to retrieve the Hero DISKs from Loki and release their respective heroes, but due the improper biocode installation, the heroes can only be outside their DISKs for five minutes at a time; which is a great mechanic for raising the stakes; but during the fight with Loki, the rest of the Hero DISKs are lost, scattered throughout the world, drifting in and out of our space/time, and must be recaptured by the children before Loki can find them; a great McGuffin for furthering the story!

The first six episodes are part of an arc in which each of the kids earns their hero, and they work together to escape the Raft and return to Japan.  It also establishes Loki's subordinates, a group of masked terrorists who are ordinary people by day, and are equipped with the Villain DISKs to carry out Loki's long term plans.

Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Wasp, Spider-man
As far as something built around selling toys to kids go, DISK WARS actually has a pretty solid set-up, and I like the way the don't rush the plot, utilizing the serialized nature of anime to really build the story up and firmly establish the characters and themes.  The other thing I like is how the Japanese production staff has very effectively boiled down the Marvel characters to their most simple and potent core concepts, and used that to reinforce the main theme of the show, which is that anyone can be a hero.

The brilliant thing about the show to me is the decision to use the heroes to help and inspire these kids, all of whom have some kind of fatal flaw or failing, by giving them a hero that speaks to that flaw.  As they have adventures, the heroes inspire the kids to overcome their failings to become heroes themselves, which is, to me, the entire reason superheroes were created and the power their influence on us has.  My moral compass was shaped by superheroes, and superheroes helped me get through the tough times I had as a kid, in much the same way they do in the show...except that in the show, the heroes can actually interact with the kids as little holograms that stand on their shoulders and give them advice.  :P

"So you finally decided to notice me...your attention span is awful!"
Starting with Akira, we are presented with a young, head strong, energetic kid; a typically shonen hero, he is "genki."  The main thrust of his character is brilliantly dramatized in his first reveal in which he sits in class, nervously watching the clock and tapping his feet and pencil, while his teacher tries to impress upon his students the values of Japenese education, "Starting tomorrow is your break.  Do not forget your duties as a student! And don't get too relaxed either...because learning, preparation, and review habits are important-".  This sums up what Akira is about; he's headstrong and reckless; through brave he doesn't think, and this endangers both himself and others.

So, of course, he becomes the holder of Iron Man's disk; Iron Man is also headstrong and energetic, and even a little ridiculous at times (DISK WARS uses Tony Stark to great comic effect as a charming rogue, who is almost as childish as Akira), but ultimately his saving grace is that he puts intelligence, education, and problem solving above all other things.  His interactions with Akira are generally telling him to slow down and think through his problems.  Not only that, but since Stark helped build the DISK, he also needs to build a machine to fix their problems, which he gets Akira to assist with since he can't physically do it himself, teaching Akira both science and patience.  Thus Akira's course for the series is to go from well meaning but reckless to patient and thoughtful.

"I address those of this realm; a disaster threatens you."
Akira's older brother, Hikaru, who was basically tasked with raising Akira when their mother died
and their father left for America to build the DISK system with Tony Stark, is overprotective of his brother and constantly worries about naturally, the hero he is coded too is Thor, whose little brother is the cause of all their troubles.  Hikaru doesn't really have any failings, but instead has the pathos of worrying about his brother and if he's failing him as a brother by not protecting him.  This resonates with Thor, who in DISK WARS sees himself as the failed brother; he blames himself for Loki's evil, imagining that if he'd been a better brother, Loki might not have turned out the way he did.  Hikaru and Thor bond as big brothers, and Thor gives him advice on how to protect Akira without smothering him.

"This pain is will fade!"
Chris Taylor is a typically disaffected American teen, who is lackadaisical and has no direction or discipline, so it's no surprise when he is coded to Captain America, who in DISK WARS is characterized in the most shonen of ways as being the MOST disciplined man in the world.  This version of Cap is not anything like the charming, earnest, Chris Evans Cap, but is instead more typical of the shonen archetype of the serious and diciplined straight man who has sacrificed everything in the pursuit of perfection and thus lacks social skills.  DISK Cap is hilariously blunt and forthright in his interactions with people (in one hilarious scene where Wasp jokingly says the Gothic Loli dress she's wearing will be her new battle costume, DISK Cap points out all it's points of weakness and ways that a supervillain could use it to beat her, to which Wasp replies, "You really don't get jokes do you?").  But in battle...DISK CAP is just AWESOME.  He becomes coded to Chris during a fight with a mind controlled Hulk, who he fights hand to hand, and WINS.  Cap impresses upon Chris, who has no ambition or direction, the imporance of discipline and selflessness, inspiring the teen to care about those around him and to take a stand rather than sit by aimlessly.

"Violence is bad!"
Edward Grant, the youngest of the children, is a small, weak, bespectacled nerd obssessed with heroes (he even runs a website called Hero Dream, which has a wealth of information the kids use relating to heroes and villains through the show); sound familiar?  Ed is a coward who wishes he was brave, but can't be because he is so weak; so it only make sense when he is entrusted with the biocode for the Hulk.  One of the things I love about Marvel's approach to their media is that they've actually worked really hard to brand "SMASH!" as something of both a catchphrase, but also a philosophy.  It's a really simple and direct idea that speaks to the core of superheroes; if a problem gets in your way, don't give up...SMASH!  DISK WARS continues this trend with the shows catch phrase for summoning the heroes, "D-SMASH!" Through the Hulk, Chris is able to feel's a very anime relationship that they have, with the Hulk taking the place of Giant Robo or Agumon; a friendly, powerful, giant that fights on their behalf.  Because the Hulk protects him, Chris is able to be brave and learns confidence, as he faces down bullies and villains alike.

"Can you handle this?" "Of course I can!"
And finally is Jessica Shannon, a lonely rich girl with no friends, she is biocoded to the Wasp (who I LOVE in this show because DISK Wasp is the closest to her Marvel character).  She is niave and selfish, but also brave and forthright; she has the qualities of a hero, but doesn't know it.  Her interactions with Wasp as the most fun in the show because more than any of the other heroes and their partners, the Wasp is a friend to Jessica; they hang out and genuinely like each other.  Through Wasp, who had much the same upbringing as Jessica as a child of priviledge, Jessica is inspired by her; a strong woman that, through both will and skill, has accomplished all the things she herself aspires too and is also a powerful hero.  There's a great beat in the episode where Jessica gets Wasp's disk where, when facing one of Loki's supporters, Jessica asks her, "Can you handle this?" to which Wasp replies with a wink, "Of course I can!" and jumps into the fray.  Wasp teaches Jessica that she is more capable than she knows and that she can accomplish anything she puts her mind too.  Through Wasp, Jessica learns that she can be whoever she wants to be.

"We'll call this a draw."
Like any good children's cartoon, the episodes tend to focus on a specific character and a specific lesson; in a later episode, Akira helps Iron Man to negotiate peace with the Silver Samurai, a situation in which being reckless will get them all killed, so he must be patient.  This episode is also a great example of how the show doesn't talk down to kids; part of what makes DISK WARS compelling is that the stake are real.  The Silver Samurai challenges Akira to a duel; can he D-SMASH summon Iron Man faster than the Silver Samurai can draw his blade?  It's a beautifully tense scene, and in a puff of smoke, it's unclear whether the Samurai has struck Akira, but when it clears, Iron Man has caught the blade.  I love it!  In the following episode, Ed and the Hulk take on Marvel's biggest bully; the unstoppable Juggernaut, and Ed learns how to stand up to bullies.  It's fun stuff, but also exciting and grandiose in the mighty Marvel style.

"I am the one who decides my limits!"
As a fan, one of the things I love most about DISK WARS is how they make full use of the Marvel Universe.  One interesting thing about Marvel's approach to marketing their characters is that they've chosen to push Tony Stark as the hero over Iron Man.  DISK WARS continues this approach as it realizes that Tony Stark is more popular than Iron Man.  The show revolves around Stark and Stark Enterprises; they build the DISK, they sponser the launch on the Raft, the kids use Stark Enterprises resources to chase the other DISKs, their headquarters is at Stark Enterprises Japan branch.  Tony is shown as being a fun, charming, witty billionaire and is very effective as both a stoic hero and bumbling comic relief.  (His soul patch is rubbish though >_<!!!)

Beyond that they boil down the other characters to their most basic ideas; Captain America is the worlds greatest fighter and a man of unbreakable resolve and discipline.  Hulk is a gentle giant prone at rest, and a terrifying monster when angered.  Thor is stoic, serious, grand, and has a code of honor similar to that of the samurai that resonates with the Japanese audience.  Wasp is very much like she is in the comics; a trendy, modern, woman.  She's a fashion designer and a hero...the Mary Tyler-Moore of superheroes, she stands toe-to-toe with the other heroes despite her small size.

A Wide World of Heroes
And beyond the five main heroes, DISK WARS imagines an expansive, enormous, Marvel universe in which SHIELD is the main police power, and hundreds of heroes are united against thousands of villains.  The first episode has cameos from War Machine, Iron Fist, Doctor Strange, Phil Coulsen, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, and even Cyclops and Beast!  Not to mention the HUGE assortment of bizarre, obscure, villains in the show; MODOK, Absorbing Man, Abomination, Crimson Dynamo, Diablo, Graviton, Green Goblin, the Lizard, Silver Samurai, Baron Zemo, Tiger Shark, Whirlwind, the Wrecker, Juggernaut, and my personal favorites, members of the Serpent Society, King Cobra, Diamondback, and Copperhead!

"You want power? But with great power...comes great responsibility."
But it's not just cameos either...Spider-Man is a key character in the shows first arc; as Peter Parker, he works for Stark as a lab assistant and is instrumental in helping to create the DISK, but avoids being captured in Loki's assault, where he appears as Spider-Man to save the kids from the Crimson Dynamo.  DISK WARS Spider-man is much like every other Spider-man...flippant, charming, and often a little other his head, he's an endearing character who interacts well with the kids because he's something of a kid himself.  Hawkeye also shows up as a recurring character to deliver information about the state of affairs in America, as part of the shows expanded plot.  Pepper Potts is also a series regular, as the long suffering partner of Tony Stark, attending to his eccentric flights of whimsical fancy as well as acting as his hands, building his machines while he's trapped in the DISK and running his company; she is a strong supporter and mentor to the children.

"I wish I had a I could make you work harder, Tony."
DISK WARS has a surprisingly detailed and complex plot going on in the background; with the failure of the DISK system, and the disappearance of the Avengers, and the escape of all the supervillains, a US Senator named Roberts has SHIELD disbanded and further pushes to outlaw all superhumans in the United States and force them to register with the Government, effectively outlawing heroes in America.  But it's revealed that Senator Roberts is in fact Loki in disguise, playing some kind of long con...what is his ultimate goal?

Another thing I can appreciate about DISK WARS is it's approach to the cultural divide.  The two leads are, of course, Japanese, but the rest of the characters are all American, so it mines this for comedy but also for plot, demonstrating the difference between our cultures and parodying them, such as when the kids go out with the heroes to explore Tokyo; Captain America insists that Chris adapt to Japanese culture by learning how to eat the food, encouraging him to try Japanese delicacies that seem strange to an American pallete.  Wasp and Jessica go clothes shopping in Harajuku for Gothic Loli dresses.  Edward and Hulk go to Akihabara where Ed wows Otaku with the depth of his knowledge for obscure Marvel trivia by explaining the difference between Thor and Beta-Ray Bill.  The effect of this is to show Japanese children that as strange as our culture is to them, their culture is equally strange to us, but that we can overcome these differences to work together towards a common good.  It's a really nice sentiment, and it's one that has actually been a common thread in all of Marvel's attempts to market to the Japanese in their other anime properties (most successfully in the excellent IRON MAN anime).

But, most importantly, MARVEL DISK WARS is a show about heroes, both super and ordinary, and revolves around acts of heroism both big and small, but they mostly focus on the aspect of heroism that resonates most with Japanese culture; the value of sacrifice.  Akira and Hikaru's father, Dr. Atsuki dramatizes this by sacrificing his glory as the creator of DISK, allowing Tony Start to take all the credit, to protect his children...his only takes pride in knowing that he created something that helps the world.  When Loki captures Pepper, the heroes are powerless to move against him, except for Thor, who cannot imagine conceding a fight.  Captain America talks him down, and Thor sacrifices his pride, kneeling to Loki to save the innocents he threatens.  The kids sacrifice their carefree childhoods to take on the mighty burden of protecting the Earth from Loki's plans.  Sacrifice comes up again and again as part of the plot.

Beyond that other aspects of being a hero are explored and dramatized; Ed overcomes his cowardice to confront those stronger than him.  Jessica uses her intelligence and wits to steal Wasp's DISK from the villains.  Chris overcomes apathy and selfishness to learn empathy.  Akira learns to think before he acts and consider how his actions affect others.  These are all great lessons for kids to learn, and they're dramatized in a clever, engaging, and often exciting way.

The typical tropes of anime actually work well for the show; heroes respresent the standard archetypes of anime, and they all have their specific skills and powers, calling out their attacks in dramatic fashion ("Wasp...STING!"  "Shield...THROW!"), and reciting a catch phrase that sums up their character when they are summoned by the kids who use their own catch phrase, "D-SMASH!" ("In the name of Mjolner!" Thor, "It's party time!" Iron Man, "Soldiers! March on bravely, without fear!" Captain America, etc etc).  It's fun and wacky and allows kids to identify with their favorite characters when they go out ot play later, simulating their attacks and mannerisms from the show, and the Marvel characters actually lend themselves surprisingly well to these tropes.

Overall, for a crass commercial tie-in, MARVEL DISK WARS is surprisingly smart and engaging, communicating very simple, clear, ideas, and making maximum use of the Marvel Universe in some creative and novel ways.  The animation in the first few episodes is pretty good, but quickly slides into barely adequate TV animation, and while some of the character designs are really strong, others are just garrish (MODOK, and Tony's weird soul patch for example), but ultimately don't really impact on the overall experience.  I found it all to be surprisingly enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone with kids or fans of the MARVEL UNIVERSE as a whole.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review. The show is actually pretty good.