The 2010-2012 animated series The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, developed by Chris Yost, Josh Fine, and Ciro Nieli, might look at first like a mere tie-in to the Avengers movie. However, most of it holds up well on its own, like how one can enjoy shows from the DC Animated Universe without watching Tim Burton’s Batman. Each Avenger from Iron Man to Vision is likable in his or her own individual way. The action provides excitement, yet the Avengers still find time to develop. The storylines deftly balance humor and drama, never allowing one to overshadow the other at inappropriate times. I came into this show with almost no knowledge of any of the characters, except for Iron Man and Hulk. Despite this, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes increased my love of Marvel as strongly as the Iron Man movies did, if not more so. With two seasons and 52 episodes, which adventures do I consider the highlights? Read on as I assemble together my top 10 favorite episodes of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
10. Masters of Evil
Airdate: December 5, 2010 (#14)
Writer: Chris Yost
You know, I’m not so sure I wanna be part of a team I have to rescue every week.-Hawkeye/Clint Barton
Some of the episodes preceding this one showed that while the Avengers expanded their roster from five superheroes to eight, some of their greatest enemies also decided to form a team of super-villains. Here, they capture the Avengers one by one, hoping to destroy all of them together. However, the self-appointed leader, Baron Zemo, only accounted for six Avengers while devising this plan, allowing Black Panther and Hawkeye to try and help rescue the others.
This episode represents the biggest guilty pleasure I think the show has to offer. The plot doesn’t have much complexity, aside from some buildup to the first season finale, yet I often turned to it when I needed a quick EMH fix. Something feels thrilling about seeing the Avengers face villains from all of their individual superhero careers. The script doesn’t seem to demand too much background information about the characters, as it delivers a good deal throughout. Another good portion of the episode’s appeal comes from Hawkeye’s wit, which provides a perfectly appropriate amount of levity. Black Panther also provides a good foil for him, even when he risks betraying his regal persona.
The actual fight between the Avengers and the Masters of Evil feels kind of short, but I think everyone still gets a chance to show off. Plus, they have a much longer confrontation in the first part of the first season finale, “This Hostage Earth” (#24). “Masters of Evil” can provide a quick and effective sample of the fun that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes can offer.
9. Ultron Unlimited
Airdate: August 19, 2012 (#43)
Writer: Chris Yost
Ultron created me to be perfect. He thought that meant less human, to be cold and unfeeling. I wish to be perfect, but I believe that means to be more human.-The Vision
The Avengers’ third confrontation with the evil robot Ultron sees them gradually captured by Ultron’s assistant, Vision. They soon become participants in Ultron’s plan to rid the world of disorder by replacing all the humans with emotionless robots. The human spirit might prove harder than expected to resist, though.
This episode features material that might seem heavy for the expectations of a children’s cartoon. On a superficial level, Ultron’s plans create some of the show’s most unsettling imagery yet. Without spoiling too much, Ultron’s treatment of the human Avengers can cause chills, especially since not every one receives a traditional form of torture. On a less superficial level, the critiques of human emotion overpowering rationality last kind of quickly, but I don’t tire of stories that try to give human qualities to robots. As the show’s last addition to the Avengers, Vision’s power and emotional struggles give him great potential as a character. (Man of Action Studios unfortunately left Vision’s potential unexplored when they temporarily took over writing duties, but I digress.) My appreciation of this episode also became bolstered in large part because of my previous admiration of two previous episodes with Ultron.
Because of the storyline adapting Secret Invasion, this episode does not mark the first time a villain tried to make an evil Avenger, so the novelty admittedly feels stale. (Hawkeye even calls back to the Skrulls’ invasion once or twice.) If I did not see the Secret Invasion arc beforehand, though, I probably would have found much to enjoy in the confrontations between human and robot Avengers. With an intimidating villain, some relatively powerful quotes, and a compelling new Avenger, “Ultron Unlimited” leaves little else to ask for.
8. Along Came a Spider…
Airdate: July 22, 2012 (#39)
Writer: Christopher Yost
Since this episode immediately follows “Secret Invasion”, my review will inevitably contain spoilers for the arc that story capped off.
What matters is what I do, right?-Spider-Man/Peter Parker
As Captain America helps supervise the transport of some former Skrull prisoners to the Baxter Building, The Daily Bugle editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson sends Betty Brant and Peter Parker to respectively interview and photograph Cap, regarding accusations of the Avenger supporting the Skrull invasion. The interview gets cut short when the Serpent Society arrives to break out their leader, Madame Viper. After the ensuing fight sinks the prisoner transport into a subway station, Captain America teams up with another outcasted vigilante, Spider-Man, to guide some untrusting civilians to safety.
Most of the thrill in this episode comes from seeing two of my favorite Marvel heroes form a friendship over similar circumstances. Spidey rightly seems witty and physically strong, yet human in his awe with the more experienced Cap, and his frustration with both of their negative press. Cap’s efforts to regain the public’s trust allow for some powerful demonstrations of their ever-shifting regard for him, and Cap’s belief that a person’s actions define him or her more accurately than rumors do. What little we see of Spidey’s supporting cast seems to do them justice. It feels relieving to know that even in the same year as Ultimate Spider-Man season one – which deviated so far from Spider-Man comics, that I prefer to call it, Wannabe Web-Head – Disney XD could still air a cartoon that effectively demonstrates Spidey’s real appeal (though it does get frustrating if you start wondering why they couldn’t show more of those…).
Speaking of Wannabe Web-Head, Marvel’s decision to have that show’s star, Drake Bell, dub over Chris Yost’s first choice, The Spectacular Spider-Man‘s Josh Keaton, feels both unfortunate and pointless. Bell’s performance doesn’t sound terrible, but doesn’t prove him worthy of taking Keaton’s title as Spidey’s definitive animated voice. Putting aside my personal preferences (my disinterest in Drake Bell dates back to his Nickelodeon days), WWH and EMH present so many differences – such as the voices of almost all of the Avengers – that any attempt to unify them feels fruitless. As far as problems I have with the script go, I wonder if Madame Viper’s portrayal seems too at odds with episode #36, “Prisoner of War”. Whenever she and Cap interact in this installment, she appears to have completely severed the bond they formed when freeing the Skrulls’ human prisoners. Any implausibility of Viper’s behavior at this point feels reduced mainly by her reminder to Cap in “Prisoner of War”, that they’ll become enemies again after the defeat of the Skrulls. “Along Came a Spider…”‘s script overall provides a worthy introduction for iconic Spidey into an Avengers cartoon.
6./7. Gamma World
Airdate: November 26, 2010 (#12 and #13)
Writer: Michael Ryan
You really want to hurt The Leader? This is how.-The Incredible Hulk
A burst of energy at The Cube starts turning people into gamma-irritated monsters, similar to its prisoners. The Avengers get ordered to journey into The Cube and deactivate the generator before anyone becomes permanently deformed. The Avengers fulfill this mission, but once they let their guard down, former Cube prisoner The Leader unleashes an even stronger burst of gamma energy. Future Avenger Hawkeye witnesses this, and sets off to find the Incredible Hulk. The two of them must then defeat The Leader together, else everyone in the world will become gamma-irritated monsters.
This episode marks Earth’s Mightiest Heroes‘ second two-parter, and the last episode until season two in which the Avengers gain a member. The half in which the Avengers must deactivate the generator has them face an enjoyable variety of enemies along the way, but the second half tops it right from the start. The transformations undergone appear simple and quick, but still gruesome. The toll of gamma energy on Iron Man’s heart provides the most unsettling visual, while Black Panther’s deformation can become the overall most tortuous if you imagine it with enough detail. I also appreciate the inventiveness in the way how Hawkeye gets Hulk to let Bruce Banner help him, and the way how Thor (whose magical energy prevented him from undergoing any gamma effects) overcomes one of The Leader’s minions. The script also has a good amount of humorous lines courtesy of Hulk, to my surprise.
The Leader doesn’t have much depth, but he makes up for it with sinister intimidation. Regarding the battle with him, though, only the last few moments stick with me. These don’t seem like big problems in the grand scheme, though. If you’ll excuse the potential cheesiness of this sentence, “Gamma World” can prove nice to visit, even if you don’t want to live in it.
5. To Steal an Ant-Man
Airdate: April 29, 2012 (#31)
Writer: Brandon Auman
You mess with us, and you’re not goin’ to jail. You’re goin’ to the hospital.-Luke Cage
While on a leave of absence from the Avengers, Hank Pym discovers that someone had stolen his Ant-Man equipment, and used it to rob a bank. Unable to get the Avengers’ help in stopping the robber from doing something more dangerous with the gear, Hank instead enlists two Heroes For Hire, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, to help get the equipment back. The search leads the three of them down into a criminal underworld.
This episode provides a nice look into another side of crimefighting in the Marvel Universe. The Heroes For Hire have amazing superpowers of their own, but perform duties on a smaller scale than the Avengers do. Characterization-wise, Luke Cage and Iron Fist feel like a typical bad cop/good cop duo, but an entertaining duo nonetheless. Accepting the decision to keep Luke Cage’s crimefighting partner, friend, and foil white as a throwback to the ’70s, these two can fight and crack wit as well as this show’s A-list superheroes could. When they and Hank finally catch the thief, he uses slightly overused reasons to disprove himself as a figure of pure evil, but the reasons succeed in garnering sympathy from the viewer. Despite that, I don’t think this episode promotes solving problems through crime, as the thief did get arrested for a past robbery. Not only that, but until Hank, Luke, and Danny provide heroic intervention, the only good consequences of the thief’s criminal activities nearly become nullified.
If someone needed a reason not to watch this episode, I would acknowledge the fact that aside from Hank Pym, the Avengers don’t really contribute anything to the plot. Among the Avengers who weren’t taking leaves of absence when this episode takes place, only Wasp shows up, and only during the scene that immediately follows the intro. If you don’t mind temporarily focusing your attention on a different superteam, then “To Steal an Ant-Man” gladly earns a higher recommendation than almost anything else from this show’s second season.
Airdate: July 8, 2012 (#37)
Writer: Chris Yost
Earth’s in trouble, it’s our job to save it. That’s what Avengers do, right?-Ms. Marvel/Major Carol Danvers
The Skrulls begin the ultimate stages of their invasion. A group of Avengers impostors lands in Wakanda to steal some powerful Vibranium metal. The aliens convince Ms. Marvel that they are the real Avengers, but things get confusing when more Avengers come to help her stop the invasion.
Let me start off by admitting that I never read Secret Invasion, so I can’t comment on any liberties taken for this show. Putting “Infiltration” into the context of EMH as a whole, the Avengers learned about the Skrulls’ imminent arrival back in episode #15, “459”, so it feels satisfying to finally see the heroes approach victory over them. “Infiltration” not only features an actual battle between the Avengers and the Skrulls, but also sees some of the members overcome the paranoia gained in “Who Do You Trust?” (#33). The battle between crimefighters and doppelgangers of themselves and their friends provides an engaging set piece, especially after Ms. Marvel decides which group of Avengers to combat. Ms. Marvel didn’t get as many chances to show off in this cartoon as her teammates have, but this episode proves her a competent fighter. Meanwhile, Iron Man’s attempts to distinguish Skrulls from humans lead to him getting help from a fan favorite character. I thought his previous appearance lasted too shortly, so I deeply enjoyed seeing him return, especially after he revealed why he decided to help Iron Man.
I must admit, though, the Wakanda scenes feel like a chore to sit through until a second group of Avengers appears. If a viewer figures out which Avengers are human before Ms. Marvel does, it might also increase their impatience, although it did not increase mine. “Infiltration” ultimately gets the Secret Invasion conclusion off to a tense start.
3. Secret Invasion
Airdate: July 15, 2012 (#38)
Writer: Chris Yost
Let the people see you now!-Iron Man/Tony Stark
The Skrulls attack the bases of superteams both good and bad to prevent their interference. The Skrull that infiltrated the Avengers also appears on international television, attempting to exploit civilians’ admiration of his likeness to garner support for the aliens. To stop the Skrulls from enslaving humanity, the Avengers will need the help of some allies they haven’t seen since the first season finale.
“Secret Invasion” concludes the Skrulls’ invasion through some of the most exciting moments the show delivered. The apparent destruction of four crimefighting bases opens this episode on a fine note. The Skrulls’ queen, Veranke, gets a chilling portrayal, and the rescue of an Avenger from her provides some good tension. It also feels great to finally see the Avengers and Nick Fury discover which hero the Skrull replaced. (Fury actually discovered in “Infiltration”.) The most memorable moments come during the third act. These include the reunion of the “Big Three” Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor), the saving of Washington DC from Queen Veranke and the Super Skrulls, and the duel between the Avengers’ infiltrator and his likeness.
This episode tries to close the arc on a bittersweet note by reminding us of the “broken trust” caused from the Skrulls’ TV appearance, but this falls flat due to our failure to see whether the broadcast succeeded in gathering any followers. The amount of excitement vastly dwarfs that of flaws, though. “Secret Invasion” closes one of The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes‘ longest arcs in an almost consistently exciting fashion.
2. Living Legend
Airdate: November 3, 2010 (#9)
Writers: Kevin Burke & Chris Wyatt
Please, call me Steve.-Captain America/Steve Rogers
This early episode has the Avengers find Captain America frozen in the Arctic, then awaken him from his 60+ year coma. While the Avengers try to make Cap feel welcome, he struggles to cope with the shock of awakening in a society radically different from his own. Meanwhile, former HYDRA scientist Baron Zemo plots to kill Captain America and extract a super serum.
Since I started watching this cartoon during “Some Assembly Required,” “Living Legend” became the second episode I ever saw, and the one that helped me realize that Marvel Animation had something special in store. Before this episode, I only knew Captain America as a comic book legend and a symbol of a bygone era in superheroism. The show seems to reflect that here when Iron Man praises Cap as a legendary hero and an inspiration to all. However, Cap’s anxiety with his having to re-emerge in a society advanced by 60+ years, with all of his friends dead to boot, helped give him more pathos than I ever expected anyone to draw from the character. He doesn’t spend the entire episode moping, either; his fights with the Avengers and with Baron Zemo can prove engaging. A globular creature called “Doughboy” also serves as an enemy in this episode, and the battles with such a fluidly moving creature provide some of the best animation this show has to offer. That praise applies not only to the fighting, but also to the reactions of the heroes.
Among the things that could disappoint about this episode, the biggest one comes from the fact that Captain America spends so much time fighting the Avengers and Zemo, he only plays a small role in defeating Doughboy. The relatively high level of pathos in Cap’s character also apparently resulted in his voice actor, Brian Bloom, using a voice that doesn’t sound as deep as in any episode before or after this one. Those sound pretty nitpicky, though. “Living Legend” still serves as a great welcome for Captain America into a new period of superheroism.
1. The Ultron Imperative
Airdate: June 5, 2011 (#23)
Writer: Brandon Auman
Ultron! We would have words with thee!-Thor
The Avengers’ second confrontation with Ultron begins right when their first battle ended. Tony Stark and Hank Pym have gone off to destroy the remaining Ultron robots, while the other Avengers mourn the apparent loss of a member. However, the most weaponized Ultron manages to fly off to try and rid the world of disorder, by attempting to destroy all life.
I think this episode contains almost everything I could want from a Marvel story. Ultron-6 serves as a bigger threat than his predecessor, not only because he has some of Tony Stark’s unsold weapons, but also because he has adapted against the Avengers who had become Ultron-5’s strongest obstacles. The grieving at the beginning provides a good emotional punch, as does the inevitable return of that Avenger. Tony’s efforts to deactivate Ultron’s nuclear missiles provide the most tension I can recall for a season 1 episode, if not an episode from the whole show. The way the Avengers finally stop Ultron-6 feels pretty clever. This episode even has a guest appearance by my favorite villainess of this season. Finally, the ending doesn’t become overly happy, as Hank Pym spends a few parts of this episode deeming himself responsible for his creation’s danger.
That last point might cause some dissatisfaction, for kicking off one of this show’s least satisfying subplots, but I shouldn’t let tangentially related episodes spoil my enjoyment of this one. A stronger cause might arise from the fact that someone reasonably important to the Avengers makes an appearance in this episode, but doesn’t make much contribution to the plot. He appears so seldom in this show, his fans might consider this episode a waste. Inversely, I stuck the word “almost” into the first sentence of the last paragraph because Captain America spends the whole episode hospitalized. I myself got too caught up in the tension of everything else to let either of these bother me. “The Ultron Imperative” ultimately delivers greatly in the departments of both excitement and emotion.
It feels like a shame that Marvel decided to pull the plug on one of my favorite children’s cartoons of the decade, but at least they left us with plenty of gold to revisit! Thanks for the fun, Chris Yost and Josh Fine!
This version of my list is dedicated to Stan “The Man” Lee, 1922-2018