Dr. Toon: Steal and Steel – Phineas, Ferb and Marvel Unite

Dr. Toon discusses Disney Channel’s controversial crossover Phineas and Ferb – Marvel Super Heroes television special.

Phineas and Ferb. Image © 2013 Disney | ABC Television Group.

In this summer of big-bang animated releases, a notable event took place on a cable station. The Disney Channel has been promoting a special episode of their highly ranked series Phineas and Ferb featuring some unusual guest stars. When Disney bought Marvel Entertainment three years ago, it was inevitable that some horizontal integration would result. The only real questions were “when?” and “where?”  One would expect the event would be a much-hyped big screen spectacular, but it appears that the ongoing Avengers saga is the company’s current concern in that regard. However, as in any comic book series, superheroes really can seem to be in two places at once with no loss of continuity. Thus, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Nick Fury will be dropping in on Danville.

Since no superheroes should go unopposed, MODOK, the Red Skull, Venom, and Whiplash will be amending their busy schedules to wreak their usual havoc. Phineas Flynn, stepbrother Ferb Fletcher, and sister Candace (on the side of the angels for once), will be assisting the aforementioned heroes. They’ve been de-powered, you see, by Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz, but we can stop on that note.

Where we pick up is the negative reactions of some fans and critics of the crossover, Disney’s allegedly cavalier treatment of Marvels’ heroes, and the show itself as a crossover platform. Amid Amidi of Cartoon Brew, no critical lightweight, finds the situation deplorable.  Other fans, who tend to be the geek-purist type, are equally incensed. Yet others are excited about this unusual one-shot deal and don’t see why it can’t work.

It seems to me that the issue isn’t really Marvel’s Superheroes popping up on a kid’s cartoon; the bigger concern is that, if Disney uses the Marvel characters in such a manner, what won’t they do with these iconic heroes? Will they be riding to the rescue of Princesses or popping up in some future Toy Story flick as long-lost compatriots of Buzz Lightyear? Can Disney the megacorporation  be trusted to preserve the integrity of the Marvel Universe?

First things first. As far as the Marvel Universe goes, Disney owns the characters lock, stock, and Cosmic Cube. If the Mouse wishes to have gardener Wolverine attempting to outwit Chip and Dale, so shall it be. It makes sense, though, that even with profit maximization on the line, Disney would never stoop to such foolishness; we will likely never see Doctor Doom harassing Donald Duck. Disney does seem to realize that to many, the Marvel characters are sacrosanct.So the question becomes, did Disney truly cross a line when they brought some of Marvel’s storied heroes and nastiest villains to an animated kid’s show?

Scooby-Doo. Image © Turner Broadcasting

System Inc.

Well, Disney is crossing no line in animation that hasn’t been crossed(over)before. Scooby Doo and his gang teamed up with Batman twice in 1972 (The New Scooby Doo Movies) and again in 2011 (Batman: The Brave and the Bold). Since there were no websites, blogs, and a much small geekdom back then, no significant noise resulted. In addition, Batman was in a distinctly campy phase at the time, very different from the disturbed vigilante of Frank Miller’s reboot. Hanna-Barbera also attempted to augment their superhero cartoons with creations of their own. Wendy, Marvin, and Wonder Dog had admittedly few fans, as did the lamentable Wonder Twins, but HB took that creative risk. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman appear to have survived it unscathed.

I am not a rabid fan of Phineas and Ferb; Disney has done better.  It seems to me a passable animated series enriched by a few good running jokes, some clever musical numbers, and some rupturing of the “fourth wall”. Still, Jeff Marsh and Dan Povenmire, whom date back to Rocko’s Modern Life, are experienced pros who know the ingredients of a good cartoon show. P&F is a fan favorite, currently Disney’s longest-running series. Since P&F often has a sci-fi flavor, the Marvel heroes might seem more at home. Disney was prudent in using its front-runner as a base to launch a crossover; the heroes weren’t wasted on just anybody’s show.

Rocko's Modern Life.

Image © Nickelodeon.

A glance at the trailer reveals that the Marvelites are on a different stylistic wavelength than the other characters. P&F uses, for the most part, angular character designs with unrealistic proportions. They are distinctly cartoony in relation to the depictions of the Marvel heroes and villains. It might have been tempting to go in the direction of say, 80’s fanboy comic artist Fred Hembeck and design the Marvel heroes as pure cartoons, but the artists appear to have resisted this approach. This suggests, at least to me, that Disney is giving some measure of respect to the Marvel Universe.

These same heroes, (along with Captain America and the Black Widow) are getting ready to appear in a live-action tussle with Thanos in a year or so. By that time, any involvement with Phineas and Ferb will be long forgotten as ticket sales climb to untold heights. This one-shot special seems hardly a precursor to a full-blown exploitation of the Marvel brand. Although many animation fans may feel that Disney can’t be trusted with much these days, stealing the Mighty Avengers and Spidey for an episode of Phineas and Ferb is a silly, minor transgression at worst. Rest easy, ye purists; ain’t really no biggie.

(If, however, MegaMouse ever did do a serious-minded crossover, I’d love to see an assemblage of Marvel heroes team up with/against The Incredibles, whose return to the theaters would be among the most welcome events in recent animation history.)

Man of Steel. Image © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding, LLC.

Meanwhile, in the interests of equal time for other comic book brands and animation studios, this summer saw the latest Superman reboot, Warner Bros much-hyped Man of Steel. I profess a deep disappointment with this film, which is so reverent to its source material that any trace of lightness is excluded. Serious, dour, and overloaded with pointlessly destructive battles, Man of Steel is a cinematic chunk of Kryptonite to the franchise. But then, this lamentable film resides with good company. George Reeves? Campy and cheesy. Christopher Reeve’s Superman? OK, the best of the bunch, but only the first movie truly worked. Lois and Clark (a.k.a “Superman in Love”) featuring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher? Pfaw. Smallville (a.k.a “Super Teen Angst”)? Fair psychodrama, but not too many thrills. The Brandon Routh fiasco? Please.

Is it possible to bring a decent Superman to the screen? Sure. After reviewing the televised and movie adaptations of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s mythic hero, it seems to me that only one attempt truly hit the mark. Let’s face it; the first and only time anyone really did right by Superman, he was animated.

The year was 1941; Paramount Pictures approached Dave and Max Fleischer about adapting the immensely popular comic book hero to the screen. Most of you know the story behind these seventeen amazing shorts produced between 1941 and 1944. At the time, they cost between $90,000 and $100,000 per reel (the average Fleischer cartoon short cost about half of that). The animation was more realistic than anything the studio had previously attempted.  The debut cartoon, Superman, earned an Academy Award nomination.

Fleischer Studios 1941 Superman Cartoon - The Mechanical Monsters.

The Fleischers added the immortal lines “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…Superman!” They also came up with the phrase “Faster than a speeding bullet!” It was Max and Dave, not the Schuster-Siegel team, who gave Superman the power of flight; before then, the Kryptonian could only simulate flight by leaping, much like the later-day Hulk.

Not only did these fantastic cartoons add to the Superman mythos, they were unbelievably rich to look at, and even during the running time of a short, Superman and Lois had glimmers of personality. The animation team made a wise move in designing separate model sheets for Clark Kent and his alter ego, as well as a change in voice acting from soprano (Kent) to baritone (Superman). Lois Lane was fearless and spunky, disregarding any danger in search of a headline. The legendary Fleischer predilection for technology and machinery gave the cartoons ambience that was ahead of their time.

Is the animation perfect? No. Are some of the cartoons ethnocentric and racist? Sure, but it was, after all, 1941. There is little doubt that the Superman cartoon shorts were the most stylish, action-packed, rousing cartoons produced during the war years; even the theme music (composed by Sammy Timberg) resounded with the airs of a classic fight song. It’s fair to say that any two cartoons from this series more succinctly captured the essence and esprit of Superman than the last two live-action efforts managed to do.

So, to sum up: First, Thor, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and Nick Fury are in no danger of degradation at Disney’s hands. It could have been worse. In fact, Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow was a far worse idea, and Disney had nothing to do with it. Second: Don’t pay those exorbitant ticket fees to see Man of Steel. You can buy “The Complete Superman Cartoons – Diamond Anniversary Edition” on Amazon.com for seven bucks (last I looked) and see for yourselves, who Superman was truly meant to be.

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Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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