The Descent of Action Toons on Disney XD by Jerry Whitworth
Considering the popularity of our earlier piece “Top 10: Action Series Canceled by Cartoon Network,” I looked into tackling a similar article with another likely target in Disney XD. However, the network has been rather slow to develop animated action series despite having an impressive track record of canceling such programs (thus making a Top 10 challenging). The station got its start as Toon Disney, largely an extension of the Disney Channel. It would feature older programming very much in the same way Cartoon Network started. A hallmark of the burgeoning channel was series from the popular Disney Afternoon block of programming. Shows like DuckTales, Gargoyles, Darkwing Duck, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, Adventures of the Gummi Bears, and The Wuzzles were staples in its early years. Disney would actively jump feet first into action programming with the Jetix brand. Formerly Fox Kids, Jetix was a programming block featuring action series that aired on ABC Family (formerly the Family Channel and Fox Family) and Toon Disney. Featuring programs like W.I.T.C.H., A.T.O.M., and Yin Yang Yo!, a notable entry among the catalog was Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!
Gaining notice for his work on Teen Titans, Ciro Nieli created Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! (SRMTHFG for short) in the same vein as cult-favorite Cartoon Network series Megas XLR as a love letter to various genres appealing to fans of anime, science fiction, comic books, and tokusatsu. Best described as an American anime (created by Americans but animated by a Japanese studio, in this instance The Answer Studio, using a style commonly associated with anime), SRMTHFG tells the story of a young man named Chiro on the planet Shuggazoom who discovers a giant robot with five cryogenically frozen cyborg monkeys inside. Accidentally awakening the robot and monkeys, Chiro inherits the spirit of the mighty Power Primate as the evil Skeleton King and his undead army arrives to conquer his world. The series would run for four seasons ending on a cliffhanger as the combined forces of good and evil converge for a final, fateful battle. No one has publicly divulged why SRMTHFG wasn’t picked up for what was suppose to be its final season but it was likely an administrative decision. Jetix was dropped from ABC Family around the same time the series ended and several series from that line-up ended around that time and ran in reruns on Toon Disney. Nieli would go on to work on Transformers: Animated (which also employed Answer Studio) and gained much acclaim for developing Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes for Disney and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Nickelodeon. In 2009, Jetix and Toon Disney would merge to become Disney XD.
The same year Toon Disney became Disney XD, Disney had acquired Marvel Comics and its associated subsidiaries. The result was essentially a culling of Marvel’s various animated series. Shows like Iron Man: Armored Adventures and The Super Hero Squad Show received the ax for airing on non-Disney networks (Wolverine and the X-Men was canceled for different reasons). One series, Spectacular Spider-Man, transitioned to Disney XD only to get canceled because it was produced by Sony (Disney wanting to produce in house). One of, if not the, best animated versions of Spider-Man, Spectacular was spearheaded by Greg Weisman (Gargoyles) and Victor Cook (Hellboy Animated: Blood and Iron) with character designs by Sean “Cheeks” Galloway. Focusing on the Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Spider-Man, the series also borrowed from the Spider-Man film franchise and Ultimate Spider-Man with a strong focus on its characters. Chronicling the developing romance between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, the series also prominently featured friends Harry Osborn and Eddie Brock and competing love interests for Parker in Mary Jane Watson, Liz Allan, and the Black Cat. Tying many of the series villains to Oscorp and the Big Man/Tombstone, notable villains like Vulture, Electro, Lizard, Shocker, Sandman, Rhino, Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Chameleon, Sinister Six, Venom, Mysterio, and Kraven made appearances in its short two seasons (with Carnage, Hobgoblin, Hydro-Man, and Scorpion planned for season three). Both Weisman and Cook were quickly snapped up by Warner Bros. Animation following the cancellation of Spectacular, the former to one of the best series based on DC Comics in Young Justice and the latter to arguably one of, if not the, best version of Scooby-Doo in Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.
While Marvel transitioned with Disney’s acquisition, one casualty would be arguably the best Avengers animated series ever produced. Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was an animated series on Disney XD developed by Ciro Nieli (mentioned earlier) and Joshua Fine and Christopher Yost (Wolverine and the X-Men, Iron Man: Armored Adventures). Starring Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Giant-Man, Wasp, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, and the Vision as part of the team, the series featured a grand scheme by the Norse god Loki (who facilitated the formation of the anti-Avengers in the Masters of Evil) and the invasion of Earth by the Skrull and Kree. The story artfully intertwined tales from the earlier source material with elements from the films and more recent events in Marvel comics. In its brief two seasons, the cast and scope of the series was massive (comparable to Young Justice and Justice League Unlimited, both noted for its use of large casts). Dozens of characters, including Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Wolverine, Winter Soldier, and the Guardians of the Galaxy, made it into the show maintaining many of the storylines in the series to be so big that it seemed to necessitate the entire Marvel universe to deal with it. The series’ final episode saw Earth’s heroes tackle Galactus and four of his cosmically empowered heralds. Avengers: EMH would be canceled under the belief children could not follow an ongoing narrative, that largely self-contained episodes was the degree of investment their young minds prefer. The series would be replaced by Avengers Assemble which features a consistent line-up of Avengers based on the team’s live action film with the addition of the Falcon (who starred in the latest Captain America film).
In Spring 2012, Disney XD would introduce a new series by Chris Prynoski (Metalocalypse) to its line-up. The unofficial third entry in a trilogy started with MTV’s Downtown and Cartoon Network’s Megas XLR, Motorcity was a post-apocalyptic tale set in Detroit. The city was split in two, the ruins of the old Detroit where the poor and underprivileged live and Detroit Deluxe, an elevated metropolis above Detroit sold as the perfect society but actually a facade of a mad dictator named Abraham Kane. Mike Chilton, an elite soldier under Kane, learns the truth about his idol and defects from Detroit Deluxe to become the rebel leader of a group of freedom fighters known as the Burners. Armed with high-tech motor vehicles, the Burners began to unify the various racer gangs in the ruins of Detroit while foiling Kane’s various plans (such as wiping out the remaining populace of old Detroit). Motorcity would be canceled after only one season after gross mishandling by Disney XD. The show was frequently moved around on the schedule, placed on hiatuses for no given reason, had many episodes leaked online before being aired, episodes were shown out of order, and received no advertising when the show was moved from its timeslot. Towards the end of the first season, episodes did not even premier during the day but late into the evening hours. A month after Motorcity debuted, another series with almost the same mishandling emerged.
Following the success of Tron: Legacy at box office, an animated series based within the franchise emerged titled Tron: Uprising. Set between the first and second films, Uprising features Tron training a protege following near fatal injuries from his battle with Clu. Beck, a mechanic of the Grid, rises as Tron’s student and is referred by the people as “Tron” and “the Renegade.” The series maybe most noted for its impressive cast of voice talent with Elijah Wood, Lance Henriksen, and Mandy Moore as the show’s stars with reoccurring actors like Aaron Paul, Marcia Gay Harden, and Lance Reddick as Olivia Wilde reprised her role of Quorra from the film. As with Motorcity, Uprising was placed on hiatus for reasons unknown and when it returned, it was aired in the overnight hours without any advertising of its return or time change. Fans have speculated the show’s downfall was drawing in an older audience as Disney executives push to bring in younger viewers. As with Motorcity, Uprising lasted only one season.
In wake of the demise of Spectacular Spider-Man and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Disney XD would premier Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers Assemble to replace them as part of a new programming block called Marvel Universe (Avengers: EMH‘s final season a place holder before being replaced). Also featuring shorts using clips from older Marvel animated series called Marvel Mash-Up, it’s likely the move was to compete with Cartoon Network’s success with its DC Nation block which featured Young Justice (which was instrumental in helping reverse the downturn of the network’s ratings when it premiered), Green Lantern: The Animated Series, and original animated shorts. Disney would expand their block with another Marvel series in Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. In recent years, Hulk’s supporting cast of gamma-irradiated friends increased beyond She-Hulk and Doc Samson as longtime foe “Thunderbolt” Ross became the Red Hulk, his daughter (and Bruce Banner’s longtime love interest) Betty the Red She-Hulk, Hulk’s sidekick Rick Jones the Abomination-esque A-Bomb, his wife Marlo the Harpy (a former identity of Betty), and Hulk’s children Skaar and Lyra emerged. Some of these characters were selected to form a Hulk-centered series developed to appeal to children as the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. (playing on the growing prominence of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the media). However, rumor has it the series was canceled before it even premiered. In much the same boat as Sym-Bionic Titan, the series wasn’t able to garner a toyline (though, a Brazilian distributor has produced images of what maybe an upcoming toyline a few months ago so hope may exist for a second season). If true, this fact combined with other recent missteps listed above seem to put Disney XD on track with Cartoon Network in mismanagement of its properties.