With the acquisition of Marvel and Lucasfilm, Disney XD — the Disney Channel satellite aimed at boys — has a whole new super-powered arsenal at its disposal. Still, mining those libraries with an eye toward moppets has gotten off to a rather rocky start, with its latest series bearing an unwieldy title, “Marvel’s Hulk and the Agents of SMASH,” lurching between copious action and irritating screwball comedy. With the notable exception of Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers,” other movies and TV have struggled to transfer Marvel’s not-so-jolly green giant to the screen, and this animated leap — while busy and colorful — doesn’t stick the landing.
For starters, there’s the little matter of just how intelligent and verbal Hulk is going to be, and the two-part, one-hour premiere (scripted by veteran animation writer Paul Dini) oscillates between having the Hulk (voiced by Fred Tatasciore) sound like a wisecracking version of Marvel’s the Thing to the customary grammatically questionable mutterings, a la “Hulk am smart” and “Hulk smash!”
As the title suggests, “Agents of SMASH” (seemingly named to draft off a certain upcoming ABC series) surrounds the Hulk with a supporting cast of Gamma-irradiated power players, including She-Hulk (voiced, no doubt to the delight of fanboys, by Eliza Dushku), Red Hulk (Clancy Brown) and A-Bomb (Seth Green), the suddenly mutated version of longtime sidekick Rick Jones.
In the premiere, they must eventually unite to beat back the villain Annihilus, a traditional comicbook baddie with an army of bug-like creatures at his command. This allows the good guys to board spaceships and blast away at the invading horde, who dutifully splatter like bugs on a windshield.
Why super-powerful mutated monsters would need to use guns makes about as much sense as everything else in the opener, which veers past “fun” into “goofy” at too many turns, much like the channel’s “Ultimate Spider-Man.” Here, that includes dubbing Red Hulk a “bloated red butt-head,” as well as a semi-gratuitous gag — plucked from an old “Saturday Night Live” routine — about the Hulk-like effects on a spaceship latrine.
The series employs two interesting devices: Occasionally shrinking the action into what resembles comicbook panels, adding a clever visual element; and having the characters provide direct-to-camera interviews for a “Web series,” a la a reality show, which falls conspicuously flat.
In the long term, Disney’s cable outlets have been presented a huge synergistic gift in having access to these kid-friendly properties. But that doesn’t mean pandering to tykes’ perceived tastes by bastardizing these characters is necessarily the best formula for exploiting them.
While there’s room for trial and error, so far, Disney XD hasn’t mastered the transformation. And the result is a series that leaves even the mighty Hulk and his gang, in entertainment terms, looking sort of puny.