“Right. Fight to the death with Vilgax. No problem.”
In the previous two seasons of Ben 10 Alien Force, Ben Tennyson and his friends investigated the disappearance of his grandfather, uncovered a worldwide alien conspiracy, and organized the titular Alien Force to save the universe from the evil Highbreed. After the transcendently awesome finale to the Highbreed arc, the question among fans was, where would the creators take the series next? Their answer: Bring back the show’s biggest, baddest bad guy.
The real question, then, is whether this was a good idea.
Teenage Ben Tennyson, (Yuri Lowenthal, Naruto) wields the Omnitrix, a device that allows him to transform into any one of ten super-powered aliens. With his energy-manipulating cousin Gwen (Ashley Johnson, Phenom) and his metal-absorbing troublemaking pal Kevin (Greg Cipes, Teen Titans), Ben keeps the Earth safe from evil.
This volume seven DVD contains the first part of the third season of Ben 10 Alien Force, which, as a series, was preceded by four seasons of the original Ben 10. It takes Galvan-like intelligence to keep it all straight:
• “Vengeance of Vilgax” parts one and two
Former would-be world conqueror Vilgax returns, challenging Ben to a fight to the death, with the winner claiming the right to rule the Earth. To give Ben an edge in the battle, Ben and Kevin hack into the Omnitrix. This backfires, transforming Kevin into a half-human, half-mineral creature.
Disturbances deep beneath the ground are sending hidden alien creatures to the surface. Ben and friends head underground to find more aliens, boxes of TNT, and more surprises.
• “Fool’s Gold”
A small town is overrun by small furry aliens partying for their version of spring break, in exchange for gold. One of the creatures has gone missing, so Ben and company investigate.
Ben receives a message from a sweet little girl on another planet who asks him to stop the war dividing her world. Ben and friends visit and attempt to establish peace between the two sparring armies, but that’s easier said than done.
• “Don’t Fear the Repo”
A pair of dim-witted alien repo men attempt to take away Ship, the biomechanical pet owned by Ben’s sweetheart Julie. Gwen, Julie and Ship try to fight the pair while Kevin and Ben visit an interstellar court to argue on Julie’s behalf.
A thief attempts to steal the Omnitrix, accidentally stranding Ben in the Null Void, a harsh alien realm. But only part of him is there, leaving him without his powers. Can Kevin, Gwen and Julie figure out what’s happened and get Ben back in one piece?
The season begins with Ben at the top of his game. He has a closet full of awards and medals from aliens across the universe as thanks for ending the Highbreed menace, and he’s able to defeat a one-off enemy without breaking a sweat, after Gwen and Kevin battle it for an hour. After Vilgax arrives, making threats to kill Ben and dominate the planet, Ben isn’t worried in the slightest, just taking it all in stride. Here I thought that the writers were setting Ben up for a lesson in humility, and that his cockiness and overconfidence would come back to haunt him. Gwen and Kevin even warn him of this, but he doesn’t listen. How strange, then, that Ben ends up being right. Although the final battle isn’t without its complications, Ben nonetheless makes it look easy, taking out Vilgax not through any sort of clever strategy or personal sacrifice, but through pure brute force. Ben doesn’t face any real challenge, he doesn’t learn anything, and he doesn’t grow at all as a character from this experience. The leaves the whole two-part premiere emotionally hollow.
Let’s talk about Vilgax. Despite being the show’s number one villain, we don’t know that much about the guy. When we first met him way back when, he was your typical intergalactic warlord, ruler of numerous planets and an armada of battleships at his command. He wasn’t entirely different from other intergalactic warlords, but he made for an intimidating figure, with strengths and resources that the then-10-year-old Ben could not match. After several run-ins with Ben, Vilgax was eventually defeated as Ben tossed him out into space. The big guy had lost it all—no more empire, no more power, and no longer a threat. Bringing him back at this time is an intriguing idea. Throughout the Highbreed arc, we saw how far Ben has come and how he’s grown, so how has Vilgax changed over the years? The disappointing answer is not at all. After dealing with the Highbreed and all their secret plots and their combined desire for both survival and perfection, Vilgax comes off less like a credible threat, and more like a one-note bully.
Now would have been the perfect time to open up the Vilgax character. Just who is this guy? What does he want? In the original Ben 10, Vilgax demanded power, and insisted that no one be more powerful than he. That trait, such as it is, has been dropped with this new appearance. Vilgax returns, and all we get is a simplistic revenge plot. His attitude is all, “Ben beat me up so now I’m gonna beat him up!” There is some talk about how the winner will have the right to conquer the Earth, and although this hints at Vilgax’s previous power-mad self, it’s really just a throwaway excuse to raise the stakes. The drama of the episode should be, “Vilgax is after Ben,” but instead we get, “Vilgax is after Ben, and, oh, by the way, the Earth is doomed again.” Vilgax’s motivation is simplistic, and his defeat is equally simplistic. I’m aware that Vilgax returns later in the season, and I’ll discuss how he’s portrayed then if or when I review those discs. As far as the season premiere goes, though, the big confrontation isn’t as exciting or thrilling or fun as it should have been.
Aside from Vilgax’s return, Kevin’s transformation is also big news. His new look and new powers are clearly an homage to DC Comics’ classic misunderstood monster Metamorpho. (Side note: Many have argued that the core concept of Ben 10 is similarly based on DC Comics’ Dial H for Hero.) Kevin’s new look doesn’t bother me as much as the reaction to it. There’s an initial moment of heartache from Kevin, as he cries out in agony over becoming a monster again. After that, though, it’s life as usual. In the episodes that follow, we see him acting as he’s always acted, as if nothing’s changed. Not only that, but others act as if nothing’s wrong with him. When Julie shows up in “Don’t Fear the Repo,” I wondered how she would react to the new Kevin, but it isn’t addressed at all. Similarly, when our heroes meet the small town mayor in “Fool’s Gold,” there’s a humorous bit where he comes up with lame excuses to convince them that aliens aren’t real, all the while not reacting in the slightest to Kevin’s inhuman presence. What’s the point of turning your character into a monster if neither he nor anyone else responds to his monsterness? When he first transformed, I figured this was the writers’ way of complicating his ongoing romantic tension with Gwen. If that was their intent, we never see that in these episodes. Yes, I’m well aware that Kevin gets more screen time later this season and that issues such as his mysterious parentage are dealt with, but perhaps those could have been moved to earlier this season so can get some immediacy as to his emotional struggles following his transformation.
By this point, a lot of you reading this probably want to strangle me, claiming, “It’s just a kids’ cartoon.” I disagree. Ben 10 has surprised me over the years since the original series debuted. The sharp writing and character development transcended the show’s initial made-only-to-sell-toys beginning. Instead, it offered superhero thrills in the classic Lee/Kirby/Ditko style. When the series made the leap from Ben 10 to Ben 10 Alien Force, the writing became more sophisticated and mature, without losing that sense of comic book fun. So it’s no “kiddie show.” The debate about this, however, illustrates where the show’s quality has strayed in these seven episodes. They’ve taken the show and dumbed it down.
Consider, if you’re brave enough, the unnerving amount of cuteness on display in these episodes. Following the big Vilgax showdown, the remaining episodes feature a wacky comedy alien done up like an old-timey Yosemite Sam-like prospector, a bunch of fuzzy Mogwai-like aliens, the “bumbling redneck” alien repo men, and the rival generals in “Simple,” who look and act more like cereal box mascots than they do battle-hardened leaders of a war-torn land. I’m aware that the series has done sillier, kid-friendly episodes in the past (remember Santa’s village?) but these take it farther into the galaxy of cutesiness than it’s ever gone. I have to wonder, is this what’s really best for the show? Alien Force succeeded by being a more mature take on Ben 10, so why go in the other direction now?
Do all of my above criticisms mean that Ben 10 Alien Force has jumped the Ripjaws? No, there’s still some fun to be had. The best episode on this set is easily “Singlehanded.” Having Ben split between two dimensions is a weird concept—and, that’s right, not scientifically accurate—but the writers and animators have a lot of fun with the idea, making the most of it. The villain of that episode doesn’t have a lot of personality, but he’s not a cutesy slapstick character, so he poses a real threat to our characters. Our heroes, then, are put in a situation where they have to use their wits and work together to solve the problem, rather than rely on brute force or comedic coincidences.
The big action scenes continue to be imaginative and cleverly staged, helped by the show’s basic conceit of Ben turning into different aliens in each episode. This helps the series from getting repetitive, even after being on the air for enough years to be considered “long running.” Similarly, the animation really shines, with a lot of smooth movements, colorful explosions and neat-o smoke effects. Little emotional moments, such as the occasional little worrisome looks exchanged between Julie and Ben, are animated nicely as well.
The visuals on the DVD impress. The alien landscapes are where the colors really shine, especially the deep, rich reds seen in the Null Void. The sound is good as well, clean and clear, while also highlighting the numerous explosions and laser blasts. The only extra is another “Alien Database” feature, which allows you to read about some more of the aliens seen in the show. After previous discs had only four episodes per disc, it’s refreshing to get seven on this disc, even though the packaging tries to convince you that two of them are “bonus episodes.” Yeah, OK.
The show’s creators hit a once-in-a-lifetime home run with the Highbreed arc, so perhaps nothing could have been a satisfying follow-up. Still, what we have here is an enormous step backwards for good ol’ Ben. Cartoony silliness, transforming Kevin for no reason, and a lack of character development make for a disappointing start to the season.