Action as big as Vilgax’s arms.
When Ben 10 Alien Force: Volume 7 came out, I really gave it a critical walloping, concerned that the quality had dipped. Volumes one through six featured the Highbreed story arc, a huge, jaw-dropping superhero adventure to rival the greatest of all comic book crossover events. This was followed by the seventh volume, and the disappointing return of Vilgax, the show’s original big bad. It was a letdown because it lessened the character development that had been built up during the Highbreed adventure, and it was a missed opportunity to explore the background and motivation of the villain. That, plus a string of cutesy, kid-targeted episodes, left a bad taste in my mouth. The series had come so far and improved so much, it broke my heart to see it dumbed down.
Now, it’s time for the next volume. This DVD contains the middle part of the third season of Ben 10 Alien Force, which could also be considered the seventh season if you count the original four seasons of the original Ben 10 that proceeded it. Trying to describe the chronology gets more confusing as each new DVD is released.
Will this be an upward or downward slide for the show? Are the writers going anywhere with this season’s arc and themes? Will Ben continue to enjoy those disgusting smoothies?
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 half-human, half-mineral pal Kevin (Greg Cipes, Teen Titans), Ben keeps the Earth safe from alien invaders and whatnot.
This episode list can be found on page 987 of Charmcaster’s spell book:
• “If All Else Fails”
A Highbreed wakes from hibernation and discovers that the takeover of Earth didn’t go as planned, so he activates a failsafe to wipe out the planet. Can Ben and friends stop a second Highbreed doomsday device?
• “In Charm’s Way”
Our heroes run into Charmcaster, a magic-using villainess not seen since the original Ben 10 series. Seeking revenge against Gwen, Charmcaster seduces Kevin, ultimately pitting Kevin and Gwen against each other.
• “Ghost Town”
Vilgax is reunited with another villain not seen in years, and now his entire home world is threatened. Vilgax now has no choice but do the unthinkable—ask Ben for help in freeing his people.
• “Trade Off”
He was once Michael Morningstar, but now he’s merely Darkstar. Overcome with vampire-like hunger by his energy-stealing powers, this one-time member of the Alien Force is on the run once again. He enlists Kevin in a globe-hopping search for an ancient mystical relic that could cure them both.
• “Busy Box”
Ben, Gwen and Kevin discover of a piece of alien technology far more advanced than anything they’ve ever seen. The device in question can imitate anything it sees, and is highly aggressive. When two alien repo men show up also in search of the object, the fight is on.
• “The Con of Rath”
A pair of aliens arrives at Ben’s doorstep, asking him for aid in bringing peace to their world, by transporting their innocent child across space. During the trip, the Omnitrix unlocks a never-before-seen alien, Rath, which has shocking effects on Ben’s personality.
Interestingly, every episode on this disc has past enemies coming back to make trouble for our heroes. Facing the past appears to be the theme for this entire season. It began at the start of volume seven, with Vilgax’s return, and it’s countered with Ben being able to reuse some of his alien forms from the original series. In addition to the Alien Force aliens, oldies but goodies from the Omnitrix such as Diamondhead and Upchuck make return appearances in these episodes. Revisiting the past could lead to all kinds of interesting character dynamics, or it could stall the character work that’s been built up to this point. Unlike the clunky season premiere in Volume Seven, though, these Volume Eight episodes make for a step in the right direction, although they’re not without some of the same concerns.
Let’s take a detailed look at the episode “In Charm’s Way.” This one illustrates a lot of the pluses and minuses of the entire season. At first, there’s a big reveal that Charmcaster has returned. It’s been several years since the main characters—and the audience—has seen her. We’ve seen how our heroes have changed and grown over the years, so how has Charmcaster changed? We don’t know, because her background is quickly glossed over, and all we’re told is that she wants revenge against Gwen because Gwen stole her spell book years earlier. That’s it? We’re supposed to believe that Charmcaster just sat around doing nothing for the past five to six years except fret about Gwen? It always bugs me in shows like this when the heroes are just hanging out doing their thing, only to have the villain show up out of nowhere and start a fight, usually for a slim reason, such as revenge.
Then, as the episode continues, there are a few twists, and I was surprised to see the return of the well-written plotting and character work that I enjoy from the show. Charmcaster reaches out to Kevin, playing on the fact that his new monstrous appearance has created a divide between him and Gwen. Kevin’s emotional struggle concerning his transformation has been in the background—almost to the point of nonexistence—in previous episodes, so it’s refreshing to see an episode finally deal with it. This makes the conflict in the episode really between Kevin and Gwen, rather than Gwen and Charmcaster, and that makes for a more interesting story.
Fortunately, all this relationship stuff doesn’t mean this is some sort of animated take on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, thank God. This is still Ben 10 Alien Force, and that means there’s no shortage of monster fighting to be had. That brings us another critique I had about volume seven: the kiddie factor. At one point during the final battle, Charmcaster summons a giant monster that is—and this is being kind—silly. Then, the writers and animators surprised me yet again with the way Ben dealt with the creature. It was funny and unexpected, and a great payoff for longtime fans. This is the type of clever humor that initially caught my attention about the series, and made me realize it’s more than a “just to sell toys” cartoon.
As for the rest of the episodes on this set, there’s some good stuff here. Vilgax gets a little bit of much-needed character development when we get a glimpse of his home planet, and when he’s lowered to a point where he has to ask Ben for help. He still comes across as little more than a big thug, though, and not the power-mad dictator he was originally set up as. The Highbreed episode is another winner, in which our heroes have to save the day by using their wits as opposed to non-stop fighting. The remaining episodes are more humorous and kid-friendly, but they have their moments. Rath’s introduction is another highlight. The way he affects Ben’s personality is amusing, and it’s something the show’s creators will have more fun with in later episodes.
• Wasn’t it determined a while back that Gwen’s magic powers were not actual magic but really a form of energy? If so, why is there so much talk about “magic” in these episodes?
• Where did Darkstar get that futuristic spaceship/hovercraft thing from?
• You can probably tell that this disc is not for Ben 10 newbies. If you want to enjoy the Ben 10 experience in full, you’ll want to make the commitment to start from the beginning.
Visually, this is some of the best-looking made-for-television animation you’ll ever see. The giant creature in “If All Else Fails” is an excellent design, and consistent with its Highbreed creators, and the scenes of it in motion are breathtaking, an excellent combination of pacing, color, and movement. Previous episodes have been loaded with little nods to comic book legend Jack Kirby, but this time around, in the Charmcaster episode, I spotted a number of stylistic homages to equally-legendary comic artist Steve Ditko, referencing his famous run on Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange. All these gorgeous visuals impress on DVD with vivid clarity. The sound is remarkably good for a 2.0 track, making the most of the many action scenes. The only extra we get is another “alien database” interactive text piece, with trivia notes about some of the show’s aliens. The packaging would have you believe the Rath episode is a “bonus episode,” but whatever.
After the butt-plunging awfulness that started this season, I was about to call it quits on Ben 10 Alien Force. Fortunately, however, the six episodes on this disc represent a step back in the right direction. Although they’re not among the show’s best, I’m glad to say I enjoyed them.