Silly rabbit, Omnitrix are for kids.
Why is today’s action figure market so obsessed with variant figures? It’s all for money, of course. When a kid buys a figure based on a popular cartoon, comic book, or video game character, toymakers need to come up with ways to keep drawing that same kid back into stores to buy the figure again. So they come up with different designs of the same character. This is why we’ve seen ridiculous stuff on toy shelves like scuba-diving Superman, Batman with an all-white “winter” outfit, Spider-Man riding a spidery dune buggy, and Boba Fett wearing a huge jetpack that’s five times bigger than he is.
The creators of Ben 10 have sidestepped this dilemma nicely. The hero here doesn’t have one alter ego, he has 10. This means toymakers can attract kids with 10 hero figures instead of one, not to mention the various supporting characters and the many crazy villains. The question, then, is whether this series is anything genuinely watchable, or just a big commercial.
Meet Ben Tennyson (Tara Strong, The Powerpuff Girls). While spending summer vacation with his grandfather Max (Paul Eiding, W.I.T.C.H.) and his cousin Gwen (Meagan Smith, Up Against Amanda), Ben stumbles upon a strange watch minutes after it fell from the sky. This “watch” is actually the Omnitrix, a powerful alien device. It attaches itself permanently to Ben’s arm, and gives him the ability to transform into any one of 10 strange creatures, each with their own unique powers and skills.
Always one to defend little guys against bullies, Ben immediately decides to use these new identities for justice, with his uncle and cousin as his only confidants. Good thing, too, because it seems that wherever the three of them go, they tend to run into super villains, giant monsters, and alien invaders. Speaking of aliens, somewhere out in space, the sinister Vilgax (Steven Jay Blum, X-Men Legends) desperately wants the Omnitrix for himself, first to restore his ailing health, and then to conquer the galaxy.
To save the day, Ben can turn himself into any one of the following 10 alien heroes:
• Heatblast, a red-hot creature who can create and control fire.
• Wildmutt, an animalistic beastie with no eyes, but supernatural senses of hearing and smell to make up for it.
• Diamondhead, a huge guy made out of diamond, who can turn any part of his body into a razor-sharp edge that can cut through almost anything.
• XLR8, a lithe, blue-skinned alien able to move at incredible speeds.
• Greymatter, a five-inch-tall hero, for when Ben needs to sneak into tight spaces.
• Four Arms, a multi-limbed muscle-bound brute.
• Stinkfly, an oversized insect that can fly and shoot green goop at enemies.
• Ripjaws, an aquatic alien with amazing swimming skills and a shark-like bite.
• Ghostfreak, a dark, shadowy entity able to phase through walls and turn invisible.
• Upgrade, a creature with a biomechanical liquid body that can merge with any machine and make it more powerful.
This episode list just emerged from my episode-list-o-tron:
• “And Then There Were 10”
It’s the origin story, in which Ben heads off on vacation with Gwen and Grandpa, discovers the Omnitrix, and squares off with one of Vilgax’s robot cronies.
• “Washington B.C.”
Ben and company take on Dr. Animo, an evil scientist with a plan to bring dinosaurs from a museum back to life and send them off to trash the nation’s capital.
• “The Krakken”
Ben encounters a Loch Ness-style monster, and some high-tech hunters tracking it down. But who is the real monster in this scenario? And since when does “Kraken” have an extra letter k?
• “Permanent Retirement”
While visiting an elderly aunt, Ben and Gwen discover an alien conspiracy at work in her retirement community.
Vilgax sends three ruthless bounty hunters after Ben, forcing him to fight back with strategy, and not just muscle.
• “Tourist Trap”
In a town made up of various oddball roadside attractions, Ben discovers the secret of “it,” releasing an evil force into the world.
• “Kevin 11”
Ben befriends Kevin, who somehow has the ability to absorb energy of all kinds. When he enlists Ben’s aid in some less-than-legal activities, Ben loses Grandpa’s trust, and he loses some of his powers to Kevin.
• “The Alliance”
Vilgax transforms a female criminal into a superhuman creature to do his bidding. This encounter allows Ben to learn more about the Omnitrix, and he has a frightening vision of Vilgax.
• “The Last Laugh”
A trip to the circus leads to a battle with an evil clown and some super-powered sideshow freaks. And, yes, clowns are creepy.
• “Lucky Girl”
After a battle with a sinister sorcerer, Gwen gets a hold of a magic amulet that gives her powers of her own, so she adopts her own alter ego and dons a cool ninja-like costume as “Lucky Girl.”
• “A Small Problem”
The Omnitrix malfunctions, trapping Ben in his Greymatter persona, just in time for him to be captured by an obsessive UFO expert.
• “Side Effects”
When Ben catches a cold, it has strange effects on his hero forms, which is not good news when he has to battle a villain who can control insects with his mind. (This episode is all about bugs and mucous, so don’t do what I did and eat a big plate of ravioli while watching it.)
Vilgax, fed up with the failure of his drones and henchmen, arrives on Earth to destroy Ben himself. The stakes are raised, an American landmark gets leveled, and nothing is what it seems.
Despite my initial suspicions that Ben 10 would be nothing but an overblown toy ad, I have to admit that the first episode really hooked me. Ben immediately came across as a likeable guy, and the interaction between him and Gwen was very witty. He wants to have a nice, relaxing summer, while she has their entire vacation planned out on color-coordinated spreadsheets. Once Ben finds his powerful “watch,” though, it’s all classic superhero origin stuff, as Ben discovers what his powers are and how they work, just in time to save some campers from a rampaging alien robot.
By the time the second episode came around, though, it seems like we’d suddenly skipped over a lot of the story. When this one begins, Ben is already familiar with all 10 of his alternate personas and their powers. We never get to his reaction to first discovering who all the 10 are, working out what their powers are, or even the process of how any of them got their name. In the third episode, Ben announces that it’s time for him to turn into Ripjaws, when we the audience have never seen or heard of Ripjaws before. Do the show’s creators believe we’ll catch up in time? Or have they assumed anyone watching the show has already checked out the Web site or, dare I say it, their local toy store? To be fair, maybe they just want every episode to be a stand-alone story instead of serialized, so viewers don’t have to start from the beginning. If that’s the case, then all it would have taken was one or two lines of exposition before introducing us to one of Ben’s personas we’ve never met before.
There is a slight serialized element to the series, as Ben very gradually learns about the origin of the Omnitrix and Vilgax’s search for it. But for the most part, Ben just stumbles from one adventure to the next. It seems the kid can’t walk two steps without bumping into alien invaders or lethal malfunctioning robots. Sure, this is a superhero show, and it’d be pretty dull if there were no super villains, but the fact that Ben runs into the bad guy by pure coincidence almost every week is stretching things. Plus, I wonder how long this summer vacation of Ben’s will last. In just this first season, the characters make it from the heartland of America in one episode, to the center of New York City in the next, to an Old West ghost town in the one after, until it wraps up at Mount Rushmore in the season finale. With this “never-ending vacation” mentality, the series is in danger of turning into another Camp Candy, where those poor kids were stuck at that damned summer camp for three very long years.
Despite this frustration about the overall story, Ben 10 brings it when it comes to explosive superhero action. More than half of each episode is devoted to big, big action. The animators have no trouble thinking of a variety of weird looking creatures and technological menaces for Ben to beat up. These battles never feel repetitive, again because of the 10-heroes-in-one gimmick. We only get appearances from two or three of Ben’s alter egos per episode, so you never know which one he’ll turn into, and how he’ll use each one’s powers to save the day. Every action scene is well-staged, with kinetic movement and mass destruction on an enormous scale.
Before you think that this show is nothing but weird creatures punching each other, know that there’s a lot of humor here as well. As noted above, the dialogue between Ben and Gwen is often witty, and Grandpa gets in some good lines as well. A good portion of the humor comes from how Ben, in his superheroic forms, still talks and acts like a kid. When, as Heatblast, Ben looks like a total badass after stopping some crooks, he then starts fussing over some cool trading cards like any kid might, but doing so with his deep Heatblast voice. The show is peppered with a lot of little absurd moments like this, so that we the viewers are never entirely sure where the next surprise or twist is coming from.
A lot of cartoons of this sort like to do transformation sequences. You know the ones: Just before the hero jumps into action, there’s this elaborately-produced 15-second bit showing him or her transform into his or her heroic “look.” This happens once per episode, and it’s supposed to be a cool, adrenaline-pumping moment. But, instead, all it does is slow down the momentum of the episode. Each of Ben’s personas has its own transformation sequence, and even at 10 of them, they feel overused quickly.
The picture quality here is nearly flawless, as expected for a recently-made series, with the bright, vivid colors being the standout. The sound also impresses, with plenty of battles and explosions to get the most out of your speakers. Oddly, it was a smaller moment, though, in the episode “Side Effects” that really made me sit up and take notice of the audio. The seemingly simple sound of Wildmutt sniffing the ground came booming out of the speakers, making it sound like the big guy really was in the room with me.
For extras, there’s a commentary from producers and writers on the episode “Secrets,” in which they point out some trivia notes and discuss their overall thoughts on the characters. There’s not a lot of hardcore info here, but their enthusiasm and love for the show is clear. There are two brief featurettes. In the first, an animator shows viewers how he draws Ben, starting with rough shapes and then filling in the details. The second offers a few glimpses of what’s to come in future seasons. This one is very short, but I’ll admit it did whet my appetite for more. There are also a handful of trailers. Rounding out the package is a nicely-designed foldout poster. Fold it one way, and it’s an episode list. Another way, and it’s a bunch of photos of the action figures (on sale now!). When unfolded all the way, it’s a nice piece of artwork of Ben and all 10 of his alien forms.
I’ve examined the show here from my perspective, but all you really want to know is whether your kid will like this. As always, the answer is: It depends on your kid. If your kid digs superhero action, it’s a maybe. If your kid digs superhero action and is Internet savvy, then I’d say it’s a definite yes. Ben 10 is like three-fourths of a show. The other one-fourth exists on its official site, and in the many merchandizing tie-ins. But I’m willing to forgive gross mass marketing in this case, because there really is a fun, action-packed cartoon to be enjoyed here.