It started when an alien device did what it did.
In Season One of Ben 10, young Ben Tennyson (Tara Strong, The Powerpuff Girls) discovered an alien device that permanently attached itself to his wrist, like a watch. It’s called the Omnitrix, and it allows Ben to transform into any one of 10 different alien creatures, each with its own unique powers and abilities. While traveling around the country on summer vacation with his cousin Gwen (Meagan Smith, Surf’s Up) and his grandfather Max (Paul Eiding, God of War), Ben used his new powers to fight crime, protect the innocent, and fend off any alien invaders who want the power of the Omnitrix for themselves. Now it’s time for Ben 10: The Complete Season 2, in which Max’s secret past is revealed, some of last year’s villains make repeat appearances, and maybe, just maybe, there might be more than 10 surprises hidden inside the Omnitrix.
To learn the names and powers of all 10 of Ben’s alien forms, you have to visit the show’s official website. That’s true not just of this review, but of the entire series.
The aliens slipped through our trap, but they left behind this episode list:
Max’s past comes back to haunt him, mere minutes after he reveals the secret of his history to Ben and Gwen.
• “The Big Tick”
A giant blue tick (Spoon!) arrives from space, lays waste to Yosemite National Park, and has plans to devour the Earth. To save the day, the Omnitrix provides Ben with an amazing new surprise.
Kevin 11, who absorbed Ben’s powers last season, returns even more deadly than before. He’s committing crimes as the aliens, and Ben’s getting all the blame.
• “Gwen 10”
In this “outside-of-continuity” episode, Ben somehow goes back in time to the day he found the Omnitrix—except this time, Gwen finds it first. Now she’s the hero and he’s the sidekick.
• “Grudge Match”
Kevin 11 shows up again, seeking revenge against Ben. But before that can happen, they are both captured and transported to an intergalactic gladiatorial arena, where they must work together to escape.
• “The Intergalactic Enforcers”
Three alien superheroes enlist Ben into their ranks, where he helps them pursue a pair of rogue bounty hunters. Being a pro hero, though, means following their many rules.
• “Camp Fear”
When Max’s motor home breaks down near a mostly deserted summer camp during a rain storm, it’s like a horror movie come to life. But instead of a slasher out to get everyone, it’s a giant fungus. Now that’s scary.
• “Ultimate Weapon”
The discovery of an ancient Mayan mask leads Max, Ben, and Gwen to Mexico, where Max believes it will guide them to an ancient and powerful weapon. Can they find it before a mysterious secret society does?
• “Tough Luck”
A magic gem returns the mystical powers Gwen previously wielded last year, allowing her to once again transform into her own hero persona, Lucky Girl. Ben could use the help, too, when battling an evil sorcerer atop the Space Needle in Seattle.
• “They Lurk Below”
Max visits a childhood friend, who’s now a billionaire about to open a luxurious resort at the bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately, using undersea volcanoes to power the place has awoken some ancient undersea creatures, who want revenge.
• “Ghostfreaked Out”
Ben rarely transforms into the alien Ghostfreak, because it gives him a strange, uncomfortable feeling. Now, he’s having nightmares about Ghostfreak, and he’s seeing the alien out of the corner of his eye. When the Omnitrix goes haywire and finally turns Ben into Ghostfreak, Ghostfreak looks down at Gwen and creepily says, “Ben’s not here.” Trouble follows.
• “Dr. Animo and the Mutant Ray”
When Ben breaks off a piece of the Omnitrix, his aliens become mixed into bizarre new forms. The problem worsens when mad scientist Dr. Animo gets his hands on the missing piece for his own evil use.
• “Back with a Vengeance”
While stranded in outer space, Kevin 11 learns of an alien who can help him defeat Ben once and for all—Vilgax, the most dangerous enemy Ben ever faced. With two major baddies after him at once, Ben might have to make a final sacrifice, and say goodbye to Gwen and Max forever.
My first exposure to Ben 10 was not from the TV show, but from the many action figures. I’m a toy collector, and the series first caught my eye when enormous amounts of store shelf space became devoted to it. Based on this, I assumed Ben 10 was one of “those” cartoons, created only to sell toys, without little time or effort put into the actual scripts or animation. So imagine my surprise when I finally sat down to watch the show and saw how good it is.
What I find exciting about the show is how non-formulaic it is. Giving Ben the ability to transform into 10 (or more?) heroes means the episodes never feel repetitive. In one episode, we might see Four Arms and Stinkfly in action, when in the next it’ll be Diamondhead or Wildmutt battling the villains. Also, the creators have wisely given Ben some limits on his powers. He can only turn into an alien for a short while, and the Omnitrix needs to recharge for a while afterward. Plus, it sometimes doesn’t work as it should, so Ben often turns into the wrong hero for the occasion. These limitations mean that Ben often can’t rely on his powers to save the day, and instead it’s up to him to think fast and use his wits to beat the baddies. This makes for a more down-to-Earth, relatable hero, despite his wild-looking alternate forms.
It’s also exciting to see the creators gradually opening up and exploring this superhero universe they’ve created. A lot of villains from the first season make a return, and each time we get to know them a little better. Continuity is followed very well, as we get to learn a little bit more about Ben’s alien forms, just as he discovers new uses for their powers. All this continuity never confuses newcomers in the audience, though. When Kevin 11 shows up, there’s a quick line like, “He’s the guy who once absorbed Ben’s powers,” and then the action is off and running. This is a good example of continuity used to enhance a story, making it seem like part of a bigger world, as opposed to just confusing viewers with fictional facts and dates.
Add to this world-building the fact that Ben 10 is refreshing in that it’s building its own universe. Instead of taking a classic character and, ugh, “updating” it, the show’s writers and animators have instead created a sandbox of their own to play in. With so many superhero movies and TV shows being retreads of previously done material, it’s great to see a show like this with new characters, and its own set of rules.
Keep in mind that this is an action ‘toon, and it serves up the mass destruction nicely. In any given episode, you can expect explosions, laser blasts, and more. Again, thanks to the creators not relying on formula, the big action scenes never feel repetitive. Each one is in a different environment, and differently-staged from the next. Although the show is not as outlandishly inventive as, say, Samurai Jack, the creators have shown a genuine effort in keeping things fresh throughout.
Fortunately, the show isn’t all fighting with no story. Granted, the emphasis is on the monster-punching, but there is some nice character development to be found here. Max’s past life—and his worries that he and the kids will get drawn back into it—makes an interesting character arc for him, and it gives him a lot more to do than just play the kindly old grandpa. Gwen, meanwhile, seems to be seeking recognition for all of her contributions, in one way or another. She’s overjoyed at the thought of visiting a posh boarding school, and during those few times she gets powers of her own, she shows no hesitation about jumping into the “hero” role. All this seems to say that her motivation is merely her desire for someone, anyone, to finally pat her on the back and say, “Good job.” As for Ben, he continues to learn lessons such as what it does and doesn’t mean to be a hero, as using his powers for selfish gain always backfires on him. Still, as noted above, he consistently shows wit and courage when in hopeless situations, making him a fine hero for viewers to root for.
The audio and video here are both good, which is a given considering how recently-made the show is. One episode, “Ghostfreaked” has a self-congratulatory commentary track, in which the creators reveal how much of the show they had planned out from the beginning, and how they’re grateful to be able to show some of the payoff. A couple of other episodes come with deleted scenes, which, to me, didn’t look too different from what was in the episodes themselves. They’re presented dialogue-only, though, which gave me an appreciation for just how much the music and sound effects add to a cartoon. The “How to Draw Heatblast” featurette isn’t really a tutorial, it’s one animator pointing out some small details in the alien’s design. The “Secret Alien Info” featurette has other animators discussing their favorite alien characters from the show, and some of the ideas that went into creating them. This one is good, but far too short, leaving viewers with the feeling that a lot more could be said on the subject. There are some trailers for other kid-friendly releases, and another neat fold-out poster that also acts as an episode guide and a look at more Ben 10 merchandise. Strangely, this two-disc set doesn’t include the trailer for the Ben 10 live-action made-for-TV movie, which as of this writing is scheduled to air only a few weeks after this set is released.
I have to admit it still bugs me that all this action and adventure is happening over the course of a single summer vacation, especially considering all the traveling these characters do. In just this season, they’ve visited Seattle, Mexico, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and more. Let’s assume this is “real time” and that one week passes for every episode. At the end of this season, that means summer vacation has lasted 26 weeks, or roughly six months. It would have been nice for the creators to have re-thought this, and made Max home-school Ben and Gwen or something, because with every passing episode, the “endless summer vacation” setting wears itself more and more thin. Also, Max and Gwen make it all the way to the top of the freakin’ Space Needle in a rickety old window washer’s platform? Whose bright idea was that?
In the commentary, one of the show’s creators points out the use of “Kirby dots” in a background. This is, of course, a reference to the dynamic drawing style of comic book legend Jack Kirby. That’s appropriate, because Ben 10 really is like reading one of the classic Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comics from the ’60s. Stan and Jack were never content to repeat themselves, but instead were always thinking ahead for new types of adventures and challenges for their characters. That same spirit of fun and inventiveness comes across in Ben 10. This is lighthearted superhero adventure at its best.