Review: Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1

Once upon a time, Xie Lian was the beloved crown prince of a beautiful kingdom, who ascended to godhood in his teens. But then he interfered in mortal affairs, made things worse, and was cast out. He ascended to godhood a second time… and was kicked out again.

And in “Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1,” we find out what happens when this unfortunate godling ascends to deityhood for the third time. This donghua series (think anime, but Chinese) based on Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s novels of the same name, is a slow-burn that mingles romance with a uniquely Chinese brand of high fantasy, where the powerful or virtuous can become deities, but the tormented and tragic may become something else.

Upon his third ascension to godhood, Xie Lian discovers that nothing has really changed – he’s deeply in debt, and none of the other gods like or respect him. The usual way to pay off his debt is by receiving merits from the worship of mortals… except people stopped worshiping him eight hundred years ago. But there is another way – he can investigate a certain mysterious problem on a rural mountain, where seventeen brides have been abducted by a mysterious “ghost groom.”

With the assistance of the sulky, combative Fu Yao and Nan Feng, he goes undercover to find out what is abducting the girls – and ends up being escorted up the mountain by a handsome, mysterious stranger dressed all in red, who turns into a swarm of silver butterflies. But that man was NOT the ghost groom – which leaves Xie Lian to uncover the horror that lives atop the mountain. To make matters worse, the locals are also searching for the ghost groom, which only makes things more complicated when things inevitably go pear-shaped.

After that, Xie Lian decides to set up a shrine to himself in an abandoned shack, with the help of a young man named San Lang, who is very obviously not what he pretends to be. But trouble finds Xie Lian again when someone tries to trick him into going to the Half Moon Pass in the Gobi desert, near the dead city-state of Banyue. Even weirder, the other gods seem to avoid talking about this.

Along with San Lang, Fu Yao and Nan Feng, he sets out to the pass to find out what’s going on there, and ends up encountering a sandstorm, a few dozen merchants… and a cave full of scorpion-snakes. But that’s only the beginning of the undying terrors that still dwell in Banyue, killing anyone unlucky enough to pass through. And soon Xie Lian realizes that someone in Banyue has a very strong connection to him.

I personally like my romance stories with a heavy dose of plot, which makes “Heaven Official’s Blessing” perfectly balanced – even if the slow-blooming romance weren’t part of the story, it would still be a solid fantasy-horror series with gods, ghosts, goblins, zombies, and a really freaky undead face in the ground. The ethereal beauty of the lead characters and their sparkling heavens is a stark contrast to the nightmarish creatures that lurk in the mortal world below.

It’s also a fantasy that feels distinct from its anime cousins – its world and cosmology are uniquely Chinese, drawing heavily from Taoism and other Chinese beliefs. The two supernatural mysteries are pretty well-developed, both horrifying and yet tragic, and the stories occasionally slow down a little for either some mild comic relief (Fu Yao and Nan Feng’s constant fighting) or an ethereal romantic moment between Xie Lian and his mysterious red-clad man of the silver butterflies.

The animation is quite lovely for the most part, with some really beautiful moments standing out in the Puqi Temple or when the red-clad man escorts Xie Lian up the mountain. The only area where it falls down is when CGI is inserted, usually where it’s not needed. It’s very clunky.

Xie Lian is an easy character to like – perpetually unlucky and unpopular, yet unfailingly earnest and kind to everyone around him (as long as they don’t beat up girls). Howard Wang gives him a low-key, soothing kind of voice even when he’s upset. The mysterious Hua Cheng (whose identity is blatantly obvious) makes for a solid love interest, and the cast is rounded out by Fu Yao and Nan Feng, a couple of clashing, abrasive young men who actually do care about the disgraced prince.

“Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1” is an animated show that perfectly balances out a slow-growing romance, beautiful animation, and solid fantasy/horror. For those seeking an alternative to anime, this might do the trick.

Recommendation: Decker Shado

Right now this particular reviewer is getting his butt kicked by the Youtube algorithm, probably because he puts out videos devoted to science fiction, Asian cinema, cult movies and horror rather than… well, I don’t know what does well in the Youtube algorithm, because I don’t watch it.

And of course, Godzilla movies. He’s fun, dramatic and has luscious hair, and seems like a very nice person. So please support him in whatever way you can!

More about the Eternals and why they’re boring (spoilers)

No, I haven’t finished it, but something struck me when I was considering the excessive largeness of the cast and how it probably could have been pared down to at least half without losing anything.

In addition to the fact that none of the characters are developed very well, and there are way too many of them, they aren’t interesting to me because… they all have the same backstory. They all come from the same place, with the same mission and goals, and for about six-and-a-half thousand years they pretty much do the same things over and over with each other around. That gives their characters a sameness that just isn’t appealing in an ensemble cast.

Let’s compare them to the Guardians of the Galaxy, a similarly obscure team who was a rousing success and instantly beloved instead of… whatever the Eternals are. Each of the Guardians comes with a different backstory – they each have experiences, tragedies and struggles that are unique and distinct, but which bind them together when they do finally find friends. Rocket’s backstory is wildly different from Drax’s, and his experiences logically affect the way he sees the world and interacts with other people.

That’s why the Guardians feel like such well-rounded characters by comparison – each one is different. With the Eternals, all the differences feel very shallow and surface-level, because there’s not really anything in their histories to make them stand apart from each other.

I mean, imagine if every single character in the MCU was some variation of a rich, talented, arrogant man who is badly injured and humbled, and ends up becoming a nobler version of himself who uses his power and influence for good. That’s fine for Tony Stark. Some people complained that Dr. Strange was too similar, but their wheelhouses are far enough apart that it’s tolerable. But if every character came from the same background and experiences as Strange or Stark, it would be dull and none of them would stand out.

That’s why Ikaris and Sersi’s relationship feels so boring, dull and flat. What do these characters see in each other beyond “I’m hot, you’re hot, let’s do it”? It’s one of the worst romantic relationships I’ve ever seen, because neither one has any actual characteristics that could lead someone to find them attractive beyond the purely physical. Yet we’re supposed to believe they were so in love that they got married and spent over six MILLENNIA together.

And that’s not including the fact that many things about the Eternals that don’t make sense if you think about them for half a second. If they’re basically fleshy androids designed for their mission, why do they feel attraction? Why are they given the capacity to disobey and think for themselves, rather than being designed and programmed to simply do what they were designed to do? Why not just design them so they value the Celestials above all other life, and humans simply won’t matter to them outside of their function for the Celestials? That seems a lot more efficient than constantly tricking them and mind-wiping them so they’ll never find out the truth.

And if you could design a perfect artificial life-form, one indistinguishable from an organic being and possessing immense superpowers… why would you DELIBERATELY give them a handicap like deafness?

This movie is just very poorly-made, poorly-conceived, and very dull. Marvel has a reputation for putting out shiny, competent blockbusters, but they’ve been very shaky lately – Shang-Chi was just okay from what I heard, and Black Widow was a trainwreck. The Eternals just has so many elementary things that should have been fixed in the early stages of screenwriting, long before it went into production.

I mean, this is a movie where Kit Harington is one of the most dynamic and engaging characters. Kit Harington. A man who made a career out of making puppy eyes and sad mouths, and nothing else.

And yes, I’m going to finish it. I promise.

But I probably won’t enjoy it.

The Two Documentaries about JT Leroy

I’m kind of fascinated by scandals, and hoaxes, and the like. And one that has drawn me in in recent years is a scandal from perhaps fifteen years ago, when author JT Leroy was outed as being an incredibly elaborate literary hoax.

As a general explanation, JT Leroy was a famous writer of edgy semi-autobiographical fiction, who became extremely famous and beloved by a lot of people. His unique quality was that he was a former child prostitute who had been a drug addict, who had been homeless, who was gay and genderfluid and HIV-positive. He was this sort of fragile, ethereal artist who produced romanticized tales of his past, being sexually abused by men and emotionally and physically abused by his beautiful mother Sarah. Celebrities loved him, he was a bestseller, he was rich and famous, a movie was made from one of his books.

And then it came out – he didn’t actually exist.

He was a fictionalized persona created by his supposed foster mother (who also faked her own identity by pretending to be a British woman named Emily), Laura Albert, who had a weird habit of calling help lines and pretending to be a boy. The physical presence of JT Leroy was Albert’s boyfriend’s sister Savannah Knoop, who dressed up in androgynous clothes and a bad wig and pretended to be the person in question (Savannah also wrote a memoir about it some years ago, which I recommend).

This is explored a lot more in the documentaries Author: The JT LeRoy Story and The Cult of JT Leroy, both of which I watched recently. These documentaries actually complement each other perfectly, because they tell both sides of the whole hoax. Author is almost exclusively told from the perspective of the hoaxer, Laura Albert, as she tells the whole thing from her perspective and her life story and so on. Cult focuses more on the people who were taken in by it, how they feel and see it. And I don’t mean the customers buying the books – I mean people who thought they knew and had deep, close relationships with JT Leroy.

Author has a big bias. Normally I don’t disbelieve people with stories of abuse, both sexual and physical, and so on. But it becomes very obvious in this documentary that Laura Albert fetishizes child molestation and abuse. She romanticizes it. She wrote literally nothing else in her JT Leroy phase, and it was revealed to be all made up. I don’t feel comfortable believing anything she says about her past that cannot be confirmed by a reliable third-party source.

Remember, this is a woman who literally lied for a living, for a decade. She tries to claim that no, it wasn’t a lie or a hoax, it was “real” and JT Leroy was real to her – but we all know it wasn’t. You literally cannot believe a person like this; you should be skeptical of the things they claim, especially if they try to get your sympathy or argue that their sins and crimes are not that bad.

Always remember: if someone has a motive to lie to you about something, you should question every word that comes from their mouth.

In a way, Cult almost feels like a response to Author. This movie eventually centers on Laura Albert from the perspective of people who met her, including her ex-boyfriend Geoff, who confirmed the hoax after they separated. It’s a lot less flattering – a lot of people in it, including Albert’s psychiatrist, offer their viewpoints on her behavior, and it ranges from “mentally ill” to “she’s just a trained con artist.”

It also deals with the repercussions of the hoax and the lies. Author downplays the actual effects of Albert’s lies, presenting it as not being that bad, or even not being “real” lies at all.

But Cult bluntly presents the effects that those lies had on the many people who admired and followed him. Not the celebrities who latched onto the trendy it-kid of the literary world, but the authors, agents, doctors and fans who spent years conversing with him over the phone and emails, crafting seemingly-deep and emotionally-intimate relationships with him, and sometimes even coaching him through mental crises and suicidal periods. They formed online groups and communities, had readings of his work, and bonded over their love of him.

And it was all a lie – all those people were earnestly devoting their love and energy and time to someone who… wasn’t real. It was just some lady with a fetish for pretending to be a damaged, sexually-abused boy.

It wasn’t just the people who actually “knew” JT Leroy who were hurt. One scene in Cult features LGBTQ teenagers living in a shelter in San Francisco, and many of them are homeless, many have drug addictions, many prostitute themselves, and many have sexually transmitted diseases. I can utterly understand why these people were angry when JT Leroy was revealed as a fake – because their lives are hard and painful and sometimes very short.

And yet this woman used their suffering and their experiences as an “edgy” backstory for her fictional alter ego. It trivializes the reality of what they experience, and that is a terrible thing to do to anyone who is suffering.

For the record, I’m not saying an author can’t represent things they haven’t experienced in their fiction, because I don’t believe anyone should be forced to “stay in their lane” when it comes to writing. Write whatever characters with whatever backstory – do it sensitively and with respect if the experiences are something that others have had, but don’t let people tell you “it’s not your story to tell.”

But that isn’t what Laura Albert did. She basically played pretend with these serious issues, and presented this as reality – and that was a lot of what JT Leroy was. It made him stand out, it made people empathize with him, and it made up his fiction.

I know I’ve spent most of this blog post ranting about Albert and her lies, and how she hurt other people, but I really do recommend watching both Author and Cult. Watch them in that order – get Laura Albert’s side of the story, then flip around the narrative and listen to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the people she hurt.

It’s a fascinating story, and I really wish someone would write an in-depth, all-the-nuts-and-bolts, every-possible-perspective chronicle of the entire ten-year saga. If you enjoy reading about stranger-than-fiction escapades, it might be fun.

Women and “The Thing From Another World”

The Thing From Another World is usually dismissed as the “original” version of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and considered to be an inferior adaptation of the original short story. After all, 1950s special effects were simply not up to the task of making a shapeshifting monster, and the direction of most 1950s movies cannot measure up to one of the greatest horror/sci-fi movies of all time.

But despite the carrot monster, I do think this is a good movie seen on its own merits. Not because the story is particularly interesting or unique as 1950s sci-fi goes, but because of the way its characters are presented.

Specifically, the female characters.

The 1950s weren’t the best time for female characters in movies. Not saying they were all bad, because the existence of this movie clearly shows that they weren’t. But there were some extremely misogynistic attitudes in many movies that went unchallenged. These weren’t even hateful in many cases – some of them were just people who couldn’t break out of their mindsets, like in Forbidden Planet or It: The Terror From Beyond Space.

So it’s worth noting that The Thing From Another World has a pretty egalitarian approach to its characters, and treats the women with an impressive level of respect. The most basic level is just the fact that they’re there at this scientific/military outpost, holding important positions. And at no point do they fetch coffee for the menfolk, on the assumption that men will turn to sea foam if they make their own food.

But that isn’t enough to really earn my respect. It’s more that the women and men interact casually as equals – the men don’t treat the women with the casual condescension often found in old movies. In fact, they banter and pal around with the female lead in the same way they would with a male character, including when she teases her male romantic partner.

Speaking of which, the romantic subplot is also refreshing. Rather than a macho hero sweeping a woman off her feet, the two have a cute backstory that involved him falling asleep during a date, and being kind of embarrassed by it, especially since she thinks it’s so funny. It feels much more organic and realistic, and less like a personal fantasy.

Furthermore, the women don’t end up as damsels. Despite the DVD cover, there are no screaming women in peril here… or at least, no more peril than the men are in. There is a woman threatened by the monster at one point, where she is forced to hide behind a flaming mattress, but she isn’t screaming and she actually chose to take this perilous position rather than being transparently corralled into it by the screenwriter so the men can save her.

So while The Thing From Another World isn’t a standout as old sci-fi goes, it does have some qualities that bring it above the herd. It can’t measure up to The Thing, but it’s still worth seeing.

Recommendation: Diana Wynne-Jones

I feel like fantasy author Diana Wynne-Jones doesn’t get as much love and attention as she deserves.

Oh, other authors often laud her, like Neil Gaiman, and Studio Ghibli has adapted two of her books into animated movies (one amazing though a loose adaptation, one mediocre). But she’s not a household name despite the charm and imaginativeness of her books, and the movies based on her books are more associated with Studio Ghibli than the original author.

She did experience something of a renaissance several years ago during the Harry Potter craze of the late nineties to late aughts – it was a time when people were hopping on the bandwagon of children’s/young-adult’s fantasy stories, hoping to strike Potter gold. Some of these would-be franchises were good (Artemis Fowl), and some were bleeding-from-the-eyes-bad (G.P. Taylor’s Christian fantasies presented as Potter alternatives).

Diana Wynne-Jones seemed like a natural choice to reprint and promote – she had already written a huge number of fantasy stories, often involving witches and wizards. She was also British, and she had a great deal of the same charm of style and setting that had been presented in Rowling’s books. And she was imaginative – arguably much more so than Rowling – with multiverses, dimensional hopping, twists and even science-fiction woven into the fantasy.

Maybe that’s why she didn’t become as famous as Rowling – her books take more effort to comprehend, and a structure and framework that take more time to comprehend. A school for magic is a little easier to understand than the Chrestomanci universe, which has many different parallel worlds. Or a story based on the ballad of Tam Lin. Or the time-bending antics of A Tale of Time City. Or the plot twists that blow your mind in Archer’s Goon, The Power of Three and Deep Secret.

But obviously, less popular doesn’t mean less good. Jones came up with some wildly clever ideas and plumbed them to their depths, sometimes with clever yet affectionate parodies of the fantasy genre (and many affectionate nods to J.R.R. Tolkien). She was also even better than Rowling at writing twisty mysteries within her fantasy stories.

The Chrestomanci stories are a wonderful series of stories about Christopher Chant, a supremely powerful magician born with nine lives who travels between worlds. He’s not always the center of the stories, because they tend to be focused on the people who become involved with him in these worlds – kids forbidden from using magic, a seemingly ordinary boy whose narcissistic sister is a gifted sorceress, a Romeo and Juliet story, a boy cursed with bad karma, and so on.

Then there are the Magid stories. Sadly, Jones only wrote two of these – Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy, but they are among my favorites. The first one is a bizarre sci-fantasy story set at a scifi/fantasy convention, in which a colorful cast of characters are trying to figure out who the heir of an interstellar empire is. The second is a world-hopping love story between the best character of Deep Secret and a girl from another world, where royalty is magic and a conspiracy may take over magic throughout the multiverse.

I won’t summarize every book she’s written, only say that they involve time travel, Norse gods, a malevolent old woman with supernatural powers, a Goon, a star in a dog’s form, a ghost attempting to solve her own murder, a game diving into everyone’s favorite books, a Celtic-flavored fantasy that I can’t describe without spoiling the twist, and various other things.

So if you like stories with imagination, a dark edge and that clever, slightly quirky Britishness, than her books are a must-read.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League: Part 1 (Spoilers)

Since the Snyder Cut of Justice League is a mammoth four-hour-long expanse, I’ve decided to watch it in sections. This evening, I finished watching the first part of it, with no particular expectations – I’ve been avoiding Youtube videos about it for the past few days, so I could come in with fresh eyes.

And I can definitely say: it’s much better than the Josstice League cut.

Admittedly that’s a low bar – the theatrical cut of this movie was a mess, a mismatched Frankenstein’s Monster of two clashing styles that managed to make each other look terrible. Also, it didn’t feel very epic. It’s fine to have an individual superhero movie with smaller stakes – see Ant-Man and the Wasp – but for a team-up of A-list superheroes, you need everything to feel grand and massive in scale. Nothing about the theatrical cut felt like the whole world was in danger.

That is very much remedied in the Snyder Cut, or at least the first part of it. Things feel bigger, more intense, more expansive.

Flaws? Well, it’s a bit slow. The first part of the film takes its time and unfolds in a leisurely manner… and sometimes it’s a little too leisurely, such as when the Scandinavian women sing, or when Batman is very slowly crossing a mountain range. And yes, if Zack Snyder’s staples like slow-mo bother you, gird your loins, because he does use it.

However, most of the stuff I can note are positives. Almost everything in this cut was done better than in the Whedon cut – sometimes the changes weren’t drastic, but they were notable.

For one thing, there were a lot of smaller scenes that were inserted that make it flow more effectively, such as when the Amazon mother-box first activates – we see one of the Amazons reacting to it and investigating it, before ordering that Hippolyta be told. Or Cyborg sensing the mother-box in his closet activating.

Other scenes were clearly reshot, and frankly they seem a lot better than the ones in the Josstice League version. Batman’s entire conversation with Aquaman has a lot more weight – when Aquaman says “You’re out of your mind, Bruce Wayne,” there’s a subtle hint of menace there rather than humor. And thank God, Batman isn’t spouting Whedon dialogue. Batman should never say Whedon dialogue. Ever. In any situation.

One of the most notable is the scene where Wonder Woman defeats the terrorists and saves a bunch of schoolchildren. The scene is longer, more intense, and Diana feels more like she’s actually angry and disbelieving that people could behave this way. Furthermore, instead of simply throwing the briefcase up in the air, she actually flies through the ceiling a considerable distance, and then throws it. It makes the situation seem more dire that the explosion was so massive.

Furthermore… she seems like more of a badass here, fighting more effectively, flying into the air, and using her superpowers, including that bracer-clashing move of hers. Yet at the same time, the Snyder Cut also highlights her compassion by having her immediately reassure the children and ask everyone if they are all right.

Speaking of how women are depicted, it’s also interesting to me that Zack Snyder presents the Amazons in a far less sexualized manner than onetime feminist icon Joss Whedon, including removing the implied rape threat. Something to think about.

Actually, he depicts the Amazons better in almost every way. In this movie, they’re fiercer, more effective, and the enemy they face is much more imposing, so that their losses feel more earned. Having them all roar “We have no fear!” is a pretty awesome moment, even though you know they are afraid. The fight with Steppenwolf is much more destructive and epic – including a whole temple falling into the sea – and Snyder pauses to let their losses sink in before launching us back into some pretty awesome fight scenes.

Speaking of Steppenwolf, he looks a thousand times better here. This is a CGI render that someone actually finished, and he doesn’t just look like a weird gray guy in a giant hat. He’s bigger, scarier, his voice is deeper and more distorted, and he’s covered with an armor of living needles.

The movie has also been rescored, and honestly I prefer it. The scene of Lois visiting Superman’s memorial feels poignant and heartrending in a quiet, unobtrusive way, without being too on-the-nose with people doing criminal stuff or holding up signs saying “I tried.”

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the first part of Zack Snyder’s masterwork. It’s good, better than I expected so far. I’m hoping it will continue to entertain me. To be continued!

Recommendation: Ghost Hunt

Like many people, I like anime. I’m not one of those people into super-obscure or niche stuff, but I enjoy anime like My Hero Academia, Bleach, Inuyasha, Fruits Basket, Fairy Tail, etc. I used to be into Naruto and Dragonball, until I realized that both of them were ass-numbingly long and I didn’t really like the characters very much.

And one of the lesser-known anime I love is Ghost Hunt, a series that adds a more professional, sometimes more factual aspect to the usual supernatural shenanigans of Japanese urban fantasy. It gets a little silly towards the end (one of the final episodes has a Catholic priest PUNCHING GHOSTS), but it’s an overall enjoyable series that mingles urban fantasy, horror, and a hint of romance.

It follows a young girl named Mai, who accidentally runs into a supernatural detective agency who are investigating a supposedly-haunted building at the school she attends. She accidentally wrecks some of their equipment and injures the assistant, so she ends up working for the paranormal investigator Kazuya Shibuya, whom she nicknames “Naru” because she thinks he’s a narcissist. There are also three other exorcists called in: the not-very-monkly Buddhist monk Hosho, the rarely-successful Shinto shrine maiden Ayako, and the perpetually mellow Catholic priest John Brown. Oh, and there’s a TV medium named Masako, who’s condescending and nasty and can’t take a hint that a man is disinterested in her, and Naru’s assistant Lin, who’s kind of weird and distant from Mai.

As a group, they investigate a number of paranormal cases, including a haunted doll and a child being terrorized, the seemingly-haunted school, a strict school where a girl threatened to curse people, a school game with potentially deadly consequences, a labyrinthine house, and a family being haunted by ancient spirits. There are also some slightly lighter stories, one of them about a child’s spirit possessing Mai, and a ghost that splashes water on couples. The last one is more funny than spooky.

Be forewarned: this series is in fact quite horrific at times, ranging from merely being uncomfortably eerie to having bloody ghosts emerging from walls in a cursed mansion. It’s also a slow-burner for most of its run, with long stretches of talking about equipment, psychic phenomena (and sometimes the fakery of it), psychology, Japanese folk magic, and so on. It’s not boring – there are strange occurrences fairly frequently, and the banter between the characters keeps the energy moving – but it’s not a big splashy anime. It takes its time, as it is a mystery show of sorts.

Youtube Recs: Townsends

Over the last year, I’ve really fallen down a rabbit hole of historical food videos on Youtube, starting with the wonderful Tasting History show, and the Mrs. Crocombe videos that recreate Victorian recipes. But another show with a particular focus is the Townsend’s historical cooking channel.

This is the channel belonging to Jas Townsend and Sons, a company in Indiana who sell 18th-century reproductions of clothes, cookware, food, and many other things. It’s not exclusively devoted to cooking – there is stuff about building a log cabin, not getting your panties in a twist over ephemeral politics, and so on – but a large amount of it is devoted to exploring the cuisine of 18th-century America, ranging from the culinary efforts of the enslaved to the recipes inherited from England.

Townsend is a very pleasant and soothing person to watch, and he chats with the camera about the historical context of his dishes as he makes them. Part of the appeal is just in how unpredictable and odd these dishes are from when you recreate them as accurately as possible. What was fried chicken like back then? Or mac’n’cheese? What recipes did Martha Washington have? And what is fried lobster like?

Recommendation: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes

The Avengers film series is about as mainstream as you can get today – I could argue that Avengers: Endgame was one of the most anticipated movies of all time.

But back in 2010 the MCU was just getting started, and at that time, we got the best Avengers show – and possibly one of the best Marvel shows – to date: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. While it has some obvious influence from the recent Iron Man movies, this is mostly doing its own interpretation of Marvel’s comics, and it is glorious. It also has one of the most wonderful theme songs of all time. If you don’t believe me, google “avengers fight as one” and check out the music videos people have made.

But aside from the awesomeness of “Fight As One,” this show is amazing. Part of what makes it amazing is that… it isn’t strictly a kids’ show. It’s more a piece of superhero media that happens to be appropriate for children, but it’s serious and intricate enough that adults will probably enjoy it just as much.

The first half of the first season is pretty much about bringing the team together “as one.” You’ve got Tony already established as Iron Man, since the Iron Man movies had already put him in the public consciousness. But it gradually introduces us to The Hulk, Hawkeye, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Black Widow (who is a recurring ally/enemy rather than a full-on Avenger), Captain America, Thor, and sometimes Black Panther.

And for big Marvel buffs, it does indeed have characters that Marvel didn’t have the movie rights to in 2010, like the Fantastic 4, Wolverine, Spiderman, etc, as well as less prominent Marvel characters like Iron Fist and Power Man/Luke Cage, who are absolutely wonderful and deserved their own spinoff show. And it had the Guardians of the Galaxy before that group became big, as well as now-established characters like Vision and Miss Marvel (now known as Captain Marvel, and much more likable and relatable than in the live-action film).

Anyway, after a supervillain nearly destroys New York, Tony Stark decides to assemble the Avengers, a team that can recapture the 75 superpowered bad guys who have just escaped from SHIELD. So they all move into his urban mansion, and have some personal friction with each other. Just because they’re heroes doesn’t mean they all get along at first – the Hulk is grumpy and a little paranoid, Cap and Tony have differing ideas about technology and what’s important, Ant-Man despises Tony because he fights instead of rehabilitating criminals, and Hawkeye is a little pissed at SHIELD because he was framed.

But those rough edges, that friction, those personality quirks are what make the characters feel so likable and real. They’re not perfect, but they are likable, relatable and heroic. When they’re hanging out, or having conflicts, or making jokes, it really feels like they’re reluctant but fast friends.

The story arcs that follow include a lot of really fascinating conflicts, like a time-warping conflict with Kang the Conqueror, a gamma dome that mutates everyone inside it, invasion by the Kree, the Masters of Evil, the murderous android Ultron, a trip to Thor’s home realm of Asgard, etc. The second season has an overarching conflict with the Skrulls, who sow confusion and mistrust among Earth’s mightiest heroes and make things a lot more difficult for them, both amongst each other and towards the world.

Sadly, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes ran for only two seasons, when it was clearly laying out plotlines and groundwork for much more. Apparently Disney didn’t want a story with good writing, intelligence, all-ages appeal, great stylized animation and well-developed characters, so they gave us the bland, simplistic, messy and juvenile Avengers Assemble instead. Bleah.

So yeah, if you can find this series, definitely watch it. It’s packed with plot, excellent writing, and it’s as rewarding a watch for adults as for kids.