How a Forgotten Avengers Cartoon Predicted MCU Phase 4
Avengers: United They Stand helped end the old 90s Marvel Animated Universe. Two decades later and it fits perfectly with what's going on with the MCU in Phase 4.
While it doesn’t quite stack up to its DC counterpart, the Marvel Animated Universe stretched through the ’90s and had some real bangers. Much like the modern cinematic universe, various cartoons were connected as one giant piece of continuity. X-Men and Spider-Man were the biggest hits while Iron Man, Fantastic Four, and others had less of an impact. The closest thing they had to a climactic culmination was the Secret Wars adaptation near the end of Spider-Man’s final season. After that, they kind of limped into oblivion with a few shows that didn’t catch on.
That leads to the biggest difference between the Marvel Animated Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When it came to the latter, the real beginning came from the Avengers brand name. Nick Fury appearing at the end of Iron Man to discuss the Avengers Initiative was a sign of what these movies were promising while the first Avengers movie was not only a finish line to the movies before it, but it was also the moment that spring-boarded Marvel’s film universe into the stratosphere.
But for the Marvel Animated Universe? Avengers was the harbinger for the end.
Avengers: United They Stand first aired in late October 1999 and ended in late February 2000. It was the final Marvel animated show in this continuity to be produced and start airing, though technically Spider-Man Unlimited was the last one to air any episodes whatsoever. The quick version is that Fox aired three episodes of Spider-Man Unlimited, it bombed hard in the ratings, they shelved it, and then over a year later decided, “Listen, we have ten more episodes of this on our hands. Let’s just air it already.”
Either way, the double-punch of this Avengers cartoon and the most un-Spider-Man show possible with Spider-Man in the title ended the Marvel Animated Universe. These came shortly after Silver Surfer failed to catch on, giving us three Marvel cartoons that only went thirteen episodes before getting the axe.
It’s fortunate that Avengers: United They Stand is available on Disney+ as for the first time in its existence, the show is actually relevant! Now don’t get me wrong. It’s still not a very GOOD show. I’m not going to treat it like some lost gem. Still, people need content to watch in this lengthy pandemic and this Avengers cartoon is a great way to get ready for MCU Phase 4.
So put on your transforming armor and let’s get this list started!
THE NEXT PHASE OF AVENGERS
One of the reasons the show existed was to follow suit and compete with Batman Beyond. Although it really isn’t well-explained, Avengers: United They Stand is supposed to take place years after the other animated Marvel shows. One of the showrunners once claimed it was 25 years later and that only works if Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye have really good genes, but sure. It’s [some years] in the future.
Even though there had barely been any mention of the Avengers before this show – and keep in mind, we had freaking Force Works as a regular part of Iron Man – the time jump allows for the team to be something that may have already peaked. This Avengers cartoon is infamous for its bizarre intro where the team poses together, the shot pans up to show Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor, and it cuts away after a split second. For whatever reason, these guys weren’t allowed to be starring characters on the show, so it played them up as the founders and the shoes that this team needed to fill.
For the record, while Captain America and Iron Man each showed up for an episode, Thor never did.
The basic gist of the show is, “You know how Cap, Iron Man, and Thor are the Big Three of the Avengers? Well, their time has passed. Now you have to deal with Wonder Man and Wasp. Sorry.” There are even shots in the mansion that show paintings of former team members like Hulk, Beast, and Quicksilver.
Yes, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were on different rosters. Then again, she was in Force Works and he was in X-Factor. The lack of codependency between the two is probably way healthier than how they are in other Marvel continuities.
Getting back to the point, Phase 4 of the MCU is at a time when the classic Avengers have moved on. Iron Man and Black Widow are dead. Captain America is an old man. Thor is doing space stuff. Hawkeye is about to retire. Scarlet Witch is…busy.
The MCU has a void due to the big question mark of what the Avengers even are right now. And being 13 years in, we’re due to get the likes of Tigra thrown in at some point. The MCU is naturally what the Avengers cartoon was unnaturally.
The closest thing Avengers: United They Stand has to a main villain is Ultron, which is good for someone checking the series out for the first time as he’s familiar enough from his movie appearance. Unfortunately, he’s pretty one-dimensional and he talks just like the “Powered by The Cheat” version of Strong Bad. Say what you will about the James Spader version of the character in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but at least he had his moments of being intimidating.
The opening two-parter has Ultron create Vision as his ultimate killing machine and sends him after the Avengers. Vision proceeds to zap Wonder Man into a coma, gets overwhelmed by the Avengers, and is reprogrammed with Wonder Man’s brainwaves as the best available option of keeping Wonder Man alive in some way. Vision’s new personality overrides Ultron’s programming and he joins the Avengers, all while Ultron captures the comatose Wonder Man and holds onto him for much of the series.
Wonder Man is essentially supposed to be the Morph of the Avengers cartoon, but he can’t go five minutes without looking like a gigantic doofus and you get the idea that the Avengers are just better off without him.
Since Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man already had a thing brewing between them, those feelings continue on in Vision. He spends the series gradually coming to terms with his romantic interest in Wanda. She never really picks up on it, nor does she entertain the idea of getting down with a mechanical man, but it’s definitely a love triangle we’re supposed to be invested in that would supposedly be developed more in the hypothetical second season.
Speaking of Vision, it is pretty funny how he’s easily the most powerful member of the team and he tends to politely hang out in the background so the writers can ignore his powers for the sake of the guy who shoots arrows, the guy who can fly, and the lady who does cat stuff. At least in the Atlantis episode they’re able to get around it by saying the lack of direct sunlight is causing him to fade.
Lastly, there’s one episode based around Agatha Harkness and Salem’s Seven. I’m not saying you should expect to see a delightful, sass-filled Kathryn Hahn performance, but it’s a hell of a thing seeing her in cartoon form and knowing the glow-up awaiting that witch in a couple decades.
FALCON THE REPLACEMENT
From the opening episode, the other new character to join the team (albeit without trying to kill the others beforehand) is Falcon. This is because unlike Hawkeye, Falcon is able to rescue the President of the United States from Vision’s rampage. What’s the President’s name? No idea. The show never gets around to telling us. Even Vision’s robot POV screen just calls him “President.”
Falcon – accompanied by his occasionally-green lips – is the closest thing the series has to a down-to-earth character. In other words, there are TWO moments where we see him doing normal guy things by hanging out with his nephew in public. We never do get to see Hawkeye buying groceries or Tigra returning library books or any other non-superhero stuff.
Unfortunately, despite his introduction to the series, Falcon doesn’t come off as the main character like he probably should. He fades in importance and even when Captain America pops in for an episode, they don’t spend any effort in building up the world’s most patriotic bromance. It’s instead about Hank Pym moping that he’ll never be as cool as Captain America.
To be fair, I’d also be moping about that if I was Hank Pym. I’m moping about that right now!
ANT-MAN VS. KANG THE CONQUEROR
Okay, so they didn’t really pair up Captain America with the Falcon. That’s okay, because we do get to see an episode dedicated to Ant-Man vs. Kang the Conqueror! Granted, it’s Hank Pym and not Scott Lang, but it’s still a nice enough prelude to Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania!
One of the big drawbacks of Avengers: United They Stand is that the costume designs are outright terrible. The Avengers themselves have base costumes and various forms of armor depending on what kind of adventures they’re getting into (underwater, arctic weather, space, etc.). The villains, for the most part, also suffer from ugly designs.
As Kang the Conqueror has always looked hideous, his animated appearance is at worst a lateral move.
He gets his own episode, where it appears that he ruled (will rule?) the distant future, only to be kicked out of that era and the only way he can get back is with a powerful obelisk. The Avengers get their hands on the obelisk and Kang decides to threaten New York City to get it back.
Although he’s dealing with someone from centuries ahead, it’s all up to Ant-Man to outsmart him, giving us one of the better episodes of the show. Though it does include the incredibly awkward moment where Pym has to pretend that he’s all right with allowing slavery to happen while arguing with Falcon.
HAWKEYE AND THE SWORDSMAN
Watching animated Hawkeye, it really drives home how blessed we all were to get the X-Men: The Animated Series version of Wolverine. Logan was a ticking time bomb and gruff, but he also came off as badass, sympathetic, and genuinely likeable uncle figure. He’s someone you’d want to hang out and get a beer with.
Hawkeye on Avengers: United They Stand tries to be Wolverine, but is just a whiny asshole. You’d tell him good morning and he’d get in your face and clench his fists while wondering what you mean by that. He’s just the worst.
But hey, Hawkeye is getting his own Disney+ show down the line and if there’s anything to prepare you for wanting to see Clint pass the torch-arrow and disappear forever, it’s this!
He does get one episode where he leaves the Avengers and reconnects with his old mentor the Swordsman. While Hawkeye is terrible here, Swordsman comes off as one of the more charming and likeable characters in the whole series. Tony Dalton is set to play him on the Disney+ show, and I welcome that.
BARON ZEMO MAKES HIS PLAY
The MCU already gave us Helmut Zemo back in Captain America: Civil War, but he was a bit restrained and sat on the sidelines while we focused on the hero vs. hero fights, Black Panther, Spider-Man, and Chris Evans’ biceps during that helicopter scene. It’s in Falcon and the Winter Soldier that we’ll get to see him in his crazy comic book glory, wearing his purple sock mask and trying a little louder to destroy superhero society.
The episode of Avengers with Captain America is all about the Masters of Evil. It’s made up of your usual villain B-listers like Absorbing Man, Moonstone, Tiger Shark, etc. Leading them is, of course, Baron Zemo, who is fairly comic accurate compared to most other characters.
The episode for the most part doesn’t work because the Masters of Evil is a villain team-up group when we haven’t even been introduced to these villains ahead of time (unless you count Absorbing Man popping up in the Incredible Hulk cartoon). They’re no Secret Society of Supervillains, is what I’m saying.
Still, other than the conflict of who should be leading the Avengers between Cap and Ant-Man, the big rivalry here is Cap and Zemo. Granted, Falcon vs. Zemo would be more fitting these days, but the classic clash will have to do. Plus Zemo blames Cap for a death in his family, which goes well with the MCU version of Zemo if you ignore that the live-action Zemo mourns his innocent wife and kids while the cartoon version mourns his Nazi war criminal dad.
The Masters of Evil – especially with Moonstone there – is a stepping stone to Thunderbolts and there’s a chance we might get that plot in the MCU sooner than later, hopefully with Zemo involved.
Speaking of villain team-ups, the finale dealt with the Avengers fighting the Zodiac. Yeah, we…we can go a few more phases before the MCU brings in Zodiac. That’s cool.