Avengers Assemble Season 4, 2016-2017

Season 4 was truly packed with major events. After the original team goes missing, Black Panther brings together the “New Avengers” until the others can be found/rescued. After some more crazy adventures, everyone is transported to Battleworld where the Beyonder makes them his pawns in our version of Secret Wars.

“Secret Wars.” Boyoboy those are trigger words for me. When the original comic series came out in 1984, I was a regular Marvel reader. But that’s the one that broke me. I couldn’t believe any literate human being could see it as anything but the shallow, cynical cash-grab that it was. The concept was interesting; suddenly all the major Marvel heroes are transported to another world where they are forced to battle Marvel villains for supremacy. It was previously tried in a miniseries called Contest of Champions in 1982, but this was a larger scale version that would involve more characters and last a full year. And right from the start, I could tell that it was completely disposable.

My first clue was that when the characters were “pulled out” of their regular comics, they didn’t stay out. Those books kept right on going, month after month. What could possibly happen in Secret Wars that would have any impact? Then there was the artwork, which looked rushed and uninspired. As if the artists had no interest in what they were drawing. And if they didn’t, why should I?

Nevertheless, I followed that story through all 12 issues, partly out of morbid curiosity, partly to see if there was a moment when it would turn around. But there wasn’t. The only lasting impact was that Spider-Man got a black costume, which turned out to be a symbiote, which turned into Venom. That could have been done without involving anyone else, including me.

The insult on top of the injury was Marvel’s relentless insistence that this project was revolutionary, the greatest thing to ever happen. In my view, it was the exact opposite, and the more they tried to push their propaganda the more it became a dealbreaker. I was 20 years old when Secret Wars ended, and my tastes were rapidly evolving. I’d been reading Marvel comics for ten years, and it seemed like time to leave. I was finding independent, Japanese, and British comics much more interesting. So I walked away from Marvel and watched from a distance as they got high on their own fumes and devolved into a husk.

Fast forward to 2002, when something came out that actually DID live up to the Secret Wars hype. It was called The Ultimates. I didn’t know anything about it until a friend of mine named Jeff Allen handed me the first graphic novel collection in 2003 and said I had to read it. This is what I was waiting for; a complete reboot of the Marvel universe with phenomenal writing and exquisite art. Marvel had finally detoxed.

Ten years after that, the first Avengers movie came out and the DNA of The Ultimates was all over it, not the least of which was its pre-casting (on paper) of Sam Jackson as Nick Fury. And both Jeff and I were about to start directing cartoons based on this movie. It felt like a homecoming.

While we were in production on our third season in 2015, Secret Wars returned to comics. I flashed back to everything I just described above, but I didn’t approach it with dread. By this time I was reading a bunch of Marvels every month to keep tabs on general developments (and for reference material), and was continually impressed by the steady quality. I was much more confident in this generation of talent to deliver a version of Secret Wars that was worth our time. In this version, worlds were colliding left and right. The final collision was between “regular” Marvel Earth and “Ultimates” Marvel Earth. The result was a mashup planet called Battleworld where all the rules changed.

The concepts that grew out of this were inspired and fun. In the end, my only complaint is that it didn’t last. Within six months or so, the whole thing was resolved and we were back to the regular flow. At least until the next big crossover event, which I’ve completely forgotten now. I would have been happy to see the Battleworld concept go on for a year or more, to completely rework the fabric of the comics universe as we were told it would. But that’s another story.

The direct impact of all this on me was that in 2016, we learned that our little cartoon show was going to do its own version of Secret Wars with its own Battleworld. It wouldn’t be the only thing we did in this season, though. A bunch of new characters had joined the Avengers after the Ultron Revolution in season 3, and they would take the lead for the first half of season 4 after the original team went missing. Once everyone was back together, the Beyonder would make his move.

Many new characters, both heroes and villains, made their way onto the screen in the meantime. As it turned out, it was a few too many. Our animation studios in Korea were started to crumble under the sheer weight of what we were asking them to do. Our show had become rather notorious among their community, known as the second hardest show to draw. The FIRST hardest was also from our studio, Guardians of the Galaxy. One alien army after another paraded through their episodes, and I vividly remember a day when we were all called into a very serious meeting where strict limits were imposed on how much we could show on-screen at any given time. The Korean studios were close to mutiny at this point, and we had to pull back if we wanted to keep our shows in production.

Avengers Assemble had its share of crowds and armies. Global threats tend to require them. I’d always kept an eye on economy, but now the rules were tightened up considerably. The only episode of mine that was severely impacted was the final one of the season, where Loki unleashes an army of Mindless Ones. I had to comb through all the shots we’d storyboarded and make sure none of them showed more than 3 or 4 moving characters in any given scene. If there was an army, it had to be implied. This is not as big a deal as it sounds. There are always ways to imply. But it was a much-needed reminder that we’d been pushing the limits pretty steadily all along and it was time to reel things in.

The most enjoyable part of the season was getting to design lots of new elements; characters, creatures, effects, and environments were constantly shifting and changing, especially when we got to Battleworld, and every episode became its own mini-world. Somehow, miraculously, we managed to crank out a show every four weeks despite the massive workload. (You can see my designs for this and other seasons in previous Avengers articles.)

The MCU films that came out while we made this season were Civil War and Doctor Strange. It was great fun to watch Civil War run through a live-action version of moments we’d already drawn many times over. We already had our own version of Doctor Strange before his film arrived, but we were happy to adapt his new look and tone into our series. Every movie lifted our boat and made us more excited to be where we were.

This was the last season I would work on with a remote team of board artists. As explained in previous articles, I was based at the L.A. studio while my entire team worked in Vancouver. This was done purely for economic reasons, of course. It was never my preference. And it certainly didn’t make my job easier. But some excellent work came out of this partnership, and many artists graduated from Avengers at the top of their game. There were some dark days when I promised them all the pain and labor would be worth it, that every show they went to after this would be a cake walk by comparison. To my delight, the ones I’ve kept in touch with are now in high demand. Every time I try to employ them again, someone else beats me to it. The lucky bastards.

Avengers Assemble season 4 ran for 26 episodes, preceded by a bonus episode. Storyboards were produced from March 2016 to April 2017. The season aired on Disney XD from June 2017 to March 2018. It can now be seen on Vudu, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus.

Wikipedia series page | Wikipedia episode page | Season 4 page at fandom.com

Episodes I directed

0. …Assemble

At the end of season 3, six new Avengers were added to double the team roster. As a way to kick off season 4, they each became the subject of their own short featurette. These were shown separately and also combined into a single episode. I had the honor of directing and boarding the Captain Marvel segment entirely on my own.

See it here

2. New Year’s Resolution

Past and present collide on New Year’s Eve as Howard Stark and Peggy Carter are suddenly brought to the present from 1949. They team up with Iron Man and Captain America to save the time stream from Kang the Conqueror. The mind-controlling Doctor Faustus is also along for the ride, since Howard and Peggy had him locked in their trunk after apprehending him.

This was the first episode I directed for season 4, but not the first to air. Instead, it was held back to run as a holiday special. Best thing: Hayley Atwell reprising Agent Carter. Worst thing: she recorded remotely, so we never got a chance to meet her. The script had a farewell moment between Cap and Peggy where they should have kissed, but didn’t. So I boarded it that way, because come on – they HAD to kiss. They both earned it. But my choice was vetoed from above for no good reason whatsoever.

See it here

4. Avengers No More, Part 1

As the Avengers explore a way to return Iron Man to their reality (with help from Jane Foster), they are attacked by The Leader, who swipes a prototype Arc Reactor and then heads to the Wakandan Consulate to go after Vibranium. Thor arrives and helps Black Panther take him down. when the Avengers arrive, Leader summons his new incarnation of the Cabal, consisting of Arnim Zola, Enchantress, Executioner, and Kang the Conqueror. A running battle results in the Avengers being teleported to parts unknown with Black Panther left behind.

This was the first episode that got our story going, placing Black Panther at the lead position to pull together a new team of Avengers. The villains we saw here would be a thorn in their sides for many episodes to come.

See it here

6. The Sleeper Awakens

After the Avengers disappear without a trace in the fight against the Cabal, Black Panther brings the New Avengers together at his mansion. Captain America arrives, but Vision discovers that he is a robot sent by Red Skull. They follow the trail to find that Red Skull called them for help when his new A.I. system turned against him. They free him and he reveals a bigger plot beneath the first.

In addition to depicting the new team for the first time, the highlight of this episode for me was getting to design the Red Skull’s “Sleepers,” giant robots built during World War II. This meant they had to look as if they were created in the 1940s and could still be a threat to modern-day superheroes.

See it here

8. The Incredible Herc

Hercules shows up on Earth wanting to be a member of the New Avengers as Captain Marvel and Black Panther are at odds over who should be leading the team. However, it turns out Herc is hiding from Ares, who is seeking to steal the key to Tartarus from him. Their battle transports them to Olympus, where team leadership takes a back seat to survival.

This was a fun one thanks to the various creatures that show up, and also the comedy relief of Hercules as a goofball blowhard. Ares would be back, but unfortunately, we didn’t get to see much more of Herc in this season. And he looked nothing like Roy Kent.

See it here

10. Sneakers

Ant-Man and Black Panther jet off to Wakanda when Baron Zemo goes after an ancient relic that will give him the power to control vibranium. The pursuit takes our heroes underground as one secret after another is revealed on the path to the treasure.

One of the ways to make a team show manageable – and to keep everyone from being overwhelmed by work – the writers broke up the team into smaller units from time to time. This was one of those times, with just two heroes and one villain. That was a good plan, because we had to very quickly design Wakanda for the first time and make it convincing. It was another challenge I didn’t ask for, but was willing to meet.

See it here

12. Dimension Z

Jane Foster devises a way for the team to split up and find all the missing Avengers. Ant-Man travels to another dimension to rescue Black Widow, Captain America, and Hawkeye from Arnim Zola and his army of androids. Zola takes over Captain America to turn him into a Hydra-hailing super soldier.

Ep 12 is where the first half of the season started to resolve with the original team members being found in different dimensions. We didn’t realize at the time that the strategy for finding them was pretty much what we’d be seeing a couple years later in Avengers Endgame, team members taking off on simultaneous recovery missions. The cool things this time were inventing “coil technology” for a 1930s gangster world and having Mark Hamill provide the voice of Arnim Zola. I didn’t get to attend voice recordings, but working with the sound files was the next best thing.

See it here

14. Under the Spell of the Enchantress

Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel travel to an icy asteroid in space, held together by Asgardian magic. There, they discover that The Enchantress has brainwashed Thor into becoming her bodyguard, and they must free him before the asteroid drops into a sun.

This wasn’t my favorite story of the season, but I liked being able to focus on Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel, design the asteroid environment, and figure out ways to take a snowman monster from goofy to scary. This was the last of the “recovery” episodes for me. From here on, we’d have a bigger team to play with.

See it here

16. The Eye of Agamotto, Part 1

The Avengers split up to go after magic artifacts stolen from a SHIELD warehouse. Captain America and Black Panther head to Hong Kong where they find Baron Mordo in possession of the Talisman of Kaluu. Black Panther’s sister Shuri joins a pursuit that takes them into a disorienting realm of dark magic.

Ep 16 was the first of a 2-parter that brought our redesigned Doctor Strange into the fold. He didn’t appear in part 1, but we did have a redesigned Falcon who looked much cooler than the previous version. My design challenge this time was to create a topsy-turvy world devised by Baron Mordo as a nexus between dimensions. I dug deep into early Doctor Strange comics and incorporated every Steve Ditko design I could.

See it here

18. Beyond

After the Avengers are transported to Battleworld, they meet The Beyonder who states that they are here for his “experiment,” then leaves them to work out the rest. While exploring an Egyptian-style realm, Captain America and Black Widow are reunited with Iron Man, who is searching for an orb. They find themselves in big trouble when they run into the orb’s guardian: Moon Knight!

Here’s where the main event got rolling in a 9-episode arc that took us to the end of the season. Our Secret Wars started here with the long-awaited return of Iron Man for the first time since season 3. I couldn’t believe my luck when I was handed the first ever script to include Moon Knight, one of my favorite characters. Everyone who worked on it felt the same as I did, and we all brought our A game. I also got to design a sphinx monster and Iron Man’s transforming pickup truck, then direct a battle between them both. Good times.

See it here

20. The Immortal Weapon

Loki joined the Avengers in Episode 21, but Battleworld needs exploring before they can figure out how to escape it. While trying to retrieve Heimdall’s sword from K’un-Lun, Black Panther and Falcon team up with Iron Fist to face Dracula, who has been enhanced by the Venom Symbiote and is now immune from sunlight.

I wouldn’t have guessed it going in, but this one became my favorite episode of the season because it’s the one that sang to me when I read the script. I know instantly what it should look like, and capturing it in pictures became a breeze. The key to it all was creating the environment of K’un-Lun, which I based heavily on Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Once I had that worked out, everything fell effortlessly into place.

See it here

22. Weirdworld

In the domain of Weirdworld, Black Widow and Captain Marvel find Bruce Banner hunting the Hulk. While trying to stop the now-separated pair from hurting each other, they must also battle the evil Morgan le Fay, who wants to harness Hulk’s powers and use them to take over Battleworld.

In a season where a new domain had to be created for almost every script, this one had multiple domains in a single episode. I had free reign to develop anything I wanted, based loosely on Marvel’s Weirdworld comics, and I took it to places I couldn’t have imagined before I started. Shows like this are what keep the job interesting.

See it here

24. The Citadel

Captain America and Iron Man are captured by the Beyonder’s team of villains: Absorbing Man, Ares, Crimson Widow, and MODOK. While Cap works to evade the villains in Beyonder’s techno lair, Iron Man is tempted to join Beyonder in his quest for ultimate knowledge. In the end, Cap must face off against Iron Man himself to break the temptation.

It felt like the climax while I was working on it, but I knew bigger things had to be coming since the entire Avengers team would have to participate in the final battle. Instead, this was a runup to the finale. And an even bigger finale would follow that one. The design challenge was the Citadel itself, Beyonder’s multidimensional laboratory and its many moving parts.

See it here

26. All Things Must End

After the Beyonder’s defeat, Loki becomes the Sorcerer Supreme. After Odin himself falls in battle, the Avengers are the only force standing between Loki and domination of the universe. As Loki unleashes an army of Mindless Ones against the team, he battles Doctor Strange, Thor, and Jane Foster (as the new Thor) and releases the All Dark to consume the Tree of Life.

Now THIS was a finale! Every Avenger on screen all at once, joined by Jane Foster’s female Thor! It was one spectacle after another with a dizzying number of characters to keep track of. I knew when I was assigned the even-numbered episodes for this season that I was in for another crazy blowout and it didn’t disappoint.

See it here

There would be one more season after this, and it was going to be another amazing ride. To Wakanda and elsewhere.

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