Avengers Season 5, 2018-2109
Five whole seasons. I’d never experienced the like of it before, and I doubt I ever will again. Most shows don’t get past two or three. But I was one of the lucky few to be invited on board the Marvel rocketship just before it launched into the stratosphere in 2012, and we stayed in orbit for almost its entire golden age.
I’m talking about the biggest years of the MCU, but don’t make the mistake of assuming we had a piece of it. We were a sideshow to the main event. Not one box office penny found its way into our paychecks. Instead, for reasons that never made sense to any of us, we were a subsidiary of Marvel publishing. They looked at our work, but didn’t know a lot about what we did from day to day. But we did it anyway because we cared about it and our names would be on it for all time.
As we started season 5, we were coasting on a gamble. While we worked on season 4, one of the MCU films that came out was Civil War, which featured the debut of Black Panther. His first solo film was already in pre-production. Someone in one of the executive chairs decided that this gave us enough momentum to shift gears and turn Avengers Assemble into a Black Panther TV series with the Avengers as supporting characters. The new title would be Black Panther’s Quest, and we were all there for it. We had no idea yet what the Black Panther movie was going to look like, so we’d invent whatever we had to on the fly, just like we always did.
For example, we’d already visited Wakanda once before in season 4. We had no blueprint to follow then, so I designed as much of it as I needed for the episode and we went with that. Now we would need a lot more, so we dug back in and expanded on the first version. We ended up with a Wakanda that was structurally different from the movie version, but tonally similar.
There was a short break between seasons (though as a director I had some season 4 overlap that kept me employed), so when we geared up for new episodes we had to put a new crew together for storyboards. I was able to re-enlist a few stars from the previous season and add some new talent as well. Not everyone lasted to the end, and not everyone turned out to be the right fit, but that’s how it goes on every show I’ve ever worked on. You don’t know where the land mines are until they go off. Then you replace the missing body parts and soldier on.
Like previous seasons, there was an overall story arc that would build up to a big finish. The head writer, Geoffrey Thorne, was passionate about making it as good as it could be, and was enthusiastic about collaborating with us. Every script was rock solid, giving us strong bones to build on. There had been an effort on previous seasons to keep some distance between writers and directors so everyone’s creative turf was protected. I respected that approach, but the finished shows definitely benefitted from more dialogue.
What made it even more interesting was a change in visual style. We kept all of our reusable props and environments (they represented a pretty big investment, after all), but characters were redesigned to be leaner and sleeker. We were encouraged to get more experimental with scene compositions and the use of color. One of my discoveries was that Black Panther himself seemed to “want” to move differently than everyone else, almost like a liquid human. It was fun to see that emerge and find ways to play this new tune.
On the more personal side, I felt like I’d reached my peak performance. No part of the show seemed beyond my grasp. I’d passed my 20-year mark making TV cartoons (starting in 1996) and was now as much a mentor to my team as I was a director. I was also in the best physical shape I’d been in over a decade, was experiencing a creative renaissance with my webcomic Pitsberg, and re-entered single life to find new horizons waiting for me. The only uncertainty hanging over us was where we’d go from here.
It felt inevitable that this would be the final season of the show, despite the continued popularity of the movies. MCU films released during this production period were Guardians 2, Spider-Man Homecoming, Ragnarok, and – yep – Black Panther. Infinity War arrived just as we were finishing up. Long before any of us saw it, the word from above was that they probably wouldn’t back a season 6 because they didn’t know who the Avengers would be after Infinity War. So for us, the suspense began at least a year before the movie came out. We all went to see it together and walked out thinking, “yeah, we DON’T know who the Avengers will be after this.” So the decision to end the show felt like the right one, regardless of its impact on our jobs.
One other “downer” moment took place a few months before this when we all got the word that the show would be cut short. It was originally planned for the usual 26 episodes but suddenly it was going to end at 20. The writers argued that the story was too dense to finish that abruptly, and they bargained it up to 23. I don’t remember exactly why the cut was made, but I’m sure it had something to do with broadcast TV being gradually eclipsed by streaming services. Disney Plus was still over a year away, but the shift in production plans must have already been underway.
Since I was directing all the even-numbered episodes (other directors took the odds), it lined me up to direct episode 26. I always savored that opportunity; I loved sinking my teeth into a big, noisy season finale. Now the last episode would go to another director. But as it turned out, I sort of DID get the finale. Episode 22 wrapped up the main story arc and 23 cleaned up the loose ends. We all wished it had gone to 26, but we wrung every possible ounce of energy and drama out of what we were given. No regerts.
Avengers season 5 ran for 23 episodes. Storyboards were produced from March 2017 to March 2018. The season aired on Disney XD from September 2018 to February 2019. It can now be seen on Vudu, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus.
Wikipedia series page | Wikipedia episode page | Season 5 page at fandom.com | Trailer
Episodes I directed
2. Shadow of Atlantis, Part 2
New York City has been invaded by a rogue Atlantean task force. As the Avengers fight them off, Tiger Shark invades the Wakandan Embassy and Black Panther must rescue Shuri from him. After the Avengers take down his followers, Tiger Shark steals a Wakandan artifact for his mysterious benefactor, igniting a season-long quest.
What I remember most about storyboarding this episode is how fast it came together, and how slick the character drawing was. Something about these new designs gave us an infusion of energy that upped our game in terms of posing and finding cool shots. Also, I took advantage of another chance for Cap to throw a motorcycle. After the trailer for Age of Ultron it became my personal policy for him to throw every motorcycle that came within reach.
4. The Panther and the Wolf
After learning N’Jadaka and Tiger Shark are associated with the evil Shadow Council, Black Panther and Shuri return to Wakanda to investigate. They run into their adopted brother White Wolf, who has a list of known operatives. When Panther chases after him, they are attacked by M’Baku and his mercenaries, who have allied with the Shadow Council.
This was the first episode that took place entirely within Wakanda, so it was very design-heavy, to the point where I had to do double-duty as the background and prop designer until we got some outside help. Fortunately, that helper stayed on for the rest of the season and kept things under control. I had only recently learned about the character White Wolf, which was good timing since he made his debut here and became a series regular.
6. Mists of Attilan
Searching for pieces of an ancient key, Black Panther takes Ms. Marvel on a mission to Attilan. Black Bolt and Medusa are reluctant to give up the piece entrusted to them, so Panther makes his own move. This brings him up against the shapeshifting Princess Zanda, another member of the Shadow Council.
I felt incredibly lucky to get this script; I’d read a lot of Inhumans comics over the previous couple years (thinking we might get a series), and here was another chance to bring them to life. This also involved a new redesign of Attilan and a guest shot from Ms. Marvel, who I adored. (And still do.) Add in a James Bond-style opening, an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt, and some of the best boarding my team had ever done, and it all added up to my favorite episode of the season.
8. The Night Has Wings
Black Panther answers a distress signal at a Wakandan village that has been attacked by bat monsters. He discovers Ulysses Klaue is behind the attacks, equipping the bats with special collars to weaponize them.
This was a tricky one with a new monster design, air chases, and the challenge of staging action in a dark cave with a character dressed in black. Once again, some masterful storyboarding by the team brought it all together into an episode that came out much better than I expected.
10. The Good Son
Captain America meets with Black Panther and Shuri to learn about the Panther Key. When the reassembled Key is stolen during a blackout, M’Baku escapes from his cell. White Wolf has his own plans for the key, which brings him into conflict with both Cap and Panther.
My design for M’Baku’s “gorilla armor” from episode 4 got another workout here. The episode was mostly limited to action in the royal tower of Wakanda, which seems like it would have given us a break on the design side, but the interiors had to be as elaborate as everything we’d come up with so far, so it was still a challenge. But we beat that sucker into the ground once again.
12. Descent of the Shadow
Black Panther, Captain America, Shuri, and Baron Zemo look for a deadly Crown, pitting them against Princess Zanda, Tiger Shark, and Killmonger. The rest of the Avengers show up to help, but everything changes for the worse when Baron Zemo siezes the crown and threatens all of New York.
We’d reached the midpoint with this one, so it was time for all the Avengers show up again. And all the villains, too. Continuity got pretty heavy from here, which is always fine by me. The setting shifted back to New York, which we already had designs for, so that balanced out the team-on-team action. By the way, Zemo DIES at the end. It’s a Marvel death, which means there’s always a way to cheat it, but for our purposes on this series, he is DEAD from here on.
14. The Vibranium Curtain, Part 1
Tony Stark holds a memorial for Captain America, believing Black Panther is responsible for his death. The nations of the world, including Atlantis, have pledged unity against Wakanda. Panther sneaks into Avengers Tower to track down Killmonger, facing off against Iron Man and Winter Soldier.
“Doozy” is the only word I can come up with here. Black Panther is now on the run from the Avengers, and his brawl with Winter Soldier and a souped-up Iron Man is the longest, most complex, and most brutal fight I’ve ever directed. The longer it went on, the harder we had to work to come up with moves and moments. That’s when you’re thankful to have multiple brains in the brain trust.
With Klaue as their prisoner, Black Panther and Shuri visit their grandfather’s grave, where Panther uses the Crown to see a flashback of T’Chanda, Captain America, and Peggy Carter fighting Hydra during World War II. This leads them to another deadly artifact called Yemandi’s Box.
From this point we started on a trip backward through time. I felt like I scored another winning lottery ticket when I got the script and saw Agent Peggy Carter in it. It was the same luck that gave me her previous episode in season 4, which made me the only director to get all of her appearances in Avengers Assemble (and, of course, Hayley Atwell supplied her voice again). The story was a super cool period piece, always fun to design.
Speaking of voices, Stan Lee did a cameo at the end. Based on the timing, I’m pretty sure it was the last cartoon he ever appeared in.
Reliving Yemandi’s memories, Black Panther witnesses the ancient past: Wakanda’s founder Bashenga and his sister Bask discover Vibranium. Bask is possessed by a red core, which she wants to wield against enemies of Wakanda. It also allows her to see Black Panther and trap his mind inside the Crown, where he falls into a deep well of history…and is reunited with Captain America.
Talk about uncharted territory! Here we went all the way back to the discovery of vibranium and the role it played in Wakanda’s ongoing struggle against Atlantis. The emotional showdown between Bashenga and Bask, and the subsequent head trip, gave us things to draw that no script had ever given us before, and I loved every minute of it.
20. King Breaker, Part 2
With the return of Captain America, Black Panther reunites with the Avengers to pursue Killmonger to Atlantis. After Killmonger sets off a series of bombs, the team works together to save Atlantis, but cannot stop him from killing Attuma. Lady Elanna releases Tiger Shark to take revenge and launches a war on the surface world.
Ah, so many hero moments we lost count of them all. This was the second of a 2-parter set in Atlantis, which I had a strong hand in designing. All the good guys were back on the same side after a multi-episode journey, and Killmonger landed his heaviest blow. Sometimes scripts are so determined to get where they’re going, all you have to do is follow instructions for the win.
22. Atlantis Attacks
Bask has revived to defeat Black Panther and take control of Wakanda. Elanna and Tiger Shark lead the Atlanteans in an attack, and Black Panther now must use the Crown to save Wakanda. But an entire army stands in his way as White Wolf fights for his life against Tiger Shark. In the end, Panther must choose between vengeance and justice with the fate of the world at stake.
Now this is what I call a finale. Yeah, there was still one more episode to go, but for both the main storyline and me personally, this was the end of season 5. Now that two Black Panther movies have come and gone, it’s interesting to see how much DNA they both share with this TV series. Had this become those two movies, I think they would have scored just as highly.
There was also a nice bit of timing in that the first movie came out while we were storyboarding this episode, so we were able to land the authentic “Wakanda Forever” salute in the epilogue. The best possible way to go out.