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‘Heroman’ is Just Crazy Enough to be Your New Guilty Pleasure [Review]

Stan Lee‘s been busy as ever over the past year, joining forces with a number of publishers to create new properties across a variety of media. Among those projects were a few anime and manga offerings, including “Heroman,” which has been in print in Japan’s “Monthly Shōnen Gangan” since September of 2009 and debuted as an anime in April of this year. English subtitled episodes have been airing almost in tandem with Japanese air dates over at Crunchyroll, where members and casual visitors alike have had a chance to give the show a spin. Armed with an affection for Lee’s decades of superhero work and a passing affection for anime, I did just that. Here’s how “Heroman” tastes:

It’s a Stan Lee shake spilled into an undercooked shonen stir-fry, served on a gold platter. Naturally, it’s paired best with a cocktail — and make it a double.

The premise: Joey Jones is a shy middle school student from (the San Diego-like) Center City. Between chatting with Lina, the cheerleader of his dreams, getting bullied by her jock brother Will and his rich kid cronies and being consoled by his hip skater buddy Psy at school, he works a part-time job at a restaurant frequented by a kindly Stan Lee and assists his Doc Brownish science teacher Matthew Denton. When a school bully breaks and casually discards an expensive robot toy Joey’s been longing for, he lovingly repairs it, dubbing it “Heroman.”

Soon after, a bizarre lightning storm hits town, mysteriously transforming Heroman into a hulking, seemingly sentient robot that only Joey can command. The transformation happens just in time for Heroman and Joey to respond to a car crash caused by the same storm, saving Lina and her father form a fiery demise. The duo’s adventures have only begun, however, as an evil alien empire prepares to invade Earth in response to an unwitting welcome message broadcast by Denton.

What I dug: Longtime Lee fans are going to recognize plenty of familiar themes right off the bat, but they play nicely enough with shonen archetypes that they don’t come off as jarring. Joey Jones’ alliterative name is a clear indicator that you’re watching a Lee superhero anime, as is his very Peter Parker living/working/schooling situation. Joey’s an orphan who lives with his grandma. He’s shy and into science. His life is forever changed when he accidentally gains powers (via Heroman — who follows his fighting commands much the same way Pikachu follows Ash’s), he battles alien bugs called “Skrullggs” — the list goes on.

Taking the show at face value and considering its target audience makes linking the core concepts of “Heroman” to Lee’s previous works fun rather than frustrating and that’s the way it should be. Even the show’s closing credits are decorated with Lee imagery such as a Marvel Comics cover homage featuring the “Heroman” cast. It’s just plain fun. This argument wouldn’t be possible without the vibrant animation of BONES, however, which deserves as much credit as Lee for helping the show transcend mediocrity and producing something casual superhero fans, as well as otaku can willingly commit (if guiltily) 25 minutes a week to.

What I less-than dug: As much as viewers want to care about Joey, he’s almost too much of a wimp to easily root for early on. His background is Stan Lee all the way, but his personality seems more rooted in kid-friendly supporting cast cliches. Joey’s a poor, meek, bullied orphan, but that hardly seems tragic when he shows no clear signs of frustration. His passive attitude doesn’t reflect the intentional maturity of a hero, but rather the learned helplessness of a weakling. Even nice kids who get good grades and stay out of trouble should have a few character flaws to make them dynamic — in this case, maybe a burgeoning temper? A quiet confidence in secret skills? Fans are going to need a reason to cheer for a kid who could be Earth’s only hope against an alien invasion. Five episodes deep, viewers are still left wondering what that is despite Joey’s growing competence in smiting evil bugs. Maybe he’s finally tapping into his suppressed aggression during battles?

Another issue I couldn’t help but notice is the show’s potentially weird pseudo commentary on American nationalism. It may or may not be a consequence of the show’s “District 9-only-the-prawns-are-organized-and-evil” plot, but it still exists in bite-sized portions. Military and law enforcement personnel shown to demonstrate cowboy-like overconfidence die horrible deaths while ordinary civilians seem to escape conflict without much fuss. On the other hand, Joey, the savior of the human race, successfully slays every alien he encounters with the help of a robot dressed like Captain America, so viewers probably shouldn’t read much (if anything) into any of the show’s perceived social commentary.

Biased ruling: “Heroman” is a fine guilty pleasure for Sthan Lee fans open to a polished shonen anime seasoned with Western superhero cliches. Younger fans will likely enjoy watching Joey grow from an insecure runt to a humble robot commander while older viewers can calmly kill half an hour dissecting ideas and themes that echo Lee’s past works. Straightforward characterization, big action and a clear plot go a long way toward making “Heroman” an entertaining show, but BONES’s animation succeeds in covering up the few glaring flaws that will keep the show from achieving sophistication.

If you’re looking for a little lighthearted anime escapism with an emphasis on punching aliens in the face, Stan Lee’s most high-profile anime to date won’t leave you wanting. If you aren’t already familiar with shonen and superhero shorthand (or properties capable of launching action figure and videogame lines), however, “Heroman” might not be the show to shake you out of your comfort zone.

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