I started binge-watching EMH when my son was just a few months old and I needed something to watch while I bottle-fed him and he did his tummy time. At the time, I was deep into reading Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers, a more street-level version of the team, which by contrast gave the cartoon a more old-school feel.
But it was nice to see a classic Avengers lineup, including Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk (who’s done way more time as an Avenger this past decade than he has since the 1960s), Hawkeye, Black Widow, Black Panther, Hank Pym and the Wasp, and later Ms. Marvel and the Vision.
The show was a great educational ramp-up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which had only given us 2 Iron Men and a Hulk when the show started in fall 2010.
Apparently, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes aired out of order and also as mini episodes on Disney XD, but I’m going off the way the eps are listed on Netflix, as that’s how you’d most likely watch them now.
In Netflix order, the show starts off with a series of one-off episodes, individually introducing Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Cap, etc. The team assembles in a two-parter called “Breakout,” based on the Bendis story that brought the New Avengers together, in which villains escape from four supermax prisons simultaneously, and the Avengers band together to mop up the mess.
Over three years and 52 episodes, EMH casts a wide net, adapting stories from the "Korvac Saga" to the "Kree-Skrull War" to "Secret Invasion" to "Red Zone" (that’s right, even the Geoff Johns stuff squeaks in). Many of the episodes were written by comics people, including Christopher Yost, who penned a number of books for Marvel, including New X-Men, X-Force, X-23 and Avenging Spider-Man/Superior Spider-Man Team-Up; and the Man of Action team that includes Joe Kelly, Steven Seagle, Joe Casey and Duncan Rouleau, who also have written for Disney’s Ultimate Spider-Man and Cartoon Network’s Ben 10 and Generator Rex. Man of Action also work on Disney’s follow-up Avengers cartoon, Avengers Assemble, which was intended to more closely mirror the movie.
Notable voice actors include Fred Tatasciore, who by now has made a career of playing the Hulk in cartoons, Drake Bell, who’s done the same for Spider-Man, Phil LaMarr as JARVIS (the AI, not the butler), Brent Spiner as the Purple Man and J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson.
Below are some of the series’ best episodes. You’ll note they’re exclusively from Season 2, which is when the show really finds its footing, as having introduced all the major characters, it has a chance to breathe, explore their stories and create some really nice character moments.
“The Private War of Doctor Doom” (Season 2, episode 1): Dr. Doom attacks the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, kidnapping the Invisible Woman and the Wasp in the process. The episode’s greatest moments come in the first act, during which Iron Man and the Wasp visit Reed and Sue Richards, and Johnny and Ben visit Avengers Mansion for a poker game with the Hulk, Hawkeye, Cap and Black Panther. Hulk and Thing immediately start pummeling each other, playing up their long-standing rivalry, while the Torch and Hawkeye crack wise. Meanwhile, at the Baxter Building, Reed is in his lab, doing his level best to ignore Tony, who is detailing a long-winded yarn about the team’s recent adventures in Asgard and also pondering aloud his chances of scoring with the Invisible Woman.
“To Steal an Ant-Man” (Season 2, episode 5): Hank Pym, who quit the team riddled with guilt about creating Ultron and claiming to be a pacifist just like Smokey in “The Big Lebowski,” hires Luke Cage and Iron Fist (yay) to help him find whoever stole his Ant-Man costume. The thief turns out to be none other than Scott Lang, better known by his Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe handle, Ant-Man II, who is using the suit to rob banks for money to save his daughter, who in the comics grew up to become the Young Avengers’ Stature. There’s a great sequence in the episode in which Lang is adjusting to being Ant-Man size, shrinking himself into a dusty motel carpet and being attacked by insects until he realizes he has the power to control them. Pym narrates over the scene, explaining that whoever stole the costume would have to adjust to a new reality. The episode also nails the interplay between Cage and Fist, one of my favorite duos in comics. Fun fact: A security guard named Michelinie appears in the episode, named after David Michelinie, who wrote Marvel Fanfare #47, the comic this episode is based on.
“Michael Korvac” (Season 2, episode 6): As critically beloved Avengers stories go, "The Korvac Saga," about a normal man who freaks out when given the powers of a god, is pretty high up there. But this episode is also notable for introducing the Guardians of the Galaxy – specifically Star-Lord, Adam Warlock, Rocket Raccoon, Groot and Quasar – into Marvel’s cartoons. And it’s written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who banded together the modern-era Guardian six years ago, leading to the top-grossing movie of 2014. Rewatching this episode after having seen the movie, it’s funny how emotionally powerful a moment watching Groot be destroyed in the movie was, considering in this episode he’s lasered to atoms twice.
“Prisoner of War” (Season 2, episode 10): Captain America has been held in a Skrull prison for months but finally stages a breakout of his own, leading a band of heroes and villains against the Super Skrull. Secret Invasion takes up a good chunk of Season 2, but this episode stands out for its good old-fashioned Capitude.
“Along Came a Spider” (Season 2, episode 13): After the events of “Secret Invasion,” Cap’s popularity is at an all-time low, so to cheer himself up, he fights the Serpent Society with Spider-Man, on loan from Disney XD’s “Ultimate Spider-Man,” a cartoon that features a running gag in which J. Jonah Jameson constantly yells about the menace that is the Web-head from giant screens all over New York. Spidey, Cap and the Serpents get stuck underground with a bunch of subway passengers, who initially spit on the two heroes like they’re the X-Men or something. But after enough moments of Cap being Cap, the civilians rally around him, driving off the superpowered snake monsters with rocks.
“New Avengers” (Season 2, episode 23): When Kang places the Avengers in a temporal void, a new, Bendis-fied team made up of Spider-Man, Wolverine, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Thing and War Machine assembles to save them.
“Avengers Assemble” (Season 2, episode 26): With cancellation imminent, the last few episodes rush to tie up every loose plot, but their scope more than makes up for it. In the final ep, every hero who ever appeared on the show bands together to stop Galactus from eating the Earth. Special guests include Spider-Man, Wolverine, Cage and Fist, War Machine, Winter Soldier, Falcon, the Fantastic Four, the Red Hulk, and heralds Terrax, Firelord, Stardust and Air-Walker.