Warner Bros. // 2000 // 127 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Neil Dorsett (Retired) // January 5th, 2005
The funnybooks' first black teen superhero solo act becomes the small screen's.
In 1993, DC comics launched an imprint called Milestone, which was intended to provide greater representation to multi-racial creators and readers. Arguably the most successful title among the Milestone series was Static, created by Dwayne McDuffie with artist John Paul Leon. This hero was original and in keeping with the times; his multi-operative static electricity powers (rare is a plain old lightning bolt) and his X-cap based costume went as far as Milestone itself went, until the line's demise in 1996. Well okay, the X-cap was already a little passé, but time moves slowly in superhero comics (for comparison, Marvel's disco-based Dazzler character made her debut in 1981). Starting in 2000, Static made the jump from defunct comic to small-screen big time in a WB Saturday morning show, Static Shock. This collection includes the first six episodes of the series, thus making it a groundbreaker for the "DC Kids collection," which usually throws random episodes onto a disc in an effort to lessen the material.
The situation in Static Shock is oddly similar to that of another DC comic, albeit an unexpected one: Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! In that tale, a strange meteorite broke into pieces and landed in some funny animals' yards, and they got the super powers, and so forth. And that's basically what happens here, only the "so forth" is significantly different and the characters are urban gang members instead of anthropomorphized rabbits and ducks.
* Episode 1
A stock origin story told in flashback. The gangs of Dakota City gather together for a big whammy rumble like The Warriors, and a radioactive isotope falls out of a truck and hits them all in the eyes and that's how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were born. Something like that, anyway. The coolest thing about this episode is that Static flies around on a garbage can lid like the Silver Surfer or those ninnies from Highlander 2. The uncoolest thing about the episode is that he uses this power to decorate his school's gym for a dance. We meet Virgil "Static" Hawkins, his best friend Richie (Jason Marsden), his objet d'amour, and his bully F-stop.
* Episode 2: "Aftershock"
Virgil demonstrates his "human CD player" power -- apparently his brain speaks PCM. Virgil's former bully continues to antagonize him as bang-baby Hot Streak, a firethrower. Classic example of the superhero formula: Static fails in his first fight with Hot Streak, then puts forth extra effort to triumph at the end in identical conditions. Uncomfortable pseudo-urbanisms abound, "Mr. Def Comedy Jam." Static uses his shock-TK to grab a magnetic disk and float it into his hand, surely destroying whatever data is on it, only of course it's fine. Best scene: explosive frankfurters!
* Episode 3: "The Breed"
The school's sports superstar seeks aid from Virgil, who helpfully tells him to "think of algebra as something you'll never use." Forget about any guest voices by Sinbad, I guess (it'd be great to have him show up as Black Lightning, who he parodied on Saturday Night Live, or as a non-powered Jefferson Pierce)! But the young man must have been exploring some gang experience since he mutates into a bang-baby energy being, the most openly old-fashioned of the characters (he looks like a Herculoid gone wrong). The former sports star falls in with a pack of bang-babies who call themselves "The Breed," led by a shadowmaster called Ebon. Virgil unfortunately abandons his can lids in this episode in favor of a "kewl" gadget built by Richie.
* Episode 4: "Grounded"
Virgil deals with "Carmen-dillo," (continuing the Captain Carrot analogy, weirdly enough -- a regular villain for them was "Armordillo") and a gigantic protoplasmic mutant intent on eating everything it sees. Virgil gets a hunk of the critter and he and Richie go to the school at night to examine it in the science lab. For some reason the school is already being broken into by a group of students, who are menaced steadily by the blob until Virgil subdues it. This episode is more openly goofy and thus a lot more entertaining than the previous three.
* Episode 5: "They're Playing My Song"
Static runs afoul of a new bang baby, a purple-garbed and high-powered stretcher who has a big beef with hip-hop star Ice, while Virgil must contend with his new gig at a local Burger Clown restaurant. Static heckles a thug for using an aluminum baseball bat in combat, then seizes it with his juice and uses it against the wielder. The program is showing improvement at this point.
* Episode 6: "The New Kid"
Virgil is accepted to prestigious the Vanmoor Institute, where he's received coolly by the upperclassmen. Meanwhile, Dakota City develops robot trouble! The very same upperclassmen who terrorize Virgil at school are terrorizing the town at night with their own invented technology. Even worse, a method of defeating Static becomes one of Virgil's class assignments! This show is again better than the last, with the use of music in particular improved in this episode.
This isn't quite the Static of the comics. For one thing, the material has been significantly sanitized -- there's no 90% death toll in the accident that produces the Bang Babies, for instance -- and aimed more at pre-adolescents than the teen market of the Static comic. Static's costume has also been altered; rather than being original, it seems to be a simple combination of the color scheme of the old Black Lightning character (who is inevitably confused with the Superfriends' Black Vulcan, a Hanna-Barbera character) with the esthetic of James Robinson's 1990s incarnation of Starman. The resemblance to DC's old-school integrationist Black Lightning character is a bit confusing to an old-timer such as myself, as Static's power complement is actually quite different -- Static is fundamentally a telekinetic with a particular theme (rather like Magneto), whereas Lightning was just your basic electric guy.
I have read much that suggests Static Shock improved markedly in following seasons, and I'd like to have faith that that's true. Because what I see on this compilation is fairly uninspired and traditional Saturday morning fare. The show stumbles over its own good intentions at every turn; for instance, Static is given a "power-up" animation bumper loop of the type you see on some anime shows. In the loop, Static grunts and growls his way through a spectacular display of raw force...before turning to the camera and flashing a warm smile. Nothing to worry about here, Mom, the smile seems to say. But what it really says is we're pulling our punches, which is essentially the same message of course, but it's not the sort of thing you want to scream at the viewer in a moment when they're supposed to be wowed by the pyrotechnics. The voice acting is also very standard, with Phil Lamarr as Static producing a high-voiced young character that's decidedly not the equal of his deep-voiced stoics Samurai Jack and Green Lantern. It basically sounds, for lack of a better descriptor, like a cartoon. Lots of room between everyone's lines, and lines that sound like they're being read rather than generated spontaneously by the characters. This is a very typical problem in television (and feature, for that matter) animation, so it's hard to hold it too much against any show in particular, but it always gets in the way for me. I opted for the Spanish track on a couple of episodes...it's a more polysyllabic and hard-consonant language than English, so this had the effect of bumping up the tempo a bit and demanding more attention (a factor I think is significant in the appreciation of subtitled anime, or anything subtitled for that matter). The artwork and animation are also both behind the times; the rendering looks like something from the early '90s when the Static comic was actually running, and the animation is beneath the standards of its contemporary, the deliberately nostalgic Superman. It really reminded me most of such early '90s cartoons as James Bond Jr. or Captain Planet and the Planeteers. The only character on the show to display any real visual personality in design is Virgil's big-butted older sister. The rest of the teenagers are all either gigantic athletes, standard male kid models, or cutie-pie girls. The superpowered folk display a slightly different aesthetic, but it's just the now-standard technique of taking some characteristics from anime and flattening them into the Hanna-Barbera mold. I should be more specific here, really...the problem is not so much in the animation as the model sheets, and the pacing, and it's not really a problem, it's just a lack of boldness and spice, and as noted in the episode rundown, things do improve.
I have to admit that some of my negative opinion of the collection stems purely from a bad first impression of the character and thus the show's perspective. Static makes his debut in a typical robbers-redhanded scenario, springing on a bunch of rubes involved in a heist. When his first move, a telekinetic manipulation of some surrounding junk, confuses one of the baddies, the shmoe says, "What the heck is up with that?" Whereupon Static emerges airborne from behind a large pile of crates and retorts, "No no, it's 'What up with that?' If you're gonna use slang, use it properly!" This is a loathsome type of humor wherein there are two phrases: one, phrase A, is a commonly used expression, movie title, familiar quotation, previously existing slang, et cetera. Phrase B is some slang modification of phrase A. Now, the humor lies in making a disparaging comment about the uncool user of phrase A, as if he's somehow misusing Phrase B -- or acting as if you're confused over their poor use of phrase B. An example: Person A refers to an abusive husband as a "wifebeater," whereupon person B asks, "He's a sleeveless undershirt?" And then Person B grins really big or put an internet smirk on the comment. This technique is never funny, ever, in any permutation. And it is not funny here, nor does it make Static seem hip, it makes him seem like an oaf. A poor line with which to lead off the character. It also invites, like many other elements of the series, comparison to Spider-Man, whose one-liners might be lame but at least they're better than that. Very shortly after this, during the origin story, Virgil shocks himself on a banister and complains, "Ain't it about some time we got some hard wood floors?" Whereupon he immediately falls backward onto the hardwood floor. This all happened in the first ten minutes.
Static Shock is presented on The New Kid in its original 1.33:1 television aspect ratio, although like some other animation shows of late, such as the first season of Justice League, it seems to be presented in a 16x9-safe composition which would allow for a comfortable cropped widescreen viewing. The sound is well-represented with plenty of oomph in the explosions and bass in the opening theme which is almost too heavy; it's significantly louder than the music in the body of the show. Color is good, with little bleeding; it's nice to see that the digital realm has conquered the classic NTSC problem of presenting African skin tones in cartoons that use narrow black outlines. Compression is less intrusive here than in many animation discs, perhaps due to the fact that the backgrounds are largely -- you'll pardon me for saying this -- static. Come to think of it, it's odd to have named a superhero after the very opposite of dynamism! You'd think a villain would give him some static about it! Ha! Okay, I'm done with the lame static jokes now. My only problem with this presentation is that it would have been a relatively simple matter to make this a two-disc set with the entire 13-episode first season, and this release is consistent with Warner's general offhand treatment of its superhero cartoons, although as noted at least it's a contiguous batch. As it is, I would recommend this release only to people who have come to enjoy Static Shock but have not viewed the early episodes; what could be called back-issue appeal. Otherwise these episodes might be fun for males of the ages of about seven to eleven, but it's likely to tire anyone much older than that. Oh, and it's in a snapper case, which is always a problem. The language options are trifold for both sound and vision: audio and subtitles are both provided in English, French, and Spanish. If you get the disc, be sure to listen to the theme song in all three languages! Extras provided are a lame set of "character bios," an extraordinarily lame "game" entitled "Bad Guy Beatdown," which functions like an old Choose Your Own Adventure book, another set of profiles this time of "Static's Gadgets," and a "Map of Dakota" tour of the town. Only the "map" is of any real interest.
I've probably come off sounding more negative about Static Shock than I really feel. Although there are lots of things to nitpick about the show, there's not really anything wrong with it. It's targeted young and it's pretty average, but it's a market to fill and they can't all be gems. For Saturday morning it's all right. And hopefully the improvement in the show hasn't been oversung, so maybe this release will be the start of a good series of discs. For now, though, it lives up to the "Kids Collection" label, and like most things in the field of "children's fare," is presumptuous about low expectation. Why wouldn't kids want a whole season like everyone else? And parents a whole season at $30 instead of half a one at $19.98? Given that the show does have an upward quality curve, such a package would be far more rewarding as a whole.
Review content copyright © 2005 Neil Dorsett; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Map of Dakota City
* Static's Gadgets
* Character Profiles
* TV Tome: Static Shock