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Monday, April 26, 2010

"Generator Rex": One Well-Machined Teenage Tool

By Maxie Zeus [Source: ToonZOne.com]
 Generator Rex, Cartoon Network's new action-adventure series, is a handsome and well-mounted show, made by professionals who have done a professional study of the formula and followed up with a professional job of tricking it out with every well-polished clich√© that formula demands. It looks good and moves well and shows just enough imagination in its designs and action scenes to keep the viewer's attention from fatally wandering. Fans of Ben 10 and The Secret Saturdays will find Rex a worthy successor to those shows, and ratings-wise it should do very well for the network. Still, the series clearly has room for improvement. For instance, I would like it better if its main character wasn't a loathsome, bullying jerk, but possibly I just don't share the target audience's admiration for jackasses.

The jackass in question is Rex, a fifteen-year-old with amnesia and superpowers who works with a government agency to battle monsters. Rex and those monsters have the same provenance: five years previously, an accident released a cloud of micro-machines—nanites—that infected every living thing on the planet. In most people they lie dormant; in many they occasionally erupt and transform their unwilling hosts into monsters; and in a lucky few they bestow superpowers that the host can control. Rex, for instance, has the power to transform his limbs into various bits of machinery, which lets him fly and race and shoot and punch things really, really hard.

In what promises to be a running plot line, there is another batch of these mechanized mutants—the show calls them "EVOs"—who are up to nefarious ends. (You can tell they are nefarious because their leader dresses and talks like an effete British rock star.) The two episodes I watched don't make it entirely clear how this plot line will play out, though if I were up to speed on my X-Men comics I bet I could call future developments with 95% accuracy. Personal conflict comes in the form of Rex's gruff agency handler (introduced in episode 1), a potential love interest who has already gone over to the other side (introduced in a subsequent episode), and Rex's free-floating teenager itchiness (introduced before the main credits of episode 1 and gloated over in every scene that follows). Comedy relief comes in the form of a talking monkey, and male camaraderie in the form of a sidekick who is being secretly paid to be Rex's friend.

It's rarely a good idea to judge an action serial by its first episodes, especially when those first episodes feel like giant exposition dumps. There are a number of places, though, where you feel its various stitched-together elements jostling against each other. Rex has no family and no past, and exists solely as a "weapon" in an agency arsenal, which frees him from the usual "family" responsibilities. But it also means that his personality and character must be developed through conflict with his employers. In practice, this means that he is given the personality of an adrenaline junkie, a smartmouth, and a showboater, so as to contrast with the buttoned-up professionalism of his handlers. And so when he gets turned loose in a fight he has no qualms about trashing a metropolitan downtown and jokingly shrugging off the millions of dollars of damage he has caused. He is also altogether too eager to use his powers to bully anyone who gets in his way or looks at him funny. (The writers try to justify these antics by putting him up against some over-the-top beach bullies and street thugs.) Unless you are the sort of person who admires cocky, self-smitten twats and dreams of growing up to be one, you may quickly fall out of sympathy with the series' lead character.

The problems with this character are put on sharp display toward the end of "The Day Everything Changed," when Rex's boss, Agent Six, charges in and helps save Rex and his pals. Snarkily, Rex quips that he thought the agency would have sent an army. Agent Six calmly replies that they did, and the camera pans over to a field of dead soldiers. This is the kind of moment that should bring a normal, emotionally healthy human being to a cold, dead stop: it's the sight of dozens of men who willingly and without questioning their orders gave up their lives in order to save one kid—a kid, by the way, who thinks nothing of busting out and running truant, which is the very reason he wound up needing to be rescued in the first place. (And it's a trick he repeats at the beginning of "Beyond the Sea"; the series thinks he is very cute when he does this.) But neither Rex nor the story itself remark on the point. Instead, it is treated as a throwaway joke, or as just more evidence of what a gee-whiz important guy Rex is, that the government would spill blood like water in order to save his fifteen-year-old ass crack.

Now, maybe the series is going to go on to sober this kid up, and maybe it is playing him up as a selfish meathead so that the contrasting changes will have more force. I have my doubts, though, because his lame quip-a-minute patter is too-closely mirrored by that talking monkey; and so I suspect we are meant to admire and identify with his cheekiness. (To be fair, the writers do show girls reacting to his repulsively smarmy romantic advances as though he has just vomited a dead fish into their laps. But maybe they just realize that their target audience of twelve-year-olds won't react well to successful woo-flinging.) Overall, the series will have little difficulty appealing to a particular pre-adolescent sensibility: the kind of kid who (innocently) dreams of action and power and freedom from responsibility, but who also (not so innocently) dreams of the power to glory-hog and shove other people around.

So all of the above will probably pass right beneath the notice of most of the show's target audience. Instead, they will find ample dividends in its solid production work: strong if uninspired character designs, zippy if overly familiar action beats, and grotty if sometimes unreadable monsters. The series is also mercifully quick on its feet, so that it doesn't linger on the lame japery, leaden plot exposition, and ham-handed melodrama that constitute most of its dialogue. Vocal performances are tediously on the button, from Daryl Sabara's tin-eared Will Friedle imitation to Troy Baker's villainously slithy tove.

Generator Rex is a show made by people who know exactly what they are doing and exactly how to get it done, and as such makes for a masterful production reel. But it is a bit of a problem if you would prefer something a little new or a little kooky or just a little bit—just a wee little bit, please, sir—surprising. At the end of the day Generator Rex may be about nanite-powered superbeings, but it's really not much more than a machine that goes ping.
 

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