The Watcher - Hero worship

New comic book crossovers at every turn

We should all be sick of super heroes by the end of this summer. The season kicked off with the blockbuster X2: X-Men United, then The Hulk set box office records for June. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen arrives in theaters this week, but the big screen isn't the only place teeming with men in tights. More do-gooders surface on TV in the next few weeks — all animated.

Atlanta-based Cartoon Network rolls out its latest foray into comic crossovers with "Teen Titans," a natural follow-up to its "Justice League." The series premieres July 19 at 9 p.m., and will also show up this fall on Kids' WB. It's the latest project from producer Glen Murakami, who worked on the revolutionary "Batman: The Animated Series" in the early '90s and later had a hand in "Batman Beyond," "Superman" and "Justice League." But "Titans" takes the animation in an edgier (and looser) new direction. Its infectious opening sequence, with a '60s-inspired go-go jingle, is the first clue this is a new generation of animation.

In its DC Comics incarnation, "Teen Titans" never made much sense to me. A group of young heroes lives together in a T-shaped tower and fights crime? Still, my inner alpha-nerd was a little sad to see Robin on this show instead of Nightwing (Dick Grayson's later, less femme incarnation). Otherwise the cartoon taps a similar lineup that appeared in the '80s comic, but with some witty updates.

The tower shows up as a messy dorm filled with moldy food and roommate drama. Raven, hilariously, comes in as a depressed goth girl, while Beast Boy (who can become any animal) urges the group to go vegetarian. That youthful vibe — combined with the gorgeous artwork — makes "Titans" fly and saves it from the monotony of, say, "Justice League."

The series sometimes errs too far on the side of silliness, as when its characters' eyes become enormous circles of excitement. But such exaggerations of style can almost be forgiven, given the team's inherent immaturity. These are the Teen Titans after all, several years from becoming Extraordinary Gentlemen and a fitting addition to Cartoon Network's hero sandwich.

While "Teen Titans" shows a crispness and energy that'll snag geeks both old and young, the new computer-animated "Spider-Man" series definitely shoots for an older audience. The show premieres July 11 at 10 p.m. on MTV, a network that's no stranger to animation aimed at adults (see: "Aeon Flux").

The new "Spider-Man" borrows a lot from last year's overwrought film treatment and places Peter Parker in a similar college-aged time period. Its stunning art also evokes the film's CG imaging, but takes it one step further. The wasp-wasted wall-crawler makes more sense in this context, where his whole world shines with sparkly digital newness. Though the city scenes can appear as boxy and not so fleshed out, the human characters display an almost gasp-worthy complexity reminiscent of the Final Fantasy film.

There's something inherently sexy about the show, from the sleek lines of light that illuminate every scene to the flash of skin Mary Jane shows beneath her midriff. (Of course, if it's skin you're looking for, check out TNN's new "Stripperella" — more on that naughty morsel later.)

"Spider-Man," like "Titans," gives a new animated life to characters we know all too well and lures some quirky vocal talents, with Neil Patrick Harris as the title character and pop starlet Lisa Loeb as MJ. Series like these reinforce why super heroes never fade that far out of fashion. Sure, we may be sick of the formula by the time fall arrives, but for now they're definitely better than another night in "Paradise Hotel."


The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.