Hark! I sensed a disturbance in the geek force last Friday. It’s as if a billion people at their phones and keyboards suddenly cried out in anger, confusion, and pain.
I soon found out why: the announcement and first look at ThunderCats Roar, slated for 2019 on Cartoon Network.
It wasn’t just that the ThunderCats were returning as a comedy-leaning reboot, though. Perhaps the larger insult came from seeing the super-cartoonish, doodle-and-crayon art style instead of the slick, dynamic, anime-adjacent look of the original. (And even the short-lived 2011 reboot.)
Geeks in my timeline were not happy. Not happy at all.
They don’t want another Teen Titans Go jokefest! How dare Victor Courtwright, this millennial with his topknot and ratty beard, do this to their ThunderCats?!?
Look, I won’t lie. This ThunderCats Roar show looks pretty dumb. It may turn out to be good, in that there’s enough room for “serious” stories of alien cat people, and stories that know all of this is silly and primarily for kids.
But you know what? The original ThunderCats doesn’t have any great sanctity, far as I’m concerned. It also has some pretty weird, dumb stuff in it. That said, the memory of ThunderCats has endured, at least as icons if not for the actual program.
Why is that?
First, the opening sequence is, frankly, dope as hell. Animated in part by Masayuki and Moriyasu Taniguchi from Japan, the sequence is flashy and rousing from the start. The screen flashes the ThunderCats emblem, which then turns into a beam of light shooting through space and across a planet to a mountaintop, on which our hero is shot from under to look even more immense as the beam is collected in his power sword. That was their Hawaii Five-O tracking-shot-to-Jack-Lord-on-a-high-rise moment.
The sequence has everything! Magic spells, quick cuts, camera moves, explosions, ninja moves, cloaks, and monsters.
What cartoon has a better opening sequence than this? Batman: The Animated Series comes to mind, but what else?
Second, the show had Mumm-Ra as the villain. Not only did you get a character-defining transformation sequence (anime hallmark) whenever Lion-O held aloft the Sword of Omens for a hearty “Thunder, Thunder, Thunder! ThunderCats, ho!” You got a second sequence each episode in which Mumm-Ra converted from a decayed mummy to a doomsday behemoth in a cape.
Watch his transformation, folks. It’s legit scary. And then that voice, bellowing and baleful, his mouth all sopping with foul spit, and that laugh! He’s great. And his tagline is as fun to say as Lion-O’s.
I don’t know how ThunderCats Roar can measure up to those things about the old show. How seriously can I take a project whose animation looks like doodles colored in with crayons?
Adventure Time and Steven Universe’s looks aren’t this loose despite being very cartoonish, and both of those shows are able to go deep, emotional and serious.
The comic-booky look and feel of the old show made the characters appear more official and serious than the show often was. You forget how much the episodes leaned on Snarf’s comic helicopter parenting of Lion-O, or the moral-heavy bent to the whole project.
But so what? ThunderCats Roar is getting made regardless. If it’s gonna be funny, I sincerely hope they tackle for comedy a bunch of things about the old show that make me laugh or squirm depending on my mood.
To start, ThunderCats could not escape its blatantly Freudian themes on masculinity.
The show centers on castration anxiety, really. Lion-O’s a 12-year-old boy when the ThunderCats escape the dying planet Thundera, but because his suspended animation pod malfunctions, his body matures to that of a robust man twice his age. He’s a literal boy in a man’s body when he arrives on Third Earth.
He’s then tasked with keeping the Sword of Omens, a legacy item of his dead race, with the talismanic Eye of Thundera power stone embedded in its hilt. A sword is phallic enough, but this sword lies dormant as a dagger until, when Lion-O recites the incantation, it extends to a broadsword and shoots out a signal the others must obey. The sword also grants clairvoyance, can cut through anything, can shoot out energy beams, and basically is alive.
What’s more, a lot of the show is about how Lion-O has to keep the Sword of Omens away from the monstrous, dark-magic sorcerer Mumm-Ra. The boy must obey one father figure, Jaga, in order to deter and defeat another older, male figure who would abuse him and his family by taking his sword.
I don’t think that was the moral the old ThunderCats writing team was going for when they hired a child psychologist to advise and review scripts.
I’d also like to see ThunderCats Roar bring some thoughtful comedy from Cheetarah and Panthro. You know, the girl and the black guy.
Cheetarah did look really rad and strong. But so much of what’s remembered about Cheetarah rests on the male gaze and her being ’80s hot. The show’s creators, and voice artist Lynne Lipton, may have meant for Cheetarah to be a mother figure to Lion-O, but she wasn’t that for us boys. Like Pepper Potts in the Iron Man movies, she was both hot chick and mom to the male hero. A sexy team mom, as it were.
And that’s before we get into how she has a sixth sense, but sees it as a curse!
It would be interesting to see whether they can throw those projections off Cheetarah, or make fun of them. Or will they just play them up?
And then there’s Panthro.
He always felt coded as black. Associated with a black panther, Panthro was darker skinned (furred?) than the other ThunderCats, with a bald head, and he had different facial features. And he’s super strong!
These were trends in the cartoons of that time. The 1985 Defenders of the Earth cartoon, which paired Flash Gordon, The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician in a super-team against Ming the Merciless, included original character Lothar, a brawny black man with a shaved head whose power is that he’s super, duper strong. In the opening sequence, he bursts through a stone wall!
Or take G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Roadblock was a super-buff black man with a shaved head who was a heavy machine gunner. So he, ahem, carried a big one.
Panthro’s also super smart. He built the Thundertank and Cat’s Lair from the wreckage of their spaceship! Ironically, this also puts Panthro somewhat in service to his fellow ThunderCats. So now Panthro’s a genius and a brawler, their architect and superintendent, partner and custodian.
Growing up in black West Philly, all of us thought Panthro was black. This included jokes about his love of kung fu, and his dope whip. Plus he was voiced by Earle Hyman, best known as Grandpa Huxtable on The Cosby Show, who possessed a deep, sonorous, unmistakably black voice.
At least the old ThunderCats didn’t do any kind of active race caricature with Panthro. He didn’t do anything dumb such as speak exclusively in rhymes, like Roadblock. (I guess the G.I. Joe writers’ only black reference point was Rudy Ray Moore of Dolemite and Human Tornado fame.)
The people behind ThunderCats Roar would do well to remember that about Panthro. I didn’t see any people of color in that first look at the creative staff. If this show is going to be like Teen Titans Go, they can stay away from the race humor that show has done at times with Cyborg. I don’t want Panthro turning into a Madea-style sassy old black woman, for example.
And there’s one more thing I want in this show.
What the hell is a Snarf?