WildCATs were the heroes, now they’re zeroes

WildCATs makes me miss Haim Saban. Not the Haim Saban who turned the Power Rangers into a hit. Nor the Haim Saban whose parent company bought the AV Club and brought Kinja into our lives. I mean the Haim Saban who wrote kicking cartoon theme songs. Inspector Gadget, He-Man, Dinosaucers, Beverly Hills Teens. Or maybe he didn’t write them. Saban did get sued by several composers that he didn’t actually write the songs and settled out of court.

Well, whoever wrote those songs credited to “Haim Saban,” we could of used that entity to write the WildCATs theme. Look, the very first words after the constant “WildCATs” cheering is “We’re good against evil!” This would be hilarious if you could understand the singers. What is hilarious, though, is the hip-hop part: “We’re heroes! Not zeroes! We’ve got what they fear so! Here’s the facts, we’ve got powers to the max!” And then the lyrics writers just give the hell up about halfway through.

Also bad: this shot from the intro where the WildCATs are running toward the screen. It’s rare that the animation from the opener is actually worse than the episode itself.

Like, I shouldn’t have to tell you that a great theme song sets the stage and helps kids understand the high concepts that they’ll be watching for the next 22 minutes. What do we know about the WildCATs?

They’re good against evil.

And they’re not zeroes.

There really should be another line: they’re also not X-Men.

They’re also not Deadpool, either.

WildCATs were created by Jim Lee back when a bunch of Marvel creators left to found their own company: Image Comics. It was initially a massive success. Every new comic released launched to the top of the best-seller’s list. Image was outselling Marvel and DC books, and it looked like there was a new company set to usurp the stogy, old-fashioned characters from the rival companies. After all, DC defined superheroes in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Marvel shook up the paradigm in the 1960’s. Wasn’t it about time for another company to enter the fray and shake things up yet again?

Heroes wearing their underwear over their pants? Ha! Our heroes are kitted in pouches, shoulderpads, and workout leotards! And no lame powers like x-ray vision or freeze breath. Our heroes shoot energy blasts… OUT OF THEIR HANDS! This ain’t your daddy’s superheroes! Remember to pick up this and Youngblood and Bloodstrike and Bloodshot even though that’s made by a completely different publisher! I remember that WildCATs #1 was sold out everywhere. Being a big Jim Lee fan from his days drawing X-Men, I eagerly snapped up an issue.

That said… I remember almost nothing about the WildCATs. I say that as someone who just re-read a TPB of the early WildCATs issues in preparation for writing this review. Stunningly, Dan Quayle — who I mentioned in the Bucky O’Hare review — appears again as a man who has been possessed by an evil Daemonite. He must work there or something.

Let’s start off with the team name. It is utterly unremarkable and generic. Look at the other great super team names. The X-Men puts you in mind of something stranger and sexier than your average superhero team with that “X” in the name. The Justice League excludes a sense that you’re going to see the best of the best. Avengers is a little more nebulous, but it you do get a sense that they’re a team ready for action.

But WildCATs? Are we supposed to really know that “CAT” stands for “Covert Action Team” without looking it up? Also, 50% of college teams are named the Wildcats. The LA XFL team is named the Wildcats! And none of them are cat-human hybrids, like the Thundercats! What is this madness!

The impression one gets are that they are slightly redesigned X-Men characters. Specifically everyone from the Blue Team on the title that Lee was on. Zealot was basically Psylocke. Spartan was filling the Cyclops role. Warblade had long blades for fingers like Wolverine. Voodoo sorta has a Jubilee/Jean Grey thing going on. Grifter was brimming with Gambit energy with a little bit of that gruff Logan personality. Maul is The Beast with a heaping dose of The Hulk. Then there’s Void, a living computer who comes across as a female Silver Surfer. I know. Famous X-Man Silver Surfer.

Grifter is armed with two staple guns from the Home Depot.

The WildCATs were also indistinguishable from every other Image Comics superteam, who were all also based on the X-Men. I had to remind myself that Warblade wasn’t Ripclaw, the Wolverine of the Cyberforce. (There was also a Wolverine on Youngblood, but screw that guy.) It’s a bit of copying… BUT in my opinion there was a little bit of fair play involved. After all, these creators were the ones who had developed the contemporary versions of the X-Men that didn’t much resemble the same characters that came before or after. With Image, they were basically taking their concepts back.

Watching the cartoon was the first time I really understood the WildCATs mission. The world unfolds through the eyes of Reno Bryce, a totally jacked dude that looks like Lorenzo Lamas who is also a tech whiz. His existence attracts a bunch of shifty looking dudes who dress up like The Strangers from Dark City. (Or rather… The Strangers dress up like these guys! WildCATs came out four years prior.) Reno goes on the run, but he’s rescued by our friendly neighborhood covert action team! This is when he discovers he has extraordinary powers —- he can liquid-metal his body into different forms, not just blade fingers.

In the comics, the newbie is Voodoo. I think that making Warblade the newbie is an improvement. Book Warblade doesn’t have much of a personality, so having him be the viewer surrogate (and a nerdy whiz kid) gives him a purpose beyond being the Wolverine rip-off. In addition, Voodoo gets a bit of an improvement as sort of a sophomore member who wishes the veterans weren’t so hard on the newcomers. Also… in the book she’s a stripper and you can’t really have that in a kid’s adventure cartoon. Notably, she’s the one member with a costume overhaul. I never thought the comic book outfit resembled much of a stripper outfit — it is rather modest, and unless she was performing some themed burlesque what stripper wears boxing headgear? — but she trades her dress for an X-Men-ish bodysuit.

The world is full of Daemonites, alien entities who possess human bodies. They are at times humanoid lizard people. At other times they are tiny gremlins who pilot your brain via a themed sticker on your forehead. The WildCATs are descendants of the Kherubim, emotionless guardians of the universe. The alien heritage gives the WildCATs superpowers. They band together under the guidance of Jacob Marlowe to save Earth.

Now, a modern day ground level secret war between angels and demons could be an interesting concept. What WildCATs presupposes is… what if it’s not?

I don’t know why the Kherubim even bother to try to protect Earth. Everyone on Earth is kind of an asshole… including their fellow Kherubim. In one episode Voodoo, an orphan, is looking for her birth family. She’s helped by this kindly old man who takes her to a remote house in the bayou. But, oh no, it’s a trap! The house is occupied by Daemonites! Why couldn’t Voodoo detect that the old man was a Daemonite? It’s because he isn’t… he’s a regular old human who did it for the money! You seriously have to be scum to trick a young woman into thinking she’s going to meet her birth parents.

Zealot, too, is very much the source of her own problems. Here’s something that I didn’t know from just reading the comic: our white-haired swordswoman in red is basically Wonder Woman.

Not your daddy’s Themyscira.

She trained a bunch of immortal Amazonian women on an island filled with Greco-Roman columns. Anyway, her trainees go rogue and form a rival covert action team that decides they’d rather work with the Daemonites for the money. Way to go, Zealot.

The WildCATs are nominally a for-hire covert action team who the government contracts out to deal with terrorist groups. In reality, though, they act like a cult. Spartan, for example, is given the opportunity to have his consciousness transferred back to his original human body (kept in deep freeze) so he can be reuinited the woman he loves. What’s the difference between inhabiting the body of a sentient android and being a human being? What prevents one or the other from being with a woman? Well… this is a kid’s show. We’re not going to go into too much detail. Spartan forfeits all of the last minute, though. He can’t be a lover… and a WildCAT!

In another far more low stakes incident, Warblade decides to forfeit a karate championship because being a WildCAT takes priority over a cheap looking karate trophy. In this instance, it’s more understandable but the subtext is there: being a WildCAT requires your total allegiance and devotion to the High Kherubim, Jacob Marlowe.

And honestly, the arrangement is kind of creepy. Sure, the X-Men are bound by the call of Professor Charles Xavier. He’s a teacher and a mentor, though. It makes sense under the structures of an educational system. Marlowe? He’s a super rich guy who lives in something that looks like Stark Tower from the MCU films.

Seriously, it’s uncanny.

He’s a major donor to the sitting President’s campaign. He’s running a paramilitary unit using his own money. There’s one episode where he arranges for a hostile corporate takeover of a rival business so he can acquire military assets to aid his team in fighting the bad guys. (Admittedly, this is a legitimately funny scene. His first order as the new corporate president is to the throw the previous one out of a plane.) In literally every other media, Marlowe is the villain.

Our villain, instead, is a guy named Helspont. He resembles a Xenomorph queen. Also he’s got smoke coming out of the top of his his head like a dork. Why does he look so different from his fellow Daemonites? Well, Wikipedia has the answer: “Sometime during his time on Earth, Helspont somehow managed to get a hold of an Acurian body, and since all Daemonites are capable of possessing other beings, he stole it. The exact circumstances for his acquisition of the alien host are unknown, but according to Spartan, it happened some centuries after the fall of the Roman empire.”

Sure, OK. The Wikipedia entry to Helspont is long and incomprehensible, by the way. My brain turned into mush trying to parse it. However, it turns out that Helspont is one of the few comic book characters who has both teamed up with Marvel’s Doctor Doom and fought against DC’s Superman.

The animated series isn’t great. It’s one of Nelvana’s lesser efforts. The voice acting is melodramatic, and the series takes the source material far too seriously. There are several attempts at depicting romance and emotional pain, and every single attempt is very cringey. When the show attempts levity — like, say, Reno’s karate adventures — it is both lame and completely out of place with the danger of world domination. And even then, the villains are so poorly defined that you never feel that the world is really in any danger from the Daemonites. Our two show developers are Bob Forward and David Wise, and between the two of them they’ve had extensive experience with action-adventure cartoons.

I would imagine that they could have crafted a much more coherent narrative if the source material wasn’t so incomprehensible. I already expressed by bafflement at the “Helspont” entry in Wikipedia. Imagine Forward and Wise going through the show bible before throwing up their hands and going, “Whatever. Warblade wants to win a karate championship, maybe?” After which they would hit up a cheap bar in Burbank and commiserate.

“I’m David F’n Wise,” he’d say between rum and cokes. “I wrote the first goddamn Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles five parter that established the template for close to a decade! That Riddler origin episode on Batman: The Animated Series? THAT WAS ME! I made the Clock King compelling character! And wrote the Hugo Strange episode! ME! DAVID WISE! What the hell is this garbage? Why is there a computer and an android on the same team of superpeople? And what the hell are their powers? God DAMMIT! Why am I writing riffs from RoboCop for Spartan?”

“I, uh, wrote on The Legend of Zelda animated show…”

“Just order up another rum and coke, Bob.”

But, like I said, the cartoon is far easier to understand than the comic books and is my preferred method for consuming WildCATs media. Only knowing what’s going on half of the time is better than understanding none of it at all.

I did spend the entire two-part finale in a state of utter confusion, though. Everyone’s after a big McGuffin: an orb that will allow Helspont to gain enough power to conquer the world. I’m with you there so far, WildCATs. But then the orb starts talking. It targets Voodoo, who has the power of seeing Daemonites. The entity within the orb is released, and it’s a big black cloud — the most fascinating thing in animation. Voodoo realizes the only way to defeat it is to …. absorbs the entity withing the evil orb? She then gains phenomenal cosmic powers and is about to go all evil but is saved by the power of friendship? But then Helspont does it and he shoots the moon? And then… he disappears? What? What’s going on? And then there’s kissing, featuring two of the characters with the least chemistry: Zealot and Grifter. Like…. it is Padme and Anakin bad.

I don’t know.

I don’t know how any of this works. The best part of the final episode was a montage at the beginning, where Zealot has been fighting Daemonites since the beginning of time. We see her in gladiator combat and fighting medieval knights while wearing her red swimsuit. Does she dress up in pirate gear? Hell yes she dresses up in pirate gear! You could tell the animators were having fun with this.

I have no idea if anyone has any nostalgia for WildCATs. Recently, when DC’s New 52 was launched under the guidance of Jim Lee, the WildCATs characters were folded into the main DC universe. Two of the characters got their own titles: Grifter and Voodoo. These were among the first two titles that were cancelled. Grant Morrison took a crack at the team once upon a time, but lasted one issue before quitting due to lack of interest.

The problem is that they’re not characters at all. They’re just cool costume designs. No one wants to know what the heck Grifter’s backstory is. And if there really is a Daemonite threat in the DC Universe, who are you getting: the losers from WildCATs, or the Green Lanterns?

That said… I would very much read a series featuring “Zealot: World War I Fighting Ace”.

Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!