In Marvel’s growing catalog of tween-focused animated projects, Marvel Rising: Initiation puts an emphasis on not only the publisher’s impressive stable of younger characters, but also —and more importantly — on heroes that have not yet had an opportunity to be the stars of their own show. With a line-up consisting primarily of heroes who are women and people of color, the series of short episodes meant as a lead-in to the upcoming Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors animated film, also takes a decisive step in opening up Marvel’s expansive world to a new legion of fans.
While most of Marvel’s animated efforts have primarily been focused on the company’s reliable roster of heavy hitters — Spider-Man, the Avengers, and, thanks to the success of the films, the Guardians of the Galaxy — Marvel Rising: Initiation is a chance for fans to see characters most often relegated to supporting roles. That makes the emphasis on the likes of Gwen Stacy’s Ghost-Spider (or Spider-Gwen), Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel, and Squirrel Girl, an exciting breath of fresh air. And as an introduction to a much larger story that involves the likes of Chloe Bennett’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. character, Quake, as well as onetime Young Avenger, Patriot, and a whole host of Marvel characters, Initiation serves as an effective… well, initiation for these young heroes and for viewers who may be unfamiliar with them.
The six shorts ultimately add up to be the same length as roughly one episode of a typical animated show, though because of the way they’re edited and doled out, Initiation actually feels longer, more expansive. The scope of the story is focused primarily on Ghost-Spider (Dove Cameron, who also voiced the character on Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man animated series), who has gone from web-slinging vigilante to public enemy number one, after the authorities mistakenly pin the death of Gwen’s best friend, Kevin, on the hero. But rather than use Kevin’s untimely demise as the inciting incident, the event, and the circumstances that caused it, are doled out in flashback, allowing the shorts to push toward a more pressing concern — setting up Secret Warriors — while also giving Gwen enough of an emotional foundation that it’s not just a series of superhero meet cutes that inevitably devolve into fisticuffs.
While watching heroes trade punches is a time-honored comic book tradition — both in the pages of the funny books and in billion-dollar feature film franchises — and Initiation spends a great deal of its time recognizing that convention, there is a surprising emphasis on the impact Kevin’s death has had on Gwen, and her search for the real killer. This puts Ghost-Spider in a scenario familiar to the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, where authorities, leery of costumed vigilantes, jump to obvious and inaccurate conclusions based on the hero being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As an added wrinkle to Gwen’s plight as a newly minted scoundrel, the man leading the charge to bring Ghost-Spider to justice is her own father, Captain Stacy (Steven Webber) who, ironically, has his heart in the right place, as he's strongly motivated by his and his daughter’s personal connection to the victim.
A case of mistaken identity is as reasonable a means of gathering a group of disparate heroes as any, and since Initiation also teases a much larger threat for the teen crime fighters to eventually face, the kid-friendly introductions to Patriot (Kamil McFadden), as well as Kamala Khan’s “embiggening” Ms. Marvel (voiced by Kathreen Khavari) and especially Milana Vayntrub as an exuberant and amusing Squirrel Girl, feels like time well spent. Most viewers are likely already acquainted with Gwen’s alter ego, and the same goes for Chloe Bennett’s Quake, which makes them ideally suited to lead the charge in introducing these new heroes and emphasizing their importance in the growing Marvel landscape — animated series and otherwise.
Initiation lives up to its title, offering an entertaining beginning to a much larger story, one that puts a welcome emphasis on themes of inclusion and empowerment for a younger audience. But, like with Marvel’s other animated offerings, there’s still plenty for older viewers to enjoy as well. From the action-heavy storytelling to the obvious connection with the larger (animated) MCU, Marvel Rising: Initiation has a little something for everyone, from the hardcore Marvel-ites to those in search of heroes they can relate to.
Marvel Rising: Initiation premieres Monday, August 13 @7:30pm on Disney XD.