Last week, Cartoon Network debuted the fifth iteration of their long-running kids' superhero show Ben 10. The biggest difference between this version and previous ones? Well, Ben is...ten.
"The big thing we had to do is that cartoons are wildly expensive and if you don't retain the young viewership, you won't retain the cartoon," Steven T. Seagle, who helped develop the series at Man of Action Entertainment, told ComicBook.com. "With Ben, while we loved everything that's happened with it, has really aged up quite a bit. We had to pare it back down, get back down to the nuts and bolts, and kind of reboot in a way that would get young kids, like 7 years old, interested in it once again. So we just started back over with Ben on vacation with Max and Gwen when he's 10 years old, big adventures, and then the other big difference is time."
"The format is different than it was in all of the earlier iterations," explained Man of Action's Duncan Rouleau. "The earlier iterations are all 22-minute stories; these are two eleven minutes in a half an hour. There's a lot of different reasons for it, but the thing we found doing the 11 minutes is that it's kind of like Ben 10 concentrate in a lot of ways. It's like everything you want without a long, extended second act that just gets repeated again in the third act but with a fight. In a weird way, these 11 minutes have afforded us to kind of get to the point, get in, and get it, to the point where I think even we were surprised that it was working as well as it was."
The format shift is something that some fans dreaded going in, and even Man of Action had their reservations, but after writing the first episode they saw great storytelling potential and never wanted to go back.
"I think a lot of the longtime fans were freaking out because they heard 11 minutes and thought we were doing Teen Titans Go," Seagle said. "But it's not. It really is a Ben 10 show that just moves a little faster."
Faster...in some ways.
The biggest reason for a reboot is that Ben 10 had moved from its initial run into Alien Force and basically making Ben a full-fledged superhero pretty quickly. The result was a kids' superhero show that was growing with its audience -- which makes for a rich experience for that initial audience, but leaves younger viewers and the uninitiated behind.
If all of that sounds familiar, the Man of Action creators -- who also work in comics -- acknowledged how much it sounds like the current problems facing Marvel and DC Comics. The Ben 10 reboot, they said, is a bit like Spider-Man: Homecoming. Taking the concept back to its core, it's a show that features a kid having kid problems while also going on epic adventures as a superhero.
"A big wake-up call for all of us was when Joe Casey came into the room a couple of years ago and he said 'I'm done with plot!'" said Seagle. "And he's a provocateur, he likes to make pronouncements like that. But in a lot of ways, he was right: plot is the problem. These stories need to be thematically-based. We're always trying to tell stories about a something that a kid is thinking about or worrying about or wishing about, and then we let the plot come to it after that. That way, the show can kind of stay fresh forever, because themes are limitless. You can constantly evaluate them in different ways, whereas plot drove him to age, drove him to learn things and commit to things. It evolved the show in a great way that was fun, but in a way that left kids behind in the dust."
"What were the core elements of the character — the exciting elements?" Asked Rouleau. "From our point of view, we felt like Ben at ten…we moved very quickly into Alien Force and we didn't get to spend as much time as we wanted with him in his 10-year-old phase. So it was a chance for us to revisit that time and some of the things that we found were the inspiration for the character in the first place a little further. Cartoon Network had a similar idea; they were very glad to hear that we were thinking in a sense the same thing."
"We love comic books, we love serial storytelling, and we want to evolve things that way, but when you do, you run the risk of alienating your core audience, or aging them," Seagle added. "And that's what happened."
That isn't to say that Ben 10 has left its mythology behind; the things that shaped the universe are by and large still there...just waiting to be explored, and maybe waiting a little longer, at least in the main TV series. Online content, though, enriches the world for fans who want to look for it.
"The stuff that happens on TV is Ben at 10 on his never-ending vacation — the best vacation ever, because he also gets to be a superhero — but then online we've been doing a second screen thing that's called Alien Worlds, which is much more in-depth about the aliens and he planets that they come from and some of the backstories and the drama," said Rouleau. "Watching them separately, you get very different kind soft tones, but then watching the show, you see these aliens and it makes sense. The nice thing is that Ben is also a coming-of-age story. He's getting a sense for himself within the universe. It's kind of nice to have that information before he does, so that you can watch him discover his powers and use them in a way that maybe an adult might not — and you're getting it without it having to be told in a kind of pedantic way in the narrative. It's been a lot of fun constructing it this way."
Rouleau added that with the new, split-episode format of two shorter stories, the writers get two bites at the apple every week, and that if you unfolded revelations and plot points at the same pace as the previous show had, that content would start to run dry quickly.
And that would necessitate a next iteration, or a new reboot, or another major evolution in the show -- and for now, that's not what Man of Action is hoping for.0comments
"We're having a really good time working in the world that we've set up, so we're in no rush to evacuate it," Seagle said. "There are big changes to come — definitely as we look forward to the next season, there's evolution definitely happening, but one of the things we're not in a rush to do it making Ben not be ten."
Ben 10 airs its next new episode tonight at 5 p.m. ET/PT on Cartoon Network.