The New ThunderCats, and What People Get Wrong About ‘Kids’ vs. ‘Adult’ Entertainment

What does the outraged fan response to 'ThunderCats Roar' show? That we misunderstand the capabilities of kids entertainment.

ThunderCats Roar. Warner Bros. TV/Youtube

Outrage! I casually looked over the other and saw that ThunderCats was trending on Twitter, and that people seemed to be very, very upset about something. Turns out that Cartoon Network had announced a new reboot called ThunderCats Roar, and fans were enraged because the design and tone of the animation struck people as way too kid-friendly and immature. (It was specifically lambasted for what people were somewhat inaccurately describing as the “CalArts” style). As such, longtime fans of the show started voicing their anger and using the “#thundercatsno” hashtag. Heck, even popular ThunderCats fan sites announced they would not be covering the new show due to such an affront to the style! Harrumph!

The sad truth is that we see a lot of these kinds of hyperbolic reactions in fan culture. Often, it has to do with fans having an inappropriate sense of ownership over that which they love, along with a passionate predilection toward outrage to all those who wish to damage that sacred connection. But the reactions to ThunderCats Roar speak to a deeper issue within the psychology of certain fandoms, one that we unleashed when there are perceived changes to the “tone” of a group’s beloved property. For example, here are two seemingly innocuous tweets that sum up this sentiment quite nicely:

Allow me to jump on the grenade and point out that the original ThunderCats (1985-1989) is, by most accounts, an utterly ridiculous show. I don’t say this from a place of disdain, mind you. I watched the show religiously the first few years as part of my steady 1980s cartoon diet. I liked it. And I still do; ThunderCats represents a weird, late-period last gasp of Rankin-Bass animation (yes, the company behind the batshit stop-motion Christmas specials and the Lord of the Rings animated efforts), as it tried to stay relevant during the Japanese anime-style boom.

But the result of their efforts created something particularly nutty. I don’t know if you’ve ever actually watched the show, but some of the insane story moments of ThunderCats can best summed up here. And sure, the show would occasionally drop some kind of trite lesson near the end to make it seem like there was a point to its weirdo operatics, but they rarely went beyond the most basic platitudes. And I took particularly delight in Lion-O’s embrace of these lessons, especially given that he might be one of the doofiest, dumbest and most impressionable main characters who ever lived (I swear, he’s like a 10-year-old MacGruber).

In retrospect, one of the most genuinely interesting things about the show was Lion-O’s treatment of Panthro, who was popularly regarded as “the black ThunderCat,” not just because he was voiced by the great character actor Earle Hyman, but because his treatment was full of other cultural signifiers better discussed here. The thing I always want people to notice is the insane amount of times in the show that Lion-O takes credit for Panthro’s ideas and work. But, of course, I understand this point is perhaps giving the show a lot of meta-credit.

The truth is that ThunderCats hits the weird cultural cross-section that defines a lot of ’80s culture, so of course us kids loved it. All the characters had that ’80s, muscle-clad design that fit with the Stallone and Schwarzenegger hero-worship of the time. But it also captured the audacity of the Queen-inspired glam-rock era and its weird intersection with professional wrestling. If all this sounds absurd, it’s because it is. ThunderCats is something like the product of Arnie’s Conan having sex with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats with their offspring cosplaying as the band Kiss. But somehow, someway, it fell right in line with other boy-focused fantasy fare of the era, like Voltron, G.I. Joe and everyone’s favorite Eternian, He-Man.

Looking back, this is the reason I loved the gaudy insanity of these shows, but there’s also a deeper story. I know it’s equally easy to look back on these shows—what with the LSD-laden plotting nonsense, the basic good-versus-evil dynamics and the overly theatrical style of voice acting—and ask, “how did anyone ever take this so seriously?”

Of course we took it seriously. Because they were vivid, absurd, fantastic worlds with simple stories and a host of cool iconography that was all literally designed to sell us toys. So we ate it up. We played in it. We lived in it.

And some of us never really stopped.

Which brings us to those who are furious with the new kid-like aesthetics of ThunderCats Roar. Not to immediately go back to last week’s column, but at first glance, the knee-jerk response to the new show utterly reeks of a hypersensitivity to texture. It’s a simple kind of reductive reasoning that goes: “Oh, it looks like X, and X is not my beloved Y! So this is bad!” This attitude is pretty common these days in fandom. (If only there was some kind of age-old lesson about books and covers…) But I think such textural, surface-level disdain helps reveal the darker heart of what’s actually going on here. For some people, who kept living in these worlds of childhood, it’s not about the fact that they never really stopped living with “childish things,” it’s instead that they harbored an expectation that childish things should grow up along with them.

To be clear, I understand the inclination. There are a lot of children of the ’80s who grew up having their dorky interests being belittled. I was literally just regaling someone with the story of how I got called a “faggot” and punched in the back of the head for having Empire Strikes Back bed sheets. (God, I’d like to shout out that person’s name sometime.) But these negative attitudes were not only commonplace, they evoked a cruel irony: it wasn’t actually about what you were into (because everyone liked Star Wars in those days), but how much you cared about it. It’s an ugly Catch-22. For those who needed a desperate escape from life’s torment, these shows represented a powerful escape, where you were told you that you were the most powerful, special boy in the universe. It’s a particular brand of wish-fulfillment that puts you at the center of the world’s story and also gives you license to be ridiculous and care-free. These are certainly good things, but if you fell hard into that escape, such bonds of comfort are hard to break.

Especially as you get older. Because, though your love of escapism would seem more and more unnecessary with age, the ugly truth is that the brain can lash outward even further. You can insist that others don’t understand the complexity of the thing that childish you adored. Or, what more typically happens, is that you begin to bargain with the very look of your property to make it all feel more adult.

For instance, I’m reminded of the late ’80s/’90s dark comic boom where all heroes got Frank Miller-ized. All of comic-dom became dark, gritty, murdery and full of obligatory sex. To be fair, at its best there was some thoughtful provocation in this era, but most of the time it just reeked of the kind of masculine “adult” fare that’s just one part teenage empowerment fantasy and one part freshman year philosophy class. Besides, the entire goal of this stuff is that you’re not actually making it “more mature” on any level. You’re just removing all the kid-like texture so that you can overtly indulge in Hard-R adult fare with the same lack of conscience. So, what’s supposed to count for mature is actually the very definition of juvenile.

You see this dynamic pop-up in a lot of male-skewing fandoms. I find it particularly prevalent in public discussions of Batman, A.K.A. the most dark and brooding hero we have in pop culture.

Like most people, I loved Batman as a kid. And I’ll be the first to trumpet the merits of the brilliant thematic explorations within The Dark Knight. But that doesn’t stop me from observing the fact that there are a lot of people love Nolan’s Batman trilogy simply because it validated their adult love of Batman. Who—I have to remind you—beneath all the lip-service of heroism, is still a power fantasy of a super-rich, lady-getting anti-hero, to whom laws do not apply, and who goes around at night beating up the poor and mentally ill.

Ben Affleck Netflix Triple Frontier
Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne. Warner Bros. Pictures

I’m being half glib here, but there’s something to this notion of what this strikes deep into the most ugly and vocal members of Batman’s fan base. And it gets worse, because a lot of The Dark Knight’s biggest fans opted not for the power fantasy of the ever-dutiful Batman, but the one man who scared the bejeezus out of him: The Joker. He’s actually the ultimate power fantasy of a person who wants total control: the man who worships pure chaos, nihilistic glee, and uses up-is-down logic to inspire terror in every other human being he faces. Which means it’s no accident he was the first mascot of “anti-SJW” mobs that started to spring up.

This is before they all transitioned and started using Bane’s “the fire rises!” as the anthem for #GamerGate and harassing women…this all really happened, by the way. And as much as I could dwell on the specifics, the point is, I’m always pretty damn wary of the naked celebration of “mature” yet achingly-juvenile textures within fandom, all because they often reveal a combativeness that’s fueled by a darker psychological need from their intense fandom.

Look no further than the recent kerfuffle with The Last Jedi, in which the majority of movie-goers went “oooh, neat! This is really good!” and a pack of core fans nearly lost their minds and have not shut up about it since. And while they’ll falsely argue a lot of things about storytelling faults (that’s a column for another time), their disdain basically comes down to the following problem: it was not a nakedly indulgent movie.

It was precisely not about how you are not the most special boy in the universe. Instead, it was about how you are a small part of a larger society. It was about how your heroes might fail you. It was about how you can *GASP* maybe learn things from women. It was basically a film that had the courage to tell you Luke Skywalker is not your god or hero, he is simply a man, flawed, like so many are when grappling with notions of failure. And these notions were so upsetting to some hardcore Star Wars fans on a fundamental level, because this is not how Star Wars “should make them feel” in their soul.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Mixed Reaction Disney Responds
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Lucasfilm

I kind of find the entire ordeal amusing, because this has actually been the story of Star Wars forever. I remember when I was young, how all the tough older teenagers insisted that the Ewoks were stupid kid stuff. Same thing happened with Jar Jar years later (to be fair, he wasn’t even cute or functional on any real level). And now it’s all resurfacing again, just in a deeper, more thematically driven way. It’s all a way of shouting at someone who doesn’t give you what your little internal seven-year-old wants.

I get that it is easy to read all this and feel belittled. I really do. Coming to the idea that we might have an unhealthy relationship with the indulgent aspects of our own fandom can be a bitter pill to swallow, especially if, to us, it feels innocuous. This is human stuff, and you’re talking to someone who once wrote an entire book about his changing, fractured relationship to loving James Bond. But, as this same entitled story spills out with Thundercats Roar, I can’t help but read the tweets of outrage and fret for what it will mean. Because there are so many ways we insist that our old cartoons were somehow more “sophisticated,” and yet don’t realize we’re only saying this because they featured muscle-bound-and-rather-hot cat people.

We will insist that fans “deserve” a version of the show that lives up to that faux-adult texture because we still need the indulgent part, and that is all kinds of terrifying to me. While many out there seem to understand this and agree, I’m equally sad that the supposedly mature popular reaction to this seems to be “This new show is for kids! It’s no longer for you!” Which is certainly accurate in a way, but one I can’t help but feel is missing the larger point…

Returning to “kid stuff” can be wonderful.

The truth is that maturity in art has so much more to do with the complexity of the message than it does the mere allure of texture. I can point to a litany of Adventure Time and Steven Universe episodes that have infinitely complex messaging, use extended metaphors and display a level of thoughtfulness you don’t see many other places on television. And they’re helpful messages, too. Especially to kids, whether they’re complex puberty metaphors, explaining how we like to psychologically displace our fears, or storylines that help us better understand how we fit into the social strata and how that’s O.K.

A 2011 reboot of Thundercats, also by Cartoon Network. Warner Bros. TV/Youtube

I keep using the word “complex,” because it’s actually the most important signifier of such narrative maturity. And it’s all part and parcel of a brand of storytelling that doesn’t mistake complexity for vague allusions to basic societal contradictions, but instead gives people the power to dive into those contradictions and navigate through them. Particularly when it comes to the psychological issues kids (and thereby adults) really need to understand.

Like, that’s O.K. to have feelings cowardice. That’s it’s O.K. to feel small in a vast universe. That the world is full of different kinds of people who are actually just like you, and they might need your understanding more than they need you to defend them (or hit them). It doesn’t matter what texture you dress these messages up in, the core lesson is that it’s O.K. if you’re not the most special, muscle-bound boy-cat in the universe.

And the great truth is that a modern, goofy-ass kids’ show could not only teach you a lot more, but offer infinitely more solace than all the indulgent escapism in the world. That’s not what our little 7-year-old inside wants, but it is what they truly need. But, like most lovely and achingly-true feelings that could counter our roar of outrage, it only works if we’re willing to open up, and let that kindness inside.

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The New ThunderCats, and What People Get Wrong About ‘Kids’ vs. ‘Adult’ Entertainment