America has never been best represented in anime, usually portrayed with horrific stereotypes or laughable inaccuracies; on the face of it then, comic luminary Stan Lee and production studio BONES would seem like strange bedfellows. But the unimaginatively titled joint-project Heroman demonstrates that while an entertaining series was never in question, whether the two party's strengths will marry together is still up for debate. Three episodes is never enough for BONES to reveal anything other than the most cursory information, however what's here doesn't even have a scent of nuance. Instead, this is a brash, straightforward romp devoid of subtlety, more akin to the sleepy brainlessness of Saturday morning cartoons than the studio's usual fare.
Adolescent Joey Jones doesn't have it easy: he is frequently pushed around by a brawny jock and has to work a part-time job in a dingy café to provide for his diminutive grandmother. The only silver lining for him is the jock's lively sister, Lina, who has taken an interest in him and the wild-haired cripple Psy who despite his weakness, remains a true friend. A stray extra-terrestrial lightning bolt changes his fortunes when it strikes a recently repaired toy robot which transforms into the autonomous, battle-ready Heroman. The lightning however was just a precursor to an invasion by alien creatures - Earth's defences useless against them and only Heroman is able to match their terrifying strength. As the mothership settles in Center City, the battle against their incursion seems to have only just begun.
Key to the series aesthetic is the faux retro styling it touts from the opening scenes - an advert for the eponymous toy robot which, for better or worse, demonstrates some of the worst excesses of genre tropes. The familiar character designs are as agreeable as ever, created by Stan Lee and character designer Shigeto Koyama who also had a part in Seirei no Moribito and the sublime Eureka Seven; the titles and ending however are exaggerated facsimiles of the familiar American comic-style, the colour palette and font moving dangerously close to the Commodore 64 logo. The bland design of the titular Heroman however is the most contentious, the only memorable features being the stars-and-stripes motif and glowing circle which is highlighted upon every victory.
The most pressing problem in the first three episodes is the complete lack of a decent plot - predictable and twee from the outset, no part sticks in the mind or offers up any possibility for development. The all-American brute Will is, ironically, the most interesting character for fighting against the affable idiocy shown in the protagonists and dispensing with common sense to go headlong into the enemy headquarters. The androgynous lead character is so plot-bound to do The Right Thing he becomes superfluous, occasionally chipping with a stirring speech or grotesque sound-bites in order to advance the blatant romance with the blonde cheerleader who harbours a completely implausible affection for him. Psy, whose disability requires him to wear an oversized kneepad at all times, could be the series' saving grace when it comes to characters although he too could easily sink into interminable idiocy leaving only the seductively proportioned, red-headed teacher to retain interest.
Heroman is targeted at a much younger audience than BONES's usual - aiming to tap into the trigger-happy merchandising market of children and tweens, Heroman is after all, a toy himself. The morality is absolute - insects bad, punching good - the explosions rampant, the button pushing overwrought and the characters pleasant; there is no reason why this can't do supremely well with its target demographic, even if it is underselling their intelligence somewhat. It raises the question though of why partner with BONES at all? A studio which revels in detail, allusion, mythology and complexity reduced to a very accomplished but ultimately superficial animation factory. And at the end of the day, Heroman's America may be more cosmopolitan and culturally aware than many series, it still lays the stereotypes on thick though.