Nov 17, 2017
If there’s one Hasbro property I honestly thought would have a difficult time finding relevance in the modern era, it’s Stretch Armstrong. What was once a novelty toy that was basically an oversized action figure with super-stretchy arms is now a Netflix animated series dubbed Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters. (I can hear you chuckling.) It would be easy to laugh this one off without giving it a glance, but to do so would be missing out on a fresh, energetic, and unconventional animated series that rebrands the stretchy toy to fit the modern superhero mold.
Now on Netflix, Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters centers on a trio of students who unexpectedly find themselves gifted with remarkable powers that allow them to stretch and flex their bodies in all sorts of crazy ways. That’s about all this series has in common with its kids toy namesake because those powers, derived from the cutting-edge material known as Flexarium, also allow the heroes incredible durability and heightened strength. That trio is led by Jake Armstrong (Scott Menville) as the title hero with Steven Yeun‘s Nathan Park / Wingspan and Ogie Banks‘ Ricardo Perez / Omni-Mass filling in as the Flex Fighters. The solid core is buoyed by supporting turns from Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, Keith David, Kate Mulgrew and Walter Koenig with turns from Tom Kenny, Kelly Hu, and Gary Cole, making a stellar cast, tip to tail.
So forget everything you ever knew about Stretch Armstrong. Gone are the cleft chin and the cheesy grin (though the signature hairstyle remains). Instead of the faux bodybuilding physique, the hero of the piece is the over-scheduled but quite capable Academy for Future Leadership student, Jake Armstrong. A multi-part episode “Confessions of a Teenage Superhero” quickly shows how Jake and his pal Nathan, with newcomer Ricardo, wind up being the stretchy saviors of Charter City.
It turns out that this city, a beacon of technology and prosperity thanks to the generous work of the CEO of Rook Unlimited. Rook (Wheaton) has turned Charter City from a down-on-its-luck burgh to a cutting-edge city that boasts museums, a mag-lev train transit system, and all sorts of top-tier tech. However, it also has a monster problem. Luckily, the same chemical (the aforementioned Flexarium) that mutated the mega-monster known as Multi-Farious also granted the amazing powers to Jake, Nathan, and Ricardo in a freak accident. It’s the trio’s run-in with the monster that gets Rook’s attention and ultimately sees them all working together for the betterment of Charter City.
The origin story for the heroes is pretty standard and the show gets it out of the way quickly. But everything after that point leaves you guessing. Jake, Nathan, and Ricardo are all very bright and capable students (and quite good at Parkour, it turns out), but the difference in their personalities shines through thanks to solid writing and performances by the leads. Jake is the All-American kid, but his father’s over-tight scheduling (which he does from afar since his own work usually keeps him away from home) makes crime-fighting complicated. Nathan suffers from some confidence issues and often gets lost in the shuffle at home since he’s one of six siblings. Ricardo’s pride more than makes up for Nathan’s lack of self-assuredness, but he tends not to take things seriously until it’s too late. In other words, each of their strengths compliment another’s weakness, making them a solid team once they eventually sort their issues out. (Oh and watching them figure out their individual and unique powers is a delight unto itself.)
But it’s worth remembering that the heroes are also high school students, so like Peter Parker, they struggle with maintaining their academic performance in a high-stress environment while also trying to figure out just what the heck girls are all about. And these real-world decisions also come with real-world consequences. If Jake misses out on a tennis lesson because he’s saving the city from destruction, he still has to explain the gap in his schedule to his hard-line father, resulting in getting grounded. Luckily, the guys start to look out for each other as the story moves along, both in combat and in their alter egos as mild-mannered high school students.
Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters has a high-flying level of action that features heavily in each episode, often taking precedent over anything else in the story. It’s an approach that puts this show squarely in the superhero series mold while doing so in an original way. Sure, it feels like it borrows a little bit of this and a little bit of that from other shows that came before it, but the narrative keeps you guessing. Rather than acting in the shadows, the team is basically a mascot for Rook Unlimited and the city itself. Rather than having Rook revealed as a mad scientist or Lex Luthor-type, he’s an earnest benefactor, charitable donor, and brilliant scientist; nothing nefarious here … so far. And rather than have these various obvious and popular heroes all but disappear within the rest of society, they actually become pop culture icons somewhat, which makes things a little difficult for the high school versions of the heroes, and especially for their egos.
Another knock to those egos comes courtesy of a few villains introduced early on. There’s an actual mad scientist who shows up, though their ultimate goals and reasoning for them is a mystery that has yet to be fully unraveled. There’s a very stealthy and capable ninja by the name of Blindstrike who is quite fun to watch, especially as the team’s abilities are put to the test. And most bizarre of all (so far) is the reveal of a gargantuan troll-like creature that’s conjuring some strong Phantom of the Opera vibes as it watches Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters as they rise to fame. Plenty of weird and wacky stuff to keep you clicking Play on the next episode!
Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters is a fun adaptation that actually manages to turn a one-note toy into a team-focused series. There are lots of unexpected laughs to find along the way, and if you can get over the Turbo Teen-levels of body horror that occasionally arise from the title teens twisting themselves into oblivion, there’s a lot to like here. Fans of Ben 10 and Teen Titans will find some similarity to those shows in Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters, so be sure to stick around through the early twists and turns.
Rating: ★★★ Good