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March 15, 2012

‘Ben 10’: The Jeremy Lin of the superhero world?

Posted in: Animation,TV

Ben and his 10 alien forms in the original "Ben 10" series, which ran from 2005 to 2008. (Cartoon Network)

Graham Phillips portrays the title character in the 2007 TV movie "Ben 10: Race Against Time." (Cartoon Network)

Gwen, Ben and Kevin in "Ben 10: Alien Force," which ran from 2008 to 2010. (Cartoon Network)

Elena (Alyssa Diaz), Ben (Ryan Kelley), Kevin (Nathan Keyes) and Gwen (Galadriel Stineman) in the 2009 live-action movie "Ben 10: Alien Swarm." (Cartoon Network)

Gwen, Ben, Kevin and Grandpa Max in "Ben 10: Ultimate Alien," which began in 2010 and is in its third season. (Cartoon Network)

The fourth incarnation of the boy hero is set to begin later this year with "Ben 10: Omniverse." (Cartoon Network)

Grandpa Max fires at an alien spaceship while Ben and Gwen look on in a scene from the new TV movie "Ben 10: Destroy All Aliens." (Cartoon Network)

Unless you have a young boy at home, it’s possible that Ben 10, the shape-shifting teen superhero, has flown completely under your radar. Unlike the other costumed heroes in the Cartoon Network stable — Batman, Green Lantern, Teen Titans — Ben 10 launched without an existing fan base or brand awareness, the Jeremy Lin of the superhero set.

Just seven years after the animated series first aired on Cartoon Network, “Ben 10” is now the network’s top-selling franchise, setting ratings records and selling billions of dollars’ worth of show-related merchandise. At a time when studios struggle to relaunch and reboot long-running comic book properties, Ben 10 is the first new superhero in recent memory to have this sort of breakout success.

On Monday, Cartoon Network kicks off “Ben 10 Week,” culminating next Friday with the premiere of the new CGI movie “Ben 10: Destroy All Aliens.” This is one of those rare franchises that business people like to call “marketing juggernauts,” the sort that rate their own sections in your local Toys R Us. The consumer products line is a $3-billion business worldwide; if one were so inclined, a fan could spend much of his or her waking hours collecting the action figures, playing the video games, or fiddling with their Omnitrixes, the wristwatch-like devices that transform Ben into a host of superpowered aliens. In last year’s list of the top 125 global licensors, Cartoon Network, at No. 24, handily beat Fox, NBCUniversal, Lego, NASCAR and a host of others, largely on the sales of Ben 10 products.

And then there’s all the programming. Since the first series aired in 2006, “Ben 10” has spun off three animated TV shows and two live-action made-for-TV movies; a feature film by Joel Silver is in development. The show picked up its second Writers Guild of America nod this year — the only episode in its category from a series not created by Matt Groening.

The show’s creators, the New York-L.A.-based development company Man of Action Studios, came to Cartoon Network with little more than a name, “Ben to the Tenth,” along with a hazy idea of a kid who could transform himself into 10 identities. Cartoon Network executives, including Tramm Wigzell, the network’s vice president of action adventure, toyed with having different versions of Ben in alternate dimensions; later, they thought he could become 10 superheroes, in the vein of the 1960s DC comic “Dial H for Hero.”

“It was a long 2½ years,” Wigzell says. “We had a lot of people come in and take cracks at it, trying to break the code.”

One of the few constants was that Ben 10 had to be a kid, not a grown man in tights and cowl.

Ben and his 10 alien forms in the original "Ben 10" series, which ran from 2005 to 2008. (Cartoon Network)

“By having a young hero, you create someone that kids can identify more strongly with,” says Charles Solomon, an animation expert and professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. “He does cool things and has adventures, but he’s still a part of their world and someone they can relate to. What fun is it to have a 45-year-old man with an Omnitrix?”

And then the idea hit: aliens. In the premiere episode of the first series, Ben Tennyson finds an extraterrestrial gadget in the middle of the woods that allows its wearer to morph into any number of fantastical creatures: a giant dog-like beast with gills on his neck, say, or a dragonfly-like bug who shoots poison out of his eyes and mouth. It’s the sort of good, not-so-clean fun that would appeal to any 10-year-old.

Of course, there are limits to what a 10-year-old boy can do, which may explain why Ben 10, unlike so many of his animated peers, has been allowed to age. At the beginning of the second series in 2008, Ben had aged five years; in his latest series, “Ben 10: Omniverse,” slated to premiere in the fall, Tennyson is a rambunctious 16.

“Batman is perpetually 42,” Wigzell says. “Bart Simpson has been 10 for 20-something years. We just thought it would be really cool to age the character up.” Now Ben can drive (a souped-up Dodge Challenger), hang out late, even date. “With a 10-year-old, you can’t introduce any kind of romance or girlfriend,” says Solomon. “That’s just not going to fly.”

Along with his greater driving and dating powers, Ben’s roster of aliens has also increased. Since the show premiered, Ben has transformed into more than 50 aliens, which translates into that many more action figures lining toy store shelves.

A toy from Bandai's "Ben 10: Ultimate Alien" line. (Bandai/Cartoon Network)

From a marketing standpoint, it’s genius: Ben flips his Omnitrix a few times and you’ve got five more plastic beasties for the holiday season. As exciting as that might be for toy vendors, such concerns, Wigzell says, have never driven the series.

“It’s never been about pushing product,” he says. “Viewers can tell when it’s a toy show. It’s always been about characters and concepts and ideas.”

Despite the show’s deceptively simple premise, producers have found creative ways to defy viewer expectations. Ben’s snippy relationship with his cousin Gwen, initially the geek to Ben’s brat, has evolved into one of the most endearing boy-girl relationships on TV. And that cool Omnitrix? The seeming weapon of war (instant monsters for the lucky wearer!) is revealed to be an instrument of galactic peace, a way for alien life forms to walk in the oversized shoes of myriad other species.

All this has resulted in many honors, including five Emmy nominations, two wins, and the WGA award. The show’s awards are housed in a tall trophy case in the Cartoon Network studios lobby, one of the few bits of seriousness in a building jammed with toy robots and Powerpuff Girls figurines.

Working in such surroundings it’s easy to forget just how huge the show is outside the Burbank office walls. For voice actor Yuri Lowenthal, who plays the show’s titular hero, the aha moment came when he took a trip overseas.

“When I went to Australia and England and Ireland, it was 10 times bigger,” he says. “You see kids walking down the street, and every kid of a certain age is wearing Ben 10 stuff.”

And it’s not just Ben 10 T-shirts. In Britain, fans can ride a Ben 10 roller coaster at the Drayton Manor theme park and compete on the live-action game show “Ben 10: Ultimate Challenge.” In Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, kids can watch live multimedia extravaganzas based on popular episodes from the series (last year, the shows drew half a million attendees).

Part of the Ben 10 Ultimate Mission ride at the British theme park Drayton Manor. (Cartoon Network)

“We’re in 168 countries, 312 million households,” says Stuart Snyder, president of TBS’ animation, young adult and kids media division. “We approach it as a global brand, but then we leave it to each of the individual territories to really connect with the audience there.”

“The moment I knew it was big was when Gordon Brown, who was the prime minister of England, was quoted in one of the papers saying that he couldn’t get the ‘Ben 10’ theme song out of his head,” Wigzell says. “I was like, is this an ‘Onion’ article?”

As huge as “Ben 10” has become, with the toys and games and upcoming movies, not a lot has changed for Lowenthal, who has been the voice of teenage Ben since 2008. Lowenthal can stroll the halls of comic conventions unbothered — until it’s time for a “Ben 10” screening or panel and he’s outed as the show’s star.

“You go do your panel and they know what you look like,” he says, “and suddenly, we’re the Beatles.”

– Robert Ito

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