• "Power Ponies": Episode Followup

    At the peak of Sparkle Tower, the control center of Equestria Daily and the last bastion of freedom and hope for all bronykind, a spindly, purple-furred pony strides out towards the window and gazes out at the sunlit Maretropolis skyline, strands of her prehensile green mane squirming and writhing behind her. I watch her from behind the wet bar across the room and take a sip of my drink. Steaming hot cinnamon-spiced cider, aged twenty years and with a buck like a bronco. Nurse Ock over here didn’t want any. Her loss.

    “In a few hours, this city will be mine. Nothing will change that,” I hear her mutter. She turns to me, and a crooked grin spreads across her face. “What have I to fear?”

    “The Power Ponies,” I answer through my glass. When I see the crease in her brow, I shrug. “It’s what they call themselves. Equestria’s mightiest heroes, something like that.”

    “Ah, yes,” the mare by the window says with a laugh. “I’ve met them.”

    “Yeah, it took ‘em a few weeks to come into the picture, I’ll give you that one,” I say, leaning against the bar and staring her down without an ounce of fear. “But let’s do a headcount here: a master of every element you’ve heard of and a few you haven’t, the universally acknowledged fastest filly alive, a mare with some truly electrifying personality quirks, a couple master crimefighters… and you managed to piss off all of them.”

    The other mare’s nostrils flare out, and she stamps both her forehooves against the floor. “I have a hair dryer!” she shouts. I tilt my glass up over my mouth until the last of the cider is gone, and then I finally allow myself a smirk.

    “We have a Flutterhulk.”

    My name is Aquaman, this is the “Power Ponies” episode followup, and I’ve officially covered the obligatory Avengers reference. Let’s do this.

    Lovely shading on those floating black boxes. The animation quality this season really is superb.

    The fact that Twilight, of all ponies, is telling Spike to stop reading and go to bed is a very subtle but well-appreciated sign of how much the former has grown up and fostered a familial relationship with Spike over the course of four seasons. Of course, I could also just be pulling things out of thin air in the name of overanalyzing every single frame of a children’s cartoon, but… actually, yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what I’m doing. Still, though, nice sentiment.

    The vat of radioactive hair gel represents the pressures and tribulations of Twilight’s new position as Alicorn Princess Number Purple, and the tentacle hair represents the reactions of bronies to several key plot elements in the ensuing fourth season of the show.

    Loading… Loading… Loading… Done. twilightsparkle.exe is 100% done with this.
    According to Spike, the behooved spawn of Harley Quinn and a bottle of L’Oreal the Maneiac’s plan is to steal the arc reactor Electro Orb from the Townsville Maretropolis  museum so she can power up her death ray no seriously I’m pretty sure it’s a death ray can I just have this one thing please ugh fine whatever “doomsday device”. Pretty standard evil bad guy plot, but credit where credit’s due: her name is both a corny horse pun and a hilariously perfect match for her origin story. Good stuff.

    “So then I was all like, ‘You think you’re fine? Giiiirl, you fine like a parkin’ ticket!’ And I threw my arms out like this and made this face, and that’s why I’m not allowed to talk to Rarity’s customers anymore.”

    If you’re interested in my views on animation technique, I’ve always appreciated FiM’s usage of perspective shots like this, since it’s not a strictly necessary choice for a director to make, and as such shows a good deal of dedication and effort on their part. If you’re not, here’s a picture of Twilight flashing some major bedroom eyes at her number one assistant. Whatever floats your boat.

    I swear, anyone who thinks Spike and Twilight have a mother/son relationship is getting a way different vibe from this show than I am. If this whole cold open isn’t outing Spike as Twilight’s LBBFF, I don’t know which way is up.

    Also, speaking as a former varsity athlete with a healthy beard, I can objectively confirm that this is adorable/exactly how I would use opposable toes.

    And here we are, back in Celestia and Luna’s ancient castle for the second time this season. There are two types of people in this world: people who are stoked to see this uniquely magical and mysterious ruin taking on what could potentially be a recurring role as a Season 4 setting, and people who should not be trusted with narrative opinions or small children.

    “There’s a thing that every old castle full’a ancient booby traps and crumblin’ historical artifacts needs, and that thing is apples.”

    But seriously, though, look at all those names up there. Pretty sure this is the first time we’ve ever seen three writers credited on a single episode, not to mention one of them’s a body we ain’t seen ‘round these parts before. Congratulations to Betsy McGowen for her first gig with Sgt. Pony’s Crystal Hearts Club Band, and yes, I do expect you all to start calling it that from now on. If Seth’s going to give him a miniscule amount of power, I’m for dang sure gonna abuse it.

    “You sure you’re good, Applejack? Because you ever need any help over here, Spike is at your servi—”
    “NO. I… you, uh… no. I’m good. No. Go over there now, please.”
    “Just… no.”

    Actually, this is a pretty interesting perspective on Spike’s importance to the Mane 6. It’s not that they don’t respect and value him as a friend; they’re just good at dealing with stuff without his input. I’m also fairly certain this is the first time the show has addressed his permanent-seventh-wheel status this directly, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way through the misadventures of Humdrum. It’s always cool to see a good Spike episode, but it’s even better to see that takes a closer look at precisely how his life fits together with Twilight given all the changes, friendship lessons, and near-death experiences they’ve shared.

    Pictured: situational irony. Also pictured: >Pinkie Pie.

    There’s a part of me that wishes Twilight had been in the room when Spike discovered the last page of the comic book was missing. Between him wanting to know how the story ended and her fuming over someone seemingly destroying a book, I’m pretty sure we could power a small city from pure laughter. I’m assuming, of course, that Monsters, Inc. was an accurate and peer-reviewed documentary of current United States energy policy.

    “What d’you mean, that’s where it ends? Can’t we just finish the fight now?”

    So many things-I’m-choosing-to-interpret-as-Season-1-callbacks here. Applejack grabbing Dash’s tail in her teeth, the whole chain of ponies being dragged out of sight à la “A Dog And Pony Show”, Pinkie Pie hopping into the dimensional portal à la Pinkie Pie pretty much all the time. This season seems to have established a trend of self-referential animation, and I’m very okay with that.

    Small note: Spike’s vector isn’t static in this shot. He’s visibly breathing in and out and stirring as he comes back into consciousness. As I’ve said many times in many places: it’s the little things that make a decent show turn into a great one.

    Oh, don’t act like we don’t see that zeppelin in the background. Don’t act like we’re totally capable of handling a steampunk pony tease.

    And with that sweeping shot of Maretropolis and a brief interlude from Applejack, Everypony’s Favorite Straight Man (Mare), we finally have the reveal of our heroes!

    “We are friendship. We are the night.”

    So here’s the lineup:

    • Twilight as the Masked Matterhorn, with armor colors and patterns that remind me of Celestia and Luna’s royal insignias for some reason
    • Pinkie as Filli-Second, because when you’ve already got a pony speedy enough to chase down Rainbow “I Can Fly So Fast It Makes Colors Get Airsick” Dash on foot, you might as well give her a glow-in-the-dark Tron suit too
    • Rainbow Dash as Zapp, which I’m adding an extra P to because if I can’t hit that bulls-eye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards.
    • Rarity as R-R-Radiance (ya little Casanova, Spike)
    • Applejack as Mistress Marevelous/The Red Spy
    • and Fluttershy as the Saddle Rager, which is either a passable name for an Incredible Hulk stand-in or the craziest party of the year at Canterlot U.

    I had six different potential captions for this image that I decided not to use. The first four were fart jokes. The other two were also fart jokes. Nothing but class in this followup, folks.

    This intro scene was probably very familiar to a lot of people in light of the Season 4 storyboard previews at SDCC, and I gotta say: the finished product lived up to the hype. The costumes for the Mane 6 all look awesome, and the added detail of each pony’s cutie mark on their cufflinks was a nice touch. And lest we forget the Mane-iac… here’s the Mane-iac.

    See? Told you we wouldn’t forget her.

    This devilishly deranged dame of destruction (holy alliteration, Batmare!) was voiced by Ellen Kennedy, and boy did she do a great job with her. You can see and hear allusions to classic psychopaths like Doctor Octopus and the Joker in her mannerisms and speech patterns, but she still maintains a level of originality and just enough evil charm to be entertaining in her own right.

    >yfw horse hair puns spoken directly to the camera

    And as if things weren’t already New York-y enough up in here, the first thing the Mane-iac chucks at our heroes is an innocent pretzel stand. (Eyewitnesses reported that she… relished the opportunity. I’m not sorry.) Unfortunately, the Mane 6’s retaliation doesn’t go exactly as planned, although it does involve some pretty sweet moves from Filli-Second.

    “I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? motorcycles? Party animals?”

    As a whole, though, the Mane 6 struggle with their new powers at first, which is a narrative move that honestly wasn’t hard to see coming. I wouldn’t call it lazy, per se; after all, it would’ve been a heck of a stretch (well, debatably not in Twilight’s case) for everypony to immediately adapt to being superheroes quickly enough to hold their own against a capital-V Comic Book Villain, and a predictable story is often forgivable if paired with tight plotting and solid characters. At the very least, most of the Mane 6 at least make a valiant effort to keep the peace and fight for truth, justice, and the Equestrian way.

    And then there’s Rarity.

    Also, Edna totally warned you about this, Spike.

    Thankfully, Applejack, being objectively best horse, is able to get everything under control again, giving the Power Ponies a chance to regroup.

    It helps when it’s your week to hold the “Physics? What Physics?” Ball.

    A brief power-testing session and chunk of exposition from Spike later, it’s determined that the only way they’re going to get back to Equestria is to complete the comic book themselves by taking on the roles of the Power Ponies, with Spike unfortunately being saddled (it’s funny because he’s the only one who isn’t a horse) with the less-than-heroic sidekick Humdrum as his alter ego.

    This scene in particular is why I think this episode’s central conceit still works despite having been touched on previous episodes: the Mane 6 make no secret of the fact that they consider Spike a valuable asset to the team, but right now he still lacks the self-confidence to truly believe it, especially when even his fantasy world has apparently decided he’s meant to be useless. There’s a gap between how Spike’s friends see him and how Spike sees himself, and it isn’t bridged simply by everybody being honest about their feelings. There are layers to Spike. He’s like an ogre.

    What I’m trying to say is that he should’ve checked himself before he Shreked himself.

    We then cut to the outside of the Mane-iac’s hideout, a shampoo factory with a noir-lite neon sign on top of it. This was actually one of my favorite little details of the episode, not only because of the cool design and callout to a couple tropes about the seedy underbellies of comic book cities, but also because it provides yet another conflicting piece of evidence for precisely what level of technology Equestria lays claim to. Neon lighting of that style points towards a mid-20th century time frame, which would certainly match the style of comic book this episode is a clear homage to. With that being said, we can’t necessarily assume that Maretropolis isn’t a stylized representation of Equestria within the Equestrian universe, and furthermore, uh… y’know, there’s, um…

    Yeah, that’s enough of that. Time to blow s[yay]t up.

    The Power Ponies proceed to do battle with the Mane-iac’s army of hairdresser henchponies, which is probably the most PC way I could possibly phrase that scenario.

    “The rules are: no touching of the hair or face… and that’s it!”

    With a little more experience under their belt, the Mane 6 are able to dispatch their opponents through keen strategy and offensive attacks.

    And then there’s Rarity.

    Unfortunately, the Mane-iac herself—along with her “Hairspray Ray of Doom”—prove to be a little too much for the new Power Ponies to handle, and heading into the third act, Spike is the only one left standing. He would’ve been sprayed full of starchy goodness too, but the Mane-iac laughed him off as a credible threat, thus violating one of the three critical rules of successful arch-villainy: don’t piss off the sidekick with nothing to lose.

    The other two are “Keep the victory monologue to fifteen seconds or less” and “try not to kill anyone’s parents”.

    Left with no other options, Spike infiltrates the Mane-iac’s hideout and looks for a way to rescue his friends, whom he’s still convinced are more useful than him inside and outside Maretropolis.

    “Come out to Maretropolis, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…”

    Seriously, though, props to the Mane-iac for actually covering all the bases and keeping the Power Ponies on lockdown.

    On that note, props to Twilight and co. as well for saying pretty much the same thing about Spike they’ve been saying the whole time, but at the right moment for it to finally get through to him. It’s a simple but solid moral that almost seems like a followup in itself to last week’s episode. Once he isn’t fixated on his weaknesses, Spike is able to focus on his strengths and save the day.

    A phrase which here means, “take out half the henchponies in one shot, zipline across the room, and boot a dude’s teeth down into his intestines.”

    Spike provides enough of a distraction for the Mane 6 to recover from the Hairspray Ray, and from that point on the whole room is grass and the Power Ponies are big ol’ John Deeres.

    And then there’s Rarity.

    There’s a look a pony gets where he realizes he’s in the wrong line of work, and Henchpony Clone Charlie-Foxtrot-Two-Niner down there is providing a textbook example.

    But although the battle is being handily won by five of the Power Ponies, the war with the Mane-iac can’t end until two very important things happen:

    1. We get another Wilhelm scream, because oh why not.
    2. Fluttershy shows off her superpower.

    And when an errant firefly goes down in the heat of battle, it is a line that can’t be uncrossed, a bell that can’t be unrung, an affront to ponykind incalculably worse than the hundreds of working-class ponies being beaten into marshmallowy pulps all around her. You want to see it. I want to relive it. Ladies and gentlemen, I present in you in living color: Flutterhulk.

    You’re welcome.

    Message to: Mane-iac, re: That Teensy Little Harmless Firefly





    Cordially yours, Fluttershy.

    After demonstrating her more assertive side and shrugging off a death ray blast to the face, Fluttershy defeats the Mane-iac, which means Spike and the Mane 6 have finally fulfilled the requirements laid out by the comic book. The whole group is zapped back to Equestria, and the Mane-iac is left behind in a—dare I say—hairy situation.

    Still not sorry.

    The episode then concludes on a summation of the lesson from earlier, the revelation that names in Equestria are always to be taken very literally, everypony goes home happy and healthy, and…

    … that happened. Guess it’s just another bit of magic ain’t nobody gotta explain. Or at least, not just yet.

    And that’s all she (technically, all three “shes”, I suppose) wrote. Episodes that focus on minor character like Spike and the CMC can be few and far between in FiM, and they’re always a tricky tightrope to walk for whatever writer is brave—or foolhardy—enough to take one on. Spike in particular is often the butt of some level of cosmic joke even when an episode does focus on him, so to see Meghan, Charlotte, Betsy not only sidestep that trend but directly acknowledge it within the episode is a pretty big shift in tone for the little guy. It’s probably overly optimistic to hope that this foreshadows a more active role for Spike during the coming season, but then again, I never expected the premiere to seemingly write out the Elements of Harmony and tease a season-long story arc.

    If there’s one thing this season has proven so far, it’s that the writing and directing staff are willing to start taking risks with how each episode is constructed. Of course, a lot of people would probably disagree with me on that point after Flight To The Finish’s non-answer on the status of Scootaloo’s wings, but that’s not really the kind of risk I’m talking about. An innumerable quantity of shows have tried to push the envelope before they were ready, and taking that large of a jump with such a delicate subject as permanent physical disability would’ve had a narrow window of potential success and a whole lot of ways to miss it entirely. Taking baby steps away from the established formula by no means guarantees that the showrunners intend to drop any bombs like that on us someday, but it does show that they’ve grown comfortable enough with their positions and their level of creative control that they’re willing to start branching out from previously established standards: not talking about Scootaloo’s wings at all, never letting Spike acknowledge his perceived role, depending on the Princesses to oversee the Mane 6’s actions instead of giving them the autonomy to deal with things all by themselves… you get the picture.

    Naturally, this is all subjective and should be considered pure speculation, but for what it’s worth, this episode just further convinced me that the writers not only have big plans for Season 4, but that they know how to execute on them too. Until we know for sure, I’ll remain optimistic.

    And that’s all I have to say about that. When you talk about me in the comments, leave my mother out of it. She’s a saint.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    ~ Aqua