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ben in a spacesuit Image: Cartoon Network

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Ben 10 Versus the Universe: The Movie works even if you haven’t kept up with the show

Art styles may change, but Ben Tennyson is still the same plucky hero

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

If there is one constant in the world of Cartoon Network, it’s Ben 10.

There has been some form of Ben 10 airing on the channel for the past 15 years. That might not seem odd when you consider shows like SpongeBob Squarepants on Nickelodeon, which turned 20 last year. But Ben 10 — a far more plot-driven cartoon — hasn’t existed as the same show. The first series, which ran for three years starting in 2005, spun off into a direct sequel with teenage characters— which itself got two more sequels, and then a soft reboot in 2016. It is currently Cartoon Network’s longest running franchise to date, fully bridging the mid-2000s anime-influenced style to the softer, rounder “Cal-Arts” style of the current era.

The first series followed ten-year-old Ben Tennyson and his cousin Gwen, as they road tripped across the U.S. one summer with their grandfather. Ben discovers an alien watch which allows him to transform into a variety of alien creatures — cue intergalactic battles and hijinks, as they save the world repeatedly from aliens. Each subsequent series has expanded upon the threats, grown Ben’s own abilities (and past a certain point, Gwen’s too), and seen the characters grow up, but in the latest series, Ben is 10 again.

Gwen, Ben, and Kevin as teenagers in Ultimate Alien
Gwen, Ben, and Kevin as teenagers in Ultimate Alien
Image: Cartoon Network

The new movie, Ben 10 Versus the Universe: The Movie, is based on new young Ben. But if you haven’t watched Ben 10 since his early days or if the last time you tuned in was when his cousin Gwen went off to college in Ben 10: Omniverse, don’t worry. You don’t have much lore to catch up on. The main elements of Ben 10 remain the same across series, art-style, and time, so Ben 10 Versus the Universe: The Movie is a fun flashback even for those who haven’t kept up with the show.

Ben 10 Versus the Universe: The Movie starts off with Ben in mid-battle. But instead of jumping to save the day, he’s kinda bored with the routine villains and beating them so quickly. A lot of the humor of Ben 10 has always been based on the fact that Ben is, well, a ten year-old boy, who’s excited about having superpowers. At the beginning of this movie, Ben treats heroic encounters as just another humdrum responsibility, which makes for the hilarious juxtaposition of his blase attitude and the high-stakes action.

But luckily for Ben — though perhaps unluckily for literally everyone else in the world — a mysterious asteroid is on a collision path with Earth. Finally, a challenge worth his time! Of course, things aren’t as they seem and Ben finds himself facing old enemies, while Gwen and the others back on Earth try to save the planet.

Image: Cartoon Network

Ben shares the same sort of fizzy soda-pop, dynamic energy that has driven previous iterations of the hero, especially in his younger years, though perhaps taken up to 11 (ha). The other characters — snarky cousin Gwen, stalwart Grandpa, and bad boy Kevin — share similarities with their previous iterations, though they perhaps lean a little more comedically. This is particularly true of Kevin, who in the original series becomes one of Ben’s most notable enemies and the main antagonist of the second season. He’s not exactly friendly in Ben 10 Versus the Universe: The Movie, but his character is more comedic, coming off as an over-dramatic pre-teen. It fits in with the even more high-energy Ben, which in turn fit the more exaggerated animation style.

The animation style may have shifted from the angular style of the mid-2000s to the rounder style of today, but the fight scenes are just as exciting as ever. It’s all bright colors and multiple transformation sequences, as Ben’s body shifts between alien-forms. They’re all endowed with different, unique powers: Diamondhead is made of crystals and can generate projectiles and structures, while Cannonbolt can roll into a giant ball and steamroll over enemies. It’s still just as exciting to see the aliens in action. One of the strengths of Ben 10’s action scenes have always been how varied they are, thanks in part to the ever-growing roster of aliens at Ben’s disposal. Ben 10 Versus the Universe: The Movie is no exception.

Like most hero-kid narratives, Ben 10 Versus the Universe: The Movie eventually leans on Ben learning how to use his powers better and to perhaps not be as hot-headed and reactive. It’s a rite of passage, though to anyone who’s already seen Ben come to this epiphany several times across the years, it perhaps might not hit as hard. But, then again, the current series isn’t for people who grew up with the show but rather a whole new generation tuning in to Ben’s adventures.

Ben 10 Versus the Universe: The Movie airs on Cartoon Network on Oct. 10 at 10 am EDT.