MLP:FiM Episode Reviews: Character and Story Analysis by Half the Battle

Previous: Flight to the Finish Power Ponies Next: Bats!

Episode 71: "Power Ponies"

Aired 12/21/2013, written by Meghan McCarthy (her fourteenth episode),
Charlotte Fullerton (her seventh), & Betsy McGowen (her first)

    Storyline:
  • Intro: Spike's enthusiasm for a new comic book persuades Twilight Sparkle to grant a brief reprieve from his bedtime.
  • Act 1: While the ponies work to restore the old castle, Spike finds a message in his comic book. A closer look at the message causes him and the Mane Six to be sucked inside. They awaken in Maretropolis with the personas of the comic's heroes.
  • Act 2: The ponies' unfamiliarity with their comic superpowers allows the Mane-iac to escape. Spike guides them to the villain's hideout where they put up a better fight but are still captured. Spike himself isn't considered worth capturing.
  • Act 3: Spike infiltrates the enemy's factory and frees his friends, who quickly defeat the Mane-iac, allowing them to return home.

Character: It's been a long time since we've heard Spike referred to as a baby dragon, but he's still a child, and children are often left out of conversations and excluded from adult activities. Moreover, Spike is the only child to be part of Twilight's circle, since the Cutie Mark Crusaders are usually only featured in their own episodes. This leaves Spike in the position of tagalong, except when functioning in his role as Twilight's personal assistant in her featured episodes. Nevertheless, he's usually at least present; there are really only one or two cases each season where Spike has been totally left out of the Mane Six's adventures, though one was the very recent episode Daring Don't.

He's had his moments, but as a result of his day-by-day junior status, Spike naturally feels like he doesn't contribute, and seeing himself in the Hum Drum character doesn't help matters. Spike is introjecting the uselessness of a bumbling comic relief character into himself and thereby undervaluing his place on the team. In fact, it was Spike who brought Twilight out of the dumps and inspired her solution in Magical Mystery Cure, who guided her through her mirror mission in Equestria Girls, who found the others and brought them to her rescue in this season's premiere, and who (unwittingly) uncovered the journal in Castle Mane-ia. And generally speaking, whenever Twilight isn't thinking right, Spike is there trying to get her attitude back on the right path.

In short, Spike's youth justifies his conundrum, but his recent treatment in the series justifies Twilight's insistence that he really is useful and a reliable member of the team. And to anyone paying attention during this episode, with the exception of one cape-trip, Spike is really competent here and is the only character in his element. The Mane Six would be lost in Maretropolis without his exposition, which is consistently rapid, concise, and helpful. Long before he saves the day, he's using his natural talent of guidance to help his friends on their mission and ultimately bring them home.

I like how Twilight smiles as she listens to Spike describe the comic in the cold open; she's motherly in the best way throughout that scene. In the next scene, though, she's a bit insensitive. Her tone is gentle, but Spike obviously wants to help and it really does look like there's plenty of work to do. Does she not remember how she felt during her first Winter Wrap Up? It's a believable slip, but I think an apology was in order and we never got one.

It's realistic that most of the characters take some time to figure out their abilities, even though they are (somewhat roughly) aligned with their talents. Pinkie is the exception, since she can already do just about anything as long as it's funny. One could argue that her inclusion of humor in every exercise of her powers assists her control. Twilight is actually one of the slowest learners here, which is an interesting inversion. It's almost as if she's been powered down. Applejack handles the down-to-earth combat naturally enough but isn't used to controlling anything magical. (This is also not the first time she's tied herself to something.) Dash is well-handled, particularly as her Attack! Attack! Attack! style outpaces her mastering of her weather powers. Fluttershy's hulking out is a magnfication of the inner-monster duality we've seen before in her; you may remember that her episode Putting Your Hoof Down included the subtle use of a soundalike to the closing tune of The Incredible Hulk TV series. Also, the thing that sets it off is a nice foreshadowing of her stance in the next episode. As for Rarity, turning her mental images into reality is already what she does for a living. Her superpower just makes the process instantaneous, and she adds her own class and style to all her creations.


Lesson: I take issue with Twilight's delivery of the lesson: "Just because we don't always need your help, it doesn't mean that we don't think you're helpful." How is Spike to know that the others think he's helpful? That's only evident if (1) they tell him so, and (2) they let him help. In the context of the castle scenes, I think it's not a matter of "needing" help. When a friend wants to help you, give you something, or love you in some other way, turning them down because it's not technically needed is hurtful and shows ingratitude. Within the scope of friendship (not necessarily employment or other formal contexts), the gracious thing is to find a way for the person to contribute. And it wouldn't hurt to remind Spike of the invaluable help he's given in the past, as noted above. From previous episodes we know that Spike is frequently in need of reminders about his value to Twilight and the others.

Twilight's words about Spike's reliability are wonderful, and they turn Spike around and motivate him to heroism. However, she doesn't know Spike's there to hear it. Words of explicit appreciation can really strengthen a relationship. Lack of the same leads to doubt and resentment. I believe the series as a whole needs more thank yous, especially toward Spike, Pinkie, and Fluttershy. And so while this episode offers some encouragement to viewers who share Spike's issue, it's really the others who have a lesson to learn, and it's not clear that they even realize it.


Logic: In line with my thoughts on Castle Mane-ia, it's nice to see a full restoration project underway. But I woud recommend fixing the roof and cleaning out large blocks of debris before scrubbing the walls and straightening pictures. Connections: A sequel of sorts to Castle Mane-ia. The team's trip down the "rabbit hole" with Pinkie gleefully following recalls A Dog and Pony Show, which also featured Spike as a hero and showcased Rarity's ability to handle herself.

 

Resonance: Growing up, I was that kid who was always picked last for teams in gym class. As an adult I'm usually the most cash-strapped of my circle and am not very good at socializing. So I really empathize with Spike in this episode. That makes the sad parts especially resonant for me, and the encouraging parts stir my heart that much more. Twilight's retort in defense of Spike just before the final action sequence is pitch-perfect in its delivery. I also noticed that the Mane-iac's dismissal of Spike results in Fluttershy's first fit of pique.

So that's the drama, but the fun of the episode is just as powerful. There are bucketloads of funny here, much of it delivered by the most delightfully insane villain the show has seen. I laughed at each of Pinkie's scrub-by interjections and the banana split to the face. Every second of Rarity's enjoying the use of her powers is simultaneously hilarious and awesome. Applejack impressed me at the midway point with her hoofarangs and other maneuvers, and the fight in the third act is a wonder to behold. Rainbow Dash is more in the background than I would have expected, but she has her moments as well.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: In the second and third acts it's obvious the creative team devoted all their energy to making this episode as cool as possible. The initial reception by most fans was extremely positive. A minority were a little overdosed on action and ready to settle back down into some slice-of-life episodes. It's been said that time and budget constraints led to the series having fewer adventure stories than originally envisioned, but the success of the show and the long hiatus after the third season allowed the writers to strike their preferred balance. Also, it's worth mentioning that with all the "action," there's still very little actual violence in the sense of even enemy characters getting hurt. Making fight scenes work that way requires creativity, and the creators pull it off without anything feeling forced.

Per co-director Jim Miller, the Power Ponies are indeed based on well-known comic superheroes. On Twitter, he linked the Masked Matterhorn with Cyclops (though with powers favoring ice), Fili-Second with the Flash, Zapp with Thor, Radiance with Green Lantern, Mistress Marevelous with Batman and Wonder Woman (and, I would add, a touch of Pecos Bill), Saddle Rager with the Hulk, and Hum Drum with Burt Ward's Robin.

This episode really blew me away when I first saw it. The entertainment value is immense, and the pacing is just right, giving both the comedic and dramatic sequences plenty of time to sink in. And I appreciate the writers' effort to make up for the neglect of Spike in earlier episodes. However, the fumbling of the lesson really hurts this episode on subsequent viewings. This could easily have been a superb entry in the series. One way to avoid the first-act problems would be to have Spike oversleep and miss his assigned task. We see the others ask, "Where's Spike?" and comment on how helpful he'd be if he were there. Twilight retrieves him but the work is done, and the fact that he missed out by his own doing sets up his self-pity for the rest of the show. But as the story stands, just a couple lines of encouragement in the first act and/or an apology at the end would still have made a huge difference.

(A quick note on the character appearances below: The first shot of Maretropolis includes a distant glimpse of eight ponies who appear more prominently in Rarity Takes Manehattan.)

In the end, I'm placing this a measure or two above Castle Mane-ia as an episode which, while flawed, mostly makes up for its flaws by its overall presentation and ends up (originally) in the lower portion of the Gold tier. (Later episodes ranked higher have since pushed this episode down into Iron territory.)

 

Power Ponies armor rating: Iron Mail
Ranked 20th of 26 season-four episodes
Ranked 120th of 161 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

Previous: Flight to the Finish Power Ponies Next: Bats!