Released: 14th February 2000
Writers: Claus Norreen / Søren Rasted
Peak position: #7
Chart run: 7-10-17-20-32-42-55-63-64-X-X-75-73
In years to come, the early part of the century will unquestionably be defined – in part, at least – by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The superhero genre has become one of the most reliably bankable in the movie industry. But often overlooked in the success story is the role that Aqua played in kickstarting the movement. Back in 2000, long before Robert Downey Jr. donned his Iron Man suit, the Danish group released Cartoon Heroes and brought several comic book icons to the mainstream.
Aqua were no strangers to basing a pop song around a concept, but this single was a slightly different prospect. As the first release from their second album, it was also the first to be composed with a knowledge of what had worked so well commercially beforehand. There was a sense then that Cartoon Heroes was a somewhat calculated move, which immersed itself in the world that it created with an impressively similar level of detail to that seen in Barbie Girl and Doctor Jones. But even if Aqua were working to a brief, they still managed to bring a level of imagination and passion to their work that was rarely matched.
The slight issue here is that the group’s subject matter wasn’t quite so mainstream as it is now. Back in 2000, superheroes and comic books were still perceived as a relatively niche, nerdy pastime. It’s also a vast genre featuring countless characters – and potential copyright claims – thus, Cartoon Heroes isn’t ever able to commit quite as fully as you suspect it might want to. Nonetheless, it does manage to squeeze in a few recognisable names: “Here comes Spider-Man, an arachnophobian / Here comes Superman from never-never land”. There’s no doubt, however, that were the track to be written today, it could delve more extensively into characterisation. In that sense, where Cartoon Heroes best succeeds is in its examination of the creation of comic books themselves. Lyrics like: “All dots and lines that speak and say, what we do is what you wish to do” and: “We came out of a crazy mind, uh-woah, and walked out on a PIECE of paper” feel just that little bit smarter and stop the track from veering totally into the realm of music that sounds like it was written for young children, which is not what Aqua were about.
Yet, evidently, the group still felt a sense of social responsibility, because Cartoon Heroes is granted a hook that feels curiously defeatist. Pop music – and comic books – are all about empowerment, imagination and aspiration. Therefore, the line: “What we do is what you just can’t do” is a weird assertion – however true it may be – to make, even more, the fact that it’s repeated so many times. It puts Aqua in a position where, rather than push the realms of possibility, they’re setting boundaries and creating a hierarchical distance between themselves and the audience.
Luckily, there’s a significant juxtaposition between what the group are singing and how it sounds. Cartoon Heroes is a HUGE pop song; it sounds bigger and bolder than anything they’d released before and yet is still very distinctively an Aqua single. That much is evident from the pounding drums in the intro alone. The track goes for a slow build (well, as slow as the group were ever going to be capable of) and gradually grows into an orchestral-dance beast. Every inch of the production is so perfectly pitched to make the statement that Aqua were back. The hooks are strong, the chorus is utterly euphoric, and as a pop package, it sounds absolutely epic.
That same principle is similarly extended to the music video for Cartoon Heroes. Unlike Aqua’s first album where their videos were clearly a decent investment but styled to look kitsch and naff, this one makes no qualms about flaunting its sizeable budget at every opportunity: Giant one-eyed octopus terrorising a city? Sure. The group floating in an anti-gravity chamber? Why the hell not. A flight vessel that can also go underwater? Heck, yes. Aqua deserved a video like this after selling 16 million albums in just nine months and establishing themselves as one of the biggest pop acts on the planet. It felt like recognition of their achievement, but it’s also a huge shift in visual tone for the group, and at times it was perhaps a bit too drastic. While you couldn’t ever accuse Cartoon Heroes of having a ‘serious’ concept, the humour does feel a little more adult; at one point Renéis seen reading a copy of ‘Playalien’ featuring a topless cover star with four – very visible – breasts. The main problem here, though, is that once the action moves underwater, the video oddly becomes rather dull and murky. The group do battle with the rampaging octopus, but you can’t see what’s happening, so muted is the colour-palette. It’s a far cry from the bright, vivid aesthetic associated with Aqua and – to a certain extent – misrepresented what they had become, however impressive a set-piece it is.
Cartoon Heroes peaked at #7 in the UK, and that was a problem for Aqua. Sure, it was an improvement on Good Morning Sunshine, but when you have to compare the first single from a new album with the fifth single from the last one to find a positive commercial trend, then there’s an issue. And it wasn’t anything Aqua had done. The group had proudly embraced their larger-than-life, cartoony brand of pop music; they made no apologies for it, and they were bloody good at what they did. But the charts had grown up a little bit – certainly more than Aqua had any intention of doing – and so while Cartoon Heroes is a tremendous pop song, it was suddenly hard to place where its market was. That was most definitely reflected in its commercial performance. The single wasn’t a flop by any means – indeed it spent more time in the Top 75 than Turn Back Time – but it flew under the radar, which wasn’t quite what Aqua needed from a track that was launching their second album.
Perhaps then, it is best not to judge Cartoon Heroes by its immediate impact, but the lasting legacy it left in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which would (possibly) never have existed were it not for the genius of Aqua.