It started when an alien device did what it did... and the rest is history.
Ever since the Ominitrix, a watch-like device that allows its wearer to transform into different alien species, attached itself to the wrist of young Ben Tennyson back in 2005, Cartoon Network has enjoyed a steady stream of Ben 10 programming — from animated reboots to live-action films to comics. The beloved sci-fi series (from the creative group known as Man of Action) is characterized by an unexpected resilience that will once again reach a crescendo in Ben 10 Versus the Universe: The Movie. Hitting the airwaves this weekend, the feature-length project involves the return of the power-hungry and tentacle-faced cosmic warlord known as Vilgax (voiced by Yuri Lowenthal).
"Vilgax is coming back and we wanted to really make that a bigger deal than just maybe an episode or two. It’s a big story, so we definitely wanted to highlight that with a movie," showrunner/director Will Patrick tells SYFY WIRE. "A lot of [it] came from Man of Action, so they wrote up the outlines. Like we usually do, we handed them out to the storyboard teams and they put their own flavor to it and added their own jokes and personality. This is a little bit different than your typical episode because they all had to work together and coordinate. It was just trying to make it live up to the idea."
Patrick, who took over showrunner duties from John Fang, was responsible for "keeping the wheels in motion — coordinating people, making sure that everybody was on the same page, that was a lot of what I did," he explains. "I injected my own ideas into the story. If I felt something wasn’t working or some continuity in the story wasn’t working, I was responsible for going in and fixing that. I had a lot to do with bringing the music together and overseeing the editing, so I’m sort of the guy that is there for every process, every step of the way."
One of his biggest contributions to the project was suggesting that the narrative include the Omnitrix's creator, Azmuth (David Kaye). The character's DNA is what allows Ben (Tara Strong) to transform into the pint-sized alien known as Gray Matter. "I like grumpy Azmuth, who doesn’t really care for Ben too much at first. Azmuth is one of my favorite characters from the original series, so he was very personal to me," Patrick admits.
In the movie, Azmuth becomes a Yoda-like mentor to Ben when it comes to utilizing the watch's full capabilities and secrets. However, Patrick wouldn't immediately compare the grizzled and tiny inventor to the in-exile Jedi Master living on Dagobah.
"You kind of can’t get away from Yoda, but we were trying to make him distinguishable from Yoda," he adds. "Yoda is more committed to training Luke as a Jedi [whereas] Azmuth has his own motivations, which set him apart. He wants the Omnitrix, he’s just trying to do what’s best for the galaxy, and at first, he thinks what’s best is taking the Omnitrix away from Ben. I think that separates the characters."
As Ben unwittingly heads off for an unplanned adventure in space, his cousin Gwen (Montse Hernandez), Grandpa Max (also voiced by Kaye), and Max's science-savvy friend Phil (John DiMaggio) must try and thwart Vilgax's takeover of Earth. Their only hope rests in the hands of Ben's upstart rival, Kevin Levin (Greg Cipes), aka inventor of the Antitrix (a sort of Bizarro version of the Omnitrix).
"We’ve always tried to set up that if Kevin would just get out of his own way, he would make a valuable member to the Tennyson team," Patrick says. "But he can’t seem to get over that mental hump. I think it was only natural for him... when the Earth is actually in danger and Ben is gone and that rivalry is gone, it’s natural for him to step into those shoes and take the helm."
Unlike some crew members (like Fang) who date back to the very first iteration of the show in the mid-2000s, Patrick hopped aboard the Ben 10 train as a storyboard artist for Season 1 of the latest reboot, which first debuted in 2016. Upon joining the project, he did his due diligence by watching the entire series in all its forms and was instantly a fan.
"I was like, ‘This show has a lot to it.’ I can relate to it because I grew up reading superhero comics, the same way Man of Action did and John did. I can really relate to where they’re coming from and their inspirations. Ben’s middle name is Kirby and I can understand that reference," he continues.
Working under Fang, who boarded the second episode of the original series, Patrick learned that a showrunner needs to keep his calm, even in a potential crisis. "John really mentored me a lot and I cannot thank him enough for that," Patrick says. "He’s maybe the most unflappable man I’ve ever met. We would have crises on the show and we’d go to John and say, ‘John, they all need helmets! Every single shot, they need helmets!’ And John’s just like, ‘...all right! Well, let’s put helmets on them.’ I think that emotional stability is really important in leadership, so I try to live up to that from John."
When we ask about why the property has endured for so long, he answers: "I think it’s a simple premise that you can get your head around pretty quickly. I think the characters are just fun to watch [as] they bounce off each other," he explains. "Ben’s got a lot of personality alongside these cool powers that he got. And I also think the show’s always been about family. There’s something really to be said for that, that Ben, on his own, is a lot weaker than when he has his grandpa and Gwen and Kevin, to some extent, next to him. I think it’s also about the importance of family."
Fans of the OG Ben 10 will notice that the current version adopts an almost Gravity Falls-ish art style that belies its lighter tone. "This one was definitely trying to do a lot more humor, while keeping the action intact and keeping the interesting ideas and aliens. I know our show is 11 minutes, whereas the originals were all 22, so that meant that our show is a lot more fast-paced than the older show, for better or worse," Patrick explains. "Tonally, I think it’s different in that way. We also tried to make Ben and Gwen have a slightly different dynamic, in that they’re more in this together, whereas in the old show, they started out fighting a lot more. We were trying to ease up on the bickering."
And don't worry, the movie isn't the end of the line for Ben, Gwen, and Grandpa Max. "The summer’s not over, so there’ll be more adventures to be had with Ben. That’s about all I can say for now," Patrick teases.
Ben 10 Versus the Universe: The Movie premieres on Cartoon Network on Saturday, Oct. 10 (get it?) at 10 p.m. EST.