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"Ultimate Avengers the Movie": Animated Superheroes Grow Up

Fringe projects like the Heavy Metal films aside, mainstream American animation has rarely dared challenge the PG barrier. In a sign that the anime revolution may have at last reached our shores, Ultimate Avengers the Movie boldly tests PG-13 waters with an exciting, intelligent adventure aimed squarely at adult viewers.

Strike a poseI can’t tell you how refreshing it is to watch American action animation that does not break out into a nervous sweat every few minutes at the thought that somewhere a five year old might be uneasy or confused. Ultimate Avengers creates a world as close to reality as possible with super-powered individuals parading around in brightly colored leotards. It does mysteriously shy away from nudity and blood, but doesn’t flinch at numerous deaths, including a glimpse of a woman being burned alive.

Coming from the creative minds behind Spiderman the Animated Series and X-Men Evolution, the film is based on Marvel’s famed all-star superhero team that Stan Lee began with core members Thor, Iron Man, Wasp, Ant/Giant Man, and Captain America in the 60s. This particular version comes straight from the very popular 2002 Ultimates miniseries, which re-imagined some aspects of the franchise. Notably S.H.I.E.L.D. chief Nick Fury is black, Wasp apparently Asian, and Thor a binge drinking hippie. Disappointingly Avengers regular Hawkeye did not make the cut. The abbreviated Ultimates origin story is solid if conventional, hampered only by a very short running time and a slightly anticlimactic ending battle that comes out of left field.

In the closing days of WWII Captain America is seemingly killed defeating a sinister Nazi scheme. Cut to present day and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents find Cap’s body encased in arctic ice, still very much alive thanks to the experimental Super Soldier serum that made him America’s greatest soldier. Fury is directing an effort to replicate the serum so he can create elite troops to counter the growing threat of the alien race Chitauri, who strike out at power facilities from hidden bases. Dr. Bruce Banner hopes Cap’s DNA will give him the clues he needs, and that the serum will enable him to harness the destructive power of his alter ego the Hulk for good.

When research efforts stall, Fury is compelled to establish a team of already super-powered heroes: the Avengers. Joining leader Cap are Thor, Giant Man, Wasp, Black Widow and Iron Man, not all of them eagerly. While dealing with less than optimal chemistry the team sets out to rid the earth of the Chitauri once and for all.

I said UP, Giant Man.  You're losing the picture!These very familiar characters are all pretty much what Marvel fans would expect. Cap’s a cheery idealist, Fury a gruff taskmaster, Black Widow a sultry seductress, Iron Man a cocky playboy, Giant Man a short-tempered jerk, Wasp a loving wife, Banner a repressed basket case, and Thor a jovial crusader. Cap and Banner are the only ones who get much development, the former struggling with the loss of the world he knew and the latter longing to calm the beast within so he can make a fresh start with ex-lover and fellow scientist Betty Ross.

The voice cast is excellent across the board with two minor exceptions: Cap’s very youthful delivery lacks the air of authority one would expect from a great leader, and Black Widow’s Russian accent is a little over the top.

It is a little curious that in the current political climate Captain America, Mr. Apple Pie himself, takes orders from S.H.I.E.L.D., which in turn gets its authority from the United Nations. It’s a welcome dose of internationalism in these increasingly isolationist times. More uncomfortably Thor’s brand of aggressive ecological activism might be enough to get him labeled a “person of interest.”

Ultimate Avengers contains the best superhero action I’ve ever seen outside of a comic book, even trumping live action flicks like Spiderman 2 and X2. The climactic fight with the Chitauri brings the house down with complete mayhem: Fury and Widow slinging lead, Cap bashing heads in, and Thor summoning lightning strikes. In a truly sublime sequence Iron Man pitches an unfortunate Chitauri to an overpass-wielding Giant Man, who smacks a line drive right through a Chitauri warship.

God you're uglyJust when I thought American action animation’s best days were behind it Marvel scores a glorious 2D slam dunk so smooth and realistic it could almost be live action. Not even Batman ever looked this good. On the other hand, the film’s few CGI elements are curiously basic and awkward.

The film gets a rousing orchestral score that would be at home in the Superman films, although it is nothing quite so memorable.

The special features are a modest affair, but not too bad for a DTV. Still, couldn’t we get some bonus episodes of past series like on the Spiderman discs, or at least a making of featurette and an art gallery to compensate for the film’s brevity?

The best extra is probably the trivia subtitle track that pops up frequently with detailed background info. Hardcore Marvel fans and anyone who’s passed sixth grade history will probably know most of this stuff, but it’s still a nice resource. “Avengers Assemble!” may interest diehard comics fans with detailed commentary on the series from the creative staff, including longtime artist George Perez. Personally I wanted to hear more about the early years of the series and how the characters and art style changed over time. Then there’s a sad parade of fans’ video auditions for Marvel’s open casting call. Hilariously Marvel rejected all of them. There’s also a brief quiz that tells you which Avenger matches your personality. If you have to know it was Vision.

Finally there’s a sneak peek at storyboards from the upcoming Ultimate Avengers sequel. It appears Black Panther will be featured prominently, and there’ll be a little more time to develop some of the other characters. I can’t wait.

Ultimate Avengers the Movie is far better than any DTV has a right to be and is a must for Marvel fans. Anyone with a soft spot for superheroes should have a good time, even if puberty is well behind you. Although come on Marvel, 68 minutes is an infomercial. Tack on another half hour and it’d be a real classic. What number do I call to order the never-tear Hulk jeans again?

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