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"Ultimate Avengers 2": Redundancies Assemble!

The first Ultimate Avengers DTV film represented a big step in the right direction for Marvel Comics animation. Not only were the smooth animation and thrilling fights perhaps the best the Marvel universe has ever enjoyed, but at a time when rival DC’s superhero cartoons are skewing younger and younger UA endeavored to appeal across a wide age spectrum. However, that trail having been blazed, Ultimate Avengers 2 is a little too content to preserve the status quo.

Yellow??  YechThe film feels a bit like a B-side to the UA single. It slavishly adheres to the same structure, but doesn’t manage to hit the same highs. The generic alien threat and character conflicts are largely recycled, only there are no money scenes that compare to the WWII assault and Hulk’s rampage. Character development remains limited, and while the first film belonged to huge stars Captain America and Hulk, this one is less focused. The introduction of Black Panther is interesting, but when the story centers on his somewhat cartoony African homeland Wakanda an unfortunate Superfriends vibe creeps in. There is one strong emotional moment, but it feels like an afterthought in the busy climax.

Despite the Avengers’ victory over the Chitauri in Ultimate Avengers, the aliens remain a serious threat. When his father is murdered by Chitauri leader Kleiser, young T’Challa becomes king of the isolationist Wakanda. He also inherits the mantle of Black Panther, costumed protector of his people. Elsewhere the Avengers are much as we left them: the marriage between the Pyms (Wasp and Giant Man) continues to sour and Cap, tormented by painful memories, becomes a death defying workaholic. An imprisoned Bruce Banner is subjected to unending psychoanalysis of his out-of-control Hulk rampage, and Thor is troubled by a premonition of his teammates’ deaths.

Having been reluctantly contacted in secret by Black Panther, the Avengers travel to Wakanda, where they receive a violently cold welcome from the wary residents. Black Panther tells Cap that the Chitauri have long coveted Wakanda’s massive deposit of vibranium, which the aliens and Wakandans both use to build powerful weapons. Meanwhile a massive Chitauri mothership approaches Earth.

Nice kittyBlack Panther is portrayed as proud and independent, befitting the character’s creation during the 60s heyday of the civil rights movement. His head has apparently developed the ability to transform into that of an actual panther, which is a new one to me. Romance seems to be in the cards for Cap and Black Widow, though I don’t know long he’ll be able to put up with her grating accent. Iron Man’s suit is revealed to provide support for his weak heart, and there’s a neat look at his huge arsenal of suit designs. Thor gets berated by father Odin for helping the ungrateful humans, but his disapproval doesn’t seem to carry any consequences.

Disappointingly Hulk is confined to a small cameo, while Banner’s relationship with Betsy Ross remains shaky. Again we don’t actually see any domestic violence between the Pyms, although Janet does joke about shooting Hank.

If the cast has a weak spot, it’s definitely the villains. The Chitauri are terribly generic and dull, and even Kleiser is just a garden-variety maniacal villain. In the previous film he assumed the guise of a Nazi officer as a cover during WWII, but inexplicably he keeps it up in the present day. I suppose it makes him look more “evil,” or he’s just attached to the color scheme. I strongly hope that if there is a third film we will finally get to see some proper supervillains such as Kang the Conqueror, Doctor Doom, and Ultron.

Black Widow making widowsNone of the set pieces in Ultimate Avengers 2 are real standouts, although the bloody fight in which T’Challa’s father is killed is quite intense and fans will appreciate the brief confrontation between Cap and the HYDRA agents. There’s some silliness with Wakandans beating the Avengers Ewok style, and further scuffles with the tediously invulnerable Kleiser.

Though the scale of the climactic battle is impressive, it doesn’t match the urgency or excitement of the attack on S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ in the first feature. The siege of the Wakandan fortress recalls Return of the King, while the tall spider-like Chitauri war machines that terrorize various capitals seem directly inspired by War of the Worlds.

The animation quality is nearly identical to the first film, very solid if not breathtaking. I found myself again wishing the art design was a little more imaginative, as the Chitauri forces are represented by green blobs of various shapes and the Wakandan fortress appears to have been lifted from Thundercats.

The extras kick off with an excellent featurette on The Ultimates comic series, in which writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch speak on its creation and intentions. They talk about concerns such as making the costumes appear more functional and the violence palpably real. There’s an amusing anecdote about how Cap’s crack about France’s willingness to surrender caused a brouhaha among French fans. Ultimate Avengers executive producer Eric Rollman says Marvel wanted to make the animated adaptation in traditional 2D because it allows the characters to be more expressive, and I heartily agree with his decision.

Giant Man's marriage is giving him a headacheNext the bland “What Avenger Are You” DVD-ROM “game” makes an unwarranted repeat appearance, and then we get a gag reel full of very lame jokes using substituted dialogue possibly written by 10-year-olds. I did laugh at Cap getting a crudely scribbled love letter from Hulk, and was puzzled by Iron Man’s constant references to his rib restaurant (!).

Finally we get to the good stuff, brief glimpses of the upcoming Iron Man and Dr. Strange animated films. Iron Man will reportedly use CGI for the suit, and the story is said to be a battle between technology and mysticism. Those two details have me a little nervous, but otherwise the footage looks great.

As magic doesn’t much interest me, neither does Dr. Strange and I’m not really sure why Marvel is even bothering with this lesser known character. Still, the animation looks very nice and spooky.

Those who loved the first film should also enjoy Ultimate Avengers 2, but don’t expect it to cover any new ground. I fear the franchise has already begun to stagnate and could use a good shot in the arm. The Ultimate Ultimate Avengers? Ultimate Avengers Z? Ultimate Avengaz? Heck, anything with Tigra in a starring role.

The new direct-to-video feature is due out Aug. 8.

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