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"Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow": The Kids are Alright

The Next AvengersIn 2005, Marvel Comics announced that The O.C. writer Allan Heinberg was going to write a comic book series titled Young Avengers. The general reaction alternated between laughter and derision from superhero comic book fans across the Internet, which only grew louder and harsher after sketchbook information and character names were made available. However, the final product made many of those fans more than happy to eat their words. While Young Avengers was respectful to the long history of Marvel’s superheroes, it managed to build on that history without ever feeling unduly beholden to it. In addition to being a high-octane blast of fun, it was not a book that you needed to do hours of research to understand, although there were plenty of in-jokes and references to please the sharp-eyed (or, maybe more accurately, the anal-retentive). Even though the monthly title has been on an extended hiatus since 2006 after only 12 issues, it is still one the best titles that Marvel has released in the past 10 years. Given that, it really shouldn’t be surprising that the direct-to-video movie Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow manages almost exactly the same feat for almost exactly the same reasons. Like Young Avengers, Next Avengers concerns itself with the next generation of superheroes, who may take their cues from their iconic forerunners but still manage to stake out their own unique ground.

Next Avengers is set in a dystopian future a dozen years ahead of current Marvel history (or as current as it can be, considering the ever-sliding time scale of the average franchise superhero comic). In this future, the megalomaniacal robot Ultron is busily conquering the world after having defeated the Avengers. The world’s last hope rests on the four young children of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, hidden away under the tutelage of an older Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man. James is the son of Captain America and the Black Widow, although he seems to have inherited neither parent’s sense of public service. Torunn claims to be the daughter of Thor, with her proof being her long blonde tresses and a magic sword only she can lift. The lithe Azari’s feline physicality and ability to manipulate lightning identify him as the son of the Black Panther and the weather-controlling mutant Storm (who goes unnamed and unseen, probably due to a rights issue). Finally, Pym is the pre-teen son of Hank Pym/Giant Man and Janet Van Dyne/the Wasp, inheriting his mother’s brown hair and shrinking ability. When an accident reveals their location, the kids are suddenly forced to live up to their superheroic legacy, seeking out new friends and allies while on the run from the murderous Ultron.

Torunn seeking to regain her faithOn the whole, the Marvel direct-to-video productions have been less successful than their DC counterparts, but Next Avengers goes a very long way toward reversing this trend. Don’t let the youthful heroes or the more cartoony designs fool you; Next Avengers definitely isn’t just for kids. It captures the fun, excitement, and humor of the best Marvel comics far better than any of the earlier direct-to-video movies. Right off the bat, the more exaggerated character designs do an excellent job in communicating character traits visually. Torunn’s massive physicality matches her blunt personality while Azari’s slim, agile build pairs nicely with his quick wit and ability to think on his feet. Like Young Avengers, Next Avengers manages to piggyback off the emotional resonance of Marvel’s iconic heroes with a cast that is clearly inspired by them, while ensuring that these new characters are distinctive and interesting purely on their own merits. The real breakout star of the cast is easily Torunn, whose arrogant assurance of her divinity is badly rattled by her encounters in the outside world. Her crisis of faith is genuinely interesting and touching, and it’s not hard to find yourself really rooting for her. The other characters certainly have journeys of their own, but none are quite as deep or as moving as Torunn’s. It also helps that the writers didn’t forget to bring along their sense of humor, as many of the other direct-to-videos did. Despite the high stakes, there are still plenty of sly and genuinely funny one-liners slipped into the script.

So how did you solve the frosting problem?Of course, Marvel superheroes made their reputations on matching emotional angst with slam-bang action, and in this latter department, Next Avengers does not disappoint. Each of the movie’s three acts are capped off with high-octane, large-scale action set pieces, with a healthy sprinkling of smaller battles filling out the rest of the movie. An early confrontation between Iron Man and Ultron packs teeth-rattling impact (aided greatly by the powerful subwoofer channel on the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack), and the final fight is a massive and thoroughly satisfying throwdown with Torunn providing a real emotional whopper to cap it off. The skill at character animation also extends to the fight sequences, and while Next Avengers doesn’t quite hit the heights of Justice League Unlimited or Avatar the Last Airbender in communicating character traits through fighting style, it still does an excellent job in making all the individual characters distinctive from the others when the fists, feet, and energy blasts start to fly.

It's OK, guys. We hate Pym, too.As enjoyable as Next Avengers is, it does suffer from a few non-trivial stumbling blocks. It would have been nice if the movie kept the identities of two allies a surprise rather than giving them away right on the cover art. This is especially grating with the guest appearance of one of the original Avengers during the third act of the movie. It’s not hard to think of ways to make this character’s identity ambiguous enough to make his final reveal a wonderful surprise, but instead we’re simply left waiting for him to make his inevitable appearance. Pym seems intended to fill the comic relief role that Beast Boy filled in Teen Titans, but a whiny voice and some awful lines make him one of the most incredibly annoying animated characters in recent memory. There are also a few plot twists that echo with the sound of plot hammers pounding the story into a specific direction through sheer force. Finally, while the animation is far better than any of Marvel’s other direct-to-video movies, it still suffers from occasional jerky movements and what seem to be a few missed in-between frames. It’s about on a par with higher-quality television animation, but falls far short of the DC’s direct-to-video animated movies.

The extras on the Next Avengers DVD are fairly slim and mostly insubstantial. The ones that will no doubt attract the most attention are the sneak previews for the Hulk vs. Wolverine and Hulk vs. Thor stories on the upcoming “Hulk vs.” DVD. If the previews are any indication, these ought to satisfy the adrenaline junkies. Other than that, there are two quick featurettes, one on the making of the movie itself and the other on Marvel’s other kid-to-teen superheroes, such as Franklin Richards, the Young Avengers, Power Pack, and the Runaways. These featurettes are nice enough, even if they tend to be on the fluffy side.

It’s been a very good year for Marvel so far, with The Spectacular Spider-Man scoring on television while Iron Man kicked off the summer movie season with style and panache. With Next Avengers, Marvel can add the direct-to-video market to this year’s list of successes. Superheroes have on-going adventures encoded pretty strongly in their DNA, and while most of Marvel’s direct-to-video movies have left the door open for sequels, Next Avengers proves the one where such a sequel would be more than welcome.

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