Ultimate Avengers: The Movie
MLG Productions (Direct-to-DVD), Lions Gate Home Entertainment (February 21, 2006), single disc, 71 mins plus supplements, 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated PG-13, Retail: $19.98
Captain America is discovered frozen in ice just as America is starting up its new Super Soldier program. Cap is joined by an assortment of heroes who each have different motivations for wanting to be a part of the Avengers. They must learn to work together quickly in order to stop an alien invasion.
The Sweatbox Review:
With all the attention that the DC Comics heroes have gotten in animation the past number of years, it has been largely up to Hollywood to give Marvel Comics characters exposure to the masses. But as much as I have thrilled to the Spider-Man movies (and tolerated the rest), I have had a hankering to see a big Marvel cartoon that could rival Justice League as an animated property which could bring to the screen a number of favorite comic characters. Lions Gate has answered the call with a new direct-to-DVD offering that features a group of Marvel favorites, although they may not be as familiar to you as you think.
Any characters that have been around for a while are apt to be “redefined” for new generations. A few years ago, Marvel Comics did so in a surprising way, creating a whole new universe for their characters to start over with, while simultaneously continuing to publish the exploits of the original versions. They dubbed the new comics their “Ultimate” line, which began with Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men. Despite a great deal of skepticism in the comics community, not to mention yet another alternative line debuting later (the “Marvel Age” line), the Ultimate titles have proven to be often be the most popular of the whole Marvel stable. The most popular of these is Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates, featuring a group of heroes modeled on the Avengers from the regular Marvel Universe. The Avengers, though taking different forms over the years, has been most associated with bringing an all-star lineup that usually included Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor.
There is a reason why the comic was not called Ultimate Avengers, however. Marvel went to lengths to point out that fans should not expect “Avengers-like” stories in the Ultimates comic book. The characters, though appearing familiar, were darker than the originals. Heroes such as Captain America, Iron Man, and especially Giant Man and the Hulk were not to be portrayed as totally heroic figures. In fact, these characters would not even necessarily be likable. Each would have his share of neuroses or character flaws, thereby preventing the team from having the same warm, family dynamic as the classic Avengers.
What the new versions lacked in warmth was made up for by breathtakingly realistic art, and stories that emphasized characterization, wit, emotion, action, and a high body count. Even those that objected to the changes in the characters had to admit to being captivated by some powerful storytelling. As with many modern comics, the plots often moved slowly— especially considering the slowness of Mr. Hitch, which resulted in the book often being delayed from its originally monthly schedule (in four years, only 22 issues have been printed to date); but each issue still packed plenty of punch. Initially, the series focused on the team coming together, which could have been boring if not for the attention to realism in character interplay and how events unfolded. When the action finally came, it turned out to have been worth the wait, too. Mr. Hitch’s artwork had become known previously for how well it represented “widescreen action”— that is, conveying the cinematic sense of a Hollywood blockbuster; and he brought his “A” game to Ultimates.
Yes, the contemporary writing and spectacular action would have made this particular comic ripe for adaptation into a live action summer movie, but the cost would be prohibitive, especially since the general public is not as familiar with these characters as they are with Spider-Man and the like. However, Ultimates could still make for a killer animated film with a reasonable budget. A theatrical release was still too much to hope for, but a deal between Marvel and Lions Gate would see the Ultimates headline the first in a series of animated Marvel films done direct-to-DVD.
And so here we are.
“Ultimate Avengers: The Movie” essentially adapts and combines the first two storylines from the Ultimates comic book, stories that covered thirteen issues. While there are many deviations from the source material, I found the result to be extremely satisfying. The script was handled by X-Men: Evolution vets Greg Johnson, Boyd Kirkland, and Craig Kyle. Direction was by Curt Geda and Steven G. Gordon. The animation is mainly traditional cel animation, but there is some skilled, subtle use of CGI in places.
As in the comic, the movie’s story begins in the dying days of World War II. Captain America leads a group of American soldiers on an airdrop off the coast of Norway, where the Nazis are rumored to have a super-weapon. Some feel that it is a suicide mission, while other soldiers have stark faith in Captain America. During the mission, it is revealed that the Nazis are in league with extraterrestrials! Captain America saves the day, but is lost in the North Atlantic during the process.
Flash forward to the present, where General Nick Fury and Dr. Betty Ross manage to locate Captain America’s frozen body in an underwater glacier. They bring the body back to a S.H.I.E.L.D. base in New York to be examined, with the results to be used in an attempted revival of the Super Soldier Program that created Captain America during WWII. The thawing of Captain America actually results in his unexpected resuscitation, and he is enlisted to help out with what is known as Project Avenger.
Meanwhile, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been looking for alien spaceships on Earth, but one of their satellites, along with a space shuttle, is destroyed when its surveillance proves successful. Fury is ordered by his superiors to leave behind the Super Soldier Program in favor of drafting known super-powered civilians into service. Fury is against the idea, but he follows his orders and seeks out public hero Iron Man, eco-terrorist and assumed nutcase Thor, and a woman named Wasp who can shrink herself and fly; in turn, Wasp sees that her husband Hank Pym, who has created for himself the ability to become Giant Man, is invited to join the team. Others helping out Project Avenger include Russian-born S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow, and the Super Soldier Program’s top scientist, Bruce Banner.
The characters alone create a large deal of conflict. The arrogant Pym is jealous of Banner, who beat him out for the SSP job. Banner is mistrusted by many in the know, due to his very public troubles as the monstrous Hulk. No one takes Thor seriously as a “thunder god”, and Thor himself is initially not interested in joining Fury’s group. Iron Man is also less than enthusiastic, in addition to being a bit of a playboy. And not everyone thinks that the very young and somewhat disoriented Captain America is up to the task of leading the group, including Cap himself. What may seem to be an all-star lineup is woefully lacking in cohesion.
Nevertheless, they do come together as a team long enough to be sent on their first mission, re-taking an S.H.I.E.L.D. installation under control of an alien. Unfortunately, Fury’s fears about civilians forming a military team are justified, and the mission is a disaster. The new team falls apart rapidly, just as a new alien threat looms. Armed with their new knowledge of S.H.I.E.L.D., the aliens decide to attack the main S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, home of the Avengers! If that were not bad enough, Banner has gone off his medications and it is revealed that he has had his own agenda all along…
Whoa, this was a fun story. It is certainly recognizable as being based on the Millar-Hitch comic, but has enough surprises and twists to keep it fresh even for those that read the comics. I was impressed by how well the storylines from the comics were converged naturally, and how this resulted in such a thrilling story. True, the carnage of the comic is not all present in the movie, and the hard edges of characters and events have been slightly softened, but this version has not been entirely sanitized either. The action is fast and furious, the fights are exciting and even breathtaking at times, and the script hits all the right beats to round things off and make for a complete story experience. (Note that due to the intense scenes of action and some mild swearing, this movie probably is not for the younger kids in your household.)
The animation, finished by South Korea’s DongWoo Animation Co., is top drawer. This is at least as good as anything you will see on television. I was particularly impressed with how they handled some very detailed models so effectively and managed to make it all look so good.
It was nice to see Millar and hitch get credit in the opening titles, and even Joe Simon and Jack Kirby received creator credit for Captain America in the end credits. Nice. And don’t worry— Stan Lee’s name appears once or twice too.
Is This Thing Loaded?
An Avengers Trivia Track, operating as a subtitle stream that appears as comic-like text panels, provides plenty of info on the characters, the film, the comics, and even historical events. It has numerous interesting tidbits for both casual and dedicated fans, but it is unfortunate that there are a shameful number of typos in the text.
Avengers Assemble! (23:14) is a surprisingly long look at the Avengers comics, with interviews featuring Marvel publisher Joe Quesada, editor Tom Brevoort, and celebrated former Avengers writer/artist team Kurt Busiek and George Perez. Oddly, Busiek and Perez get most of the camera time, even though their popular run has nothing to do with the movie, while Ultimates writer Mark Millar has much less airtime and artist Hitch appears not at all.
The Ultimate Voice Talent Search (5:22) has actual contest submissions from those who had hoped to land parts in the movie. Lame, yet funny.
First Look At Ultimate Avengers 2 (2:22) offers a combination of interviews, storyboards, and other development art. This sequel is set to debut in Summer 2006, with much of the story taking place apparently in the Black Panther’s country of Wakanda. The Trailers section includes an ad for the Marvel Heroes Battle Dice game, an Ultimate Avengers: The Movie trailer and teaser, and strangely a trailer for Fox’s Elektra movie.
DVD-ROM: What Avenger Are You? is the self-explanatory title of the DVD-ROM activity that loads as soon as you start the disc on your computer.
Bryan Hitch drew the sharp-looking cover for the DVD. Like so many new releases these days, initial copies are coming out with slipcovers that are identical to the case’s cover. The slipcover for this is nicely embossed, though, making it seem just a little less superfluous.
Ink And Paint:
The 1.77:1 anamorphic transfer is flawless, ably presenting the movie in its best possible light. Even with only one layer devoted to the disc, there are no compression problems, and of course the print is perfectly clean. (Maybe this is even a direct transfer from digital files?) There is just nothing to nitpick at.
The audio also impresses, in either English or Spanish 5.1 sound. The opening battle between G.I.s and alien Nazis is not quite up to the standards of Saving Private Ryan, but for an animated, direct-to-video feature it is done extremely well. The rear speakers remain active throughout most of the film for a very immersive aural experience. Rare for a cartoon, even the bass is very decent.
The score is dramatic and fun. The opening WWII sequence is reminiscent of music from the old serials, and Tony “Iron Man” Stark is given a pseudo James Bond theme. Action scenes are nicely punctuated by both music and sound effects. This is a really professional job.
There are no subtitles, but the disc is close captioned.
Lions Gate has gotten off to a very strong start for their Marvel animation deal. By using established creators with a desire to create a truly quality movie, it is we fans who reap the rewards. Going even further, the video and audio for this release are outstanding, and the extras provide more than one might expect. I greatly look forward to the next DVDs in this series, which will include the Ultimate Avengers sequel, followed by Iron Man and Dr. Strange movies.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?