Marvel Comics’ The Avengers, issue #158, sits nearby as I write this, neatly wrapped in a plastic sheath, the proper treatment for a periodical that introduced me to superhero comics. When I first thumbed through its pages – more years ago than I care to admit – a ‘click’ registered in my brain, and the rest is history. Although I never amassed a significant Avengers collection – my older brother was more determined than I – their adventures remain fixed in my imagination, and against this highly subjective backdrop, I turn my attention to the Ultimate Avengers Movie Collection, a three-picture DVD package of animated movies that any Avengers aficionado would drool over.
The two primary features here, “Ultimate” I and 2, are of course derived from the Ultimate Avengers print comic, Marvel’s more sophisticated reboot of the original, but their spiritual ancestor is Batman: The Animated Series, which brightened Fox TV’s Sunday-evening schedule for a few years in the early ‘90s. That show took the Dark Knight, and superheroes in general, into moodier terrain than any cartoon had before – and thus set the pace for its myriad offspring of the past decade. Yes, Virginia, those costumed crimefighters have come a long way since Superfriends!
Ultimate 1 feels like the new live-action Joss Whedon’s The Avengers feature, a noisy, rollicking epic which may challenge the vaunted Avatar for box office supremacy. As in the Whedon film, the team, hastily recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho Nick Fury, must rally to save our planet from an extraterrestrial attack, while learning to put egos aside to form a cohesive unit, and trying to keep the green-skinned, rageaholic genie, i.e., The Hulk, inside Banner’s bottle.
Most of the characters are voiced by names unrecognizable to the Joneses, but savvy name-dropping media geeks will notice that Olivia D’Abo – Kevin’s hippie big sis on The Wonder Years—handles Black Widow, and unlike the theatrical film, a Russian accent is deployed, if a bit too enthusiastically. Dialogue throughout is sharp, but in the case of Iron Man, I miss the entitled snarkiness that Downey, Jr. so effortlessly delivers, his witty bon mots always providing some necessary comic relief. The “Ultimate”‘s Tony Stark is also a slick, womanizing charmer, but bereft of the bratty irreverence we’ve been conditioned to expect from this character.
Beyond that, we have Captain America emerging from his icy tomb, Hulk rampaging, Fury worrying at every turn. In fact, the story seems to foreshadow those of last year’s Captain America: The First Avenger and Whedon’s live-action spectacular.
“Ultimate” 2 travels to “deepest, darkest” Africa, with the inclusion of the Black Panther, another character that dates back to the ‘60s, and is, coincidentally, Marvel’s first African-American superhero. We visit the jungle kingdom of Wakanda, a curious blend of post-industrial high-tech and ancient, hierarchical tribal culture, elements which could only co-exist in fantasy. One comes away thinking Avatar meets Independence Day, and there are more explosions than ten Michael Bay flicks.
Last and probably least is a bonus flick, Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow, which features the offspring of the now-deceased team, apparently slain in battle. “Next Avengers” doesn’t shy away from death, obviously, but it’s also a conscious attempt to attract tween audiences by making their peers the stars. The story in “Next Avengers” begins with a well-told fable, and introduces one of my favorite Marvel baddies, Ultron, a homicidal, adamantium-shelled robot with a wicked jack-‘o-lantern visage. My fingers are crossed that he’ll pop up soon in the live-action franchise.
Extras included in this triumvirate of films are copious, as superhero fans would surely demand. The first film gives us a trivia track, a featurette titled “Avengers Assemble” - with commentary from Avengers illustrator extraordinaire George Perez, the Ultimate Voice Talent Search(good for laughs), a DVD-ROM game, trailers, and finally a “First Look” at Ultimate Avengers 2, mostly the storyboards used in that sequel. Predictably, the second film contains some of the same, with trailers for animated editions of Iron Man and Dr. Strange, and an Ultimate Gag Reel. “Next Avengers” includes a featurette, “Legacy”, detailing the creation of the young characters, all developed from scratch. We’re also told about Marvel’s line of kiddie comics, and “First Look” at Hulk vs. Wolverine and Hulk vs. Thor. There’s just no escaping the Jade Giant, is there?
Arguably, the creative boom in feature animation – Pixar, the rise of CGI-based films, the dubious addition of 3-D – has been accompanied by a similar one in animated films made for home vid. Hanna-Barbera’s now-campy 1970s Superfriends is now little more than comic fodder, to be chuckled at by aging Gen Xers who remember when. But that show had the unenviable task of mollifying soccer moms who blew their collective gaskets over violence in Saturday morning action/adventure cartoons, effectively hounding them – Space Ghost, The Fantastic Four, The Herculoids – off the air in the late ‘60s.
These concerns are a non-issue nowadays, as superhero tales have become mainstream family entertainment, and these recent films are all the better for it. There’s a level of pathos and raw emotion present here – not to mention a more sophisticated graphic detailing - that was unthinkable back in the day, and the PG-13 ratings signify this, with the exception of “Next Avengers”, which stops short of that with a PG. These releases will never garner the attention of the world-conquering Whedon movie, but they remain the current state-of-the-art for American animated TV action/adventure. Also, Ultimate Avengers may not impress animation fans in the Land of The Rising Sun – where anime is just as often aimed at adults – but they definitely continue the creative evolution of the genre.