Forging into new territory, Marvel brought out the two made-for-DVD animated movies - Ultimate Avengers 1 & 2 - last year, taking their lead from the revamped line-up of their comic-book counterparts known as The Ultimates, which even worked wonders with good ol' Spidey, as well. Having spearheaded the big-movie superhero invasion with character after character in the last few years achieving live-action notoriety, and with this lucrative trend ongoing with many more adaptations on the way, the successful company decided to try and wrestle some of the animated glory from the likes of DC's long-running and firmly established stable. The results, however, were less than amazing. Eschewing the grit and darkness of the comics, the two Avengers movies not only played it safe regarding the deeper and more severe characterisation of the team members, but opted to attempt an appeasement to the fans, old and new. Not a bad goal in essence but, in practicality, this plays havoc with the established lore set up by decades' worth of comic-books. In combining the revamped look of the Avengers - Captain America, Iron Man, Giant Man, Black Widow, Wasp, Thor and the Hulk - with the older, more accepted and conventional formality of their personas, too much aggression and modern-day personality is lost. The Ultimates was a great book, packed with intense imagery and told with a more serious, workaday ethic that saw the in-house bitching of the Avengers make these wildcard characters seemingly more human and down to earth. The movies, sadly, just don't do that.
Kickstarting everything is a prologue that sees combat-supremo Steve Rogers (voiced by Justin Gross) saving the day in the latter half of the Second World War and meeting his time-frozen destiny amidst a welter of action, gunfire and pure Boys Own derring-do. After disarming an atomic missile launched by evil-alien-commanded Nazis, Cap is plunged into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. The first, and more inferior film then has the one-eyed General Nick Fury bringing the hero's body back to where Dr. Bruce Banner is experimenting with super-soldier serums in order to create combatants with the same powers as America's boldest and noblest defender. Unsurprisingly, Rogers awakens and becomes the driving force behind Fury's and SHIELD's masterplan to bring the mighty Avengers together in order to create an ultimate line of defence against the myriad fantastical menaces that are threatening the planet ... namely, those pesky aliens, the Chitauri (wasn't she the fit Thundercat?) who were helping the Nazis in the first place. Barking orders and barking mad, the gung-ho, no-longer cigar-chomping super-warrior, voiced by Andre Ware, cuts a dash in his fatigues and makes a commendable stand against the assorted alien threat, even if he does sound just like Agent Bubbles from Lilo And Stitch!
Steve Rogers and his battling alter-ego Captain America are reborn into a world that the script is determined should initially perplex and emotionally undermine him. Of course, his one true love, now a lot older, will play a part in his adjustment to a new and no-less dangerous era and, becoming, once again, the enhanced uber-soldier to which America owes such a debt, the Cap dons his flag-coloured costume, takes up his shield and leaps to the head of Fury's hastily assembled crew of titanic-powered oddballs. The determinedly-boring attempts to build up suspense regarding Dr. Bruce Banner's inevitable transformation into the Hulk is an error that just drags out the scenario of a team bonding together. We know it is going to happen and, in actual fact, we can't wait for it to happen. And then, when their first mission goes awry, the reluctant heroes split apart, though their humdrum differences are forced to the background when events conspire to hurl them together once again for the big dust-up at the end ... when, of course, the rampaging Hulk is finally unleashed and comes to pose just as much a threat as the villainous aliens, themselves.
The second film, which is significantly better told and more action-packed, brings in the Black Panther, the young king of the African kingdom of Wakanda. When his land comes under attack by those vicious aliens from the part one, Black Panther (Jeffrey Sams) seeks the help of the Avengers - or rather, ends up having to accept it against centuries of time-honoured tradition because he and his people are getting a thorough pasting. Black Panther is a bit of letdown, though. His costume stinks and his mysterious powers are neither here nor there - Wolverine-style claws and Batman-esque cowl. However, both films feature some outstanding action sequences that really go all out to depict mass destruction and carnage on a grand scale. The second feature even takes this to a truly global scale, showing us hordes of very War Of The Worlds-ish alien combat machines striding through the wreckage of many capital cities. The Chitauri make for good villains, too. Robotic, yet insect-like and sporting a terrifying arsenal of weaponry, they lumber aggressively and in vast numbers upon humankind, belching out endless energy beams of death and chaos. There are times, especially in the second movie, when they reminded me of the alien attack force that appeared in the start of the phenomenal Justice League series. Though, if you listen to the sound effects for their lasers, they become much more reminiscent of the Destroyer Droids from the new Star Wars films. Mind you, most familiar of all is one key bad guy who crops up in both films, with whom Cap has had some prior experience, who happens to be a shapeshifter with a fondness for Nazi uniforms. Clearly inspired by Hellboy nemesis Kroenan, he is never quite the menace to the team that the writers would like us to believe, though the way that he knits his shredded torso back together in Part 2 is quite cool. Mixing 2D animation with occasional CG embellishment, the look is nowhere near the class of JLA, The Batman or even the CG Spider-Man show, and Avengers can't help but appear quite dated and flat with a style that steadfastly refuses to leap from the screen. But, nevertheless, the action scenes are thunderous, extensive and reasonably well-directed with the emphasis on non-stop, frenetic chaos overload, and both movies round themselves off with suitably cataclysmic confrontations.
I was never really a fan of this team-up, to be blunt. And the main reason for this would be that, try as I might, I just cannot take Captain America, and Thor especially, seriously at all. It's funny that it is possible to pick and choose heroes in this fantastic universe of bizarre and ridiculous powers, costumes and back-stories, that you are willing and able to suspend disbelief for some, whilst others seem to go in a direction that is just too far-fetched to invest in. Thor is a total anachronism in the pantheon of superheroics. With his girly blonde tresses, winged helm and penchant for pseudo-medieval jargon, he cannot avoid becoming a pure figure of fun. Thankfully, the movies strike the helmet from his Nordic brow, but still do little to bring this Godly stalwart into a more accessible format. The lunatic angle that the Ultimates comics heaved onto him is considerably lessened here too, resulting in his being not unlike some embarrassing bozo just hanging onto the spandex-tails of the in-crowd. Likewise, Captain America's iconic appearance is too patriotic, too theatrical, too camp to sidestep the sniggers. Admittedly, his man-out-of-time dilemma is still addressed - we see him visit war memorials and meet his once youthful sweetheart - but the scenario is still too daft to have any heartstrings plucked.
As for the rest of the mob, Tony Stark's industrial tycoon who moonlights as the steel and chrome Iron Man is, by far, the most interesting ... but even he comes up quite short-changed by a screenplay that seems to just throw him around a bit. Giant Man and Wasp, the forever-sniping married couple of the Pyms, are an utter waste of time. Giant Man, in particular, is just a plot-sagging creation that has absolutely no super-heroic value whatsoever. Janet Pym, who, at least looks absolutely gorgeous in her figure-hugging costume, has relatively little to do either, unless it is just reacting to her hubby's hissy-fits. The comics gave them gravitas and emotional trauma, grounding them in the hell of domestic angst and soul-crushing insecurities, the films just ... well, have them vaguely involved in the plot simply because they happen to be Avengers. Black Widow, the athletic Russian uber-assassin, may have a mean way with twin-gun ballistics, but the accent that actress Olivia d'Abo gives her is perhaps the most ludicrously clichéd RUSSIAN that I have ever heard. Even if her lines were Shakespearean in quality they would sound completely ridiculous with this voice. The Hulk (voiced by Fred Tatasciore once Michael Massee's Banner has succumbed to his inner rage) is great in the first movie, but completely squandered in the second, coming in for literally a couple of seconds at the end. Even Venom made more of an impression in Spider-Man 3. Of course, part of this is down to the Marvel screenwriters' paving the way for more movies, but it does leave you feeling slightly unsatisfied after all the build-up.
There's no escaping the fact that these films just don't look right. The image is too anaemic to properly capture the full-blooded Marvel attitude. The trace lines and plentiful other animation-artefacts make for a picture that is often distractingly ungraceful and much too stuttering to flow properly with the sort of life and vitality that we have a right to expect in this day and age. You only have to look at how the DC characters have been successfully brought to cartoon life to realise how severely Marvel have dropped the ball with this. Justice League, Batman (in any of his animated incarnations) and Superman have all been terrifically put-together with boundless style and visual flourish to spare. Compared to those classic shows, Ultimate Avengers lacks elegance, energy, depth or soul, looking purely generic, quickly-rendered and, worst of all, un-loved by its own animators.
But, even beyond the dour and un-stimulating animation, there is a woeful lack of voice talent that contrives to make the characters even less lively. The dialogue, even for an animated show that needs to pencil-in character, motivation and backstory in simple leaps and bounds and propel the plot with explosive speed, is banal, clichéd and dumbed-down, the integrity that is necessary to enrich these garishly valiant misfits cast to the wind. The soap opera dramatics of the group inter-relationships is rendered far too superficial to have us care about anybody's feelings for anybody else which is a real shame when you consider how hard Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch worked to bring depth and soul and reality to the characters in the Ultimates comic-book series that these movies have sprung from. But, at the end of the day, my little lad thoroughly enjoyed both movies and, despite my considerable reservations, even I found plenty to savour and would still be happy to collect any further titles that Marvel produce.
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