Marvel Comics has so easily dominated the box office realm in recent years that they apparently grew bored. Seeking out a new challenge, they have embarked upon a quest to attain market share in the burgeoning straight-to-DVD marketplace. The first entry in their new collection is Ultimate Avengers, an animated adaptation of the similarly titled line of comic books.
Ultimate Avengers: The Movie
By David Mumpower
February 15, 2006
For those unfamiliar with the concept (and I was one until very recently), the idea behind Ultimates is to acknowledge that older comic book properties have acquired some mold over time. There are, after all, only so many times one character may get married, divorced, spiritually possessed by an otherworldly being hell-bent on enslaving Manhattan, accidentally stranded in deep space alongside a mortal enemy, entranced and forced to assassinate Don Johnson, and forced to regurgitate the same three basic punch lines about their fatal flaw as a character. After 400 or so issues, even the most engaging of icons runs out of story possibilities and needs a re-boot.
If you still don't see the appeal, let's think of it in different terms. Imagine a character from Days of Our Lives having their entire story history displayed in a Power Point presentation. At that moment, a long time reader would realize just how many times Roman and Marlena have gotten together and broken up. It's the same with Marvel and DC comic books. The Ultimates afford writers the possibility to start with a clean slate, freshening up established superheroes with modern attributes.
Marvel's producers state that the Avengers have been chosen due to the fact that this group has several recognizable, easily accessible characters. The Hulk, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man are all on board here, along with several less known characters such as The Wasp and the brutally unimaginative Giant Man. Sure, it's not like a man of iron is much better in theory, but at least they make Tony Stark a billionaire playboy in the Batman mold. Giant Man is just smart...and giant. If this was what passed for creative in the 1960s, the stories I have heard about brownie recipes from the era must be greatly exaggerated.
The story of the first Ultimate Avengers is largely told from the perspective of Captain America. He is the greatest cartoon hero in the period from World War II until the moment Hulkamania first ran wild in the 1980s. In his re-imagined story, the shield-boomeranging patriot ends the Nazi threat, saves the allies from a doomsday weapon and even Fox Mulders an alien invasion from succeeding. What does he get for his trouble? Entombed in a block of ice 20,000 leagues under the sea. Dwight Eisenhower gets the White House yet poor Steve Rogers doesn't even get a free grand slam breakfast at Denny's.
A military team led by Nick Fury uncovers the underwater burial grounds of Rogers, but to their surprise, he's not quite dead yet. As Dr. Bruce Banner and his co-worker/love interest Betty discover, Captain America just needs some microwaving before he can be sent out on the next mission. He's like a burrito that kicks ass.
Fury senses an opportunity and tries to be a good little shadowy government agent by breeding super-soldiers using genetic tricks learned from Rogers. Before that succeeds, though, the alien marauders Cappy had knocked clear out of the 1940s make their return with an act of intergalactic terrorism. Fury is ordered to assemble a team of established superheroes so that their combined might will stop the alien threat.
At this point, you should remember it is a comic book movie under discussion. If there were not an alien invasion and a need for angry vigilante loners to come together for the betterment of mankind, we might as well be watching Weekend at Bernie's. And nobody wants that.
The Ultimate Avengers DVD offers several features, some of which I find haphazardly thrown together. As an example, I don't understand the purpose of showing strange fans acting out their superhero fantasies in order to audition for a voice acting role in the film. It strikes me as the sort of situation that would cause folks to stop making eye contact at a Halloween party. If the intent here is to introduce a new core of casual fans to the Marvel universe, this feature fails. Instead, it reinforces largely outdated (I hope) stereotypes about the sort of people who are diehard fans of the medium. That's off-putting, not engaging. Thanks to the box office dominance of Spider-Man and X-Men, we are largely past the days of such stereotyping. There is no point in offering unpleasant reminders that a certain segment always takes things too far.
In stark contrast, the Avengers Trivia Track is gold. Honestly, I found it invaluable in the writing of this piece. In several instances when I needed gaps filled in about the Who's Who of the Ultimate Avengers universe, a timely Pop-Up Video information bubble filled me in. Assuming the goal is to attain new fans, this attention to detail is well intended and solidly implemented.
The first comic book I ever owned was The Avengers, but I think that's the last one I ever read as well. So, the crib notes made me feel much more informed than I would have been otherwise. Saving me a couple of hours of research on Wikipedia is deeply appreciated. Even if you have never heard of The Avengers before today (or think it's a bad movie featuring Sean Connery in a bear suit), you will have no problem keeping up as long as Trivia Track is enabled.
The Avengers Assemble featurette might do more for long term fans of the series than it did for me. I was looking at my LED display after four minutes (and 13 seconds) to see how much was left. Twenty-three minutes felt interminable. I'm talking King Kong Extended Edition-level slow. The first look at the next title in the series, Ultimate Avengers II, is more engaging. The June release is shown from an early storyboard perspective and has a detailed description from the production crew. It sets the table nicely for the next feature, which is all a commercial needs to do. And the early animation is a plus for those who enjoy the drawing process.
With regards to the movie itself, I have to admit that I enjoyed it more than expected. The main reason is that this animated feature gets something right that Ang Lee somehow missed in his adaptation of The Hulk. As my site mate, Les Winan, is fond of saying, "Hulk smash! How hard is that to remember?" The makers of Ultimate Avengers keep that in mind, offering a tremendous encounter wherein the big green rageaholic takes on everyone this side of Up with People. Here's hoping they correct this oversight in the upcoming June sequel. If you are looking for a nice introductory course in the Marvel universe or if you just want to have an excuse to break out the Hulk Hands, Ultimate Avengers is a worthy selection.