Marvel's live-action movies may fill multiplexes and please fanboys across the world, but what about their animated movies? With a boxset just released of their six DVDs to date, I settled in for a movie marathon to investigate. Bad idea.
Well, watching the movies? Not necessarily a bad idea. Watching Ultimate Avengers: The Movie, Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise Of The Panther (Well, kind of. See below), The Invincible Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Next Avengers and the Hulk Vs. movies in one sitting? One of the dumber ideas I've had in a long time. I love superheroes as much as the next man - even if the next man is Stan Lee himself - but I now believe that the human mind has a limit when it comes to this kind of thing. And that that limit is somewhere around four hours... Which, considering these DVDs average 70 minutes each, is a shame.
Ultimate Avengers: The Movie
On the one hand, I can understand why Marvel went with this for their first direct-to-DVD animated movie: It's pretty much a straight adaptation of the first volume of a critically-acclaimed reworking of the origins of a franchise featuring some of their biggest names. On the other, much of the reason for that critical acclaim had to do with the "mature" tone that's pretty much stripped away in this movie, leaving what really feels pretty much like a particularly grim, overlong episode of a generic superhero cartoon show. There's no real excitement here in the writing, performances or visuals; it's just... there. I have the feeling that, if I was fourteen and hated the world but still thought Captain America was awesome, it might be better, but as it is...? Not the greatest start to the viewing marathon.
Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise Of The Panther
And here's a bad sign for the rest of the movie marathon. Perhaps sensing how little I enjoyed Ultimate Avengers, the DVD Gods took pity on me: The review copy of this disc wouldn't play. But judging by the trailer, this is a weird mash-up of the Black Panther's first appearance in Fantastic Four and a retread of the Ultimates villains, which is... um... interesting, perhaps? I'm not feeling too bad for missing this.
The Invincible Iron Man
If nothing else, this movie makes you appreciate Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. just that little bit more by how clumsily it handles Tony Stark's origins at That Guy In The Robot Suit. Yes, bringing in the Mandarin gives the movie more visual impact, but almost everything else that they change - whether it's the "I'm under investigation by the FBI so I'll just hang out in the alley beside my work" scenes or the "I hate you, Dad! I hate you I hate you I've bought the company somehow and you can run it because I love you" plot - would bring you as close to nerdtears as it did me. It's at this point that I start to wonder how much Marvel Animation is/was being used as a testing ground for the live-action movies, and whether the Iron Man movie was so good because they looked at this and saw what didn't work. Meanwhile, visually, everyone still looks very generic. For a comic book company with such strong artists, it's really surprising that Marvel seemed to be happy with such dull visuals for their animated movies (Compare and contrast with any of the DC animated projects of, what, the last two decades? Or most of Cartoon Network's output, for that matter).
Doctor Strange: The Sorceror Supreme
Here's the first piece of magic about the Doctor Strange movie: It seemed like it would never end. Also, and maybe it's because I was struggling to pay attention at this point, I'm not sure that it really made sense. It's another origin story with additions to make it more like a movie and less like something Stan Lee and Steve Ditko came up with in a mix of inspiration and deadline sweat but, just like in Invincible Iron Man, the new stuff - like the addition of a magical super team that recruits Strange so that he can learn about magic - just serves to confuse and bog down the movie and fill it with non-descript characters it's hard to care about. Watching so many of these in a row, I've started to realize how bad the characterization has been in these movies so far - either it's pretty much non-existant (the super team here are cannon fodder, really) or done with no subtlety whatsoever (Strange's switch from asshole to good guy, complete with "What about the children?" dialogue). Fans of the crazy Steve Ditko designs of the original comic will want to stay away; this is another - and, thankfully, the last - of the visually boring movies, completely lacking the off-kilter plasticity of the comic at its best.
Next Avengers: Heroes Of Tomorrow
Is it so wrong to want to kiss a movie? Probably, particularly an animated movie full of kids. But, really; after the last four movies, Next Avengers seemed like the greatest thing in the world - Fast-moving, original (Well, as original as a mash-up of Young Avengers and Avengers Next could be, but not an adaptation, at least) and with some interesting character design? I'll take several, please. Yes, it theoretically skews younger than the other movies, but somehow felt like it was pandering less (And, really, starting a movie with "Oh, all your favorite superheroes? They're either dead, abandoning their offspring - Yeah, really, nice move Thor - or enslaved by the bad guy" shows that this isn't exactly the most comforting movie you can imagine for kids) and if skewing younger means more enjoyable, then I'd be happy if Marvel kept doing movies for young'uns. The first genuinely good movie of the bunch, although I may be grading on a curve and/or lost whatever critical faculties I've had by this point.
Easily the best of the bunch, Hulk Vs. is a weird split-DVD, offering two 45-ish minute movies, Hulk Vs. Wolverine and Hulk Vs. Thor and both of them are better than... well, everything else I've watched so far, apart from maybe Next Avengers. Ignore the title, though, because in both cases, the Hulk is kind of a bystander/McGuffin for the guest-star to jump off've and shine, and of the two episodes, the Thor one is by far the best. With a plot straight out of a mid-1970s issue of Marvel Team-Up (Loki brings the Hulk to Asgard to fuck with Thor! And it all goes wrong!) and a couple of unexpected twists (The death of one of the title characters, for example) packed into its short running time, it offers the kind of fast-paced thrills and spills I'd been looking for all along. Hulk Vs. Wolverine, meanwhile, feels like an odd mix of the comic book and movie versions of the character's history, as the rest of Weapon X try and take Wolverine back "home" and the Hulk complicates matters. It's... interesting, I guess, but feels more like the middle chapter of something instead of a standalone story by itself. But, again, it's better-written and more enjoyable than the earlier movies, and both Thor and Wolverine edge ever closed to a distinct visual style that the movies have lacked up to this point. Of the six DVDs, it's the only one I'd really recommend to anyone other than a Marvel completist, or animation masochist.
Watching all six of the movies so close together, you can see their evolution and understandable growing pains, from adaptations to all-new stories with Next Avengers and Hulk Vs., and also visually and in terms of trying to work out how to tell their stories - Both Next and Hulk feel rooted more in fan-friendly continuity, but that also makes them less bogged down with the need to explain everything, making them more enjoyable to watch for new viewers, ironically. Even though the movies are clearly improving, there's still a reverence to the original comics that holds the cartoons back in a way that, say, Batman: The Animated Series or The Brave and The Bold don't share - The people involved seem too concerned with keeping the spirit of continuity alive, at times, instead of the spirit of the characters, and the result is writing that feels lifeless at times, even in Hulk Vs. Wolverine. As soon as they can work out how to replicate the live-action movies' ability to pick and choose what works, and as soon as the powers that be look for bolder ways to visualize those stories, then they'll be in good shape. For now, what's there is a public growth from awkward beginnings to... well, an only slightly less awkward present.
The Marvel Animation 6 Film Set is available now.