As I write this review, my son is grinning his way through Marvel’s latest animated venture, ‘Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow,’ for a sixth time in less than a week. Granted, he’s had the opportunity to revisit it so often because of a nasty battle with the flu, but if you knew my kid, you would understand it’s a relatively big deal when he asks for anything other than ‘Cars,’ ‘Ice Age,’ or his usual favorites. Perhaps it’s the film’s entry-level heroics, accessible plotline, or kid-friendly characters… or maybe it’s simply the crate of superhero action figures he has tucked under his bed, but my son is completely and utterly hooked. Even so, after cringing my way through Marvel’s misguided, animated ‘Invincible Iron Man’ and being underwhelmed by both ‘Ultimate Avengers’ flicks, I’m surprised to admit that I’ve enjoyed watching ‘Next Avengers’ almost as much as my son.
When a powerful android called Ultron (voiced by Tom Kane) begins to lay waste to the modern-day Avengers, Tony Stark (also voiced by Kane) is forced to abandon his friends, gather the heroes’ children, and hide them away from the homicidal machine. Years later, in a secret facility in the Arctic Circle, Stark’s younglings have developed abilities of their own, but are still unaware of Ultron’s domination of the outside world or the fate that befell their parents. There’s James (Noah C. Crawford), the shield-hurling son of Captain America and Black Widow; Torunn (Brenna O’Brien), the cocky daughter of Thor; Azari (Dempsey Pappion), the acrobatic, electricity-wielding son of Black Panther and, in a subtle nod to comic fans, X-Men's Storm; and Pym (Aidan Drummond), the young son of Giant Man and Wasp. After discovering their identities and accidentally alerting Ultron to their whereabouts, the fledgling team of heroes must rescue their kidnapped mentor, contend with the android’s various forces, and recruit survivors of the original massacre to their cause -- namely Hawkeye’s son (Andrian Petrew), a dismantled Vision (Shawn MacDonald), an elderly Betty Ross (Nicole Oliver), and the reclusive Bruce Banner (Ken Kramer).
While parents and kids will obviously get the biggest kick out of ’Next Avengers,’ the film should still appeal to Marvel fanatics and nitpicking fanboys alike. Walking a fine line between so many classic characters and a slew of new ideas is a tough task, but the folks at Marvel Animation make it look easy. Instead of shaping the ragtag superheroes into a whiny team overloaded with teen angst, the filmmakers imbue each child with a genuine character arc and rather dark psychological struggles. James has to come into his own, Torunn has to climb down from her ivory tower, Azari has to embrace his father’s mantle, Pym has to overcome insecurity, and Francis must learn that self-sufficiency won’t get him as far as he hoped. In fact, the entire team is simultaneously beset with the loss of their parents, a call to arms, and the expectations that come with their Avengers namesake. The result works as a warm family drama and an exciting coming-of-age tale.
At first, while in the relative safety of their Arctic Circle hideout, the young heroes do have a certain "kid dynamic." However, when they emerge into the real, Ultron-dominated world, their comfort changes almost immediately as they begin to bicker, question themselves, and bark orders on a regular basis. They actually have to learn to get along, and the results are surprisingly mature. Don't get me wrong, they're still portrayed as kids, but I found it all to be relevant and on point. As for the voice acting, it's strong across the board without a weak performance in the bunch. Bruce Banner's voice gets slightly annoying since he's a cranky old man, the Hulk's voice could be a bit weightier, and the Vision gets stuck with some rehashed C3PO schtick, but the kids are spot on. Even Pym's childishly naive voice still sounds exactly how I'd expect a boy his age to sound. The voice actors' deliveries are fun, emotive, and convincing at all the right times.
But it’s the choice of Ultron as the central villain that brings the entire story together. Created by Stark himself (at least in the world of 'New Avengers'), Ultron represents the ultimate fallen angel of Marvel comics lore and gives the film’s plotlines and characters a chance to come full circle. We’re barely given a glimpse of the original heroes’ defeat, but their legacy remains at the forefront of their offspring’s fight and drives the momentum of the tale. By the final, climactic showdown, the android’s indestructible nature and endless resources force the young Avengers to make sacrifices and work together to overcome the odds. Admittedly, everything turns out a bit too well for everyone involved (after all, the film centers on a bunch of kids who take down a baddie that bested their more powerful and experienced parents), but I didn’t have much difficulty shrugging off random plot holes and contrivances. I suppose I’m a bit more forgiving in that regard since the filmmakers set out to make a kids’ film, so I’ll clarify: anyone looking for serious, adult superhero drama will probably find ‘Next Avengers’ less fulfilling than I did.
At the end of the day, I have to admit I’m a bit biased when it comes to ‘Next Avengers.’ My son absolutely adores the flick and it’s tough to seriously criticize something the love of your life enjoys so much. However, considering he (and every kid being introduced to the Marvel Comics universe) fits into the exact crowd this film is trying to capture and entertain, I can hardly complain. I’m just happy to report I didn’t have to fake any smiles when I watched it with him.
Aside from bouts of inconsistent animation quality that seems to plague every Marvel animated film, ‘Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow’ features a vibrant 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that’s not only a near-perfect reproduction of its original master, but it's also more striking and technically sound than ‘Doctor Strange’ and both ‘Ultimate Avengers’ flicks. Colors are rich, the hand-drawn line art is sharp, and blacks are bold and inky. Contrast is generally spot on as well -- there are a few ugly dips here and there (most noticeably when Torunn hugs her father near the end of the film), but the majority of scenes boast a bright and eye-pleasing transfer. Better still, detail is so revealing that every minor imperfection in the animator’s key frames and background art can be easily seen.
As it stands, the only distracting technical issue I encountered -- some fairly obvious banding -- isn’t nearly as frequent, intrusive, or debilitating as it is in other Marvel animated productions. In fact, the standard DVD is rife with problems that the BD completely eliminates. Gone are the mysterious artifacts that appear in various color fills, the hazy blur that hangs on dark lines, and the chunky noise that sometimes clutters the scenery. Ultimately, while ‘Next Avengers’ doesn’t quite top the best 2D animated transfers on the market, it still offers fans and inductees a fine presentation that outclasses its DVD counterpart and other high-def Marvel brethren.
I heart Lionsgate. Here’s a studio that doesn’t care whether a film is animated, low-budget, or direct-to-video -- if it’s being released on Blu-ray, it earns a snazzy, top of the line audio package. ‘Next Avengers’ boasts a busy and aggressive DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track complete with all the sonic frills one would associate with a major summer blockbuster. First and foremost, dialogue is crisp, well prioritized, and naturally distributed throughout the soundfield. Pans are always smooth and transparent, allowing shields and arrows to effortlessly whiz from speaker to speaker. More importantly, LFE support enhances every explosion and energy blast (just listen when Bruce finally hulks out), the rear speakers are continually brimming with movement (particularly during chaotic fights), and directionality is surprisingly precise for what’s essentially a kids’ cartoon. Sure, environmental ambience is minimal and the sound design is a bit two dimensional during quiet conversations, but that’s the nature of this sort of production.
’Next Avengers’ continues to up the sonic ante of each Marvel animated film and delivers an involving and immersive experience. Personally, I can’t wait to review the Blu-ray audio tracks on upcoming projects like ‘Hulk vs. Wolverine’ and ‘Hulk vs. Thor’ -- I can only imagine what their white-knuckled, drag-out fights will sound like.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow’ ports over all of the special features from the standard DVD… which isn’t saying much. Granted, there are two solid featurettes, but you know a supplemental package is struggling for material when the most exciting content is a pair of previews. Ah well, it’s all presented in high definition so it’s tough to complain too adamantly.
’Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow’ is a solid family flick that properly introduces young kids to superheroics and a classic slate of Marvel characters. While it doesn’t boast the production values of a theatrical release, it will still make a nice addition to your kids' collection. Thankfully, this Blu-ray release features an excellent video transfer and a resonant DTS HD MA 7.1 surround track. It’s short on supplemental material, but the presentation alone makes up for such inadequacies. In the end, ‘Next Avengers’ is great for kids, fun for parents, and decent enough to earn a bit of fanboy respect. Give it a look and see what you think.