In 2000, the year that would finally see the theatrical release of 'X-Men,' Marvel Comics conducted a controversial experiment -- much to this dismay of long-time fans, they revamped Spider-Man for a new, modern audience. The resulting comic was called "Ultimate Spider-Man" -- a phenom in the comics industry that shattered expectations and launched a new line of updated comic series for the publishing giant. During the same timeframe, Marvel Comics steadily increased their presence in other media following the successful theatrical releases of the 'Spider-Man' films and the 'X-Men' sequels.
Their latest foray outside of the comic-print box -- the 'Ultimate Avengers' films -- attempts to combine their two most popular assets. Mixing their new-found producing prowess with their rebooted version of "The Avengers" (now dubbed "The Ultimates"), Marvel has injected their revamped characters into a world of 2D animation. For the most part, it's been an interesting but lackluster experiment that's likely to only appeal to hardcore comic fans and younger kids.
The 'Ultimate Avengers Collection' contains two full-length features on one dual layer disc. In the first film, 'Ultimate Avengers,' General Fury (voiced by Andre Ware) assembles a group of superpowered titans to protect the globe from the escalating sci-fi threats present in the Marvel Universe. In this case, it's a species of extraterrestrials called the Chitauri and a monster of their own creation, the Hulk (voices by Michael Massee and Fred Tatasciore). Fury first digs up the frozen body of super soldier Steve Rogers (Justin Gross) who was famous in World War II as the symbolic hero, Captain America. From there he compiles a cocky millionaire that nightcaps as Iron Man (Marc Worden), the possibly unhinged powerhouse Thor (David Boat), the sweet but tough Wasp (Grey DeLisle), the hotheaded Giant Man (Nolan North), the Russian assassin Black Widow (Olivia d'Abo), and the unpredictable Bruce Banner (Massee).
In the second film, 'Ultimate Avengers II,' Black Panther (Jeffrey Sams), the young king of an African kingdom called Wakanda, defies tradition and requests help from the outside world when aliens attack his homeland. The Avengers respond and rush headfirst into a climactic battle with hordes of extraterrestrial invaders that are significantly tougher than any threat they've faced before. While the first film is based on the initial run of "The Ultimates" comic series, the second film is largely comprised of original material.
Critical reaction was mixed when both made-for-DVD films were released last year. While some enjoyed the two stories of unlikely heroes overcoming their differences and uniting against a common enemy, most thought the animation was inexcusably bad. For the most part, the stories seem intended to serve as accessible gateways for those first being introduced to the characters and younger viewers who find superheroes fascinating in any incarnation. Unfortunately, I think most adult audiences will find the plotlines underdeveloped and dumbed down to appease too many groups of movie fans at once. Character arcs are relatively one-note, development is weak, and the plotting is predictable. Dialogue is often cringe worthy and the entire production ends up feeling like an average Saturday morning cartoon rather than two feature length films. The voice work, in particular, is a collection of generally hammy performances that overplay too many situations.
The animation quality has been the biggest source of contention among fans and critics, and I have to say that it looks pretty terrible. In high definition, it's even worse -- I could consistently see areas where the color fills didn't quite meet up with the line drawings of the characters. Motion is choppy due to a low number of frames (think low budget anime on TV), mouths are frequently out of synch with the voices, and explosions and dust clouds are cookie cutter at best. Characters end up moving in a wooden fashion that distracts at every turn and the animation lacks the oomph that Marvel Comics is known to put into its print material. That said, the second film is much more solid than the first -- colors are more stable, motion seems more natural, and the art style is more consistent. Still, when compared to lower budget comic features like the recent and excellent 'Hellboy' animated movies, I can't help but wonder why Marvel didn't put more of their hard-earned cash into this property.
I'm a comics fanboy through and through -- I adore the dark and violent "The Ultimates" comic series and found it to be witty, clever, and packed with interesting twists on old characters. The classic iterations of Captain America and the Avengers have grown stale over the years and I was excited by their reboot. However, the 'Ultimate Avengers' films tend to package the old versions of the characters in the visual representations of their new editions. As a fan, I can't help but be disappointed because there were so many intriguing elements in the comic series that are neutered by the films -- Giant Man merely has a temper rather than being shockingly abusive, Captain America sulks instead of taking his man-out-of-time aggression out on foes, and the Hulk tosses people around rather than being an uncontrollable explosion of head-biting rage. Even worse, Iron Man is suddenly a laughable Bruce Wayne rip-off instead of a complicated alcoholic, Black Widow is shallow, the Wasp is robbed of her empowerment, and Thor's sanity is rarely in question. Both films tend to soften their source material, lighten its mature themes, and provide a sugary version for mass consumption.
In the end, comic fandom remains split between those who love the old characters and those who prefer their new "Ultimate" renditions. These new films likely won't completely appeal to either, and both will probably end up dissatisfied. Movie fans and comic fans will likely agree that the animation is substandard, the voice work is lacking, and the entire production is best suited as an introduction of these classic characters to younger audiences. Having said that, as much as I was displeased with the end result, I'm keeping my copy -- when my son turns three later this year, he'll think it's the greatest thing ever.
Putting the quality of the animation aside, this high-definition video presentation is average for the most part. Brought to Blu-ray in 1080p with the MPEG-2 codec, these are the first feature-length 2D animation releases domestically in the US on either high definition format. Colors are bright and vivid (especially blues and reds), black levels are deep, and contrast is well rendered. Energy beams and explosions light up the screen, fast movement doesn't stutter due to technical inadequacies, and there aren't any compression artifacts to ruin the experience. Ported directly from its digital source, there isn't any grain or print defects and the picture is very clean.
There are some big problems though. For starters, both films are plagued by severe color banding -- dark skies look like patterned quilts, underwater expanses resemble stair cases, and vast white areas Lego their way into grays. For a perfect example of this, take a look at the battle between the Avengers and the Hulk at the end of the first film. On top of the color banding, thinner hand drawn lines at the edges of key frame animations are often pixilated, there's a slight motion blur to movement, and an occasional screen door effect occurs at random intervals. Unfortunately, these problems are very noticeable and often hinder everything that looks great about the colorful presentation.
Here audio quality is the one area where this disc really excels. The 7.1 channel linear PCM uncompressed sound mix was a very nice surprise. These are the first high-def films I've reviewed that have utilized all 7 of my surround channels and I have to say that alone was heavenly, but even placed in a 5.1 environment on my other system, the 7.1 uncompressed track functioned well and was almost as impressive. Surround effects bombarded my ears from every channel and I've rarely heard rear activity at this level outside of the theater. While it did drift over the top at times, for the most part it seemed to match the tone of the films and I simply sat back and enjoyed the mix for what it was. There's also an impressive 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX track, but it's a bit more muddled than the uncompressed mix.
Aircrafts whiz by with excellent channel movement, explosions fill the room, and accuracy is well handled. When I first picked up my seven channel system, I never expected to notice the difference as much as I did in this instance. Movement is so much more natural that I had a great time just listening to the audio mixes on these films. Bass tones are resonant and earthy, treble ranges are stable, and the dynamic range of sounds is impressive to say the least. The music and effects are prioritized perfectly (the downside being that I had to drop my main volume because the mix was just so overwhelming at my usual levels). There was also a nice ambiant presence that I wasn't expecting to find in low budget animated features and a lot of attention clearly went into the sound design -- clinking shrapnel, tiny hydraulic noises in the Iron Man armor, and the lightest effects are present. Don't get me wrong, it's still a cartoon -- if this two-dimensional sound design was placed alongside a live action release, I wouldn't be nearly as kind. But as is, it's one of the best technical sound presentations I've heard on a traditionally animated feature.
My only major issue concerns the dialogue -- compared to the rest of the soundscape, voices feel a tad thin and are almost always confined to the center channel alone. While it certainly lines up with my expectations of low budget animation, it seems out of place within the bombastic soundfield of the other elements in the mix.
The 'Ultimate Avengers Collection' compiles all of the various supplements from the standard definition DVDs and presents them with a nice high resolution polish. Comic fans will rejoice at how directly the features are aimed at their interests, but casual fans will probably not be as enthralled by the material.
First up is a set of two featurettes -- "Avengers Assemble" (23 minutes) and "The Ultimates" (24 minutes). The first concentrates on examining the history of the classic characters as they appeared throughout the decades. The second focuses on Mark Millar and Brian Hitch, the writer and penciler for the ongoing comic series that inspired the films. Both featurettes contain wonderful creator interviews as well as comments from editors and other famous names at Marvel. The reason I enjoyed each so much is that both featurettes generally stick to a handful of participants who offer a lot of precise but crucial information. The best of the set is the second featurette with Millar and Hitch -- both creators are adept at explaining the choices and inspirations they had in mind when they rebooted the Avengers for a more modern audience.
Next is a series of comedic shorts that will appeal to nearly everyone. The first is "The Ultimate Voice Talent Search" (5 minutes) -- a montage of videos submitted for a contest Marvel held to cast a fan as the voice of an Avenger. This group of misfits is so amusingly passionate (in spite of their awful voice work) that I found myself chuckling throughout. The second is "The Ultimate Gag Reel" (4 minutes) -- a series of clips from the first film that have been redubbed and edited to include humorous dialogue and imagery. I thought the clips were great and I laughed out loud more than once.
Finally, there's a trailer for "The Invincible Iron Man" animated feature, an uninteresting extended trailer called "The First Look at Dr. Strange," and an "Advanced Trivia Track" that can be played overtop of both feature flicks. The trivia track functions like an old episode of VH-1's "Pop-Up Video" and is solely written for the comic fan crowd. It got too detailed for my taste, but uber-Avenger fans will probably enjoy it quite a bit.
The 'Ultimate Avengers Collection' is a mixed bag. The films themselves won't completely satisfy any one adult audience, the video quality is average at best, while the supplemental features aren't terribly robust. On the bright side, the audio package is extremely impressive, comic fans will likely find a lot to love, and young kids will get a kick out of these action-oriented introductions to popular Marvel superheroes.