Before Marvel's interconnected movies came along and paid off with the massively successful release of 'The Avengers,' the idea of a shared comic-book universe, outside the character's monthly printed appearances, was primarily relegated to animated or video game fare. Of course now all that has changed, as the name of the game isn't necessarily how one character can build a franchise, but how several characters can interact with one another in a manner that is both consistent with the audience expectations of bigger and more, while also being lucrative for the company whose characters are being featured.
So, for Marvel's first 'Heroes United' animated title, the company has wisely chosen to bring together two of their heavy hitters with Iron Man and Hulk – bringing together a potent mix of box-office and brawn, respectively – to headline the generically titled 'Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United,' which joins the two characters in a brisk, but disjointed 71-minute animated feature that, just like 'The Avengers,' focuses on the benefits of teamwork, while also slipping in some heavy-handed, but mercifully brief, lines about energy consumption and ham-handed platitudes the environment.
The movie operates in the venerated tradition of the classic Marvel Team-Up by plucking two characters from seemingly disparate storylines, only to have them eventually collaborate against a common foe. And in keeping with that Marvel Team-Up tradition, there first has to be a misunderstanding, or some long-standing feeling of resentment between the two heroes that gives the fans a chance to see which character would win in a fight (to a standstill, most of the time) before realizing the only way to achieve their goals is to work together. For those who may be not as well versed in comic-book tradition, there is something sacred about the hero fight that, without it, the whole idea of a team-up would somehow feel like something integral was missing.
Thankfully, 'Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United' understands this principle quite well, starting things of with a rather chatty, intelligent, and rational Hulk trying to keep his frequent nemesis Emil Blonsky – a.k.a. The Abomination – from destroying the homes of "good people" in his pursuit to subdue Hulk and bring him back to Hydra for some wacky, sure-to-be-a-disaster experiment that has to do with harnessing the monster's gamma-fueled energy. Meanwhile, Tony Stark (voiced here by former 'Heroes' star Adrian Pasdar) is sparring with J.A.R.V.I.S., trying to explain how his "speed" and "tech" can be used to overwhelm any foe, no matter their size or strength. And in order to do make this point, J.A.R.V.I.S. is conveniently operating from one of Tony's Hulk Buster armors.
It's all very tepid stuff that spends a lot of time telling people things they already know about the characters, in an apparent attempt to lessen the audience's awareness that the depiction of Iron Man and Hulk here is wildly different from the incarnations that have made the Marvel Universe into the box-office champion it is today. Here, Hulk is something akin to Peter David's "smart" version of the character, demonstrating an intelligence beyond that of simply saying "SMASH," but also carrying a huge gamma-irradiated chip on his shoulder, which causes him to lament his status as an eternally persecuted green monster in a series of woe is me monologues. The result, then, is a mostly irritating interpretation of the character, shifting him from being an unstoppable and unpredictable force of nature, to being a really strong, petulant teenager with authority issues and an endless appetite to match.
Meanwhile, Stark is a little closer to the kind of character audiences in both comics and movies have come to appreciate. There is a haughty nature to him here as well, but instead of it being an endearing character flaw brought about by his intelligence, wit, charm, and wealth, Tony just comes across as an unpleasant, arrogant windbag. Some of this might be in the way the character is given voice by Pasdar, who does an admirable job here, but doesn't quite manage to achieve that likeable arrogance that comes so naturally to Downey. To be honest, though, the fault in Stark's depiction lies mostly in the script, as all hint of nuance and sarcasm has been removed to make the dialogue appropriate and more understandable for a younger crowd.
The fact that the characters are not necessarily indicative of their representations in the live-action films is neither good nor bad; there is, after all, something to be said for authorial intent, and considering the audience that this movie is shooting for, it is unsurprising for both Iron Man and Hulk to be made a little more palatable to suit a younger mindset. Still, there is a difference between a movie being geared toward a certain audience and it being almost unbearably brainless most of the time.
What story there actually is concerns the unforeseen consequence of Hydra's ill-advised Hulk/Abomination experiment result in the birth of a new life form made of pure energy that calls itself Zzzax – which sounds more like an ultra-hip gastropub on Manhattan's Upper East Side, than it does a serious threat to the combined might of Hulk and Iron Man. But Zzzax proves to be a worthy foe, hell bent on sucking up all the precious energy of the world, unless the two heroes can find some way of working together to stop him. Unfortunately for the movie, Zzzax isn't really a character, or a villain even; he's just a thinly drawn problem that Hulk and Iron Man need to find a solution to.
To be honest, it seems surprising that the writers were able to come up with 71 minutes worth of running around and fighting to keep the two characters busy until the inevitable conclusion arrived. But even that's a stretch, as the strain of trying to flesh out this remarkably slim, emaciated story results in an incredibly strange, unmotivated detour that has a blind Hulk and an immobilized Iron Man fighting a pack of Wendigos in a fog-filled cemetery. It's as if the movie suddenly needed five extra minutes, so the writers copy and pasted a fight scene from a completely different project to fill the gap.
At any rate, the scene, like so much else going on in 'Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United,' looks great; it just doesn't have any real justification for being around in the first place. This is undoubtedly the first of many animated Marvel Team-Ups, so here's hoping the tepid nature of this initial entry is not indicative of what's to come.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United' is a 50GB Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy. The film will play a few previews before heading to the top menu, but they can be skipped. One of the neater aspects of the disc is that, when the movie is paused, it will automatically play one of several Marvel Mash-Ups, which delightfully parody the animated adventures of Marvel characters.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 codec of 'Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United' results in a crystal clear, nearly flawless image that really shows off some of the incredible detail that this style of computer animation can bring to a production like this. The animation process allows the film to play with Tony Stark's signature armor in a way that perhaps more traditional hand-drawn animation might not be able to afford. Here, we can see little scratches in his faceplate, and all the precise edges of the joints and overlapping bits that give him such freedom of movement. There are times when the result of the high detail produces an almost lifelike representation of the character, while other times, the animation opts to render things as a flat, featureless surface, resulting in the film having an uneven look overall.
Still, colors and contrast remain high throughout. Iron Man's armor is bright and vivid, while Hulk's verdant hue is consistent, and Zzzax's glowing body comes through looking terrifically bright without washing out everything around him. Much of the movie's setting has a rather dark color palette, so anything brightly colored – or, like Zzzax, just bright – tends to pop out and ask the audience to take notice. There is also a surprising amount of detail to be found in the background at certain points in the movie. While the details themselves aren't necessarily tremendous, the fact that they are there gives the image a greater sense of depth than it would have had otherwise.
All in all, this is a great looking picture that is consistent throughout and only really suffers in some parts due to some uneven animation decisions.
'Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United' comes with an impressive sounding DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that does a tremendous job highlighting the less-than-stellar dialogue of the film, while also bringing in clean, clear sound effects and score. All the various voice actors come through sounding distinct and recognizable – there is more than one voice here that fans of video games and other animated fare will likely be familiar with – but the mix also manages to take the voices that are intended to be enhanced in some way (Iron Man's voice and Zzzax, to be precise) and still delivers unique, but understandable dialogue.
Sound effects are particularly impressive, as the directionality and imaging work wonderfully to give a sense that objects are whizzing past the listener, or, in the case of the Wendigos, something fearsome is snarling just out of the line of sight. This effect is most useful when Iron Man is engaged in some high-flying maneuvers toward the film's end. There isn't much in the way of atmospheric effects present, but that likely doesn't matter: the mix is generally jam-packed with repulsors being fired, or objects getting smashed, so no one will likely notice.
While the mix doesn't entirely generate a truly immersive listening experience, the sound is plenty good enough where it matters most. Besides, as bad as some of this dialogue is, you'll probably wind up watching the movie with the sound off.
Along with the uneven, disjointed story, 'Iron Man & Hulk: Heroes United' is animated in a peculiar style than renders things like Iron Man's armor in terrific detail, while struggling to give human faces any sense of realism, depth, or strong sense of character. Hulk's face is consistent throughout, but his expression seems to be that of someone struggling with painful constipation, or some other gastrointestinal problem. It's the same for all human faces, which explains why the movie seems to favor Iron Man's graphically interesting faceplate to that of Tony Stark's dead-eyed expression most of the time. This short, mechanical animated effort may score some points from younger fans for having such recognizable characters, but the thin story and poorly realized characters will likely please very few – regardless their age. Still, with great picture and sound, this one could be visually worth it for the more hard-core comic fans.