Ultimate Avengers (2006)

Ultimate Avengers (2006)

Precautionary Note: The Geek Speak gets a little thick here, as I’ll be discussing several separate versions of a number of superheroes. For instance, there is:

  • The Captain America (and Iron Man, and Thor, etc.) of the regular Marvel Comics continuity. The Marvel Universe as we know it began in the early ‘60s with the first issue of the Fantastic Four. Soon it incorporated defunct characters from WWII era comics, such as Captain America and Namor the Submariner.
  • The Captain America of the discrete and more adult themed Ultimates universe, which was created several years ago. See below for more details.
  • The Cap of this movie, who is more or less a combination of the two.
  • In referring to these various versions, I’ll use the following prefixes: ‘RC’ for the ‘regular continuity,’ ‘UU’ for the Ultimates Universe, and ‘UA’ for the Ultimate Avengers movie version. If reading this has given you a headache, you might want to give this review a pass.

    It’s old news for the comic geek community, but a while ago Marvel hooked up with film distributor Lion’s Gate to produce a series of animated DTV movies based on the Marvel line-up. Ultimate Avengers is the first of these, with the remaining films due on more or less a quarterly basis. The RC Iron Man and Dr. Strange are supposedly coming soon, along with a second Ultimate Avengers movie.

    Such arrangements are a bit more problematic for Marvel than for its traditional rival DC Comics, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Warner Brothers media conglomerate. Since Marvel isn’t owned by a film studio, they’ve tended over the years to sell off the movie rights to their characters piecemeal. So Sony owns the movie rights to Spider-Man, another studio has Daredevil, another the Fantastic Four, etc.

    Of course, now that Marvel is going down this route, they can start reserving the rights to putting their characters in animated films, or something along those lines. However, as I understand it, the reason they were able to feature the entire roster of classic Avengers in this movie is because the film features the “Ultimate” Avengers. Apparently the Ultimates represent a legally discrete entity, and so Marvel has retained the film rights to the UU Cap, Hulk, Thor, and so on, even if the rights to the traditional versions of the characters are currently owned by a variety of studios.

    The Ultimate Universe, which has been around for maybe five or six years, is a self-contained and more adult-themed variation on the traditional Marvel universe. Aside from more sophisticated writing, it allowed writers to restart continuity from the beginning, and clear out forty-plus years of often deadweight plot occurrences. Thus Ultimate Spider-Man began afresh with a youthful Peter Parker being bitten by that radioactive spider. In this way they were able to pick and reinterpret the better parts of the traditional continuity, while dumping the more embarrassing ones.

    For instance, for several years the Peter Parker / Spider-Man featured in the regular universe books, readers eventually were told, was in fact a clone of the original Spider-Man. This lame device was akin to the time that a new season of the TV show Dallas began with the viewers being summarily informed that the entire previous season, one generally considered to be quite dreadful, had been in a fact a dream.

    This general problem issue has been a continuing issue for both Marvel and DC, and both companies have taken recurring and increasingly awkward steps to restart continuity in their regular universes. In fact, such revamps have become such a perennial event that it this sort of thing has been dubbed ‘retconning,’ for attempts to retroactively clear up especially problematic, conflicting or simply dumb pieces of continuity.

    In any case, this movie is again a retelling, but with a different emphasis, of the origin of The Avengers. Created back in 1964, the Avengers originally featured a ‘greatest heroes’ team that represented Marvel’s answer to DC’s Justice League of America. The team was subject to regular line-up changes, however, and by this point in time literally hundreds of Marvel superheroes (and more than a few villains) have been Avengers at one point or other.

    Our subject movie today, meanwhile, features not the traditional nor Ultimate version of the team, but rather an amalgam of the two. Ultimate Avengers proves an apt title, as the more hard-edged Ultimates are merged a bit with their RC counterparts. This allows the Ultimate’s probably R rating-worthy adventures to be softened down to a more family friendly PG-13.

    Thus the Ultimate Avengers Henry Pym, a.k.a. Giant Man, is a hotheaded jerk often seen arguing with his wife Janet, the Wasp. In The Ultimates comic books, meanwhile, Pym is literally physically abusive towards her, and at one point nearly kills her.

    The film opens during World War II, as Captain America joins a battalion of paratroopers they prepare to assault a heavily fortified Nazi fortress. Per the comics (and when I say this I’m referring to the Ultimates continuity, unless I say otherwise—sorry, I realize how confusing this must be for the non-geek), Cap’s uniform is more realistically military-oriented, with a traditional GI helmet in place of a cowl, for instance. However, in the movie he doesn’t carry a submachine gun, as he did in The Ultimates comics during the war flashbacks.

    I mean, c’mon, he was fighting the Nazis. The Ultimates Cap, it should be said, is a lot more hard edged than the regular continuity Cap, as the latter has been written since the early ‘60s.* (Although, it should be said, the Ultimates Cap is more in line with the way the character was originally presented back in the ‘40s, when the country was actually at war and a little jingoism was expected.) The Cap in the movie, however, is more along the lines of the regular version. This doesn’t cripple things, but is the first indication that the movie will be a bit more conventional and soft-toned than the Ultimates comics.

    [*The beauty of the revised Ultimates Cap is that although he’s been given a more realistic ‘40s sensibility, i.e., he’s more forthrightly jingoistic, and more confident in employing an appropriate level of violence—a John Wayne Captain America, as opposed to a Tom Cruise one—he’s still recognizably Cap. Thankfully, they’ve avoided painting him as a racist or a fascist. He’s still the one guy all the other heroes look up to.

    In my favorite Ultimates Captain American moment, he’s just barely holding back a terrified, very young but very powerful Spider-Man. Peter has been blackmailed into fighting alongside a group of supervillains who have discovered his identity and kidnapped his beloved Aunt May.

    However, she’s been rescued, as Cap informs Spider-Man in the middle of a major donnybrook between the Ultimates and the villains. An emotionally exhausted Peter, who obviously has been in some distress over this whole episode, shakily asks something like, “Really? I mean, is she really safe?” Cap just looks at him and softly says, “Son.”

    If you know the character, what he’s really saying is, “Hey, kid, I’m Captain America. You’re not really asking me if I’m lying, are you?” That’s great writing, and I love the fact that the author trusted us to get what was going on without spelling it out. The Cap of few words is a lot more intuitively correct one.]  

    On the other hand, the Ultimate Cap has been amped up a bit, power-wise. The RC Cap isn’t super-powered, but instead sort of a maximized human being. He’s as strong, fast, agile, etc., as a human is capable of being. However, to tie the characters together, the Ultimate universe Bruce Banner has become the Hulk (and a rather more murderous version of the character) in the course of trying to re-create the Super Soldier serum that turned a spindly polio victim named Steve Rogers into Captain America. Banner cut some corners, experimented on himself and…oops.

    In order to justify the de-gammafied UU Hulk’s incredible strength, the Super Soldier serum in the Ultimates Universe did in fact bestow superpowers upon Cap. I don’t know if they’ve ever quantified them, but I’d say the Ultimates Cap is nearly as strong and tough as, say, Spider-Man. This serves to allow Cap to trade blows with and actually survive being hit by the vastly more powerful Hulk, which otherwise is a fairly problematic issue. Although the UA Cap is in personality more like the RC version, he apparently retains the power levels and partial invulnerability of the UU one. (Seriously, did anybody follow that?)

    [Proofreader and comic book buff extraordinaire Carl Fink points out that at various short junctures in the Regular Universe continuity, Cap has been awarded superstrength. However, like when a hero’s familiar costume is suddenly changed for now real reason, this was generally done by hack seeking to do “something new” with the character.  In these cases, the superstrength seemed entirely beside the point. In the Ultimates Universe, however, Cap’s enhanced strength works because it has a reason. In a more ‘realistic’ universe, any character trading blows with the Hulk has to be at least somewhat stronger than human. As well, the UA Cap’s heightened strength never supersedes who he is as a character, as it tended to do in the Regular Continuity. In those books he tended to just be another guy who could lift up a car.]

    Anyway, back to the movie, where Cap and some dog faces are preparing to assault that Nazi stronghold. Although one embittered G.I. sarcastically refers to Cap as “that poster boy,” and considers him a fraud who “is gonna die just like the rest of us,” he changes his tune when Cap smashes a plane into the fortress, clearing the way for the troops to successfully rush the place.

    Inside, Cap is shocked to learn that the nuclear missile the Nazis are preparing to fire is surrounded by some rather vicious looking green aliens, the Chitauri. Cap begins to fight an old Nazi foe, who himself proves to be a shapeshifting alien. The missile is fired, but Cap rides along with it. He manages to destroy the missile, but is thrown into the frigid ocean far below, presumably dead.

    With a short 68 minute running time, we move right on. It’s the modern day, and a futuristic sub is searching an underwater ice field. In command is General Nick Fury, the spymaster behind SHIELD, sort of a James Bond, top secret Homeland Security department / military branch. In the Ultimate Universe Fury sort of ties all the books together, and—as Peter Parker learned to his chagrin—in performing his job has uncovered the secret identity of most of the Ultimate superheroes*. One big difference in the Ultimate Universe is that the Avengers are formed by the government, and overseen by Fury.

    [* There’s no indication one way or the other as to whether Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, etc., exist in the UA movie universe. I’m assuming they do, but this isn’t established.]

    With Fury is scientist Betty Ross, the former girlfriend and current colleague of Bruce Banner. Their quest is quickly successful, as they discover the frozen corpse of Captain America. With this, they hope to finally crack the secret of the Super Soldiers formula. Back at headquarters, Banner is ecstatic. This version of Banner is a lot grungier than the normal one, probably due to the fact that he’s kept continuously drugged and imprisoned following an earlier, elliptically referred to rampage as the Hulk. Banner is obsessed with recreating the Super Soldier serum, both to save his reputation and, more unrealistically, to help win back Betty.

    Cap’s body is soon defrosted. However, it turns out that he’s not dead after all, but has been in a state of suspended animation. He fights his way out of the heavily secured facility, only to be disoriented by a New York cityscape far different than that he knew. Obviously adrift in the present day, he accepts Fury’s offer to join SHIELD.

    Meanwhile, the Chitauri have raised their heads again, and appear to be attempting to take over the world, directly this time. To cope with this threat, a reluctant Fury is ordered to assemble a team of the world’s known superheroes, including Iron Man (secretly billionaire industrialist and playboy Tony Stark); a Scandinavian who has declared himself to be Thor, the Norse god of storms; and Henry and Janet Pym, who respectively grows and shrinks as Giant Man and the Wasp. Also on hand is the beauteous Black Widow, Fury’s right hand and a former Soviet superspy.*

    [*Those who find the Widow’s fighting skills a bit exaggerated might want to give things a closer look. At one point Banner mentions there being twelve subjects for his Super Soldier serum experiments. Their faces appear on a nearby computer monitor, and if you look closely, one of them appears to be the Widow. So possibly she’s had her skills and physical capabilities augmented by the experiments, if not, presumably, to Captain America-type levels.]

    I don’t want to get into much more than that, plot wise. However, before things are over, we get a pretty fabulous battle between the Avengers and the Chitauri, followed by the team taking on a homicidally berserk Hulk. As a comic geek, I’ve got to say that this climatic part of the film is terrific stuff.

    The animation is about at a really good TV series level. I wouldn’t quite put it up against Batman: The Animated Series, which perhaps remains the benchmark for superhero cartoons, but it’s more than adequate.

    However, there are problematic elements. During most scenes, things like the motion of people walking look awkward. It seems likely that they reduced the frame rate (i.e., how many animated cells per second) for some scenes, so that they could pour more money and care into the big action sequences. Given their presumably limited budget, this was probably the correct decision. In a perfect world, however, this initial film will make enough money to allow for further improvements on the movies yet to come.

    The writing is good, but due to the short running time, things are kind of rushed. (On the other hand, it never hurts to leave people wanting more.) Cap is definitely the main character, and much of the characterization time goes to him and his attempts to find a place for himself in a world he can barely comprehend. His attempts to forge a cantankerous and often hot headed bunch of individuals into a team are also pretty well realized.

    Bruce Banner also gets a decent amount of time. There’s a quietly humorous scene where Cap stumbles across Banner’s work space, which is veritable shrine to Captain America. Banner unconvincingly attempts to pass this off as merely necessary to his work. However, it’s a good fix on Banner as a character. As a brilliant but scrawny, oft-bullied dweeb his entire life, who would Banner be more likely to idealize than national icon Captain America, a prototypical 98-pound weakling transformed by science into the pinnacle of physical perfection?

    Geeks, meanwhile, will also dig stuff like Fury presenting Cap with his trademark round shield, which here is indestructible because it’s been forged from Chitauri metal. Another fabulous sequence is the fight between Thor and the Hulk. You’ll know you’re a real nerd if, like me, you react with a big “Whoa!” at one particular part of this. Cap’s running interference with the Hulk to keep him from murdering his teammates is also great stuff, even if, unlike the Ultimate Cap of the comics, this Cap refrains from kicking the Hulk in the nuts.

    Everyone else sort of gets short shift. The Thor of the Ultimates comics is a Euro-style socialist and environmental activist, and altogether suspicious of American hegemony. Thus, at least in the comics, he doesn’t join the team, but instead fights alongside them when and as he chooses. (In the comics’ analogue battle with the Hulk, we only jumps in after blackmailing Washington into double America’s foreign aid budget.)

    Here Thor is instead a more hedonistic, sometimes comical figure, although we do see him confronting a whaling ship. The question of whether he really is a demigod, or instead just a super-powered nut, is a somewhat major issue in the Ultimates comics, but touched upon only briefly here. (This bit is actually taken from the original RC Avengers comics back in the ‘60s, since those Avengers, especially Iron Man, found Thor’s claims of semi-divinity to be a bit much.) From a preview included on the disc, it appears that Thor’s background will come more into play in the next Ultimate Avengers movie.

    For his part, Tony Stark is a playboy and nobody’s fool, and his alcoholism is hinted at but not directly established. (Meanwhile, a major plot about him in the comics isn’t mentioned here at all.) Hank Pym is, as noted before, a hot headed jerk prone to impulsiveness—a combination which doesn’t serve him well when he confronts the Hulk—who is insanely jealous regarding his long-suffering wife, the Wasp. As in the Ultimates comics, she is Asian, although she also has some secrets in the comics that don’t come into play here.  

    Overall, the movie is solid if not spectacular, although still superior to most comic book adaptations. The writing is quite good, although not as provocative as that found in the Ultimates comic books. The animation ranges from serviceable to really quite decent. Ultimate Avengers definitely raises my hopes for the rest of the movies. Only time will tell whether it remains the best of the lot or instead, as you’d hope, continues to be improved upon.