Thursday, March 2, 2006

Ultimate Waste: Some Ugly Ruminations on "Ultimate Avengers"

In the wake of the success of several live-action ventures based upon its popular characters, Marvel has embarked upon a collaboration with Lion's Gate Films aimed at creating a series of animated features. First up is "Ultimate Avengers," which hit DVD on Feb. 21st.

There's no more perfect candidate for screen treatment than the excellent "Ultimates" series by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. The book had offered a mature, psychologically complex tale that fixed many of the holes in the regular Marvel Universe Avengers book and was intentionally cinematic in its storytelling, something that could be brought to the screen with minimal alteration. The film project offered a golden opportunity to produce something quite unique, a groundbreaking film that would have heralded a triumphant entry by Marvel into the field of animated comic adaptations dominated since the early 1990s by their rival DC.

Unfortunately, Marvel is, it seems, still stuck in the increasingly distant past with respect to animated adaptations, still dedicated to the notion of grinding out Saturday morning kiddie cartoons in the mold of the mid-to-late '80s/early '90s and pretending as though "Batman The Animated Series" and its successors never happened.

Every aspect of "Ultimate Avengers" is, in fact, identical to animated product of that earlier era--incredibly cheap animation, horrible "G.I. Joe"-style music, voice "actors" who can't act,[1] reading embarrassingly awful dialogue from writers who can't write.[2] If you've seen the '80s "G.I. Joe" series, the "Transformers" show of the same era, or the early '90s Marvel cartoons, you've seen everything "Ultimate Avengers" has to offer. The film is a mess and, frankly, an inexcusable one.

More than that, it's a tragedy, an utterly wasted opportunity. Instead of the classic it should have been, we get just another Saturday morning cartoon aimed at 7-to-10-year-olds, but with a PG-13 rating.

...which brings me to another point: The PG-13 rating slapped on this clinker is a joke.[3] The movie is aimed squarely at the kiddie bracket and does literally nothing to earn that PG-13 rating. There's no gore, no cursing, no sex. It's actually far less mature than the prominent DC/Warner Bros. animated television productions of the past decade and could, in all likelihood, be run on children's television without altering a frame.[4] In a more reasonable era, it would have gotten a G rating. Even in this barbaric age, however, it's difficult to imagine any reasonable observer branding this with anything above a very soft PG.

The rating smacks of a marketing campaign. With that thought, it should also be noted that the film's pre-release ad campaign, which promised a more literal adaptation of the book, amounted to a colossal--and intentional--lie, arguably an even bigger one than the absurd rating. The teaser trailer released late last year--the only good thing on the "Fantastic Four" DVD--was made up, mostly, of scenes taken directly from the comic and rendered in fantastic animation. That, combined with the announced rating, created much anticipation among those of us hoping for a faithful adaptation but as it turns out, not a single frame of that material, shown in the teaser, is actually in the movie.

If I sound as though I'm somewhat vengeful towards the film, I was one of those duped by this campaign.

There doesn't seem to be much point in going into the "plot." There really isn't one--it's just a random stew of elements from the first volume of "Ultimates" with some regular Marvel Universe "Avengers" material thrown in. As I've been a fairly vocal critic of the regular Avengers comic, I feel compelled to point out that these inclusions from that original book are not the source of the problems with the "plot" and "characterization" in "Ultimate Avengers." As lame as "Avengers" has historically been, it would be wrong to smear that book with being the poison at the heart of this pooch.[5] Even at its worst--and the worst for the Avengers is as bad as mainstream books get--the Avengers was far more intelligent and thoughtful than "Ultimate Avengers." The two could still be mixed together and create a great movie (though I'd argue for a straightforward Ultimates flick). The deadly mixture here isn't of "Ultimates" and "Avengers"--it's of the comics and the most cretinously idiotic available breed of knockoff children's cartoons and it's the latter that poisons everything.

To speak bluntly--and vengefully--I'd love to see Marvel fall flat on its considerable ass on this one. This is impossible, of course--they spent virtually nothing on this trash, which means its pretty much guaranteed a hefty profit. Ominously, the second "Ultimate Avengers" release is already in the works, to be followed by an Iron Man and Dr. Strange project. After this one, I'd rather these other projects never occur. If the folks at Marvel ever gets their animation act together, they're sitting on a goldmine. If, as it appears, they're merely going to continue to pretend it's still the 1980s, I'd rather not see these other properties dragged through the mud in this manner.



[1] The sole exception is Olivia D'Abo, who brings more life to the Black Widow than the film deserves.

[2] All of this begs the question, "what on earth were they thinking?" If this was going to be an Ultimates film, it should never have been a project aimed at young children. If creating just another Saturday morning cartoon for very young children was the goal right out of the gate, there's a wealth of source material out there from which to choose (including the original Avengers) but they'd have to have gone with "The Authority" or "Supreme Power" to get something in the superhero genre less appropriate than "Ultimates."

[3] The fact that the filmmakers were willing to accept a PG-13, though, only makes the movie that much more of a tragedy, as the comic could have been properly adapted under that very same rating.

[4] That's no longer merely a supposition--Cartoon Network recently announced that they plan to do that very thing.

[5] The DVD's only redeeming feature is "Avengers Assemble," a great little documentary about the comics, principally the Avengers. It has George Perez, Tom Breevort, Kurt Busiek, Mark Millar, Joe Quesada, etc. It spends a great deal of time with Perez, who clearly loves the characters and loves working on them. I wish this had been a bit longer. It's so much better than the movie that the viewer is left wondering why it wasn't the main feature, with the "Ultimate Avengers" rubbish as an extra.

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