Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow

Marvel Animation, in its various iterations, is perhaps under-appreciated as an American animation studio. Over the years, there have been a huge number of Marvel properties adapted into animation – Ralph Bakshi was animating Spiderman in the 60s (very badly) just before he went to work on Fritz the Cat; a wide variety of shows in the 90s were made under the studios of New World Animation that became the ‘Marvel Animated Universe’, including the X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Incredible Hulk cartoons; while in more recent years, the likes of X-Men Evolution and its follow-up Wolverine and the X-Men have been successes for Marvel Animation. The studio’s latest project is a series of anime produced in collaboration with Madhouse, thus far a mixed bag. But from 2006 until the May of this year, Marvel produced eight animated films for Liongate. Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow is one of them, the most kid-friendly and light-hearted, but just like all the rest, making minimal impact on the world of animation or the mainstream and being released direct-to-video.

Next Avengers comes so close to being superb enough that I would go recommending it to anyone who may be interested as an attempt to do what Teen Titans did but better, and without the contrived anime stylistic imitations – albeit not first, and for that many will dismiss it as a poor imitation. What holds it back, sadly, is the animation. It’s a little strange, because the production values are high: pause the film at just about any point and the frame will look superb. The character designs are by and large cute and appealing. The story, while odd, is good, and the voice acting much better than I expected. But the characters just do not move right. They are stiff and often weightless. They do not move enough, and do not seem to connect with one another, especially in action sequences. There’s a scene where Torunn is slammed to the ground, grasps her sword and flies back up at intense speed, and it should be awesome – but it just seems so flat and lifeless.

It’s a shame because there is real promise here. The premise is oddly dark and might well cause some confusion with young kids who don’t know about Marvel’s multiple universes and assume this will be the ultimate fate of the Avengers: after a period of peace, they are attacked by Ultron and crushed, almost all of them killed. Iron Man escapes, taking with him the four children of Avengers – Captain America and Black Widow’s son James, the Pyms’ son Henry Jr, Black Panther’s son Azari and Thor’s daughter Torunn. Hawkeye, too, had a son, but Iron Man was not able to reach him before they fled to the Arctic.

Somewhat out-of-character for him, Tony Stark spends twelve years in hiding while Ultron conquers much of the world. He trains the children and tells them stories of their parents, all dead but for Thor, who had returned to Asgard. They grow up as siblings: James is a somewhat self-centred boy who yearns to set out from their ‘island’. Azari has more of a sense of responsibility and is the sensible one of the bunch. Pym is the youngest, and the cute, mischievous comic relief – probably the most likeable of the four. And then there is Torunn, who wears a very silly breastplate reminiscent of Zero from Megaman and tries to imitate her father’s speech, being quite adorable when she gets it wrong – and right. ‘I say thee nay!’ Always gets me.

One day, with an amusingly nonchalant entrance, The Vision, damaged, comes to the island to tell Stark about Hawkeye Jr. The children follow Stark into an underground layer, where he is repairing The Vision. They accidentally set off Iron Man’s robotic versions of the Avengers, who are not only captured by Ultron and made into his soldiers, but who give away the hideout, meaning the Next Avengers are on the run. Of course they eventually must confront Ultron himself, but even with the help of the much more worldly, rather flirtatious new Hawkeye, they’re going to need help. Torunn’s father may help in some way, but he won’t return. But perhaps there is another Avenger still alive – the strongest of them all.

I really wanted to love this. Seeing the cute designs and fluid motions of the very first shots, I was eager. I could forgive the utterly awful exposition piece with static cut-outs of the Avengers moving about as stylised. I even liked how Storm’s appearance was limited to just a hand – perhaps a rights issue? But then the real story kicked in and it just looked clumsy, and only for a few minutes of the whole could I put aside how poorly animated and clunky it all was. A shame, because I really liked the characters and probably even prefer the general premise to that of Young Avengers. Oh well.

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