Sunday, April 14, 2013

Animation Review: Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow

Potential futures aren't a plot line alien to the Marvel Universe of comic books, video games, and films with popular arcs featuring X-Men's Cable or Bishop characters or the popular Marvel 2099 and MC2 line of books, and Marvel's 2008 animated adventure, Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow, follows the trend.

Next Avengers doesn't bring anything particularly new to the table. Five children from the ages of about fifteen down through eight are raised as the chosen beacons of hope in a world under siege by the robot overlord Ultron. Oh, and these children just so happen to be the offspring of The Avengers, and as such they tend to have the abilities of both of their parents. Even the parents whose powers were the results of wearing the necessary costume.

Leading the charge is James Rogers, the oldest of the heroes and the son of Captain America and the Black Widow. The movie never comes right out and says it, but his actions imply that he has inherited the enhanced strength and agility of the super soldier serum that granted his father with superhuman powers. He is also armed with an energy dispenser that can generate solid constructs in the shape of Captain America's famous shield. These constructs can be generated to very large sizes and even removed from the generator and hurled as Frisbees, though they disappear after a short time.

Under his command is the youngest but the most technologically gifted, Henry Pym, Jr., who wears a suit that grants him the abilities of his parents, Giant Man and the Wasp. Typically he prefers to flutter around like a little pixie and blast people in the ears, but Pym is also shown as capable of growing to be as large as his father could. Pym is largely annoying, although that's his character. He isn't annoying in the accidental way that a lot of young characters tend to be, but annoying in the way that a lot of young children tend to be, and he often drives his adoptive siblings up a wall. While you definitely want to punch the little snot around, his interactions are solid and believable and there isn't a moment where you wish he wasn't in the film (which is more than you could say about his parents).

Torunn is the daughter of Thor the thunder god who was left in the care of Tony Stark to learn humility and compassion from the start as opposed to being trialed after growing into a giant walking poo like her father. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to have worked, as Torunn is just as brash as Thor ever was and believes herself to be an immortal and indestructible goddess who has little respect for her mortal companions or their earthly worries. Desperately wanting to be accepted by her father, Torunn wholly embraces all there is to being Asgardian, attempting even to incorporate Thor's Shakespearean dialect into her own words, though she is often forgetful of this and speaks with a much more modern dialect when not paying attention.

Of all the characters in the film, Torunn goes through the largest shift as a character. When the children arrive in Ultra City, the capital city of Ultron's growing empire, she charges recklessly into combat with the patrol bots under the false idea that she is invincible. Her self-constructed reality shatters to the ground after a laser blast torches her flesh and she realizes "Holy crap, this fucking hurts". From that point onward she completely abandons her go-get-'em attitude for a much more cowardly one where she insists that they cannot possibly defeat Ultron and turn tail and run. Torunn is probably my favorite character out of it all, but there are a few major issues with how quickly her personality changes (which happens more than once, spoiler).

Azari T'Challa is the son of the Black Panther, and appears to wear pieces of the classic Panther costume, so it can be assumed that his cat-like abilities come from that. He can also blast lightning and create electrical constructs, so I think it's fairly safe to assume that his mother is Storm, though this is never mentioned even once. He tries to be the voice of reason for the group, but is often overruled by James' cool directives, Torunn's rudeness, and Pym's eagerness. He shows the least development of all the young heroes, but there's a few hints that he doesn't feel as though he can follow in his father's footsteps.

These heroes are joined by Francis Barton, son of Hawkeye, who leads a Morlocks-styled group of survivors known as the Scavengers, an elderly Tony Stark, who raised them in an artificial environment in the Arctic Circle, and Vision's Head, which loses its reserve energies shortly after helping them escape from Ultron. Additionally they are confronted with their parents in the form of the Iron Avengers, which have all been corrupted by Ultron and become his minions. This is extremely predictable, as the ending battle results in each child fighting the respective robotic counterparts to their parents and acts a metaphor for growing up, proving to the children that they are capable of following in their parents' footsteps.

While the plot is all very generic--I mean, child of the famous hero has been done to death, and children of the famous heroes who have the combined abilities of both has been done even moreso--the movie excels at creating children who aren't stupid, daydreaming morons. Instead the characters all feel very real, which is a refreshing experience for the genre. Also refreshing is the fact that they do not overcome their challenges by dumb luck, but actually find some way out of sticky situations all on their own (with one exception which I will get to in a moment) . Granted, if they were a more rational group they would have never gotten into half of these situations to begin with. Woe is the angst-drive teen.

The exception to this rule is the penultimate conflict with Ultron, who would of course waste all of these little brats in an instant. They know this, Tony Stark knows this, everybody knows this. So what do they do? They find an elderly Hulk and make him do their dirty work. This resolution is getting tiresome, and the Marvel animated films have fallen back on it time and time again. It's also a huge let down when we see these characters developing for the entire film and these are the characters we want to see rising victoriously over the fried corpse of their cyborg foe. Instead we get treated to a savage-looking bearded side character ripping the robot in half, and that's it, end of the movie. Disappointing.

Another disappointment was the lack of surprise. The movie opens by showing us exactly who the Avengers were in the form of a bedtime story being told by Stark to the younger Next Avengers in the form of a fairy tale. Instead of referring to the heroes by name, Tony refers to each one as an archetype: the Soldier, the Knight, the Spy, the Pixie, the Giant, the King, the Ghost, the Archer, and the God. It is interesting to note that Tony does not tell the children about the Hulk, but I'll go ahead and designate him as "the Ogre".

Of course we expect to see the children for these heroes who are all mentioned, but what about children for the thousands of other heroes in the Marvel Universe? We don't ever get a chance to see an adult X-23 or Runaways, no mention of an older Spider-Man or possibly his daughter, no young Cable or Bishop. None of that. We get the children of the characters mentioned at the beginning of the movie, and that's all. Not even a student of Doctor Strange, who had a movie that takes place in the same continuity as this one (this movie is hinted at being related to the Ultimate Avengers films, which share elements with a Doctor Strange and Iron Man film. I do not know if Hulk Vs. also shares this continuity, but its my understanding that a number of Marvel features all exist within this universe).

While the story itself leaves much to be desired, the animation and art I found phenomenal. It's all very clean and smooth with a very definite Japanese influence (refusing to use "anime" is my new thing, because it's wrong) to the coloring and lines as well as some of the animation decisions. A lot of American animation has a very tough and heavy feel to it where everything is calm and subdued, almost like it's afraid to be too animated, while Japanese animation tends to be very vibrant with everything alive and kicking. Next Avengers has a bit of both, and it benefits from it. The environments are also really cool to look at and are painted with a phenomenal attention to detail. One scene where the art really stands out is the battle between Ultron and Iron Man toward the beginning of the film which colors the robots with deep shadows, an array of shades and shines and glares, brilliant lights. It's a spectacular moment of animation and art, and I'd watch this whole thing again just for that moment.

The voice acting is all pretty good. There isn't anything that will hurt your ears or that seems too out of character. It is a little surprising to see how old Tony Stark and Bruce Banner have become in twelve years time, and I think they portrayed them a couple of decades older than they should have been. This includes their voices, which are pretty old, raspy, and quiet, and it didn't feel right much at all.

On the note of Tony Stark, this isn't a Stark you'll recognize. This Stark has been changed by the duties of parenthood, and it has changed him very much. He is calm, rational, and above all responsible. He's a surprisingly good father for an alcoholic. Some people might not like this total shift in character, but I actually liked seeing how Tony finally grew up and what being a surrogate father has turned him into.

My biggest complaint with this film is one that I share with pretty much the entire line of Marvel animated films: it is too short and too fast. This film feels very much like it wants to rush through to the credits, and with only 75 minutes of animation, that doesn't take it very long to do. Because of this some characters are never properly explored, and some develop much too quickly. Torunn is almost a completely different character every other scene, and Azari doesn't develop at all. Adding an extra half hour to the film, putting it on par with most other animated endeavours, would have done much to improve it over all. This hyper fast trend in animation is something I've noticed in recent years, and it's something which bothers me greatly. The Nickelodeon series T.U.F.F. Puppy is a very solid example of what I'm getting at here, where the show doesn't ever sit to let the viewers take in what's going on and seems to hop around nonsensically from one thing to the next as a result.

Dear animation studios: viewers need a minute to digest things or they will not get the full effect.

The musical score is... completely unmemorable. I want to say it was fitting, and I want to say it wasn't, but I can't because I don't remember it. At all. Bummer.

Overall I enjoyed the movie. It's not great, it's not bad, it's better than okay. I'll say it's good. I like the characters, and the film left me wanting more of them, so that's always a good way to gauge a story. If you want more of it, it was probably good. I do wish Marvel would create a tie-in comic book to explore the transitional period from Ultron's reign back into regular human society and how the Next Avengers deal with being superheroes in this morphing urban environment. I think it could be really cool, and these characters themselves are all too cool to waste.

Seven out of Ten for the good film that isn't great!

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