Marvel has been at the cutting edge of the live-action superhero movie wave that really kicked in with the Hugh Jackman/Halle Berry-headed X-Men a little over a decade ago. (It’s viable to argue that Wesley Snipes’ Blade really kicked things off, especially ignoring Captain America from 1990 as too unfinished a product to use as a launching pad.) But Marvel started running animated television series as well in 1966 and hasn’t ever really stopped, dominating a field that DC has tried to catch up on with the recent releases of Young Justice and Green Lantern. But feature-length animated movies? Marvel still has a strong upper hand.
Lionsgate has released two collections of feature-length, direct-to-DVD movies that star various individual or teams of heroes. The emphasis is on the characters normally associated with the Avengers, which makes sense given the impending release of the movie that Comic Editor Arnaldo Reyes has called the “greatest Marvel movie ever.” And it will give fans a chance to catch up on their favorite heroes mere weeks before The Avengers hits the big screen.
I’d actually seen most of the movies before, but it’s still impressive to catch a movie in high-definition for the first time, even an animated one. In the Ultimate Avengers Movie Collection, we’re treated to an animated look at stories from the Ultimate universe created by Mark Millar in Ultimate Avengers. First, it’s an origins story where Iron Man, The Hulk, Wasp, Giant Man, Thor, and Black Widow join the long-frozen Captain America to take direction from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Nick Fury. Their first mission is to fight off the aggressive aliens, the Chitauri, while also coping with Bruce Banner’s outbursts as the Hulk.
The sequel finds T’Challa/Black Panther seeking the Avengers’ aid against the villain from the first film, and the team (loosely used term, for sure) continues to grow. It’s one of the blessings and curses of the Ultimate universe: these aren’t your “nice” versions of the superheroes, but rather an infighting bunch, like a group of overgrown jocks who tend to bully and fight for position… like teenagers.
This segues nicely into the third movie, Next Avengers: Heroes For Tomorrow, which highlights what Marvel heroes are always trying to figure out. The issues are abundant in the situation fifteen years after Ultron has whipped the Avengers, sent them packing, and now attempts to finish off his conquest of Earth. The second generation of heroes rises, boldly going to meet the challenge, and answer the typical hero questions.
First, what are my powers and how am I supposed to use them? And second, does it matter that I seem all-powerful or should I really be aligning myself with a team? Anyone seeking out a standard for teamwork (and, of course, responsibility) should look no further than the Avengers for examples. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes, they don’t. But they have to accept who they are (kind of like Paul’s admonition to the church that not everyone is intended to be a foot or hand or an ear, but that as one body, working together, everything is complete).
In the Marvel Animated Features 3-Movie Collection, The Hulk, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange battle it out in their own highlight full-length movies. The Invincible Iron Man gives us a different kind of introductory look at the origins of the Iron Knight with Tony Stark battling Mandarin and his four Elementals that makes for an entertaining tale. (Marc Worden voiced Iron Man in the Ultimate Avengers movies and re-upped here in the standalone epic.) This becomes a testament to how often we mess things up in our arrogance or bravado, and have to figure out what it looks like to make amends, to atone for our wrongs.
In the Planet Hulk feature, The Hulk gets banished by his peers and finds himself on the planet Sakaar where he is received by the imprisoned natives as a Messiah. One planet’s exiled monster becomes another planet’s hero, and he battles fiercely, channeling his anger and his blood to bringing life and freedom. From Greg Pak’s original comic, it’s not hard to make a jump to anything like a Christ figure. Literally, Hulk’s blood brings life, and his efforts bring freedom. He’s more of a Judeo-Christian hero though because he literally provides freedom via fighting, rather than through message and/or sacrifice. This is my favorite of the animated films.
Finally, in the sixth film, Doctor Strange, we find a character less marketed to the general, non-comic reading populace. Here, a renowned surgeon loses it (think Body of Proof) and finds himself reinvented, as a magician with skills to take on evils that others can’t see or simply don’t accept when they do. It’s a more ethereal film based on content, rather than the pounding violence of a Hulk or blasting of an Iron Man, but it will certainly appeal to fans of Strange or those looking for a different corner of the Marvel universe.
All said, these two collections are pretty cheap if you’ve held out this long. And Blu-ray is definitely the way to go even if we’re not talking serious special features. Three full-length movies in each set for $15 each? It’s a steal, and a superhero smorgasbord for comic lovers and fans of the heroes in all of us.