-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
Ultimate Avengers The Movie
directors: Curt Geda and Steven E. Gordon
70 minutes (PG) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Lions Gate DVD Region 2 retail
Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise Of The Panther
directors: Will Meugniot and Richard Sebast
70 minutes (12) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Lions Gate DVD Region 2 retail
reviews by Alasdair Stuart
The last decade have seen two series revolutionise 'action' comics. Warren Ellis' The Authority
was, in essence, Thunderbirds with added bite, the story of a superhuman rescue organisation
who, under later writers, were taking into flawed if interesting political waters.
More recently, The
Ultimates has served to make the same widescreen action, politically savvy points that
The Authority made in Marvel Comics' ultimate line. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by
Authority artist Bryan Hitch, The Ultimates is a profoundly adult look at exactly
what might happen to a superhuman team operating in the modern day. Affairs, personal problems
and the pressures of life in the media spotlight all pose at least as big a threat as alien
invasions or super-powered terrorists. It's a great series, one worth tracking down in collected
form, and is justifiably regarded as one of the best mainstream titles of the last five years.
It's no surprise then that The Ultimates would be chosen to spearhead Marvel's push
into direct to DVD animated features. With an Iron Man feature imminent and a Doctor
Strange one to follow, it makes sense to open with a franchise this strong and with this
much to say. However, commercial success means making some changes and fans of the comic may
be disappointed by how toned down the first film, in particular, is.
Opening with the apparent death of Captain America (Justin Gross) in World War II, the film
neatly evokes classic war movies of the time and scores early points with an incredible action
sequence, beginning with a parachute drop over enemy territory and ending with Captain America
falling to his death from a nuclear missile. From there, the movie switches to the present day
and follows General Nick Fury (Andrew Ware) and his attempts to not only find and revive Captain
America but also put together a superhuman assault team around him and to perfect the 'super-soldier'
serum that made him a superhuman. Against his better judgment, Fury recruits Iron Man (Marc Worden),
the armoured bodyguard of billionaire Tony Stark, Hank and Janet Pym (Nolan North and Grey DeLisle)
and possibly insane environmental campaigner Thor (David Boat) a man who claims to be a god and,
worryingly, may be right.
As well as this group of unknown quantities, Fury brings in Dr Bruce Banner (Michael Massee)
a world-renowned Captain America expert and former Hulk and his unrequited love. Dr Betty Ross.
The only team member Fury is genuinely happy with is the Black Widow (Olivia d'Abo), a female
spy. To make matters worse, Fury's team find themselves at the centre of an alien invasion, one
that Captain America unwittingly foiled over 50 years previously. With egos clashing, Iron Man
reluctant to reveal his identity and the Chitauri threat frowing by the day, it's down to Fury
to hold his team together long enough to save the day.
Ultimate Avengers is a curious beast, adapting whole sequences from the comic exactly
yet carefully excising the more adult elements of the plotting. Here, Hank Pym is merely
colossally arrogant instead of mentally unstable and abusive, whilst Tony Stark's inoperable
brain tumour has been replaced with the more traditional heart defect that leads him to create
the Iron Man suit in the first place. Likewise, Bruce Banner has been toned down to a more
sympathetic figure, a change that actually improves on the original material. This Banner is
a tragic figure, a man incapable of either interacting with society or escaping his self-inflicted
curse and his scenes are some of the best in the first film.
Unfortunately, Ultimate Avengers suffers badly from pilot episode syndrome. So much
time is spent establishing both the characters and the background that there's precious little
room for plot and what's there is remarkably predictable. From the team's first failure of
a mission to how they ultimate come together there are precious few surprises here.
That being said there's a lot to enjoy. Some of the voice acting, Worden, d'Abo and Ware
proving particularly impressive, with Worden's Dean Martin-esque, unflappable Tony Stark
particularly good fun. There are also some great action sequences, the climactic fight in
particular not only proving surprisingly brutal but remarkably fast paced, mirroring the
frantic back and forth pace of the comic and echoing the original plotline very well.
There's good work there, it's just buried beneath the demands of the format.
Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise Of The Panther, the second film, is an immense improvement.
Moving the action to the fictional nation of Wakanda, it picks up some time after the first
movie and sees the Ultimate Avengers a little more comfortable in their skins. The only exception
is Captain America, still haunted by his past and haunted in particular by his memories of
Kleiser (James Kevin Ward), the Nazi Chitauri who he thought he'd killed 50 years previously.
When T'Challa (Jeffrey D. Sams), the prince of Wakanda witnesses his father's murder at the
hands of Kleiser, the Ultimate Avengers are sent to investigate. Battling the Wakandan's
isolationist policies as much as the Chitauri, they soon discover that all is very far from
well in the African nation.
Infinitely larger in scope and more ambitious than the first movie, Rise Of The Panther
hits the ground running and never lets up. Sams is an excellent addition to the cast as
T'Challa and is ably supported by the likes of Chi McBride and Dave Fennoy as the Tribal
elder and his father T'Chaka respectively.
Crucially though, with the baggage out of the way the one thing truly missing from the
previous film is here in spades: scale. There's a colossal closing fight that takes up
roughly 15 minutes of the film's running time and is worth every moment. Captain America
faces off against Kleiser, the Ultimate Avengers find themselves fighting the most important
beachhead in a global invasion and there are moments of real, affecting heroism with no
easy answers. This is what the Ultimates comic series is really about, people going
beyond the call of duty and it's far and away the best sequence in both films. Whilst the
ending may make some fans unhappy, it puts the characters and the franchise in a very
interesting position for a third movie and includes a welcome cameo from something closely
connected to Iron Man.
Fans of the comic looking for the superheroes as rock stars excesses that it embodies
will be disappointed here. However, fans of the comic looking for widescreen action,
intelligent characterisation and in places some surprisingly effective animation will
be pleasantly surprised. Not the ultimate in animated entertainment but definitely on
the right lines.