Marvel Comics have not had the same success with animated adaptations enjoyed by rivals DC and sadly this direct-to-video feature is unlikely to change that. The film draws inspiration not from the classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby rendition of the iconic superhero team but from The Ultimates comic series, Marvel’s contemporary reworking of their characters for a post-9/11 world. It opens in 1945, during the closing days of the Second World War, as Captain America (voiced by Justin Gross) leads American G.I.s in an assault against a Nazi stronghold. Discovering the Nazis in cahoots with the Sh’tari, a race of shape-shifting alien lizards, Cap destroys their guided missile but is knocked unconscious and frozen in the icy waters. He awakens in the 21st century - amidst a futuristic metropolis rather different from Marvel’s regular New York City - where S.H.I.E.L.D head honcho General Nick Fury (Andre Ware) - now African-American - and scientist Dr. Bruce Banner (Michael Massee) are assembling a defence force to combat the Sh’tari. Cap is given command over a team of superheroes who must overcome an awful lot of whining and bickering before they face the alien menace.
In place of the sophisticated storytelling offered by the excellent Batman animated movies (of which co-director Curt Geda helmed Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003)), Ultimate Avengers offers a stale “let’s whack the aliens” plotline all too familiar from Saturday morning cartoon fare. What prevents it being enjoyable on a strictly visceral level is an air of cynical revisionism that combines a bleak outlook upon heroes and ideals with the blinkered, one-dimensional jingoism that characterised the George W. Bush years. Captain America blindly carries on fighting the good fight, even while his team spend their whole time squabbling and his government sponsors view everyone as expendable.
The filmmakers seem to have forgotten that while the Avengers certainly argued in their Lee/Kirby incarnations, it was only when they weren’t saving lives and far from being unable to function as a team, were quite good at their jobs. Nick Fury barks orders at gunpoint and at one point stupidly beats up Bruce Banner (Don’t make him angry!). Banner is a neurotic Woody Allen-type who endangers a whole city just to win back his estranged wife (Nan McNamara), while the Hulk is rewritten from a tragic beast who just wants to be left alone into a full-blown homicidal maniac.
Giant Man/Hank Pym (Nolan North) is a selfish, resentful jerk angry at losing a scientist post to Banner. Iron Man (Marc Worden) is a sleazy, self-centred playboy. Thor (David Boat) is a delusional, uncouth environmental activist who only thinks he’s the Norse god of Thunder, rather than the genuine article. Black Widow (Olivia D’Abo) barely registers as a bland Euro supermodel who lingers near-anonymously at the back. Only the Wasp (Grey DeLisle) retains her original appeal, but even she is steamrollered into the corner by belligerent husband Hank.
Revisionism is all well and good if placed within some kind of context, but whatever plot there is soon lapses into one great, big battle. After the aliens are beaten, the Hulk becomes an even bigger threat and nearly kills everybody until Black Widow (inadvertently upstaging Cap during his would-be big heroic moment) intervenes. There is one poignant episode where Cap reunites with his aged former sidekick Bucky, now married to the hero’s former sweetheart. Justin Gross, star of Disney sitcom Wizards of Waverly Place, is a surprise choice for the iconic All-American hero, while Marc Worden stands out on vocal duties even if Tony Stark is given little to do.
The animation is slick with occasional CG bells and whistles, but retains the flatness of the Nineties Spider-Man TV series, while the blandly “realistic” character designs with gaunt faces lack the dynamism of Jack Kirby and the vibrant personalities Bruce Timm brought to the Batman cartoons. In trying to tap trendy ideas of characterisation, this loses whatever magic the original Sixties comics had.