Not Just Any Old Avengers

Ultimate Avengers (2006)

Marvel has become a dominant force, but it wasn't always this way. For a while there the comic book publish struggled, suffering a downturn in the print industry that threatened to plunge the company permanently into bankruptcy. To keep the company afloat they sold the licenses to a bunch of other studios (leading to the SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. and X-MenLaunched in 1963 and written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men featured heroes distinctly different from those featured in the pages of DC Comics. Mutants who didn't ask for their powers (and very often didn't want them), these heroes, who constantly fought against humans who didn't want "muties" around, served as metaphors for oppression and racism. Their powerful stories would form this group into one of the most recognizable superhero teams in comics (and a successful series of movies as well). franchises at Sony and Fox, respectively), but the money made from that was a pittance in comparison to what the movie studio could (and would) make from the movies based on those characters. What Marvel really wanted was to make their own movies (and recoup all the profits), but doing something like that was a big gamble for untested characters.

Easier, and safer, was releasing direct-to-video animated movies of their characters, flicks that might not bring in as much money but also didn't require nearly the expense of a big, Hollywood production. This, in 2006, Marvel released the first of what would eventually be a (small, but current standards) series of films under the "Marvel Animated Features" brand. This film, Ultimate Avengers, was a pretty close adaptation of the comic books of the same name (although without all the overt political storylines the original writers through in), giving cinema geeks our first taste of what could eventually be if Marvel could ever realize their ambitions. Of course, when viewed in retrospect, this first animated movie feels more like a test pilot to the large franchise to come; it's decent, but nothing like what we've come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe..

Ultimate Avengers basically where Captain America: The First Avenger ends, with Captain AmericaCreated by Simon and Kirby in 1941, Captain America was a super soldier created to fight Germany and the evil HYDRA. Then he was lost in the ice, only to be found and reborn decades later as the great symbol of the USA. riding a super weapon into the sky and then getting lost in the sea, buried under ice for decades. He wakes up in a new time (the modern era) only to be enlisted by Nick FuryIn Marvel's history there have been two characters to bear the name Nick Fury, father and son, both of whom fought for their coutry to protect the world. But it's the second, Nick Fury, Jr., who is famous as the head of SHIELD and backer of the Avengers. to fight an alien threat, the Chitauri, a race of shape-shifting aliens that have designs on Earth. Cap, along with a select group of heroes, are put together to form the AvengersMarvel's answer to DC's Justice League, this team features many of Marvel's biggest superheroes working together to protect the world and avenge its evils., Earth's Mightiest defense against all threats.

Things aren't exactly rosy on the team. Giant Man (the current name for Hank Pym, of Ant-Man and the WaspFirst developed by Hank Pym, the "Pym Particle" allows Pym (and a variety of successors) to transform themselves, shrinking (and growing) to amazing sizes. Joined by Pym's wife (and later his daughter), the Wasp is Ant-Man's ally and cohort in fighting crime.) doesn't much care for Fury and the two butt heads regularly. ThorBorn to one day by the king of Asgard, Thor is the god of thunder. His power is divine but can be tapped into by whoever wields his hammer, granting them the powers (and title) of Thor. refuses to be on the team while Iron ManBillionare Tony Stark has a secret: while he travels the world by day as a playboy philanthropist and head of Stark Industries, he combats the evils of the world as the armored Iron Man. is outright hostile to SHIELD. And then there's Bruce Banner who, for years, has been trying to come up with a new version of the Super Soldier Serum that gave Cap his powers; his experiments caused the creation of The HulkOnce the brilliant Dr. Bruce Banner had dreams of making the world a better place by building super soldiers to act as a shield for all mankind. Then an accident at his lab bathed him in gamma radiation. Now he has a living nightmare, as a big green guy lives within, just waiting for the rage to take over so he can be free. and, if he's not careful, the big green monster could come out once again. Everyone is struggling and the team isn't working, but the Chitauri are here now. The Avengers have to assemble (pardon the pun) if Earth is to have any hope.

It's hard to view Ultimate Avengers now without comparing it to the movies we've gotten since in the MCU. Both of them have similar plots, with a lot of similar beats and character moments, that it's pretty obvious both are working off the same source material (the Ultimate Comics reboot of the Avengers). But where the MCU films are able to take their time, slowly building each of the characters separately before bringing them together into the big crossover flick, The Avengers, Ultimate Avengers doesn't get any of that helpful groundwork. Everyone has to get introduced, they have to come together as a team, find the villain, and defeat them, all in the span of 90 minutes (an hour less than the 2012 film received, no less). That's too much for one film to handle.

Ultimate Avengers struggles early on because it has so much groundwork is has to cover. We spend a good 30 minutes or so just establishing each of the characters, learning who they are, what their powers are, and why they want to be on the team (or, for Thor, don't want to be on the team). The film does a good job with each of these character moments, sure, but when you spend scene after scene establishing each character it bogs down the film. I like to think that Marvel realized the mistake after this film which is why, instead of just jumping right into a share universe of film for the MCU (aka, pulling a DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s.; see the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe.) the decided to introduce each of the characters one at a time, let them slowly build themselves up, so they could all be brought together once audiences were familiar with the characters. That's a much more graceful approach, to be sure.

Individual titles did eventually come out, like The Invincible Iron Man the next year (an origin story for this version of the character), but that feels like the wrong way around at this point, with the benefit of hindsight. I would have rather had this film first (as well as the later Thor: Tales of Asgard) before Ultimate Avengers just so we had some people we already knew in this film and could latch on to them to carry us through all the rest of the character beats. Plus, then we'd presumably like those guys so when we met other characters that were kind of dicks (like Hank Pym, who's a real chauvinistic asshole here) we'd still have someone to like. Because everything is so rushed here, though, we never really bond with anyone, learn about them, or care what happens in the long run.

This is a real big issue when (spoilers for a 13-year-old movie), after the Chitauri are easily dispatched (in a blink or you miss it confrontation that should have been more climactic), Hulk Hulks out, losing control of his mind and becoming a homicidal rage monster. We don't know Banner/Hulk, not really (this despite the fact that he gets two later films in this animated series), and our only exposure to him is in his weakened state as Banner, desperately craving a fix for his problem that makes him seem more like a junkie than someone we can know and trust. His transformation into rage-Hulk, becoming the villain for the last section of the last act, should feel like a major revelation, a moment where we feel bad for the doctor as all his plans fall apart. Instead we just don't care; he's a junkie and a user and he gets what he deserves. That's not the ending the film wanted (clearly because it tries to make us feel bad for Banner after the fact) but that's all I had to give the movie.

Watching Ultimate Avengers I was struck by how much it was like another film, one that came out a few years later: Justice League: War. Like this movie, War introduces an extraterrestrial threat and then pulls together a group of heroes to fight them. War, too, struggles with trying to cram a lot of story into a little film, but the key difference there is that the DC film finds a way to get all the heroes into the action early so that any character beats grow organically out of the moment. Neither film is perfect, to be sure, but War manages to make us care about its heroes in ways Ultimate Avengers could only dream of.

But then, Ultimate Avengers came first. It preceded the MCU and the DCEU, as well as the DC Animated Movie UniverseWhile DC Comics was amping up production on this big "MCU-killer", the DC Extended Universe they were also quietly putting together another shared movie continuity, the DC Animated Movie Universe. This series was more closely related to the comics, directly adapting a number of famous storylines to, arguably, better effect than the live-action movies could.. It was the first try by any of the big comic companies to make a team-up film like this work. It struggles, and ultimately fails, but it does try. With a little more time, more development of the characters, this film could have really worked. It has basically all the same elements as the 2012 Avengers, but where that movie builds to a triumphant climax, a bunch of characters we love taking out an evil alien menace, Ultimate Avengers falls apart at the five-yard-line.

Most of the time I try to find ways to fix the films I dislike, suggesting changes they needed to make. In this case I don't need to do that as we already know the answer: in the end, Ultimate Avengers needed six more years of development, Joss Wheddon as the writer/director, and a cast of characters that had been introduced in previous movies. The Avengers, operating off the same basic story, is everything Ultimate Avengers dreamed it could be. At least we know Marvel can learn from their mistakes.