While their live-action franchises prosper at the box office, Marvel's direct-to-video animation branch continues to struggle. It's not for a lack of trying; in the past two years, Marvel Animated Features has put a serious effort into attracting fans with cartoon projects that aren't just for the kids, allowing a targeted PG-13 rating to give more room to stronger action and more complex character development, only to come up short in practically every department. Fans and critics alike have bemoaned these films' mediocre artwork and bland storytelling, and even the most ardent fans can't work up too much enthusiasm.
Now comes "Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow," the first Marvel Animated feature to tone things back down to a PG rating (albeit a rating that's pushed to its limits at times). It's also the first in the line to attempt a entirely original story, with multiple entirely original characters; these "Next Avengers" offer the promise of creative freedom, refreshingly removed from both the now-tiresome origin story formula and the demand from some fans that all movies retell established comic storylines. Better still, while the film does show itself to be grasping to appeal to younger fans, there's no sign that Marvel is getting sweaty trying to copy DC's "Teen Titans" franchise, as originally suspected. (The film's original title was "Teen Avengers.")
The story opens in a bleak future where the Avengers, those mighty superhero guardians of Earth, have been killed off by a villainous robot named Ultron. Our old pal Tony "Iron Man" Stark (voiced by Tom Kane) whisked the heroes' children to safety and raised them in a secluded hi-tech lair, hidden from Ultron's army, which has conquered the planet. The children are: James Rogers (Noah Crawford), son of Captain America and Black Widow; Pym (Aidan Drummond), son of Giant-Man and the Wasp; Azari (Dempsey Pappion), son of the Black Panther; and Torunn (Brenna O'Brien), daughter of Thor.
Each has his or her own unique superpowers, although really, it's pretty much just a case of teens-of-the-future versions of their parents. As in: instead of Captain America's mighty shield, James wears a robotic armband thingy that creates a holographic energy shield, and instead of Thor's majestic hammer, Torunn carries a majestic sword. Pym and Azari are essentially carbon copies of their respective parents, powers slightly tweaked as needed. Later, these kids meet the son of the archer Hawkeye, and by this point, the movie has pretty much given up on itself: the teen is an archer who calls himself Hawkeye. For all the open potential of the set-up - the dystopian future, the new generation of heroes, the destruction of the original Avengers - it's disheartening to discover that screenwriter Christopher Yost (working from a story by Greg Johnson and Craig Kyle) avoids any actual ambition.
Indeed, the whole movie is a series of starts and stops surrounding that absent ambition. There's a nice scene where the kids first discover a hidden room that's a sort of monument to their fallen parents, but just when we think we're going to explore the notion of being a teen superhero who's only now coming to grips with a secret past, the movie switches up and gives us robot versions of the old Avengers, which wake up, get reprogrammed by Ultron, and turn evil. A whole world of imagination to tap, and the writers instead say "oh, let's just have these kid versions of the Avengers fight these evil robot versions of the Avengers. That way we don't have to think up anything new."
More lost potential: Tony Stark must come to grips with his belief that he failed his group, but the screenplay can't quite wrap itself around the drama, and the whole notion fizzles. Later, we learn that Bruce Banner is alive but in hiding, still afraid of the Hulk within, and we thrill to the possibilities of a life lived in fear of one's self; however, all we really get is a Hulk with long grey hair and an old man beard.
(And for a movie about young heroes, it's flat-out lame to end everything with a battle between the Hulk and Ultron, leaving the title characters completely on the sidelines. The message of the movie: "Hey, kids, you're better off just finding someone bigger to do the job for you.").
The real emphasis seems to be all about the action, and kids will likely thrill to the teens' adventures, if only briefly. Parents, meanwhile, will yawn at the unimpressive, repetitive action sequences, then yawn even more at the long, tiresome spaces in between, which appear to exist merely to stretch the thin story to fill a more respectable running time. Those parents will also cringe at the awkward dialogue (not helped by the occasional clumsy line reading) and animation that's only so-so at best.
Marvel has already announced three more titles in their DTV Marvel Animation line, although if "Next Avengers" is any sign of their progress, they may want to stop while they're behind.
Video & Audio
Despite the animation limitations, "Next Avengers" looks its best in a spiffy 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, with bright, solid colors and sharp lines. The constant action comes across cleanly, with no digital motion issues.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack pumps up the sound effects for an impressive action-heavy experience. Dialogue and music are never distorted by all the busy effects play. A Spanish 5.1 dub is included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
"Legacy: The Making of Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow" (10:48) offers standard behind-the-scenes chat from the film's creators. There's a lot of bland plot recap and over-explanation of the characters, although we do get a peek at how the project evolved.
"Kid Power: Next-Gen Marvel" (9:41) uses the film as an excuse to discuss Marvel's various teen- and kid-oriented comic lines, featuring interviews with the writers and artists of such comic books as "New X-Men" and "Power Pack."
Two "First Look" featurettes (7:09 total) offer advance glimpses at "Hulk vs. Wolverine" and "Hulk vs. Thor," with movie clips, preliminary sketches, and interviews with the filmmakers.
A batch of previews for other Marvel projects rounds out the set; some of these previews also play as the disc loads.
"Next Avengers" is another batch of lost opportunities for Marvel, whose DTV animation division keeps floundering. Parents looking for a slight time-passer for their kids - and, perhaps, grown-up fans with mild curiosity about this new effort - will do fine to merely Rent this one.