Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men" run was just that, astonishing. Coming in to write the series at the height of the films' popularity, Whedon took a unique approach and didn't go to familiar villains, instead pitting the fractured group against themselves and a new villain, the mysterious Ord. Whedon's 24 issue run consisted of four thematically connected story arcs, the first being "Gifted" a six-issue miniseries introducing Ord as well as the possibility of a permanent mutant cure.
The motion comic has slowly but surely become a fixture in the lexicon surrounding superhero media. The most well known example would be the "Watchmen: Motion Comic" a nearly 6 hour production that was an interesting adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' epic masterpiece. The big issue with many fans was the lone narrator, who was forced to voice male and female characters as well as the sometimes gimmicky, limited animation. Marvel, not to let DC hold the limelight for long has taken the next step in motion comics with the help of Neal Adams, bringing John Cassaday's artwork from "Astonishing X-Men" to a level of life not seen before in the motion comic realm, as well as enlisting a full voice cast to cover Whedon's take on the characters.
To be quite honest, the motion comic concept here isn't the selling point. There are plenty of other story arcs or series' Marvel could have tackled and a lesser story wouldn't have been improved by this new animation technique. What sells "Gifted" is Whedon's writing and the faithful adaptation and expansion of John Cassaday's art. It's really hard to describe how this motion comic looks. If you've seen something like the "Watchmen" motion comic you will be blown away. The technique here takes the original art and gives the characters some more lifelike (but still stiff) movement. Little touches like Beast's ears wiggling to eye movement distance this from the rough animation given to other productions. Neal Adams' advanced is motion comics deserves much credit, as the expansion of Cassaday's 2D art is seamless, retaining the artist's distinctive look, even when certain areas had to be expanded for the medium. Fortunately, Cassaday was a co-director on the project and was able to assist Adams in the task before them.
While, the motion comic technology still fails to top traditional animation in the action scenes, Whedon's story and the more than competent voice cast, allow these hiccups to be overlooked. I have never been the biggest Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat fan, and was apprehensive back when I saw Whedon was making her a huge part of this take on the X-Men, but, sure enough, he makes her a compelling character. In fact, she, Emma Frost, and Beast are the most compelling characters in "Gifted," overshadowing Cyclops, Wolverine, and the new, but underdeveloped villain, Ord. The story focuses on the relationship between the team as a whole, now significantly weakened; Jean Grey is dead, Professor X is gone, and other familiar characters like Storm, Nightcrawler, Rogue, and Iceman, are missing-in-action. While Cyclops may be the figurehead leader, it's soon very obvious that Emma Frost is running the show and has many issues of her own, including a militant attitude towards humans that falls on the fence between Professor X's tolerance and Magneto's eugenics. Her attitude quickly rubs Kitty Pryde the wrong way, although as Emma sadly puts it as a fight between Wolverine and Cyclops on school grounds wraps up, "I still come in second to a corpse."
For those only familiar with the X-Men films, this and the mention of a cure may sound like "X-Men: The Last Stand." Fortunately, if you saw that unpleasant, marginally enjoyable entry into the mythos, "Gifted" is a fantastic follow-up and elements were very obviously lifted when the script for the film was formulated. Magneto is thankfully absent and Professor X's absence makes sense, as one could imagine him feeling responsible for Jean's death. To be honest, I don't know the comic book history that brought things to the point they begin at in "Gifted," but that didn't stop me from being entertained. Honestly, "Gifted" is ten times the sequel to "X2: X-Men United" than "The Last Stand" could ever hope to be. The cure plotline isn't overplayed and just when you think you have a solid understanding on in, there's a little curveball thrown your way.
As a villain, Ord is a good physical foe; the various conflicts between each other as well as the concept of the cure, are equally dangerous to the survival of our heroes. A mysterious presence of extraterrestrial origins, his physical skills are a force to be reckoned with and there's a true sense of dread whenever they face him. Not even the seemingly unstoppable Wolverine can get the upper hand. The tension in these encounters is amazing, because I had no idea where Whedon might take things, given his proclivity to dispose of characters for dramatic effect. On the big screen, Ord would have likely flopped, being far too outlandish, but here he's fits in just right, as do the classic costumes. The only thing that stunk, was Shadowcat's miniature dragon; yeah, it's a classic character, but it's still dumb.
As good as Whedon's script is, it would be nothing without the spot-on voice cast. Everyone gets his or her character, from the aloof Emma Frost, to the gruff-when-needed Wolverine. With some actors pulling double duty, the room for error was great, but there's a unique, dynamic range that helps pull you into the story's world. The only live-action voice actor I really missed was Kelsey Grammar as Beast, that was too perfect of a casting choice, but that's not to say the actor doing Beast here was incompetent. The performances aren't without their red-marks; they still stumble over a few clunky pieces of dialogue and supporting characters can range from overcooked to raw. Hopefully though, if any other arcs are adapted to the digital medium, the cast here is retained, as they really have a handle on these characters.
"Gifted" is a fun experience to say the very least. It really takes the motion comic concept to the next level, surpassing even the classic animated series in terms of consistent storytelling. Whedon's material is much more mature than the kid's stuff of the early 90s and it all deserves to be adapted to this format. Purists to the source material may argue this is a gimmick, but here I would say, it's not. This is merely the next evolution in adaptation. Marvel could have just had new animators animate a full adaptation and it might have been as good; voice acting wouldn't have been an issue for sure, but the digital comic retains the original artist's look and feel and with his own input taken into account, this is a much preferable animated adaptation. "Gifted" is the X-Men in top form, and the seven episodes go by, way too quickly (around 80 minutes), leaving you wanting much more, and I say, "Bring it on, bub."
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a lackluster disappointment. All of the animated artwork retains John Cassaday's style and color scheme in a very faithful fashion. The production does look like a living graphic novel. Where things fall apart is the little technical hiccups that end up adding up to be a detriment. Reds are plagued by chroma noise and often bleed into other areas of the frame (very noticeable around Cyclops' visor). There is some noticeable aliasing that pops up from time to time as well as some signs of over compression especially in background animation. As the program was originally conceived for sale on iTunes, I could see such problems popping up there, but the conversion to DVD should have been a flawless affair, especially taking into account the short runtime of the production. None of this is terribly distracting, just merely disappointing.
Not surprisingly, the English stereo audio track is a little flat and leaves the viewer wanting a richer aural experience. Dialogue is thankfully crisp and clear, although at times towards the end of the series, it's under mixed and lost beneath some overpowering music. The entire track is distortion free and does its best to give some depth to the soundtrack, but more often than not, the voice acting is a tad canned (in terms of mixing, not performance) and doesn't quite sell the feature as a true piece of animation.
The extras are plentiful to say the least. "A Conversation with Joe Quesada and Neal Adams" is the most substantial and features the two men filmed separately with Quesada talking about the source material while Adams covers the digital conversion process. Even at 17-minutes, it feels like it starts to drag and Adams grates on the nerves in a hurry, due to what feels like a poor interviewer. There's also a "Behind the Scenes Look at Marvel Animation" that rehashes some technical ground and is more or less a promo for future motion comics.
The trailer for "Gifted" and a music video are included as well as character bios, a gallery of Cassaday's artwork, and a series of forgettable (viral?) videos titled "What The ?!"
A disappointing technical presentation loses this release some points in my book, but not in the production department. "Gifted" is 80-minutes of sheer entertainment and fun, as well as a nice experiment in the advancement of animation. I recommend this release without hesitation to fans and non-fans alike. This isn't just a superhero story, it's a human story, which just happens to involve some astonishing (pardon the terrible pseudo-pun) people that wear brightly colored costumes. Highly Recommended.