Next Avengers opens in a future where the planet has been ravaged by the unstoppable android Ultron. The megalomaniacal robot had long since slaughtered virtually every last one of Earth's heroes, even tearing his way through nearly the entire roster of the Avengers. Iron Man was able to spirit his teammates' infant children off to a secret Arctic hideaway, though, and even all these years later, these four teenagers have yet to step foot outside Stark's compound. These four kids -- James, the son of Captain America and the Black Widow, Torunn, daughter of the Asgardian god of thunder, Azari, the electrified son of the Black Panther, and Pym, the bite-sized son of the Wasp and Giant-Man -- have spent the past decade learning to hone their powers and...well, bickering. They're practically brothers and sister, after all. Iron Man has been keeping busy when he's not playing Pops as well, assembling a squad of robots in the form of his fallen teammates to help end Ultron's reign of terror once and for all. The kids' curiosity gets the best of 'em, though, and when they accidentally launch the Iron Avengers toward Ultron's futuristic citadel, the android is able to pinpoint the exact location of four of the only superpowered survivors on the planet. Ultron had effortlessly butchered the world's greatest heroes, so what chance do a wizened technocrat and four kids who've never squared off against anyone but themselves really have? They may be outgunned, but as it turns out, they're not the only ones to have survived Ultron's assaults...
Brace yourself: this review -- like pretty much any write-up of Next Avengers -- is going to use the word "fun" a lot. That's exactly what this movie is, capturing that sense of fun and adventure that the bleaker and more adult-oriented animated flicks from Marvel really can't. Just about every last thing about Next Avengers hits the mark. The voice acting -- with surprisingly little overlap with the other four Marvel animated movies -- is sharp. These newly-introduced kids have a heckuva lot of personality without ever seeming too precious, and I'm really digging the character designs. Torunn is probably the standout, and it's not just because she's the only gal in the bunch. Hers is the only character with a parent who's still alive, but she's not only quietly struggling with that sense of abandonment: she's also saddled with the legacy of being the daughter of a Norse god. Next Avengers juggles that really deftly, squeezing out laughs as Torunn clumsily tries to nick the "forsooth"s and "verily"s her father used to belt out without deflating the pain she's clearly feeling. The best looking of the character designs is Azari's. His
Next Avengers is the only of these animated flicks from Marvel to score a PG rating, but just because there isn't any real body count (the Avengers' deaths are all told in a bedtime story) or any of the red stuff slathered across the screen doesn't mean the action's any less intense. Starting off with squabbles between the kids and climaxing in a massive assault against the invincible Ultron, the scale and stakes of the battles get bigger and bigger as the movie goes along. Next Avengers infuses that epic final confrontation with intensity and gravity without ever feeling bleak or depressing -- Ultron's power and cold ruthlessness make for a really menacing adversary -- and that reminded me of the Marvel comics I grew up reading. Sure, the movie's kinda cutesy and definitely skews young, but much like the classic comics that inspired it, Next Avengers never feels like it's pandering.
While some Marvel zombies might gasp in horror that Next Avengers doesn't fit snugly into continuity -- here, Tony Stark invented Ultron -- there are some neat nods to the comics. Azari's mom isn't spelled out in the movie, although fans who've kept up with "Black Panther" will immediately pick up on who she is, and that definitely plays into his character. This spin on the Hulk so many years in the future reminds me a lot of the Maestro in Peter David and George Perez' "Future Imperfect" miniseries, which isn't some obvious pop-culture touchstone but made the lifelong comic geek in me feel all warm and fuzzy. Next Avengers is pretty accessible without knowing Marvel mythology chapter and verse, but enough winks are scattered across the background to give longtime fans something extra to appreciate.
I had a heckuva lot of fun with Next Avengers: it's cute and playful, overflowing with some really outstanding action, and sharply written enough that I'd stick around with these pint-sized superheroes if there's a sequel down the road. Recommended.
Video: Next Avengers looks pretty solid on Blu-ray. No, its streamlined visual style doesn't exactly dazzle in high-def, but on a purely technical level, this 1080p24, AVC-encoded Blu-ray disc is flawless. The linework doesn't strike me as being quite as fine or as crisp as this week's other Marvel animated title, although this seems like an intentional part of the look of the film, and the 1.78:1 image is still impressively clean and clear. Its palette is bold and colorful for the bulk of Next Avengers' 78 minute runtime, and as the movie builds up to a darker, more intense climax, its colors become more and more overcast to reflect that shift in tone. There's no trace of compression artifacting or edge haloes, and for the most part, banding is negligible. Some of the animation
Audio: All of Marvel's animated flicks on Blu-ray have sported lossless or uncompressed eight channel soundtracks, and...yup, Next Avengers is packing a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track too. Even though it's not quite as aggressive as The Invincible Iron Man, the step up in audio is the biggest selling point for this Blu-ray disc over the DVD. The clarity...the distinctness of each and every element in the mix...is outstanding, with the recording of the cast standing out as exceptionally crisp and clean. The mix grabs hold of all of the speakers it has at its fingertips, filling every channel with the sounds of the swirling info-screens in Ultron's lair, the primal roar of the Hulk, aerial dogfights against the Iron Avengers, and pint-sized Pym zipping across the screen. The fight sequences keep pummeling away at the surrounds and are teeming with smooth pans from one channel to the next as well. The low-end is tight and punchy too, from the dull thud of Torunn's sword being flung into the rocky ground to the Hulk and Ultron literally leveling mountains. Next Avengers' lossless audio sounds great, and it's another in a long line of strong efforts from Lionsgate.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 dub in Spanish has also been tacked on alongside subtitle streams in English (SDH) and Spanish.
The only other featurette is "Kid Power: The Next Generation of Marvel" (10 min.), which highlights some of the other teen superhero books under the Marvel banner. A bunch of series are touched on in passing -- "Runaways" (yay), "Young Avengers", and "New Mutants", f'r instance -- but for the most part, this featurette just seems to have been tossed on to plug "Young X-Men", "Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius", and "Power Pack". Y'know, kind of a shameless "hey, if you dug Next Avengers, fork over a few bucks and buy these..." sorta thing. It's worth it just to see Chris Eliopoulos at work, though.
That's really it. The only other extras are plugs for a couple of upcoming Hulk versus... animated flicks and a few other trailers. All of the disc's extras are in high definition, by the way.
Conclusion: I really dug Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow, which juggles a kinda smirking playfulness in with a bunch of massive and ridiculously cool brawls. Not only is this the best of Marvel's animated flicks so far, it's the only one I'd feel all that comfortable pulling out to get a younger kid hooked on this sort of superheroic action, and it's...well, the only one I think I'd give a second spin to watch myself. Next Avengers looks pretty nice and sounds great on Blu-ray, and although the extras are all pretty lightweight, at least they're in high-def. Nah, we're not talking about some movie that'll redefine the way you look at life or make you want to dust off your old longboxes, but Next Avengers is a lot of fun, and here's hoping Marvel's able to kickstart it into a franchise. Recommended.