The Complete and Exhaustive Review of Superhero Straight-to-DVD Animated Features! Part One: The Ugly
April 21, 2010
I was inspired to create this list for several reasons. The first being that I am a total fanboy and love superheroes, I even learned to read with comic books. Much to my wife’s dismay, graphic novels and movies are easily my hobbies of choice. So when I discovered that Marvel and DC have been putting effort into producing quality straight-to-DVD animated features, it peaked my interest.
Marvel Animation and the DC Universe Original Animated Movies have produced 7 films each over the past 4-5 years. Though DC’s results have been notably better, both seem to be making a solid effort at making good films and a general increase in quality. (Okay, I take that back, Marvel has only been “trying” for about 2 years). I’m excited to see how this new trend develops over the next few years. Keep your eyes peeled for Marvel’s Thor: Son of Asgard and DC’s Batman: Under the Red Hood, DC Showcase (a series of short films), and the Superman/Batman sequel.
A few rules:
-I ranked these as best as I could from worst to best. I got some feedback from friends and fellow nerds, but ultimately it came down to my opinion.
-I decided to leave out movies designed for and released in the movie theater. If I started including movies like The Incredibles and TMNT, this list would be incredibly unbalanced. Films designed for the movie theater simply have a sharper edge to them, they’re really playing in another league.
-These are actual movies. I did not include any DVD that simply grouped a series of episodes together and presented itself as a movie.
-I focused my research mostly, though not exclusively, on Marvel and DC Comics titles. I spent several months tracking down every superhero movie falling into this category of “animated straight-to-dvd”, making this list (the current count is 24 films) as extensive as possible.
Part One: The Ugly
24. The Batman/Superman Movie (1998)
I’d like to say that this was enjoyable because it stars two of my favorite superheroes, but I was thoroughly disappointed. Maybe I should give it a break considering that it came out in the late 90’s. The plot is as simple as can be: Lex Luthor and The Joker team up. Joker goes to Metropolis with a plan to kill Superman, while Batman pursues the Clown Prince of Crime to Superman’s turf. Some clever moments ensue when Superman and Batman meet for the first time, but it’s altogether lackluster. It’s worth watching if you’re a big fan of the animated series, or you still think the Joker is funny even after you hit puberty. Superman is way underpowered, and the film is just too cheesy to be engaging on any level.
23. Superman: Brainiac Attacks (2006)
Brainiac Attacks is all about the fight scenes. You’d expect this from a movie with Attacks in the title, but really, a lot of really ridiculous fighting. Brainiac arrives on Earth, fights Superman, Lex Luthor gets involved, and… That’s pretty much it. There’s one or two emotional moments where Lois is poisoned and Superman has to travel to the Phantom Zone to harvest a cure. But even this interesting subplot fails to meet its potential. Brainiac basically follows the “Power Rangers” formula where near the end he adds on pieces until he’s just a massive tank-thing. Not quite the intelligent Brainiac I’m used to seeing. Oh yeah, and the thrilling dialog like Lex Luthor saying “Super Duper Man”. Okay, setting my harsh feelings aside, it’s probably worth seeing once and a fun (but disappointing) watch if you liked the Superman Animated Series.
22. Ultimate Avengers (2007)
Worth watching once, but ‘ultimately’ pretty disappointing. Avengers begins with Captain America’s last mission of WWII. He successfully stops a team of Nazi’s and some weird aliens (called the Chitauri) from launching a nuclear weapon, but Captain America himself is lost in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. Skip ahead to modern times where Nick Fury and Bruce Banner recover Cap’s body to continue working on the super-soldier program. Apparently the Chitauri aliens we saw in Nazi Germany are still causing trouble 60 some years later, and a team of superheroes is needed to defeat them. Captain America survives his thawing, and goes about recruiting ‘The Avengers’: (Nick Fury, Captain America, Iron Man, Wasp, Giant-Man, Thor, Black Widow, and Bruce Banner/The Hulk).
While managing to introduce some famous superheroes, Ultimate Avengers feels rushed and the characters underused. It has moments but never takes the time to develop anyone other than Captain America, Nick Fury and Bruce Banner. This is partly due to the film itself, and partly because it was released before major motion pictures Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. After witnessing Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, the Tony Stark here was incredibly disappointing. Bruce Banner is exceptionally whiny, and Thor is hardly even in the movie. However, there are some great moments with Wasp and Giant-Man and I appreciated being introduced to Black Widow.
The other aspects of the film are so-so. The art itself works pretty well, but most of the military equipment is drawn with cgi and apparently no effort was made to blend the two styles together. The story is adequate but its pacing helter skelter. I’m not very familiar with the Avengers, (I’ve read a few of the first issues, watched a few tv episodes, etc) so I at least appreciated getting to know some lesser known heroes and seeing the characters work as a team. I won’t give away what it is, but the end fight is particularly impressive.
Overall, I enjoyed watching it but left feeling empty. My wife was really disappointed with its storyline and poor character development. Ultimate Avengers is worth seeing if you’re a fan or want a quick introduction to the Avengers, but nothing worth adding to your DVD library. I’d recommend seeing Avengers just because your appreciation of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and the new Marvel films will be much, much higher.
21. Ultimate Avengers: Rise of the Black Panther
I was rather disappointed by the first Ultimate Avengers, but after seeing a great trailer for Rise of the Black Panther I thought this could be a pretty successful sequel. Boy was I ever wrong. The story picks up where the first one left off. Captain America is trying to lead The Avengers and most of the team is reluctantly following or outright quitting. Bruce Banner spends most of the movie in a prison chamber and whines more than I thought was humanly possible (-exception: Twilight). T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda (a lost primitive/advanced paradise in Africa), is made King when his father is murdered by a Nazi Chitauri shapeshifter, (yes, the lame alien villains from the first Avengers movie). T’Challa gets into contact with Cap. America, and the Avengers try to investigate why the aliens are poking around Wakanda. But oh no, they stepped on the culturally insensitive Wakanda, who won’t allow outsiders into their kingdom! Some rather convoluted stuff happens and it turns out the aliens are trying to steal the power source behind Wakanda. Eventually there’s a huge battle between the Chitauri and the forces of Earth, (think ID4), and the Avengers get to kick alien butt.
Black Panther isn’t really so awful, except for the part where I’m supposed to care. I really, seriously, had no reason to care. About 3 minutes into the film we realize that the main villain is once again the Chitauri, who were a good concept but are esthetically unconvincing as a global threat. They just aren’t interesting enough to be the villains for two films. Oh, and whoever designed Wakanda looks like they were never told it’s supposed to be in Africa. The architecture is extremely similar to Aztec and Mayan designs, not African. I’m not a hater, but that whole Wakanda bit was just totally unconvincing.
There’s actually some good moments and improvements here, especially a bold move to kill off one of the Avengers. But it just ain’t enough. Between the aliens and Wakandan architecture, my wife kept telling me to just turn it off. But I do have to add, having both of the Ultimate Avengers films under my belt made the New Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow pretty enjoyable.
20. Invincible Iron Man (2007)
This movie is a real tragedy. The story and character development is above-par, but the absolutely horrible computer graphics bring down the entire film. It starts with Stark Industries, despite having been warned against doing so, using breakthrough technology to raise an ancient (and cursed) city in China. This fulfills an ancient curse and releases elemental demons. Tony Stark is captured by Chinese rebels and forced to design a weapon capable of leveling the city once again. Following Stark’s origin, he builds Iron Man armor to escape. In order to defeat these mystical monsters he is responsible for releasing, Tony Stark must become the Invincible Iron Man and find a way to save the world.
As it stands, Invincible Iron Man has strengths but some serious weaknesses. Tony Stark is well handled pretty well here, though still cannot touch the amazing work done by Robert Downey Jr. The female lead is quite good and her story arc is touching; introducing an Asian cultural theme of family duty that most Americans, especially Tony Stark, cannot comprehend. The overall plot is serviceable, but the villains rather underwhelming, especially because of the terrible inconsistency between animation and cgi. Most of the film is traditionally animated, but the villains, (and Iron Man himself during some of the fights), are done with very cheesy cel animation. Maybe it would’ve been impressive in, idk, the 90’s? Saying it looks like a cut-scene from an original X-Box game would be insulting the X-box.
This honestly could have been one of the better films, but the animation is just so horrible that it hijacks the entire film. There’s some great character work with Tony Stark and the overall storyline is serviceable. If you’re a hardcore fan and don’t mind your fight scenes looking like something out of The Sim’s, then you’ll probably enjoy Invincible Iron Man. But if you’re a normal human being, there’s no way you’ll watch this over the 2008 Iron Man starring Robert Downey Jr.