Three and a half stars, and some minor SPOILERS.
It's not great, but it's pretty good. NEXT AVENGERS: HEROES OF TOMORROW is the latest from the Marvel line of animated direct-to-video dvds, this time introducing a new and very young generation of superheroes. Sometime in the near future, the Avengers have a fateful last encounter with the invincible robot Ultron, and the Avengers fall. This gives Ultron free rein to begin his world conquest. Tony Stark survives and manages to whisk away the sons and daughter of the Avengers to the Arctic Circle. There, the offsprings while away the years in hiding, trained and mentored by an aging Stark and raised on stories of their legendary parents. And, then, one day, another Avenger appears, this event resulting in Ultron finally tracking down Iron Man and finding out about the children.
There are four kids, initially. Torunn, the daughter of Thor. Pym, son of Giant Man and the Wasp. Azari, son of the Black Panther (and X-Men's Storm?). And James, the red-headed son of Captain America and Black Widow. And, later on, Hawkeye's kid enters the picture as the leader of a fugitive band barely surviving in Ultra City. These kids have huge footsteps to follow, and, because they're kids, they flaunt unblemished confidence and don't really think that far ahead. Some good character development unfolds as these kids are soon easily humbled by Ultron and his Iron Avengers (which used to be Stark's Iron Avengers, until Ultron corrupted their programming). The vigorous Torunn, in particular, who before was unshakeable in her self-belief, sinks the furthest. How she regains her faith, not only in herself but in her father, the Thunder God, is one of my favorite moments in the film. It falls to James, being the son of Captain America, to inspire and lead this team. But, ultimately, the last desperate hope for beating Ultron may rest on unearthing a certain giant green grump...
Yes, most of the adult Avengers are dead and Ultron has just about taken over half the planet. With the stakes so raised, an undercurrent of gravity permeates the film, this tone also tremendously aided by the film score, which bears faint echoes of THE MATRIX theme. Yet NEXT AVENGERS: HEROES OF TOMORROW caters to a younger audience than did Marvel's first four flicks in its animated direct-to-video line. The kids will eat this up. Originally under the working titles of Teen Avengers and then Avengers Reborn, NEXT AVENGERS can't help but give off faint vibes reminiscent of the Teen Titans cartoon, only with not so much anime. This similarity is marked mostly in the kids' behavior and dialogue, which often strays towards the lighthearted. The animation isn't shabby, but certainly doesn't hold a candle to what I glimpsed in the First Look segments included here, which showcase the two upcoming movies: Hulk Vs. Wolverine and Hulk Vs. Thor.
This brings us to the dvd's special features. There are two blah documentaries: the self-explanatory "Legacy: The Making of Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow" and "Kid Power: Next-Gen Marvel," which focuses on Marvel comic books featuring teen superheroes (New X-Men, Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius, Power Pack, etc.). What's definitely worth checking out are the First Looks for Hulk Vs. Wolverine (with Deadpool) and Hulk Vs. Thor (the Hulk comes to Asgard). The animation previewed for these two films is eye-catching, to say the least.
By no means is this the first dystopian future ever presented onscreen, and there's nothing new or groundbreaking coming from that angle. The grim backdrop, however, does lend more weight to the kids' adventures and firmly elevates the film above a regular Saturday morning cartoon experience. The kids themselves, specifically created for this film, are stock characters (yet with enough flair to keep your kids' eyeballs glued to the screen). It's interesting to note how similar and how different the kids' abilities are from their parents. Hawkeye's ability is exactly the same as his dad; same for Captain America's kid, except that James's shield manifests when his wrist mechanism is activated. Pym boasts both of his parents' powers (including the Wasp's stings), while Azari has his dad's agility and also something extra, an ability to generate electrical surges (again, Storm?). Meanwhile, Torunn is strong, durable and can fly, but wields a bulky blade, instead of a hammer. By the way, for me, Torunn and Hawkeye turn out to be the most interesting characters. I particularly enjoyed Torunn's attempts to speak like an Asgardian, only to then hopelessly fall back to contemporary colloquialism.
As far as I know, this film follows its own internal continuity, separate from that of the Marvel Comics mainstream and Ultimate titles. For one thing, this film has Tony Stark as Ultron's creator, rather than Hank Pym. Of these five Marvel animated direct-to-video films so far, I'd probably rank this behind the two ULTIMATE AVENGERS films (Ultimate Avengers - The Movie & Ultimate Avengers 2 (Rise of the Panther)) and maybe tied with that odd duck, Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme. It's certainly better than The Invincible Iron Man. NEXT AVENGERS: HEROES OF TOMORROW is only an hour and 18 minutes long, but that's time enough to pepper in several great action-packed sequences, culminating with the kids facing huge odds as they go against the Iron Avengers and Ultron. Two observations which made me enjoy the film even more: the Vision's noggin being lugged about like poor Yorick's skull and how the Hulk doesn't lose that aura of menace even when reduced to a receding hairline. Wispy white hair and scraggly goatee be damned, the Hulk is still the strongest one there is.