Up until the recent releases of the atrocious “Iron Man: Armored Adventures” and sub-par “Ultimate Spider-Man” cartoons, I’d always had a great deal of faith in Marvel animated series. (Ooh, also I forgot that dreadful Canadian Fantastic Four show. But that’s beside the point…) I always get excited when news of a new Marvel cartoon comes out and, shopping earlier this year with my cousins, i spotted an unknown DVD with a handful of my favorite X-Men on the cover. I don’t think there’s ever been a bad X-Men cartoon (not produced in America anyway), so my heart leapt understandably, especially when I picked it up and read that the story had been written by the ever-infallible Joss Whedon. However, what I read next was as effective a turn off as Madeline Albright doing calisthenics in a thong and tassels: it wasn’t a new cartoon; it was a “motion comic”. I’d had limited experience with that phrase and none of it translated into what I wanted out of this DVD, so I hastily put it down…(dun dun dun)…until today.
My local library (and probably yours, too, kids!) has a big collection of animation that includes a whole lot of anime, so as I perused my viewing options, I spotted “Astonishing X-Men: Gifted: and picked it up along with a couple more titles. I was relatively sure this was the same motion comic I’d turned down before, but now that I could watch it for free, I figured “why not” and took it home just in case it turned out more interesting than I’d expected. The whole motion comic idea seems to be built on the concept that proper animation is too expensive and time-consuming, so it looks as though images from graphic novels were scanned and then digitally altered to make it seem that the characters were moving and speaking. It was definitely kind of trippy at first – oddly giving me the impression that I was watching a much cheaper, lazier version of “Frisky Dingo” or something; the inked characters walk either too stiffly or in an odd ragdoll fashion and the mouth movements are akin to the “just-tape-an-extra-mouth-on-an-action-figure” weirdness of “Robot Chicken”‘s earlier episodes, but to be honest, all of those uncanny quirks faded below my notice rather quickly and I’ll tell you why – the writing’s phenomenal. I suppose it speaks more for the original comic than the motion comic DVD, but the story is particularly engaging and I got pulled into the plot the whole way through.
Shortly after the re-establishment of the Xavier Institute following the events involving the Legacy Virus, Kitty Pride returns as part of a new staff under the jurisdiction of Scott Summers and his new flame Emma Frost. However, it seems that Scott didn’t just bring her there to teach the next generation of X.I. mutant youngsters; faced with continuing anti-mutant sentiment, Cyclops has decided to put together a team – a team which also consists of Dr. Hank “Beast” McCoy and Wolverine – to act as a superhuman rescue team a la Avengers or Fantastic Four in order to raise mutant popularity. Hence, this new fivesome is branded the “Astonishing X-Men. Unfortunately, as their first superhero mission goes off against a mysterious alien being named Ord, geneticist Dr. Kavita Rao declares to the world that she has found a “cure” to the “disease” of mutantism. Investigating this cure amid sudden mutant panic, anti-mutant protests and even an internal urge to purge themselves of their super-human differences, the X-Men find themselves drawn into a massive conspiracy with the fates of multiple worlds hanging in the balance.
Typical X-Men stuff, really – quite good story, terrific characterization and a whole bunch of long-beloved names. The motion makes the already fantastic comic-style art seem even more dynamic, but where it really shines is in the lines – crafted with both jovial casualness and spot-on dramatic tension – and especially the acting. In the same way great writing and acting can save an abysmally animated cartoon, X-Men: Gifted is lifted by Joss Whedon’s expectedly brilliant dialogue and monologues and each character is voiced by a relatively unknown actor who manages to bring out all the famous charm and literary depth that the Marvel universe is known for. Until I scanned the end credits, I was absolutely convinced that Beast and Wolverine were being voiced by some big names from out of FUNimation and Bang Zoom! Entertainment; Beast’s intellectual and existential uncertainty over the proposed mutant cure is almost palpable in his VA’s performance – reintroducing an aspect of the character I haven’t heard mention of since the 1990s “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” – and Wolverine’s visceral sense of honor and vicious tongue come off just as well as I’d ever heard them. I’ve always been a member of that invisible, silent minority called “Cyclops fans” and this project finally gave me a Cyke I don’t have to defend to anyone else, with a vocal richness that properly represents all his character history with every inflection. Additionally, a surprise appearance from Colossus really pours on the pathos in a way that twists a knife right in the feels without feeling hokey. If you love comics and cartoons, definitely give it a watch and be on the lookout (as I, too, shall) for more of these motion comics from the people at Marvel Knights Studio.