Vixen (2017)

aka Vixen: The Movie

2017 #137
Curt Geda & James Tucker | 75 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

Vixen

Received wisdom is that while DC comics adaptations are floundering on the big screen (because $3.1 billion from four movies is such a failure), they’re flourishing on the small one, with their ever-growing Arrowverse suite of shows a huge success on the US’s CW network. So named because it began with Arrow in 2012, said ‘verse now also encompasses The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl. As well as these main shows, they’ve produced a couple of animated spin-offs for their online platform. The first of these was Vixen, which has so far produced two seasons of six five-minute episodes. Here, those two runs are combined with about 15 minutes of extra bridging material to produced a movie.

The titular Vixen is Mari McCabe (voiced by Megalyn Echikunwoke), who discovers that her family-heirloom necklace has the ability to grant her the power of any animal — so she can run like a cheetah, climb like a spider, stomp like an elephant, fly like an eagle, etc, ad infinitum. While contending with these new skills, she’s also accosted by superheroes Arrow and the Flash (Stephen Amell and Grant Gustin respectively, reprising their roles from the live-action shows), and has to battle with, first, Kuasa (Anika Noni Rose) trying to claim the necklace for herself, and then Eshu (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) trying to, er, claim the necklace for himself…

Foxy lady! Also lion lady, gorilla lady, elephant lady...

Firstly, it must be said that it’s really obvious Vixen consists of multiple episodes and seasons stitched together. It’s probably not so bad on the episodic level — me being me, I was watching out for where the breaks likely fell in the original five-minute-ish format — but it’s undeniable that it wraps up its first story in about half-an-hour, then moves on to a new story that lasts about 15 minutes, before finally telling another half-hour tale. It feels a bit like watching a movie and its sequel back-to-back, with a related aside in the middle, though in this case each ‘movie’ is the length of an animated TV episode. So, releasing it as Vixen: The Movie was perhaps a bit silly and/or disingenuous. It doesn’t desperately need to retain its original short form, but putting it out as two half-hours — with the added value of a bonus mini-episode containing that bridging story — might’ve felt more satisfactory.

Putting issues of form and presentation aside, the story — or, unavoidably, stories — are alright. The first has the shape of a pretty standard superhero origin story, given some added flavour thanks to the character’s African roots and the relationship with the villain. The short linking part feels like a run-of-the-mill episode of any superhero cartoon series. Apparently some fans complained that Vixen had mysteriously learnt to use her powers between the end of season one and start of season two, so this section attempts to address that point. The final section, as alluded to above, feels like a sequel, with a new primary antagonist but still carrying over threads and points from the first. It goes a bit awry the longer it goes on, with some very for-the-sake-of-it random cameos from the live-action shows, and a disappearance of internal logic during the climax.

At times its own format works against it: Mari says she has no identity and needs to find one, but the narrative doesn’t have enough room to let her. It probably would have if Vixen originated as a 70-minute movie, but in the form of five-minute episodes, which need to use their limited space to fulfil fan expectations of things like action sequences, there’s little to no room for genuine character development. The overall quality is often a bit cheesy and blunt — again, in part to make it satisfying for viewing in five-minute bursts, no doubt, but it does also feel in keeping with the overall style and tone of the Arrowverse.

Queen of the jungle

The animation itself is relatively cheap and basic — on a par with the lower end of Warner’s other direct-to-DVD DC animations; probably even a bit simpler. It’s not bad, but no one’s likely to be impressed. That said, when they pop in for cameos, the likenesses of the live-action actors is shit. On the bright side, they’ve used the animated format to create powers and action sequences that would require expensive CGI in a live-action show. These days they can manage that kind of thing, of course (Vixen eventually turned up in an episode of Arrow, in fact, and a version of the character is now a regular on Legends), and you can believe Vixen’s first season wouldn’t’ve been a huge problem for one of the live-action shows. The second season, perhaps as a result of that, goes more all-in on the effects-y action.

Fans of any or all of the other Arrowverse shows may well find something to enjoy in Vixen. Otherwise, it’s newcomer-friendly (aside from those cameos it’s fundamentally standalone) but I doubt it would do much to persuade the uninitiated that they’re missing out.

3 out of 5

The Arrowverse returns to UK screens this week, with new episodes of Supergirl on Mondays, The Flash on Tuesdays, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow on Wednesdays, and Arrow on Thursdays. That’ll certainly keep you busy (if you let it).

Ultimate Avengers (2006)

2008 #82
Curt Geda & Steven E. Gordon | 68 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Ultimate AvengersWith the big-screen live-action Avengers movie on its way in just two-and-a-half years — once we’ve had a variety of tie-ins to lead into it, of course — now seemed as good a time as any to check out this direct-to-DVD animated version (and its sequel).

I won’t say too much about the plot because, if the rumours are true, the live action film may follow it fairly closely — indeed, the first 15 minutes of Ultimate Avengers presents a roll call of elements already introduced in this summer’s Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk: the Avengers Initiative, a super solider serum, a black Nick Fury, Captain America frozen in ice (OK, so that was only in a deleted scene…) But to follow this story wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing… as long as there were some tweaks.

The primary problem is balance. Ultimate Avengers spends the entire first half assembling the team, the story crawling along at a snail’s pace; consequently, there’s nothing like enough time to do the remaining plot justice, leaving much of it to feel rushed. However, the tale itself retains an appropriately comic-book feel — no surprise considering it’s adapted from a specific storyline — while still containing just about enough information to keep newcomers covered. Were it properly paced, and bolstered by the main characters being introduced in their own films, there’s no real reason this wouldn’t suffice in live action.

On the other hand, in its current incarnation it’s very much Captain America’s story — possibly a problem for the 2011 version, as it will follow Cap’s debut feature by just two months. If his solo outing isn’t a success — particularly if whoever plays him is no good — it would likely sink an Avengers movie that was as focused on him as this. Not encumbered with such problems here it works fine, though it’s disappointing how little we see of other major players — Tony Stark/Iron Man barely features and there’s even less of Thor. That said, Bruce Banner/Hulk gets a key subplot which could be even better if fully developed.

Dodging further predictive comparisons for a moment, the animation quality is variable. Some is very good — mainly the opening World War II-set action sequence — but most is no better than you’d expect from a kid’s TV cartoon (unless they’ve got even worse recently). It does the job adequately, but there’s little exemplary. If there’s a theme emerging it’s this: promise is shown, but not fully realised. That’s not the fault of the medium of course, but rather the brief running time and unbalanced structure.

When the live-action Avengers reaches our screens, I suspect this animated outing will be of greater interest — an intriguing point of comparison between a direct-to-DVD fan-aimed version and a Summer Blockbuster mass audience version of (possibly) the same story. Of course, by that point, Ultimate Avengers will be half a decade old and no longer such a contemporary — or memorable — example.

3 out of 5

Ultimate Avengers II will be reviewed tomorrow, Tuesday 21st April 2015. Live-action sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron is in UK cinemas from Thursday 23rd.