Before he wrote and directed the most commercially successful comic book adaptation ever to hit theaters, Marvel’s The Avengers, Joss Whedon made time to write two dozen issues of Astonishing X-Men. His 24-issue run (which began in 2005), accompanied by acclaimed artwork by John Cassaday, was hailed as some of the best storytelling in the long history of the X-Men. Marvel Knights Animation began adapting the issues for video release (distributed via Shout! Factory) in 2009 with the “Gifted” arc (issues one through six). The other three arcs, “Dangerous,” “Torn,” and “Unstoppable,” dropped on DVD throughout 2012. We now have a Blu-ray collection with all four adventures on two discs.
If you’re unfamiliar with the “motion comic” format, the first thing to understand is that these are not fully-animated productions. Marvel Knights takes the original artwork and minimally animates it, always remaining as true as possible to the original panels as drawn in print form. In other words, sometimes we see pans and tilts to reveal frames that are of course immediately be fully visible in the books. The motion in some shots is limited to roughly synced mouth movements and blinking eyes within what is otherwise basically a still image. In some cases, sky or landscapes have been expanded to fill what was originally a thinly-cropped panel. Characters run across the screen in blocky, primitive fashion. If you’re new to the format, it takes a little getting used to as it’s obviously not the same as watching Iron Man: Armored Adventures or any other fully animated series.
Astonishing X-Men features a full voice cast, an effective music score, and realistic sound effects. Once you adjust to the style of animation, it’s easy to appreciate Cassaday’s artwork and Whedon’s sure-handed, sophisticated storytelling. “Gifted” deals with the concept of a drug intended as a “mutant cure” (familiar to those who’ve seen the film X-Men: The Last Stand). We’re introduced to Ord of the alien planet Breakworld, which features prominently right up to the end with “Unstoppable.” Ord is behind the “cure,” which would strip the mutants of their special abilities. “Dangerous” includes an exciting battle that finds the Fantastic Four dropping in for a cameo, assisting the X-Men.
Ultimately, the powers that be of planet Breakworld are aiming for nothing less than the destruction of Earth. Before that, we meet a new Hellfire Club in “Torn,” with some very interesting entanglements between Emma Frost and Cassandra Nova. Under the nefarious influence of this incarnation of the Hellfire Club (which also includes Negasonic Teenage Warhead, Sebastian Shaw, and Perfection), the team of mutants is indeed torn. Viewers may find themselves torn over the effectiveness of the presentation of these episodes. Each of the four subtitles is broken down into shorter segments (representing individual comic book issues) that are bracketed by opening and closing credits. It’s really too bad these couldn’t have been eliminated when choosing the “play all” function for a given title, because they really interrupt the flow of the stories.
Astonishing X-Men Collection is very acceptable on Blu-ray with a 1080p transfer framed at 1.78:1. The motion comic format simply isn’t in the same realm as fully animated features. Still, this looks good in high definition for the most part. Having reviewed the individual release of “Dangerous,” I was able to compare that segment’s standard definition presentation with the Blu-ray. Clarity is definitely improved, with the outlines of the art standing out as more defined. Colors were bolder as well. The earliest of the four segments, “Gifted,” is slightly weaker from a visual standpoint, with lines that are somewhat less crisply defined.
In terms of audio, the 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix does exactly what it needs to do and nothing more. Dialogue clarity is good. Music and effects are generally well balanced overall. Again, the format doesn’t attempt to approximate the audio complexities of a big budget feature. If you don’t already know what to expect, think of it as a no-frills animated TV series. As with the imagery, simplicity is the key to successful audio here as well. We can easily hear what the characters are saying and the additional elements blend together smoothly.
Extra features are light, but a couple of decent pieces are included. The main one appears on disc one, a 17-minute interview with former Marvel Knights editor-in-chief Joe Quesada and comic book artist Neal Adams. This is a strong piece that helps explain the concept of the “motion comic” for anyone new to the format. They discuss the strengths of Whedon’s story arcs as well as the various challenges in adapting the material to what is a relatively new format. On disc two we get the five-minute featurette “Behind the Scenes: Marvel Knights Animation” which features a bunch of participants shedding a little more general information about motion comics. The only other notable extra (and barely, at that) is a music video for a modern rock song called “Rise Up.”
I’m not sure there’s a huge future for the motion comic format, despite the predictions of Quesada and Adams in the bonus interview. It’s a curious alternative to sitting down and actually reading a comic book, but its appeal is bound to remain limited. Astonishing X-Men Collection isn’t the easiest series to get involved with for the uninitiated, but for those who enjoy Whedon’s work it’s worth picking up.