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.