The last of 2014's five superhero movies based on Marvel properties arrived in North American theaters this past weekend, and it was unlike anything we've ever seen from the Marvel stable before. Big Hero 6, from directors Don Hall and Chris Williams, is computer animated, aimed at kids, and stars a cast of characters that could leave even people who knew the Guardians Of The Galaxy a year ago scratching their heads and saying, "who?" And it's different in large part because Walt Disney Animation, not Marvel, was the studio behind it.

If you've seen the movie, join Comics Alliance for this spoiler-filled "post-view" look at what worked, what didn't, and why Big Hero 6 might just change the world. If you haven't seen the movie, avoid the spoilers, go see it, and come back.

Big Hero 6 is notable not only for continuing Marvel's movie successes, but also for continuing Disney Animation's resurgence. Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph were respectable successes. Frozen was an all-conquering juggernaut. While Big Hero 6 isn't likely to match Frozen's blockbuster status -- it doesn't boast any liberated feminist anthems for six-year-olds to exhaust their parents with, for one thing -- it will continue Disney's winning streak, confirming that the animation studio is back on top of its game and producing movies that are more or less indistinguishable in quality from the redoubtable greats of their close-cousins at Pixar (which is a separate Disney studio).

Pixar already aced the animated family superhero movie thing with The Incredibles back in 2004, and that movie remains -- in my opinion -- the best Pixar release. Big Hero 6 isn't quite its equal, but it comes close enough to deserve to be hailed as a successor. Big Hero 6 is an abundantly charming and beautiful movie, with much to say about diversity, grief, and learning -- and only a few frustrating shortcomings.

Let's talk about diversity first. Big Hero 6 is based on some very fringe Marvel superheroes who, in the comics, are all Japanese. In the movie, they are not all Japanese.

Normally this would be -- and should be -- cause for consternation. It is alarming to imagine that a conversation took place somewhere at Disney in which executives or creatives looked at an all-Asian cast and thought, "Oh, this is no good, no-one will pay money to go and see this."

 

Click to enlarge.

 

Yet I think the changes made for the movie may actually give more than they take away, and maybe we should hope that was how they framed the conversations at Disney. In addition to giving the world a Japanese-American lead character of mixed heritage, Disney was also able to add a Korean-American character, a Latina character, and a black character to the pantheon of movie superheroes. (I should note that Shawn Taylor at Nerds Of Color had reservations about the black character, Wasabi.)

The movie also adds a white guy to the team, of course. Rather egregiously, the white guy replaces a character who was a rare representative of Japan's marginal and persecuted indigenous Ainu culture. That seems especially insensitive.

If there had been no source material, we would celebrate this cast for its diversity -- and I think we still should, because a lot of people now get to see themselves represented as superheroes in this film. That's empowering, especially in a kids' film. Asian audience members are still well represented in three major roles, and in the fusion culture of the fictional city of San Fransokyo.

But the movie did have source material, and I can't escape the nagging feeling that if everyone in that source material had been white, the people making the movie wouldn't have seen that as a problem. That other group of six big Marvel heroes, the Avengers? White. Even if they had decided to diversify a white cast, experience tells us they'd probably only change one character, not three. So in the future, let's hope Hollywood movies can achieve this level of diversity by changing the over-represented, and not the under-represented.

On the subject of diversity, it's also well worth mentioning that the movie has multiple female characters, including two female heroes, Honey Lemon and GoGo. Neither of them is the love interest, and while Honey Lemon is arguably the "heart" of the team (though really that's Baymax), she's not helpless or kept out of the field of battle. And GoGo, of course, boasts a feminist catchphrase of her own; "Woman up."

 

 

Now, two women still isn't as good as three on a six-person team. Even if we assume that Baymax is genderless (but voiced by Scott Adsit, who is not), three women out of five should be at least as plausible as three men. I'm relieved that the movie at least didn't reduce down to one woman, the way the movie versions of both the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy chose to do. Apparently Marvel Studios thinks it's making movies in the 1960s.

I also appreciate that the movie portrayed women in science in a positive light. GoGo is a confident, courageous, action-oriented physics engineer, and Honey Lemon is a brilliant chemist and unabashedly girly -- values thankfully not presented as being at odds with each other.

Science is not a major feature of the source material -- Hiro is a genius; the other characters in the comics are not -- but here it's the secret to everyone's powers, and each character (except Fred) is the main inventor of their own kit.

The movie is passionate about science, about learning, and about putting one's brain to good use -- and to that end it manages to be both earnest and infectious. Hiro's big brother Tadashi is the film's biggest advocate for the benefits of education, and he not only persuades his brother that science is cool, but probably persuades a good deal of the audience.

Big Hero 6 presents exactly the sort of positive message about science that can help boost an entire generation. I'm serious when I say that I think this movie could change the world. Someone brilliant will find their way into science because this movie made them excited about it, and encouraged them to believe that there was a place for them. That's the power of fiction.

The movie's other major theme -- also embodied by Tadashi -- is grief. In recognition of the fact that superheroes and supervillains are often cut from the same cloth but divided by their response to misfortune, both Hiro and the villain are motivated by grief. The scenes in which Hiro is so overwhelmed by anger that he almost becomes a villain were particularly effective.

 

 

Grief has been a theme of many Disney movies over the decades, because it's a catalyst for emerging from childhood and taking the first steps towards adulthood. For the same reason, it's a key theme in superhero fiction,and it's apt that a movie that combines Disney with superheroes should offer one of the more sensitive portrayals of grief that I've seen on screen. The movie slows down to deal with Hiro's depression; Baymax offers real and consequential advice on dealing with the pain of grief -- and offers exemplary patience in acknowledging how long that pain can linger. This is a movie about post-trauma mental healthcare with a nurse as a superhero, and that's pretty amazing.

Other major superheroic themes are also present and correct; responsibility, teamwork, sacrifice. Where the movie missteps a little is in the supervillainy -- which maybe is how you know it's based on a Marvel comic. The villain's decision to blow up a building and steal technology motivates the whole plot, but isn't actually essential to his master plan -- it's really only essential to making him a supervillain. Also, the villain kind of wins at the end, and that's a little weird.

Maybe the movie could have used some input from the superhero experts at Marvel Studios. The extent to which Big Hero 6 has been divorced from Marvel in its marketing is remarkable, and Marvel is doing nothing to support the movie within its core publishing business.

This isn't a case like the X-Men movies at Fox, where Marvel has snubbed a rival studio that took a cash cow away from them. Marvel is part of Disney, and Big Hero 6 was a property that Marvel had no particular attachment to, so  it lost nothing by giving the property another home in the Disney family. But Marvel isn't even publishing the tie-in comics, which gives the impression that Disney is actively keeping them at bay.

Marvel Studios knows how to make a smash hit superhero movie. And yet, as broad as the appeal of Marvel's movies have been, Marvel doesn't really do kids' entertainment, either on screen or in comics. It only recently seemed to really get into gear with its in-house animated TV shows, and even those are pitched to a teen audience. The publishing arm has done next to nothing with, say, the hugely popular Muppets license. Marvel simply isn't in the kid business.

 

Original comic book concept art by Duncan Rouleau

 

And Disney? Well, family entertainment is kind of their whole entire thing. While Big Hero 6 has moments that would be scary to very small children -- the explosion, the villain, and the scene where Baymax turns "evil" -- the movie knows never to step too far into gratuitous shocks or violence. This is a superhero movie where the fighting is mostly non-contact, and the villain is finally taken down by not punching him.

It's not as if Disney's Big Hero 6 owes much to Marvel's versions of the characters. In fact, the comics are rather half-cocked and patronizingly orientalist, and may be best forgotten. The decision to name characters after food is one that Disney really should have abandoned completely, because it feels incredibly awkward. At least it's less insulting when Wasabi is a black guy. Still, I hope there's a mangaka somewhere in Japan creating a sentai team with an American member called 'Ketchup Is A Vegetable'.

Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau are credited for creating the team and most of the characters -- under their own names and under their studio name, Man Of Action (you can see original concept sketches at their website) -- while Chris Claremont and David Nakayama are thanked for creating the characters Fred and Wasabi. That's as it should be -- but the movie uses the names and an approximation of the powers for these characters and takes them in a distinctly Disney take. This is a Disney reimagining (or reimagineering?) of a Marvel concept that does not ask for or require Marvel's approval or input.

Although Big Hero 6 isn't a true Marvel joint, a little Marvel weirdness slips through. Hardcore nerds will have spotted models of obscure Marvel characters Sleepwalker, Orka, Black Talon and Manphibian in Fred's private den.

And then there's that Stan Lee cameo. Two of them, in fact. The first, in which he's just a painting on the wall, is great -- an unobtrusive Easter egg that will tickle anyone who notices it. The second cameo, in the post-credits scene, feels like something from a Dreamworks movie, with its underpants jokes and its frightening animated Stan.

Perhaps that only serves to illustrate that this project was truly better off without the Marvel touch. Big Hero 6 really is Disney doing superheroes for kids; and they do an excellent job.

I am satisfied with my care.