It’s not an easy world for an animated film right now. Sure, they’re getting more respect than ever before, but that’s largely because the creative output in the field has arguably never been better, which means the bar is high. It’s easy for a film like Henchmen, directed by Adam Wood, to become unfairly maligned. Honestly, it’s not that bad, though — just unpolished, and willing to settle for mediocre rather than push for excellence.

Henchmen takes a look at how the sausage gets made in the larger world of comic book villainy. Yes, there are supervillains, and they get all the fame and glory, but there’s also an entire class of henchmen who are cleaning evil bathrooms, helping to fix evil machines, and of course, serving as ill-fated foot soldiers of evil. These are the members of the Union of Evil, who provide all those little logistical and administrative services that help keep any malevolent enterprise running smoothly. It centres around the lives of two very different individuals: Hank (James Marsden), a cynical veteran henchman who has long been disillusioned with the villain community and is largely going through the motions, and Lester (Thomas Middleditch), a 16-year-old orphan with lofty aspirations of becoming the next Big Bad for this universe’s core of superheroes, led by Captain Superior (voiced by Nathan Fillion, obviously.)

This is the second animated film released this year by Canadian production company Bron Studios, following The Willoughbys, which had its premiere on Netflix back in April. But compared to that, a film that had so much visual personality, the animation of Henchmen comes across as bland and uninspired. The background animation work, building out the cityscape where the villains live, is actually fun and unique-looking, but it can’t overcome how painfully generic the character design is. Hank and Lester, the two leads, look fine, but all of the other characters have absolutely zero depth or texture to their animation.

The problem with Henchmen ultimately boils down to the fact that it fails to capitalise on what is, unequivocally, a great premise. There’s limitless potential in a quirky, irreverent story about the minor players in the battle between good and evil. The fact that they have an entire secret city solely for members of the villain community where the only rule is that there’s no crime allowed is fascinating. It’s clearly inspired by films like Mystery Men, with its clever and off-the-wall supervillain characters that are largely mentioned only in passing, and Starship Troopers, with the Union of Evil recruitment campaign. Those allusions are really fun! And they remind audiences that there are so many untapped layers of material to mine in a superhero/supervillain story that go well beyond just the marquee figures.

But it’s almost as though Henchmen doesn’t know what to do with it. Hank and Lester are both compelling characters, but the film never really develops them in the way that they should be, and the other figures that populate Henchmen are paper-thin. It’s a shame, too, because it squanders a top-notch voice cast, with Alfred Molina, Rosario Dawson, Jane Krakowski, Craig Robinson, and even Bobcat Goldthwaite making appearances. They deserve more! There are a lot of characters that are unfortunately hung out to dry: they appear, but they’re given almost no context or backstory to make them stand out. The film is only about 80 minutes long, but despite the short run time it starts to feel like it’s losing narrative steam at around the 45 minute mark. It almost feels as though they should have devoted more of their energy to really fleshing out the characters of Hank and Lester, and their friendship, rather than trying to build subplots and other characters whose inclusion doesn’t end up adding a tremendous amount to the overall proceedings. The two of them are the best part of the film (aside from a pair of robot security guards with magnetic moustaches who are a delight), but they’re not given the chance to shine.

None of this is to say that Henchmen is all bad. There’s a lot in it that works, especially for younger audiences who are familiar with the superhero genre and will appreciate a broad, knowing wink to all of its tropes and cliches. But it commits the cardinal sin of wasting its potential. Ultimately, there’s just enough here that’s good to make you wish that somehow they had written just a few more drafts, given it just a little extra attention, to make it work better. Because as it stands, Henchmen is a perfectly average animated film that isn’t able to stand out in an overcrowded market.

Rating: ★★★