Action Animation

Level 7 Blu-ray Review: Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher

March 26, 2014Ben MK

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Super-crime and punishment

By Ben Mk

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, super-spy and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent extraordinaire Natasha Romanoff — aka Black Widow — has seen her fair share of dangerous assignments. She's teamed up with Iron Man and War Machine, to defeat Whiplash and a legion of Hammer drones, and fought as a card-carrying member of the Avengers, against Loki and a Chitauri invasion force. Next, she'll be re-teaming with Captain America to go up against a formidable force from his past, known as the Winter Soldier. But before then, she's partnering up with the Punisher, in Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher.

In the tradition of the Marvel Team-Ups from the 70's and 80's, Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher takes two characters who wouldn't typically cross paths with one another and brings them together for a one-off mission, to battle a common enemy. In this case, that enemy is Leviathan, a terrorist organization — with roots in Russia's secret intelligence agency — that's hellbent on poisoning the planet with its brand of chaos and malevolence.

Although it isn't part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film doesn't stray from it either (which is to say that its storyline doesn't deliberately violate the continuity of that universe in any way). There aren't any specific callbacks to those films, but the characters that make the crossover into the anime world of this film bear a reasonable likeness to their live-action counterparts (especially Nick Fury). But it's really a standalone story that draws more heavily from the comics world than the film world. As in the comics, Leviathan — led by the shadowy figure, Orion — is hatching its plans for world domination by way of orchestrated anarchy. Part of their grand design — and the reason that Frank Castle (aka the Punisher) becomes involved — is supplying the criminal element with high-powered weaponry, which are being used to kill innocent civilians on Castle's home turf of Seattle. But it's Orion's plot to unleash an army of monstrous super-soldiers — created with secrets and technology stolen from S.H.I.E.L.D. — that catches the eye of Nick Fury and lands them on the radar of the clandestine government organization.

After intercepting the Punisher — who has taken it upon himself to root out the source of the deadly weapons flooding his streets — Fury recruits him, assigning Black Widow to accompany him on a mission to track and stop Leviathan. Fury's directives take the pair around the globe, to a mixture of real-world cities and locales borrowed from the comics — from Slorenia to Instanbul, and Hong Kong to Madripoor — where they uncover a betrayal that strikes not only at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, but at Black Widow's heart as well. Along the way, they'll have help from some familiar faces, including most of the Avengers (though Captain America is inexplicably M.I.A.) — who show up to assist in the film's final, climactic battle — and a fan-favorite from the comics, boy genius and seventh-smartest person in the world, Amadeus Cho. There are even a handful of Marvel villains never before glimpsed on film who make an appearance, including Baron Zemo and Griffin. But what makes the film unique is that its two main heroes have no real super-powers to speak of, which aren't typically the kinds of characters that get top billing in films like this (DC's Dark Knight excepted).

The film was produced by Japanese anime studio Madhouse, and anyone familiar with their previous Marvel offerings — especially the recent Iron Man anime series and the feature-length Iron Man: Rise of Technovore — will instantly know what to expect from the animation style of Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher. The film's visual style doesn't lend itself extremely well to being home theater demo material, with the image sometimes taking on a hazy appearance, topped off with generally muted colours. But for the most part, the picture quality is crisp, with clean line art and solid color contrast throughout. Any perceived deficiencies in the image have nothing to do with Sony's transfer, however, which replicates the film's visual aesthetic faithfully. The film is also rather violent and action-packed, and the DTS HD-MA 5.1 soundtrack (whether it's the English or Japanese language version) replicates the active soundstage — full of laser blasts, gunshots, punches, kicks, explosions, grunts and an anime-influenced score — with gusto.

The Blu-ray release includes a DVD copy of the film, a code redeemable for an UltraViolet digital copy, as well as three special features (all presented in HD). First up is The Vigilante vs. The Spy, a 9-minute piece that provides audiences with morsels of backstory on Black Widow and Punisher, featuring interviews with Marvel's Chief Creative Officer, Joe Quesada, and various Marvel Television executives, as well as boatloads of artwork from back issues. That's followed by Espionage and Punishment, a 10-minute featurette involving many of the same contributors (plus director Kenichi Shimizu and screenwriter Mitsutaka Hirota), which focuses on adapting the characters and storyline for the anime format. This featurette also includes a substantial amount of character concept art, which is also the topic of the disc's third and final special feature — a Blu-ray exclusive conceptual art gallery.

Black Widow and Punisher may have previously teamed up in the comics, but Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher marks their first on-screen pairing. All told, the film is a solid effort, punctuated by bouts of vicious and effective action, and complemented by the fan service that it pays to die-hard true believers. The A/V presentation of Sony's Blu-ray release may not provide the usual animation eye candy, but it replicates the original artistic intent of the filmmakers with precision; and the disc's special features (though brief) should appeal to animation and Marvel junkies alike, making Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher on Blu-ray just heroic enough to warrant a spot on your superhero team's roster.

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  ★★★½
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  ★★★½
Special Features  —  ★★★

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