I've only stumbled across a handful of comics where The Punisher and Black Widow team-up and/or fight, but it's a combination that makes quite a bit of sense. They both have dark pasts that they're trying to reconcile, one as a search for redemption and the other as an unyielding force of vengeance. Both of them do their best work in the shadows, not shackled by the black-and-white sense of right and wrong adopted by more traditional heroes. They each have been sculpted into one-man armies, more than holding their own against the deadliest supervillains even without the benefit of any metahuman powers themselves. I couldn't help but be intrigued by the idea of translating The Punisher and Black Widow to anime: characters that are far removed from the visually dazzling superheroics, technological fantasies, and even the occasional bursts of horror that have defined Marvel and Madhouse's animated collaborations to date.
The other defining aspect of Marvel's DTV anime is that...y'know, it's been kinda terrible. Avengers Confidential: Black Widow and Punisher is an improvement, sure, but not nearly enough to make me want to crack open my wallet. The "let's stop the bad guy" story is about as straightforward as it gets. The premise hinges too heavily on a clumsy story of unrequited love, and if I clenched my fists and tried really, really hard, I don't think I could bring myself to care any less about it. The pacing is generally too stop-and-go, struggling to hold my attention whenever there's not another slugfest underway. There's a definite element of moral ambiguity, particularly the secrets that Nick Fury holds and the easily abused tech that he has S.H.I.E.L.D. develop, and the same goes for some of the not-necessarily-evil forces that our heroes are pitted against. The decisions made by S.H.I.E.L.D., The Punisher, and Black Widow cannot be fully defended nor can they be entirely dismissed. Still, Avengers Confidental doesn't take nearly as full advantage of that as it could, especially when it comes to characterization.
As a lifelong Marvel Zombie, there's still plenty to be excited about here. I'm pretty sure I haven't seen Amadeus Cho animated before now, and Avengers Confidential even reteams him with the Hulk! The cover art makes it look as if the Avengers are a bigger part of the movie than they actually are, but you do also get brief appearances by Hawkeye, Iron Man, Thor, War Machine, and the Carol Danvers-style Ms. Marvel. The key villains are all pretty forgettable, but such unexpected familiar faces as Graviton, Griffin, Baron Zemo, The Grim Reaper, and...wait, was that Count Nefaria!?! pop up for a couple of minutes to get pummeled.
Whatever. If I didn't have to hammer out this review, Avengers Confidential is the sort of thing where I'd have completely forgotten about it before the end credits finished rolling. Devoid of anything particularly memorable or exciting, this latest direct-to-video movie is at best is an indifferent shrug, although that's admittedly a staggering improvement over the rest of Marvel's anime output so far. Rent It, and even that's probably being too generous.
Much like last year's Iron Man: Rise of Technovore, the animation throughout Avengers Confidential is extremely soft and diffused, to the point where it really doesn't even look like a high-def production. The DVD that's riding shotgun in this combo pack suffers from some aliasing and marginal differences in color saturation, but look at how nearly identical the two are. You'll obviously need to pop these thumbnails open to full-size to see what I mean:
The Blu-ray release undeniably looks better, but I still can't shake the feeling that the majority of the work was tackled in 480p, and only some of the stuff in post-production -- intertitles, credits, and the like -- are truly HD. Disappointing, but I've come across this in enough Madhouse releases to expect it anymore.
Avengers Confidential arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc, although the AVC encode for the movie itself is small enough to fit on one layer with room to spare. There's no letterboxing or anything this time around; just the straightahead aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
Avengers Confidental piles on a pair of DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks: one in English and the other in Japanese. If you're enough an audiophile to seek out bit-depth reports in Blu-ray reviews, the smart money says you'll lean towards the Japanese track, which is served up here in 24-bit lossless audio rather than the 16-bit English track. It sure doesn't hurt that the Japanese performances are around a couple hundred thousand times better than the generally lousy English version. Brian Bloom settles for a forgettably bassy growl as The Punisher. Jennifer Carpenter is hopelessly stilted as Black Widow, stumbling into the wrong balance between "wooden" and "NBC Saturday morning". Can't say I'm a fan of John Eric Bentley's exaggerated, not-exactly-authoritarian take on Nick Fury either. I gave the English track a legitimate shot but just feel that the Japanese voice actors are a considerably better fit.
The downside about opting for the Japanese version is the lack of properly translated subtitles. Instead, you get a set of dubtitles: y'know, a transcription of the English track instead. Black Widow has a monologue early on that's just her in the Japanese version, and it briefly alternates between her and The Punisher in the English dub. This means the dubtitles have a conversation that doesn't really exist in the Japanese version, so we're reading something that's completely different than what we're seeing and hearing. There are numerous instances where no one will be speaking in the Japanese track, but there'll be English dubtitles chattering away anyway, again because the English version drops in its own unique sets of lines. Basically, the performances in the English version are a tough slog, and the superior Japanese voice acting is compromised by chintzy dubtitles. Unless you happen to speak Japanese fluently, you lose no matter which language you choose.
On the strictly technical end of things, though, both lossless soundtracks acquit themselves pretty well. The voice acting is clear and distinct in both languages. The gunplay frequently sounds terrific, filling the rear channels and making a hell of an impression when it counts. The use of the surrounds isn't what I'd call aggressive, exactly, but they get a decent workaround, including atmospheric effects like blooping emergency sirens and a shoproom teeming with ticking clocks. There's a good bit of directionality, including one standout moment as The Punisher and Black Widow dash through the backstreets of Madripoor. Bass response is substantial with no shortage of explosions, slugfests, and gunfire. It's a solid effort, although the presence of dubtitles does stomp all over any enthusiasm I otherwise would've had.
The dubtitles are also offered up in an alternate version for the deaf and hard of hearing. French and Spanish subtitles round out the audio options.
This combo pack also includes a DVD of the movie as well as an UltraViolet digital copy code. The set comes packaged in an embossed slipcover that looks really slick, even though more than half the characters on the cover art barely rate as cameos. There's a coupon for free admission to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 if you want to keep being disappointed.
The Final Word
Avengers Confidential: Black Widow and Punisher is Marvel's best anime release to date, but if you've suffered through dreck like last year's Iron Man: Rise of Technovore, you know how low they've set that bar. Basically, it's forgettable and uninvolving rather than aggressively unwatchable: a step in the right direction, sure, but not even close to being worth watching. Rent It.