Reviewby Theron Martin,
Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher
Frank Castle is Punisher, a veritable force of nature when it comes to vigilantism. Natasha Romanoff is Black Widow, a sexy former Russian spy who now works for S.H.I.E.L.D., a supranational law enforcement agency directed by Nick Fury. The efforts of her and Fury to track an organization peddling advanced weaponry based on proprietary S.H.I.E.L.D. technology back to its source inevitably come into conflict with Punisher's methods when he opts to just kill off the ground-pounders responsible for bringing the weapons onto “his” streets. Despite the fact that he and S.H.I.E.L.D. have dramatic ideological conflicts about how to deal with the world's evil, Frank eventually finds himself teamed up with Natasha on an infiltration of a secret base run by Leviathan, a major worldwide terrorist organization. What they discover there dramatically escalates the threat level, though, as well as bringing an old flame of Natasha's back into the picture. What does one do when the nature of the threat makes it impractical – even dangerous – to send in the core Avengers team? Send in two of the deadliest non-super-powered individuals around, of course!
While not exactly the traditional image of an anime title, Avengers Confidential nonetheless is one, from the same studio (Madhouse) that has produced the other Marvel Comics-affiliated anime titles. If you've ever wondered how two of Marvel Comics' most popular non-super-powered mainstays might come off in anime form, this is your chance to find out.
Two things should be clarified up front, though. While the title does technically put the movie under the Avengers umbrella, and does use the interpretation of S.H.I.E.L.D. seen in the live-action movie and TV series, it seems intended to exist as a stand-alone, separate from both of the related live-action titles and the core Marvel Comics storylines. It is also almost entirely about Black Widow and Punisher; the Avengers main team only makes a brief and largely unimpressive appearance towards the end, including an additional brief scene of Tony Stark not in his armor.
Other characters affiliated with the Avengers plotlines to some degree in the comics make prominent appearances here but in mildly or very different capacities. For instance, teen genius Amadeus Cho makes his first animated speaking appearance as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s resident genius, although his affiliation with Hulk remains intact. Several villains who should be at least somewhat familiar to long-time Avengers fans make cameos in the late going, and the main villain at the end, Orion, is also the established leader of Leviathan in comic book form. The much more surprising guest appearance is Elihas Starr, who is radically different here from what he is in the comics. Long-time Marvel Comics fans may recognize that as the real name of the super-villain (and frequent Masters of Evil leader) Egghead, but here only his scientific prowess and backstory of absconding with blueprints from his former employer (in this case S.H.I.E.L.D.) remain intact. He is a much studlier individual in this rendition, one who has enhanced himself sufficiently that he can stand toe-to-toe with Black Widow and even serve as her onetime love interest.
For the main cast, Punisher and Nick Fury are handled quite a bit better than Black Widow. Of course, Frank Castle is a hard character to mess up, as he is one of the most straightforward and least emotionally complex of all Marvel superheroes. He is nearly single-minded in his pursuit of street-level justice, a man who is absolutely committed to eliminating the ground level and working his way up. That attitude firmly puts him at odds with Nick Fury, who takes more of a “cut the head off and the rest will wither” approach and believes that Punisher is sacrificing the Big Picture in favor of immediacy. The best non-action scenes in the movie are the philosophical debate over these issues when Punisher is brought in for interfering in a S.H.I.E.L.D. investigation. So unwavering is Punisher in his commitment that he is even willing to submit to being locked up when a situation arises where he believes that he is responsible for some unintended deaths, which makes it a little disappointing when he backs off on killing one villain towards the end. By comparison, Black Widow is saddled with an ill-defined personality and a tired romantic complication about an old love who essentially turned bad because he didn't see himself as good enough for her and didn't see any other way to improve himself. (No, really; that was his whole motivation. And yes, it is as pathetic in execution as it sounds.)
Even beyond that, though, this Black Widow suffers from one fatal flaw: she is not the Scarlett Johansson Black Widow. Just like Robert Downey, Jr. so cemented himself as Tony Stark that any other interpretation pales by comparison, so, too did Johansson define Black Widow. Lost here is any shred of the subtlety, the slick manipulation, which helped makes the live-action Black Widow who she was. She might have fared better here if such a comparison did not exist.
The plot is merely a fairly straightforward actioner about getting to the top of a terrorist organization, but the action is where the movie sizzles. The fight scenes have a separate animation director, and main director Kenichi Shimizu used his familiarity with karate to help choreograph the moves. The results are fast-paced, carefully-detailed fight scenes with all of the complex maneuvers one would expect from Black Widow and the head-smashing power that Punisher can deliver. Regardless of who is doing the fighting – and yes, they do fight each other on a couple of occasions, as well as fighting back-to-back at one point – the intensity rarely lags and the later mass battle involving the Avengers and multiple villains pales by comparison. These can also be very bloody affairs, although the movie only carries a PG-13 rating; consider this towards the high end of that range.
Character designs otherwise use the large-faced, heavy-jawed look commonly seen in other Madhouse-produced Marvel titles and the “frozen face” syndrome seen in those titles carries over, too. They are well-defined and fully retain the look and feel of their comic book originals but are not especially attractive. (Again, the Johannson comparison fails Black Widow.) Animation outside of fight scenes is not shirked on but not fully lively, either, but coloring, weapon design, and background design are all strong. Especially well-handled are early scenes where Punisher darts in and out of the dark to confront his foes.
The musical score favors a consistently heavy, dramatic sound that is a mixture of orchestrated pieces and hard rock themes. While effective, it is sometimes too heavy for its own good. Multiple theme snippets borrowed from elsewhere in the movie play out during the end credits.
Though this release by Sony Entertainment carries both a Japanese and an English dub, only the English voice actors are credited in English. (One can flip between the English and Japanese credit rolls by using the Angle option.) Neither of the leads – Brian Bloom and Jennifer Carpenter – has substantial dubbing experience, but both have won acting-related awards (Brian for a stint on the soap opera As The World Turns, Jennifer for a major supporting role on the Showtime series Dexter). Of the two, Brian's performance is smoother and Jennifer's is a little stiffer, as if she was too self-conscious about matching voice flaps. Most of the rest of the cast are established anime voice actors, including John Eric Bentley as Nick Fury (the voice of Fire Emblem in Tiger & Bunny), Grant George, Kyle Hebert, and Kari Wahlgren. All give perfectly fine performances except where face with hopeless comparisons, such as Matthew Mercer trying to make Tony Stark as cool as Downey Jr. did. The Japanese voice work is largely unremarkable.
The Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack release reflects the higher production standard of more mainstream releases, such as the aforementioned Angle feature, four sets of subtitles (dubtitle, English hearing impaired, French, Spanish), and upgraded navigation. Extras consist of a Conceptual Art Gallery (Blu-Ray disk only) and two relatively short pieces featuring Marvel reps and Japanese staff talking about the series. The purchase also includes access to the movie on Sony's Digital HD Ultraviolet service and those purchasing within a certain time frame can also get a code redeemable for a ticket to the upcoming Spider-Man 2. Audio quality and visual transfers are, of course, high-end.
The lack of originality in the plot and failure to generate much depth hurt Avengers Confidential in a storytelling sense, but the action scenes are plenty good enough to carry it. Like other Madhouse-produced Marvel titles, this one is also slanted towards teen and older audiences, so you need not be concerned about being saddled with the dumbed-down, tamed-down content too often seen in Marvel animation projects. It is worth a look for Marvel Comics fans and action fans in general.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Intense, well-choreographed fight scenes; some good philosophical elements.
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