Movie Review: Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014)

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014) Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014) Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan

One is a sassy superspy with high-flying kicks and the full weight of an international agency behind her!
The other is a grim vigilante gunning down all criminals with singleminded purpose for his personal agenda!
Together, they fight crime!
Internationally!

Marvel Entertainment has released a new direct-to-DVD animated feature with help from Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan. I had no idea this was even a thing, so imagine my surprise when I stumbled onto in and found it available in iTunes. You know me and superhero animated movies! Let’s see how it holds up!

No spoilers here, necessarily, but you never know. I’ll make a second post tomorrow with some things that I really want to talk about that HAVE to include some pretty significant spoilers. I’m putting the head’s up here so you can, you know, actually watch the film untainted, like I did. You’ll be surprised about some of the cameos from Marvel Comics’ larger universe and, I’ll just say at this point that yes, the Avengers (minus Captain America) do show up for the big battle at the end.

But first up, the pre-credits sequence. Right away there are two things that send my Critical-Viewer Senses tingling. The first? A news report as way of giving exposition. Lazy, lazy, lazy, and all too common. Second? The boob shot of Black Widow. The first glimpse we see of the title hero is her buxom upper body, then the camera pans up to the lower part of her face as she reacts to the news. Now, the entire pre-credit sequence never shows EITHER of the title characters in full, so Ooo-kay, maybe the filmmakers are trying to keep the identity of the characters a secret to the viewers? (Well, I’ll give you a hint: Their names are ALREADY IN THE TITLE and they’re probably the WHOLE REASON you downloaded the movie in the first place!)

What follows is a heavy-beat generic up-tempo number with dramatic poses and key-framed moves from our players over the credits. It was clear I should quickly shift my expectations for this film to “80s Anime” mode. Throughout the film, I laughed at myself in the realization that I have not seen an anime in a long, long time. (Hey, I did try the first few episodes of Attack on Titan— Geek Cred name drop!) But this was clearly anime in the Cliche-80s’ style. You know the aesthetic– a mixture of stock poses with a split-second beat before the dialogue, which is (understandably) dubbed over the lip movements. Watch also for those neat tricks when you DON’T have to animate lip movements– a slow pan across the scene, the character’s back to the camera, or a close-up of some unrelated element during the dialogue. I love those anime grunts, that seem to come from nowhere while a character’s face is on the screen. Embrace the cliches, and you’ll have a fine time. (Isn’t there a drinking game about this somewhere?)

So maybe talk about the production here? The film was made by Madhouse, a Japanese animation studio, whose credits include Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and Death Note. So by that token, Avengers Confidential fits their house style quite nicely, even with a quite noticeable lack of gratuitous blood during the quite violent fight scenes. Apparently, this wasn’t the first collaboration between Marvel/Sony and Madhouse; they also produced a series of series with different Marvel characters in Japan (Iron Man, Wolverine, X-Men, Blade) during 2010 – 2012.

Back to the film. When there is action, the scenes are pretty lively, of course. Black Widow and Punisher are given the opportunity to fight each other three times, and fight alongside each other twice, which is perhaps the appropriate ratio for a Marvel story. The Widow gets a number of interesting moves, but it looks like the animators quickly run out of tricks when her fighting style is basically flips and kicks and shooting sparkly needles. The Punisher does more firefights than straight-up fights, aptly enough, and they’re usually covered with sound effects and lighting tricks to amp the excitement of a man just standing there firing guns. To compete in the drinking game, watch for those cliches of a character running with his hands pointed straight to the ground, the slo-in/slo-outs whenever a character does a different, more dramatic move, and the quick feints accompanied by grunts and zip-pans. It’s all slickly done and with high production value, but pretty standard stuff all around.

The plot follows that “pretty standard stuff,” model, too. It’s exposition, then travel to a new location for a fight; more exposition, more travel to a fight; lather, rinse, repeat. It’s kind of a video game model, where the characters move steadily closer to the Boss Level for the final showdown. And the exposition parts feel LONG. Along the way, there’s a kind of love-story for Black Widow that feels forced because it only starts at the end of Act Two, but the pathos is only ratcheted up in Act Four. There’s no truly surprising reveal or twist, nor any true conflict or change in the characters. Maybe that’s why the love-story for the Widow feels pretty hollow– there’s nothing to really develop so ultimately it’s all kind of meaningless. The Punisher is still the grim, single-minded vigilante he started as, and the Black Widow is still… uhm, working for SHIELD?

There are a few moments when there’s a hint at conflict between the two. The Punisher’s mission is cast in a pretty selfish light, after all, at least when the Widow is cast as a “company person” following SHIELD’s mission parameters. As you might expect from every movie trope ever, the Widow has to break from the company line and come over to the Punisher’s side in order to see the mission through. However, there is never a big deal made about this, either by the character herself or even from her boss who pretty much seems to sanction it all anyway, so the script is really just going through the checklist on its video-game model of storytelling.

The climactic battle is fun to watch, of course, and the studios break out a bit of computer-assisted scene building to help make the scale as large as possible. The Avengers (with some interesting cameos!) are brought in to assist, and by that I mean, participate in some background action so that the title characters can have a dedicated toe-to-toe with the Boss Level. It’s enough to keep any attention-deficit viewer engaged, but on reflection, again, we don’t really see anything very creative in the battle– it’s either shooting or punching. The Cameo-Avengers are given a couple of spotlighted sequences, but ultimately don’t do much, and don’t even have any lines, letting Iron Man make all the Tony Snark that you’d expect, which really isn’t that funny anymore.

Overall, on the scale of Nay, Meh, or Yay, this is decidedly a Meh. I enjoyed the film mildly, mostly in an ironic way, and yes, you wouldn’t be the first to call me hipster. Others with less tolerance for 80s-style anime and/or story tropes will not enjoy this at all, while anime enthusiasts will find this a comfortable warm blanket.

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