Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher REVIEW

Image Courtesy en.wikipedia.org

So last week I found out that a Marvel movie was being pulled from Netflix on September 1.  I happened to have a little time on my hands, so I decided to give it a watch while I can still do that for free.  What movie was it?  If you read the title of this article, you know the answer:  Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher.

You see, before Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures decided to team up to bring Spider-Man into the MCU, Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures teamed up with the Japanese animation studio Madhouse to produce an animated movie based on the Avengers property.  This movie is one of a number of collaborations between these studios, a collaboration which also produced four animated TV series and another animated movie, all of which (presumably) take place in a shared universe since at least a few of the voice actors reprise their roles from one to the next.  Obviously the only connection between these projects and the MCU is that Iron Man’s success probably helped the decision to create them.  Well, that and there are a lot of the same characters.

So how does this movie hold up for American audiences?  That’s a question…

In a nutshell, this movie follows the Black Widow and Punisher as they attempt to stop a Leviathan plot to create super-soldiers and sell them to the highest bidder.  The movie opens with the Punisher deciding to take down a gang that is using advanced weaponry to cause mayhem in the streets.  However, what Castle doesn’t realize is that he stumbled into the middle of a S.H.I.E.L.D. operation seeking to trace the weapons up the chain to the supplier, because the weapons were stolen from S.H.I.E.L.D.  Fury agrees to allow Castle to continue his pursuit of the weapons’ supplier, but with the Black Widow as his partner.  They track the supplier down, who turns out to be Black Widow’s (presumed-dead) lover, a S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist named Elihas Starr (Egghead from the comics).  Widow and Punisher manage to escape with the knowledge that Starr developed super-soldiers for Leviathan to sell, and they later must return with reinforcements to stop the sale.  This leads to a huge battle between the Avengers (Iron Man, War Machine, Captain Marvel, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Punisher) and a number of super-villains (Orion, Graviton, Baron Zemo, Griffin, Grim Reaper, Taskmaster, and Count Nefaria).  Starr turns on Leviathan and saves Black Widow’s life at the cost of his own.

This movie does have a lot of positive moments.  The first and most obvious one is the Punisher himself:  this movie absolutely nails the character of Frank Castle.  He is an intense, brooding, loner vigilante with a highly-developed sense of right and wrong and a compulsion to ensure that wrongdoing is punished.  This movie captures the brutality of his tactics extremely well, particularly at the beginning when he demolishes a room full of thugs, then when he brutalizes four S.H.I.E.L.D. agents while mind-controlled, and finally when he dispatches Orion singlehandedly.  Of all the characters in this movie, I think the Punisher was my favorite.

The Black Widow was also handled very well for the most part.  Her character design is very much inspired by Japanese anime (Punisher looks very American by contrast), which certainly isn’t a bad thing.  However, there are a lot of gratuitous shots of her butt and breasts that don’t add all that much to the movie (well, beyond the obvious with the expected-to-be-predominantly-male audience!).  There is also a really awkward subplot between Widow and Amadeus Cho in which he is constantly hitting on her and she is constantly flirting with him and offers him a kiss in exchange for his help.  I assume that a Japanese audience wouldn’t see any problems with a 30-something woman flirting with a 15-something boy, but that just doesn’t work so well for me!

I have mixed feelings when it comes to Elihas Starr, the main villain for the movie.  On the one hand, his motivation for stealing the Avengers’ blood, faking his own death, and joining Leviathan is insanely weak:  he doesn’t think he is worthy of Natasha’s love because he is a weak scientist-type and not super-powered.  He thinks that by joining Leviathan, creating super-soldiers, powering himself up, and amassing more power, he will be worthy of Natasha’s love.  Obviously this blows up in his face when Natasha tries to beat the stuffing out of him for betraying her and S.H.I.E.L.D.  On the other hand, I actually like the transformation in him at the end:  he is fighting against Natasha up until near the end when she tells him that he was already worthy of her love because she loved him, and he didn’t need to change anything for her to love him.  When she tells him this, he realizes just how colossal of a blunder he had made (I mean, seriously:  betraying a woman like Natasha Romanoff to “earn” her love when she already loves you is a MAJOR Man Card violation!) and decides that he has to put things to right by helping her defeat Orion so they can activate the super-soldiers’ kill switch.  To be honest, of all the characters in this movie, I think Elihas is the one with the most satisfactory character arc.  Admittedly, though, Punisher and Black Widow really don’t have character arcs, so this isn’t much of a compliment!  Be that as it may, the one thing that would have improved Elihas’ character would have been seeing his relationship with Natasha before his presumed death as something more than a brief flashback.  That may actually have presented his motivation in a more favorable light.

As an animated movie, you would expect this to have a lot of incredible visuals.  And it does, for the most part.  I like most of the character designs; the only one I really don’t like is their version of Hawkeye, whose face just doesn’t look right at all.  The fight sequences are all drawn very well and really come to life.

Unfortunately, the third act fight scene (the Avengers fighting a bunch of comic book villains and mind-controlled super-soldiers) is missing something pretty important:  character introductions.  If I didn’t already know who the Avengers are, I would have been completely lost when War Machine and Captain Marvel showed up—depending on your level of comic book knowledge, Thor and Iron Man may have thrown you for a loop, as well.  As it is, I could only recognize about half the villains who showed up for the auction, none of whom actually received an introduction.  Actually, it wasn’t until after the fact when I looked up the voice cast (and shared universe status) on Wikipedia that I discovered that the magic guy was Count Nefaria, rather than the Mandarin as I had originally supposed!  To me, it looked like the studio really wanted to make the final fight scene as BIG as humanly possible, so they opened their Marvel Universe Guide and just started throwing random characters into the mix until someone said, “You can’t fit that many characters in the scene!” and then they added another one.  I mean seriously:  what is Graviton or Griffin going to do with an army of mind-controlled super-soldiers?  Griffin would probably just eat them, and Graviton personally controls the power of gravity itself!

The “boss fight” between Orion and Black Widow and Elihas is very impressive, particularly when Punisher gets in the mix and eliminates Orion all by himself.  However, Orion really doesn’t have a motivation for what he is doing.  The closest he comes is when he tells Elihas that he is trying to give the “power to the people” (a very communist motivation—geddit?).  I feel satisfaction when the Punisher eliminates Orion not because Orion was a well-developed villain but because it looks awesome when Punisher stabs his combat knife through Orion’s eye-thing.

Ultimately, though this movie has quite a few redeeming qualities—portrayal of the Punisher, visuals, Elihas’ character arc—it falls short in a number of areas.  The character development is sorely lacking for the main characters.  The villain’s motivation is poor.  The third act fight scene is confusing with a whole bunch of extra characters.  On that last point, though this is one of several collaborations (which seem to be connected), a cursory check doesn’t suggest that those villains would make any more sense if I had already seen the four TV series and other movie.

If you are interested and have time, I would recommend watching this movie on Netflix before Thursday.  But if you don’t get a chance before then, I don’t think I would be inclined to actually buy it.

Have you seen this movie or any of the other Marvel/Madhouse productions?  Do you agree with my assessment of this movie?  Do you want to see a team-up between Jon Bernthal’s Punisher and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in the MCU?  Let me know in the comments!

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