Released: 25 March 2014
Director: Kenichi Shimizu
Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Stars: Jennifer Carpenter, Brian Bloom, Grant George, JB Blanc, Eric Bauza, and John Eric Bentley
After interfering with a top secret mission, Frank Castle/The Punisher (Bloom) is apprehended by Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate (S.H.I.E.L.D.) agent and Avenger Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow(Carpenter) and the two are ordered by director Nick Fury (Bentley) to stop the terrorist organisation known as Leviathan selling stolen S.H.I.E.L.D. technology.
After his impressive debut in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129, the Punisher quickly became one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes thanks to his tragic backstory and unwavering commitment to the eradication of crime. His popularity has led to the character appearing in a number of multimedia projects outside of the comics, including videogames and both live-action and animated portrayals. Between 2010 and 2011, Marvel Entertainment teamed up with Japanese animation studio Madhouse to produce four anime projects, known as Marvel Anime, to little success. Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher was the follow-up to those projects; released mid-way through “Phase Two” of the massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the anime drew a mixed reception despite making over $1 million in domestic home video sales.
The movie opens to find the Punisher monitoring a rise in criminal and gang activities, as well as newspaper reports on himself, from his apartment (which, as is tradition, doubles as his armoury) while Black Widow expresses frustration at the Punisher’s mounting reputation as a vigilante. The opening credits play over a very quick montage of stills and images that give a quick recap of each character’s background and origin, showing Frank’s time as a family man and the deaths of his family in a mob hit and Natasha’s time training as a spy and assassin and association with S.H.I.E.L.D.
The Punisher makes short, brutal work of some black-market weapons dealers, filling them with bullet holes and easily taking them apart by himself (despite them having more weapons and the numbers advantage) until only one man, Cain (Hebert) is left. Though disturbed at the high-tech weaponry Cain was selling, his efforts to torture more information out of the perp are interrupted by the arrival of Black Widow. Unimpressed with Fury’s operation and Widow’s criticism of his methods, a fight between the two ensues; though the Punisher demonstrates greater physical ability and immediately goes for his pistols, Widow is easily able to match him blow for blow with her superior acrobatic skill until Fury (modelled after his Ultimate and MCU counterpart) and his soldiers interrupt and Frank is subdued by one of Widow’s tranquiliser darts. However, during all the commotion, Cain manages to slip away unnoticed.
Aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, Fury attempts to reconnect with Frank, whom he has a shared history with, and to impress upon him that his methods, while effective, are disrupting the bigger picture since he has started to interrupt S.H.I.E.L.D.’s procedures. Frank, however, is disgusted at the potential lives Fury’s methods have cost and it’s very quickly established that he and S.H.I.E.L.D., while working towards the same goal, are diametrically opposite. Still, Fury is able to inform Frank that the terrorist organisation Leviathan is selling stolen S.H.I.E.L.D. technology and the two are able to reach an agreement since the Punisher sees that the only reason he has been brought into custody is so that he can be unleashed upon Leviathan. Teamed with Black Widow, the Punisher shares the information Cain gave him and, begrudgingly, the two head to a Leviathan base in the frozen wastes of Slovenia; Widow exposits some background on Leviathan, who have grown into a sophisticated and deadly terrorist organisation that, it is soon revealed, has begun to experiment in created super soldiers and bioweapons. Thanks to their unique skills and training, the two are easily able to infiltrate the base and dispatch of the handful of guards with lethal effectiveness, but the Punisher immediately goes off script as soon as he spots Cain and another fight between the two breaks out.
This time, however, it’s much briefer and Frank simply storms out and leaves Widow to blindly follow Fury’s orders. Although he captures Cain, his efforts to torture him for more information are once again thwarted when Cain blinds him with a flash of light and slips away once more. Continuing on mission alone, Black Widow subdues the Leviathan scientists non-lethally before being attacked by her former lover, and ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Elihas Starr (George), who faked his death and has joined Leviathan. Angered at his betrayal, Widow is no match for Elihas, who easily avoids, counters, and matches her frantic attacks while expositing that he chose to develop super soldiers for Leviathan to prove himself worthy of being Natasha’s equal and partner. Elihas attempts to convince Widow into joining him in Leviathan but, though heartbroken at his betrayal, she vehemently rejects him and fights him with renewed vigour and purpose; the Punisher aids her and destroys the facility and the two bring Cain’s cell phone to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s resident kid super genius, Amadeus Cho (Bauza). Though slovenly, excitable, and a teenager pervert, Amadeus is able to decrypt the phone but inadvertently sets the flash function off once again, which puts the Punisher into a bloodthirsty trance that sees him killing numerous S.H.I.E.L.D. agents before he is brought back to his senses. However, while Widow advocates for the Punisher’s state of mind, he is shaken at his actions and willingly submits himself to S.H.I.E.L.D. incarceration after killing innocent men.
Natasha is left feeling further betrayed when Fury reveals that he not only knew about Elihas but was also fully aware that leviathan possessed mind control technology and that he had stolen the Avengers’ blood in order to create his super soldiers. This is, of course, perfectly in keeping with portrayals of Fury as the ultimate spy whose “secrets have secrets” but his willingness to sacrifice both her and the Punisher spurs Black Widow into defying Fury’s orders and convince the Punisher to help her bring down Elihas and Leviathan. This takes the two to an underworld auction in Mandripoor where Elihas’ super soldiers are being sold off to a number of Marvel’s notorious supervillains and, ultimately, forces the two to pool their resources as a more effective team rather than being at odds with each other. In the end, though the two have opposing methods and beliefs, they are able to find some common ground and build a mutual respect for each other’s methods that culminate sin Widow willingly letting Frank return to his never-ending, one man war on crime rather than arrest him as per Fury’s orders.
Of course, every anime lives and dies by the quality of its animation and Avengers Confidential is a pretty slick and smoothly animated feature. Blood and gore fly in the air with a beautiful grace and characters move with either grace and poise or a heavy, weighty physicality when not standing around like statues. Amadeus is probably the most over the top character in terms of his animation, which plays into his quirky and impulsive personality, and the film does a decent job of emphasising the differences between its two main characters through their movements and physicality as much as their personalities.
The Punisher is cold, blunt force while Black Widow is slick efficiency; the Punisher seems disconnected from humanity and focused only on solving problems in the most direct way possibly, while Widow (and Fury) are concerned with the bigger picture and a strategic approach to secured the safety of millions. The Punisher’s presence turns a lot of heads around S.H.I.E.L.D., who view him with a mixture of awe and fear, and he earns this reputation thanks to his vicious efficiency; when under the influence of Leviathan’s mind control, he resembles little more than an emotionless killing machine. In comparison, Widow is effortlessly smooth and sexy in her movements, moving like liquid and with a serene grace that allows her to easily incapacitate even larger foes. Initially, Elihas is positioned as the primary antagonist of the feature and, thanks to his rushed connection to Black Widow, ensures that Natasha has a more personal stake in the film’s events beyond simply doing her duty to safeguard the world from Leviathan’s technology. Elihas exposed himself to his own super soldier serum, augmenting his strength and abilities in an effort to prove himself worthy of Widow’s love; though he believe that she loved him in the past, he was spurred by her always choosing missions with the Avengers and her life as a superhero over him and resolved to find a way to truly be her equal. Elihas truly believes that S.H.I.E.L.D. is actually oppressing people rather than saving them and that war and conflict are inevitable; as a result, he is perfectly fine with escalating and even starting wars with Leviathan’s technology and resources and sees his super soldiers as the next logic step towards consolidating their influence on the world.
Although the Avengers get top billing in the film’s title and feature prominently on the DVD artwork, they don’t actually play a big role in the film and only show up right at the end. Despite having defied Fury’s orders, Black Widow and the Punisher’s mission to stop Leviathan is provided much-needed support when Tony Stark/Iron Man (Matthew Mercer), Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Fred Tatasciore), Thor Odinson (Unknown), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Mercer), James Rhodes/War Machine (Unknown), and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (ibid) all arrive to help fight off Leviathan’s super soldiers. This leads to some high-octane action but never really overshadows the more grounded and gritty storyline featuring the two leads, who remain at the forefront of the narrative thanks to Natasha’s arc with Elihas and the Punisher’s vendetta against Cain. This is made even more explicit with how unimpressed the Punisher is by Stark’s bravado and the Avengers’ powers and abilities; he’s there with a mission to fulfil and merely tolerates their presence rather than jumping at the chance to join forces with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The true head honcho of Leviathan is the mysterious Orion (Blanc), a semi-cybernetic, cloaked madman who doesn’t even physically appear until the last moments of the film. However, despite Orion’s influence and power, we learn basically nothing about him and he is ultimately unable to hold sway over Elihas; during his climatic and emotionally charged showdown with Black Widow, Elihas finally comes to his senses and realises that the love they two of them shared is still there. This proves to be his undoing, however, as he sacrifices himself to save Natasha’s life after Orion shoots at her and dies in her arms. The film does a decent, if rushed job, of trying to place some emotional significance on Elihas’s character and sacrifice but I find myself oddly apathetic since I have no idea who he is; all of their backstory is conveyed through flashbacks and is told to us. We never get to see them as a proper couple or in action together, which I feel hurts the emotional core of their story; he an extra five or ten minutes been included at the start of the film to show their relationship before his downfall, this might have gone a long way to addressing that issue.
Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher is a really weird production, to be honest; the animation is great and it has that slick, silky smooth quality that you expect from an anime and some brutal, bloody fight scenes but I’m not really sure what the purpose of it is. As far as I can tell, it’s not supposed to tie into any other Marvel production, which makes characters such as Elihas, Orion, and Leviathan very underdeveloped and inconsequential since I have no real personal stake in their story or motivations, and they exist solely to give the title characters someone to fight against and force an emotional conflict for Black Widow. I feel like Punisher is a strong enough character to have carried the anime by himself but, while it is interesting to juxtapose his more extreme measures with the likes of the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D., this doesn’t really work when partnering him with Black Widow. Sure, her methods and motivations are different enough but she’s still a spy, a former assassin, with plenty of “red in her ledger” so I can only imagine that she’s partnered with the Punisher to give the anime some sex appeal. In the end, it’s a short and decent enough story; it doesn’t really add anything new to the Punisher or show you anything you can’t see in other Marvel animations or productions but it manages to be just entertaining and action-packed enough to stay afloat despite its mediocre plot and characterisations.
Could Be Better
Have you ever seen Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher; if so, what did you think to it and how do you think it holds up against Marvel’s other anime and animated depictions of these characters? What did you think to the concept of teaming these two up and the animation style? Do you think it would have been better to see a solo Punisher feature or to emphasise the more popular Avengers more or were you happy with the story it told? Do you know who Elihas Starr is and, if so, can you tell me why I should care? What is your favourite Punisher story, character, and adaptation (whether it be a movie or videogame)? How are you celebrating the Punisher’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher, and the Punisher in general, drop a comment down below.
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