As Marvel describes it, 'The Avengers' marks the climactic conclusion of Phase One. And though we won't be able to own all six movies together in one package (unless we import it from Amazon UK) until Disney works out the details with a German luggage company, it's important to remember where we've been:
Like 'Harry Potter' and 'Star Wars', Marvel has done something revolutionary since embarking on the journey to self-finance blockbuster movies. They didn't just create a franchise or franchises -- the goal of all film studios and fearful executives -- but rather what they call a cinematic universe. I suppose it's akin to reading Stephen King's 'Dark Tower' novels, where all of King's creations co-exist. Sometimes you're only telling a story about one character, with easter egg connections tossed in for good fun. But the best part is when the overlaps are huge, and your favorite characters meet and have a new adventure together.
'The Avengers' is the Dark Tower or Rome. All Marvel roads lead here.
Our villain (from 'Thor') is Loki. When we last saw him, he fell to his apparent death in the infinite abyss. But, Loki survives and meets up with an alien race called the Chitauri. If Loki can harness a dangerous and poweful energy source (the weapon from 'Captain America') called the Tesseract, the Chitauri will help Loki enslave mankind and takeover Earth. Fortunately, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logisistic Division (S.H.I.E.L.D), which was co-founded by Iron Man's father Howard Stark, has been preparing for such a cataclysmic event. Agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) have been popping in and out of marvel universe stories for years, but now it's time to bring them all together. It's time to activate The Avengers Initiative, Phase One.
The Earth is in danger from an unstoppable and wickedly clever foe, and the only way to save it is to form a team of very special people. Tony Stark, a billionaire playboy who became a one man army called Iron Man. Steve Rogers, a genetically engineered super soldier from World War II who was once called Captain America when he was trying to drum up American support to defeat the Nazis. Thor, the literal God of Thunder and the prince of Asgard, who wields a mighty hammer. Natasha Romanoff, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, expert martial artist and interrogator, who goes by the name Black Widdow. Clint Barton, the world's greatest marksman, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent code name Hawkeye. And last but smashiest, scientest Bruce Banner who, after overdosing on gamma radiation, turns into the HULK whenever his anger gets the better of him.
But will these lone wolves find a way to band together? Despite the common enemy and Captain America's noble leadership, they're all huge personalities with different fears and goals and desires. They've never trained as a team. They've never worked as a team. They never signed up to be a team. And hell, Bruce Banner can't even control the "other guy."
It all seems impossible.
The Earth is doomed. Doomed!
But you know what? 'The Avengers' is about a group of people who, while pretty awesome all by themselves, learn they are not all powerful and, when necessary, can aspire to be even better. Not just as superheroes, mind you, but as people. In teaming up for a selfless, impossible cause, these damaged, detailed characters will each take steps forward to being the best version of themselves possible.
To put it bluntly, 'The Avengers' was my favorite movie of the summer. And while its Blu-ray success is guaranteed (so much so that Marvel didn't even care if High-Def Digest reviewed the film) after becoming the third highest grossing movie of all time, earlier this year I was pretty skeptical. I enjoyed the first 'Iron Man', but its sequel made me wonder what they could do with the character -- how many times can we watch two CGI metal men punch each other? 'Thor' and 'Captain America' were fun, but a little clunky. In truth, they seemed like a necessary steps to arrive at 'The Avengers', and Loki didn't seem capable of becoming the next Darth Vader. Also, I've never been a Joss Whedon fan. I didn't care for his television shows or 'Serenity', and while 'Cabin in the Woods' was a fantastic genre study, I didn't connect with it emotionally. Couple that with the early trailer footage, 'The Avengers' looked like it was going to be a very expensive TV movie.
Boy was I wrong.
Praise Whesus, I have seen the light! I LOVED 'The Avengers'. The character dynamics are grounded and emotionally engaging. The set pieces are genuinely thrilling (there's a flying aircraft carrier!). Every Hero has his or her moment, but at the same time the film seems organically structured and linear. Whedon's script is so tight and streamlined, countless aspiring writers will think what he did is easy. But it's not. There are a thousand landmines on a project like this. A million things that can go wrong, from fussy A-list actor personalities, a studio worried about their $200 million dollar investment, fan expectations, multiple storylines, or the fact that no one has really done a great job with the Hulk (visually, and from a character stance). But Whedon pulled it off in a way that makes me remember why I adore movies. 'The Avengers' is like what the All Star or Pro Bowl should be -- all your favorite players together for one awesome [adventure].
In fact, I enjoyed 'The Avengers' so much, I only had two problems with the film, both of which are pretty minor. First, Cobie Smulders is hilarious on 'How I Met Your Mother', but it seems as though she -- as Maria Hill -- is in a different movie than the rest of the cast. Perhaps its because I've seen her play broad comedy, though she often has touching dramatic scenes on her show, but I don't believe her in this role, and she's slightly distracting at first. Lastly, while the action sequences are well-paced and wickedly entertaining, I wished the film was a touch more cinematic. Before you get all pissed off and tear into the forums to call for my head, let me clarify. As I said, it's a minor complaint, a feeling really, but so much of the film seemed to be a TV-inspired mid-shot. I just wanted to pull back a little more, and kept wondering what David Lean or Steven Spielberg would do with certain shots or moments. Everything felt so close. I hate to bring up Michael Bay because I don't mean to imply that he makes coherent movies, but I almost wish Bay could have set up the camera a few times, only to have Joss step in to direct and edit. Everything would be the same, except with a slightly grander feel. Perhaps that's an inflammatory example. Perhaps, subconsciously, the reason I loved the action so much is because I was so IN it all the time. But deep down in my heart, the movie was so good, I wanted to feel like it was just a wee bit more epic.
Overall, 'The Avengers' is a terrific film, perfectly mixing thrills and action and character emotions. Among the best superhero movies ever made, 'The Avengers' even manages to throw humor into the mix without ever resorting to eye-rolling camp (see 'Batman & Robin' and 'Spider-Man 3'). The only real problem with a movie like this will be the imitations. Development execs and producers are all clamoring for the next Avengers. After doing so well rebooting Batman, Warner Bros. has already announced a 'Justice League' project. But that pretty much happens every time a movie opens up number one at the box office (and then into the billion dollar club). What a cinematic world we live in, where superheroes have become our mythological Gods and allegories, and our best working filmmakers are using comic inspirations to tell wildly crowd-pleasing and entertaining stories.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Walt Disney Home Entertainment presents 'The Avengers - 3D' on Blu-ray as part of a 4-Disc Combo, which includes 1 Blu-ray 3D (BD50), 1 Blu-ray (BD50), 1 DVD, and 1 Digital Copy Disc. When you open the packaging, the two Blu-rays are stacked on the right. On the left, you'll find the DVD and Digital Copy discs, an add for Marvel Universe computer games, instructions for the Second Screen Experience (see below). Finally, there is an Avengers CODE, which unlocks the film's Digital Copy, the Digital Album (soundtrack), a Free Digital Comic Book Offer, and a Free Marvel Poster Offer.
Inserting the 3D Blu-ray takes you immediately to a 3D Menu screen. When the 2D Blu-ray plays, there are a few skippable trailers (thank you, Disney!): A combo trailer for the previous Marvel film Blu-rays and Phase One Collector's Edition ("available now" -- oops), Marvel Avengers Alliance, Marvel Universe on Disney XD, and 'Frankenweenie'.
In two dimensions, 'The Avengers' makes a stunning debut in a reference quality MPEG-4 AVC encode framed at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. 'The Avengers - 3D', the focus of this video review, arrives with a a strong MPEG-4 MVC encode that's almost as good as its 2D sibling.
With a seamless blend between digital cinema elements and computer generated visual effects, expectations are high for this 3D Blu-ray release. I'm happy to report 'The Avengers' generally meets those expectations, though there are a few flaws. 'The Avengers - 3D' was filmed in 2D with 3D in mind. Like 'Alice in Wonderland', it's technically a post-conversion (to be truthful, even natively shot 3D includes some post-conversion to account for mistakes and other variables), but perhaps the best I've seen after 'Titanic'.
Like 'Thor', 'The Avengers' features many night scenes filled with digital atmosphere. This tends to flatten the 3D (and 2D) experiences of these scenes, and sometimes makes focusing on various "distances" a little more challenging (most common when there is digital smoke in the foreground). Further, objects often connect with the edge of the frame while the 3D seems to say they are in front of your screen; this lessens the feeling of looking out a window. Lastly, while ghosting issues are dependent on one's equipment, 'The Avengers' contains moderate ghosting with pointy objects protruding from the screen. Again, you may see this more or less than some people.
Despite a few flaws, 'The Avengers - 3D' looks fantastic 95% of the time. The source material is pristine and blemish-free; the encode is crisp and error-free. Resolution and detail are resplendent. You can examine the hair follicles on Robert Downey Jr.'s face, metallic floors on the Helicarrier, the leather of Thor's costume, and the crumbling asphalt in battle torn New York City. Everything is so clear, from hair and skin to costume fabric and metallic textures. Dimensionality is wonderful most of the time, like you're looking through your TV into another world. Night sequences do flatten a bit compared to interiors and daytime sequences (mostly thanks to digital atmosphere effects), but black levels are inky -- not a hint of crush -- while shadow details remain impressive. Watch the Iron Man / Thor forest fight, and you'll see every pine needle, scrap of bark, and tree. To compensate for reduced brightness, I think this 3D version of the film is a little brighter than the 2D (or, at least, it appears that way when removing the glasses during 3D playback), which then evens out and makes the film look nearly identical to the 2D version. Skin tones are natural. The overall color palette ranges from dark and brooding to bright and engaging, perfect for high definition displays.
In summary, 'The Avengers' earns a full 5-stars for a reference quality Blu-ray presentation, while the 3D experience is a very strong 4-stars (4.25, really, if we had such a rating). All together, 'The Avengers - 3D' looks terrific on Blu-ray, almost as good as the 2D version, and deserves a solid 4.5 overall video rating.
'The Avengers' and 'The Avengers - 3D' feature identical, reference quality 7.1 English DTS-HD MA soundtracks.
Subtle, refined, dynamic, bombastic, and immersive, 'The Avengers' does everything you're expecting and more. There have been so many spectacular 7.1 surround sound mixes in the last couple years, the real challenge is finding ways to describe why this latest demo disc is noteworthy. 'The Avengers' features perfect dialog rendering in the center channel -- some movies, when the action kicks up, lose track of the characters, but not this. This is a character-first movie and, even in the biggest moments, you know what our heroes (and villains) are saying.
While the side and rear channels aren't the most aggressive I've ever heard, surround activity serves the story well, articulately panning around the room in a full 360 degrees. LFE is subtle at times, but roars when needed, shaking the room with every weapon-fire, explosion, or burst of alien-energy. If I could ask for anything more, I think it would be a little more environment immersion (in the non action sequences, specifically), but that's more a personal preference.
'The Avengers', whether or not you're watching it in two or three dimensions, is a thunderous example of modern blockbuster surround sound. Even if the movie itself wasn't a rock-em-sock-em good time with reference 2D video and a strong 3D presentation, this track alone would make 'The Avengers' a must own.
On the surface, Marvel's 'The Avengers' includes a solid number of special features, but aside from a great commentary, the entire package ends up feeling a little light. Sadly, we've been spoiled by the recent and amazing fly-on-the-wall documentaries put together for 'Raiders' and 'E.T.' There are no special features on the Blu-ray 3D; here's what you'll find on the Blu-ray and DVD:
[NOTE: though the Bonus Disc is listed above, the Special Features rating, and therefore overall rating, do NOT reflect the Target Exclusive Editions, which I would consider an overall 4.5-4.75 star release.]
Joss Whedon made a fantastic adventure film that expertly blends action and character and tone to assembling one of the best super hero films in the history of the genre ('The Avengers' is also a rocking good movie, regardless of the "superhero" label). As a Blu-ray, all versions feature reference quality 7.1 audio and 2D video. The 3D version is pretty great too, though it has a few flaws, including darkness and (on some displays) crosstalk. Special Features are, sadly, only average unless you truck over to Target where buying 'The Avengers' or 'The Avengers - 3D' includes a feature length documentary about the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Phase One (everything leading up to 'The Avengers'). As for which version of the film to purchase, completists will enjoy the 4-Disc 3D release -- it usually costs about $5 more than the 2D release and, in addition to the 3D version of the film, includes a Digital Copy as well as a code to download the film's soundtrack. If you absolutely loathe 3D, then pick up the 2D edition. Regardless of what edition you purchase, 'The Avengers - 3D' easily earns a MUST OWN rating!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.