Movies

Batman Returns

Batman Returns

I’ve never been a big fan of shibboleths—those words or catch-phrases designed to set members of an in-group apart from outsiders. Especially in today’s geek culture, the use of such exclusionary memes seems unnecessarily divisive. But I’ll admit, I do have my own shorthand way of identifying my people: I simply work into casual conversation the observation that 1992’s Batman Returns is a better and more interesting film than the 1989 original.

 

What I love most about this revelation is the looks I get in response. At one end of the spectrum, you have the folks who gape at me as if I’ve just licked their nostrils. At the other end, there’s a spark of realization, a look in the eye that says, “You get it!”

 

What generally follows—with the latter folk, at least—is a lengthy discussion about why. Why Batman Returns is everything Batman should have been. Why it has stood the test of time in a way the original hasn’t. Without hours to dig into all of it here, though, I’ll have to merely scratch the surface.

Simply put, whereas Batman—much as I love that film—is primarily a product, its weird and wonderful sequel is a genuine work of art. An aesthetic, thematic, and tonal expression that actually has something to say, and stands up to legitimate re-interpretation as the years pass and the weirdness of our own world finally catches up in so many ways to the macabre and gothic political tale Tim Burton wove in this most anticipated of sequels. And surprisingly, very little of that has to do with the fact that Max Shreck—Returnstertiary antagonist, played by Christopher Walken in all his scenery-chewing glory—is a nasty, narcissistic, big-city tycoon with underhanded political ambitions and a feint of concern for the common man.

 

In any other comic-book film, Walken really would have stolen the show. But the real standouts here are Danny DeVito as a deliciously disgusting re-interpretation of The Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer, who simply makes Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, her own.

 

If I had to guess, I’d say one of the reasons why Batman Returns was mistakenly written off as an inferior sequel in its day is the heavy emphasis on its villains—delightful as they are—to the exclusion of the titular hero, who almost shrinks into the background as a mysterious boogeyman. Or perhaps it’s simply that this film is so dramatically different from the one it follows, almost having more in common with Burton’s criminally underappreciated Edward Scissorhands, which he made in between his two Batman efforts.

 

None of this is to say that Batman Returns is perfect, mind you. Some of its dialogue falls flat, even if only by contrast 

with the sheer brilliance of other one-liners. And Keaton at times seems bored to be wearing the cape and cowl for a second time. But if, for whatever reason, you haven’t seen Batman Returns since its debut, you owe it another look. And there’s no better way to do so than the new UHD/HDR release on Kaleidescape.

 

To say that the film has never looked as striking as it does here would be a banal understatement. The improvements over previous home video releases simply cannot be summed up in a handful of paragraphs. The additional detail over the Blu-ray release from 2010 is jaw-dropping from beginning to end, but it’s the HDR grade that truly brings this film to life.

Batman Returns

Unlike Batman, which is a way more visually vibrant film than most people remember it being, Returns is genuinely stygian throughout, and the enhanced contrasts, shadow detail, and depth afforded by HDR give the streets of Gotham and the sewers beneath a depth and richness I don’t remember seeing even in the film’s original big-screen release. The new transfer also makes wonderful use of highlights, mostly to bring vivid clarity to the film’s diverse textures—especially in contrasting the dull, matte darkness of Batman’s costume with the gleaming, slick blackness of Catwoman’s getup.

 

The enhanced dynamic range also elevates narrative elements of the film, such as the scene in which Penguin crawls out of the sewers for the first time and is blinded by the strobing of camera flashes. Those bright flashes aren’t quite eye-reactive, but they are stark enough to illuminate Penguin’s discomfort and give the viewer some small taste of his experience.

 

I’ll admit, I was concerned going in that the HDR would do no favors to the film’s numerous matte-painted cityscapes. But since the film is in many ways shot like a play whose audience is dragged from stage to stage at a frantic pace, the fact that you can now more easily see the seams in spots actually adds to the film’s charms in an appropriately weird way. Aside from a handful of optically composited effects, Batman Returns looks like it could have been shot yesterday. By a madman,

to be sure—and certainly not funded by any major motion picture studio outside of perhaps Netflix—but yesterday nonetheless.

 

As for the sound, unlike the UHD/HDR release of Batman, the new Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t introduce any re-recorded sound effects, largely because it doesn’t need to. The sound elements still hold up as shockingly modern and incredibly robust, and the Atmos mix simply draws atmospheric elements and bits of Danny Elfman’s iconic score into the height dimension.

 

I have to say, if this is the direction Hollywood is heading with Atmos mixes, either new or re-mixed, I might have to rethink my curmudgeonly stance on the format. The new mix never whaps you over the head with kitschy audio grandstanding. Instead, it’s used largely to build the film’s environments, to give a distinct sonic signature to interiors like the Batcave and the Penguin’s underground lair. In other words, it draws you into and reinforces the onscreen action rather than distracting from it.

 

One other thing worth noting about the new Kaleidescape release of the film is that it’s the only digital release of the UHD/HDR remaster to include bonus features, aside from the iTunes download. Vudu, Amazon, and others have

Batman Returns

released movie-only versions that sell the film short, in my opinion. On Kaleidescape, you’ll also need to download the Blu-ray-quality version of the film to get the bonus goodies, and said goodies are only available in standard-definition, since they were originally created for DVD. But it’s worth the extra effort. The supplements are a continuation of those created for Batman, and give a nice inside look at the making of the film, especially its effects, set designs, etc.

 

I wish Burton’s commentary had also been attached to the UHD/HDR version, instead of merely supplementing the Blu-ray-quality version, since it’s a worthwhile listen, and having seen the film in all its 4K glory, it’s hard now to watch it in mere high-definition. But if nothing else, doing so gives one a greater appreciation of just how incredible the new restoration is.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Batman (1989)

Batman (1989)

I think we can all agree that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films is the greatest series of superhero films yet produced, with the middle film—The Dark Knight—transcending the superhero genre to just being a great film, and with Heath Ledger’s Academy Award-winning turn as The Joker representing some of the best acting ever in a superhero film.

 

And you could make a strong argument that, if not for Tim Burton’s Batman reboot in 1989, we would have never had Nolan’s films 20 years later. Remember, back in 1989 superhero films were mainly limited to Superman, with the notable exception of 1980’s Flash Gordon. And Superman’s final film to that point—the abysmal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987—didn’t exactly end the series on a high note, financially or critically. 

 

Also, superhero stories to that point were mostly light, geared towards attracting families with kids. They drew clear lines of good guys and bad guys. Think of the original Batman TV series with Adam West. It dripped with camp and positive 

messages, with Batman never crossing the line into dark vigilantism.

 

Up until 1989, that was the Batman the majority of the world knew.

 

But Warner Bros. decided to create a tentpole franchise around the Bat, featuring a dark style inspired by Frank Miller’s four-part The Dark Knight Returns comic series from 1986. They also selected an unlikely director, going with Tim Burton, who was fresh off the success of Beetlejuice and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but who had few other credits to his name, and certainly nothing on the size, scope, and budget allocated to Batman.

 

But hiring Burton proved fortuitous, as he bought into the idea of a darkly-toned film, with his own quirky sensibility, style, and world-building being just the thing to launch a darker vision of Gotham.

 

Another thing that separated Batman from previous films was its unique marketing and merchandising, which was 

designed to build hype and launch the film to blockbuster status. Sure, there had been blockbusters before, but many of these were “accidental” such as Jaws or Star Wars, or were sequels. Batman was for all intents and purposes an original film, but one with a storied history to pull from.

 

An interesting documentary, Batman: The Birth of the Modern Blockbuster (included on the previous “Diamond Luxe Edition” Blu-ray, but unfortunately not part of the numerous extras included here) does a great job of analyzing the film’s marketing efforts to raise Bat awareness to a fever pitch. And I can recall my own excitement surrounding the film. In the summer of 1989, it was the film all my friends and I had to attend, and we waited hours in line to view it in a packed opening-night theater.

 

The strategy definitely paid off, as Batman shattered opening-weekend records, bringing in $40.49 million and trouncing the previous record holder, Ghostbusters II, by over $12 million. Batman also earned $100 million faster than any previous film, doing so in just 11 days, and ended up grossing over $410 million, becoming one of the highest-grossing films to that time.

Batman (1989)

While everyone seemed thrilled at the prospect of Jack Nicholson portraying The Joker (including Warner, which agreed to some incredible demands by the actor, including not filming during any Lakers home games), fans were considerably less supportive of Michael Keaton’s casting in the titular role. But I think Keaton did a great job, especially with his quirky, slightly-uncomfortable-in-public turn as Bruce Wayne, and feel he’s the second best of the modern Bat-men, behind Christian Bale, but ahead of Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and Val Kilmer—and with no WTF?! distracting nipples on the Bat-suit.

 

I’ve seen Batman numerous times, but what I mainly remember is watching it on a VHS copy and constantly struggling to see any detail in the image. Many scenes are so dark, I would constantly fiddle with my TV’s brightness control to try to find the optimal level between washed out and lost in darkness.

 

For me, that is the greatest benefit 4K HDR brings to the 30th-anniversary release. Dark, nighttime, and low-lit interior scenes—of which there are many—look absolutely gorgeous. Blacks are incredibly clean and detailed, with no noise or banding. Warner did a fantastic job on this restoration, allowing you to see things that were likely never visible before, especially on any prior home video release. There are still plenty of deep, dark shadows, with many scenes featuring black-on-black-on-black imagery, between the night, set color, layers of black on Batman’s suit, the black uniforms worn by The Joker’s henchmen, and more, but each retains its own level and layer of black. Batman is still a visually dark film, but now you don’t feel like you’re missing anything.

 

Also, even though this 4K transfer was taken from a 4K digital intermediate from the original 35mm negative—which can often introduce grain and noise into certain scenes—grain is almost non-existent here. Even in outdoor scenes or when there is lots of smoke wafting in the air, images are always clean and clear.

 

Detail also abounds, letting you really appreciate the art and set decoration for which the film won an Academy Award. Great care was taken to create a believable Gotham, and this transfer lets you see all of it. You can really notice the texture of the fabrics—the heavy wools of The Joker’s suits and overcoats; the dense, leathery weightiness of Batman’s cape; the smooth metallic shell of the Batmobile; and the high-tech carbon-looking skin of the Bat-wing. Also, I noticed for the first time that the buttons on The Joker’s suit near the end of the film actually have all the playing-card suits on them—another subtle touch the enhanced resolution makes apparent. The minor drawback to all this extra resolution is that some shots reveal themselves to be matte paintings, but that’s a small price to pay.

Being such a dark film, there’s not a lot of room for the wider color gamut to shine, but some scenes do benefit, such as the flames in the explosion of the Axis Chemicals plant or the brilliant purples of The Joker’s numerous suits, and especially his beret in the museum scene. The warm golden tones in Bruce Wayne’s mansion also feel extremely natural.

 

From the opening moments, Danny Elfman’s score really has room to breathe and shine in this new Dolby True HD Atmos mix. The opening-title scene presents his score wide and crystal clear across the front channels, letting you easily discern all of the instrumentation. While I wouldn’t call this an overly active mix, Atmos does a really nice job of expanding the soundstage, especially in key scenes throughout the film. I noticed a ton of width in the front channels, with objects traveling great distances outside the left and right speakers.

 

The overhead and surround speakers are used effectively throughout to create ambience and atmospheric sounds on the city streets of Gotham, or add layers of echoes in the spacious and stately Wayne Manor. During big action scenes, such as the gunfight at Axis Chemicals or the Bat-wing swooping over The Joker’s  

Batman (1989)

parade near the end, the speakers effectively and appropriately immerse you in sound, with things whisking by overhead, bullets ricocheting around the room, or voices calling from distant offscreen locations. Considering that this is a 30-year-old sound mix, Warner did a stellar job.

 

If there’s any shortcoming to the audio, it’s that the LFE is generally a bit restrained, especially by modern standards. Bass has its moments to shine, like during the explosion at the Axis Chemicals factory, but there are other key moments—like the massive destruction of the tower bell near the finale —where a few extra dB in the bass channel would have been welcome.

 

Both the Blu-ray disc and the digital download from the Kaleidescape Store include numerous special features, letting fans dig into multiple aspects of the film’s production and design, and the history of Batman.

 

Batman set the stage for the modern superhero genre, and it has never looked or sounded as good as it does here. While not as great at Nolan’s films—and arguably not even the best of Burton’s Batman films—this movie still makes for terrifically fun viewing and is highly recommended.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Natural

The Natural

Widely regarded as one of the best sports films ever made, The Natural celebrates its 35th anniversary this year with a full 4K HDR restoration and newly remixed Dolby Atmos soundtrack, available now both on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and download from the Kaleidescape Store.

 

This continues the recent trend of re-releasing classic fare in fresh new Ultra HD resolution transfers, as we’ve recently enjoyed the 30-year anniversary release of Field of Dreams, the 35-year release of The Karate Kid, and a spectacular 40-year anniversary release of Alien.

 

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has a proven track record of doing some terrific restorations and re-releases (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and The Natural has been fully restored from the original 35mm

camera negative, supervised and approved by both director of photography Caleb Deschanel and director Barry Levinson.

 

Nominated for four Academy Awards in 1985—Best Cinematography (Deschanel), Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close), Best Original Score (Randy Newman), and Art Direction—The Natural was based on the novel by Bernard Malamud, which I’ll admit to disliking immensely. Where Malamud made Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) bitter and wholly unlikable, Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry’s screenplay instead makes him a likable, believable character who just caught a bad break, making him easy to root for, especially when played by Redford with his signature easygoing charm.

 

I can’t imagine too many readers not being familiar with the story, but I’ll keep it spoiler-free just in case. Hobbs discovers an almost superhuman “natural” talent for baseball growing up, and carves himself a bat named “Wonderboy” from a mighty oak tree struck by lightning outside his home. He leaves his childhood sweetheart Iris (Close) to pursue his dream of joining the majors, but just as he is about to get his big break, he has a chance encounter with a Babe Ruth-esque character named The Whammer (Joe Don Baker), which results in an even more tragic encounter with Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), who could best be described as a sports super-fan psycho killer.

 

Sixteen years later, Hobbs once again gives baseball a go after a scout signs him to join the struggling New York Knights. Manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) takes an

instant dislike to Hobbs due to his age, but ultimately gives him a chance, at which point Hobbs’ near-mystical baseball abilities lift the team toward hopes of winning the pennant.

 

The Natural has a bit of a supernatural feel to it and asks you to check your skepticism at the door. Hobbs has essentially two modes—homerun or strike out—and these are often directly impacted by his moral decisions at the time. Stay on the straight and narrow, good things happen, but allow yourself to be distracted by booze and dames in the form of Kim Basinger’s Memo Paris, and you’ll face struggles. But the story, the acting, and the cinematography are all so good, it’s easy to get swept up in the tale, and you can’t help but get chills during the film’s climax.

 

Visually, The Natural is an absolute treat. As mentioned previously, Sony knows how to lovingly restore old films to their greatest potential, and this is another winner. Early on, you can see all of the wood grain and detail in Wonderboy, and every 

The Natural

stitch in the Glen plaid pattern of The Whammer’s suit. The detail lets you feel the wooly texture of the ball uniforms, even seeing the pilling.

 

Closeups show tremendous detail, with incredible sharpness and depth. One example is the image of Iris’s hat shown at left, which, sadly, the pixel structure of my camera doesn’t do justice. This image features almost single-pixel fine detail that holds up without any jaggies or loss of resolution. Powdery-blue skies often create issues with noise and grain from older film stock, and that is evident in some scenes, but not overly so.

 

I’m not sure I fully appreciated Deschanel’s cinematography as a younger viewer, or perhaps it was just because it 

wasn’t allowed to truly shine on previous home video releases, but here we are treated to sumptuous golden hues and sunbathed tones in early scenes, as well as carefully lit interiors (likely to help disguise the actual ages of stars Redford and 

Close). Lighting is used to create deep shadows in many scenes, to conceal detail and reveal just what is intended, and here HDR does a great job keeping black levels clean. This is especially evident in the dugout scenes and the conversations between Hobbs and The Judge (Robert Prosky) in his dark office. Bright outdoor scenes also benefit from HDR’s boost, with exploding Klieg lights having extra punch.

 

I was surprised by how much the new Atmos mix elevated the audio experience. Right from the opening scene, it is used to expand the room’s size and atmosphere, placing you in a train station with all the surrounding sounds and noises. This continues through other outdoor scenes and those at the ballpark, where audio is lifted overhead and around you to smartly place you in the action. One nice use of the overhead speakers was when Chicago’s El train goes charging overhead. Bass is also used judiciously to add just the right amount of dynamic energy to key scenes.

 

The new audio mix also helps you to appreciate Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated score, and I felt I could hear hints of musical themes heard in his later work, such as Toy Story. Also, voices are clear and easy to understand, vitally important in a dialogue-driven film.

The Natural

Both the Blu-ray disc and the Kaleidescape download feature numerous special features that will keep film buffs busy for hours. These include “When Lightning Strikes,” “Pre-Game—A Novelist Steps Up to the Plate,” “The Line-Up—Assembling the Moviemaking Team,” “Let’s Play Ball—Filming the Show,” “Clubhouse Conversations,” “A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus,” and “Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural.

 

The Natural is a fantastic film the definitely holds up 35 years later, and this new release makes for a spectacular evening’s entertainment. Highly recommended.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World

How to Train Your Dragon 3

The Hidden World is the third and final film in the How to Train Your Dragon series. It has been five long years since last we saw Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his beloved dragon Toothless on the big screen. If you followed any of the off-screen drama surrounding The Hidden World, you know that the film’s release was pushed back multiple times—partially due to the financial woes and restructuring of DreamWorks, but also due to script concerns. Apparently it took a few passes to nail the landing, but The Hidden World proved worth the wait.

 

The story takes place one year after the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Hiccup is the king of Berk, Toothless is the alpha dragon, and together with their merry band of dragon-riding misfits, they are freeing dragons from all sorts of ne’er-do-wells and bringing them home to live safely and peacefully in Berk.

 

Enter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), the ultimate dragon hunter, singlehandedly responsible for the killing of all the Night Furies. All but one, that is—which is something Grimmel intends to rectify. He threatens to destroy everything that Hiccup loves unless Hiccup turns over Toothless, and with his own set of powerful (and powerfully drugged) dragons, he has the means to do it. Hiccup sets off to find the mythical Hidden World, a place where dragons and dragon-loving humans will be forever protected from evil men.

 

Meanwhile, Toothless has found himself a girlfriend . . .  and it’s adorable.

 

After seeing The Hidden World three times in the theater (you can read about that adventure here), I knew one thing for certain: The Ultra HD version would be a sight to behold. And indeed it is. The film’s animation is simply gorgeous, with

exceptional detail, a rich color palette, and a lot of complex interplay between light and shadow. If you’ve got an HDR-capable display, you should absolutely watch this film through a provider that supports HDR playback. I went with the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, which offers HDR10 video. The scenes in the hidden world are perfect demo material, both for their HDR and their color. But really the entire movie is stunning, and there are also a number of scenes that will challenge your display’s ability to render deep, dark blacks and fine shadow details.

 

The disc includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that makes good use of the complete channel palette. It’s a well-

balanced presentation with clear dialogue and a lot of music and ambient sounds in the surround channels. It’s not really an Atmos showpiece, however. The film contains several battle sequences that could make aggressive use of the height channels, and a few such moments will catch your ears, but for the most part it’s a fairly conservative mix.

 

The UHD Blu-ray package also includes the Blu-ray disc and a digital copy, plus bonus features like deleted scenes, an alternate opening, some fun featurettes, and a full-length commentary track by writer/director Dean DuBlois, producer Bradford Lewis, and Head of Character Animation Simon Otto.

 

The Hidden World is a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful trilogy that will delight children and reduce grown men to tears. (No, really—I saw this myself in theaters.) If your family loves How to Train Your Dragon as much as mine does, this installment will be spending a lot of time on your TV screen, so it’s worth it to pay more to get the top-shelf UHD presentation.

 

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel

Like millions of others around the world, my family and I have been following the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over the years as it gradually built to the global phenomenon of a climax that was Avengers: Endgame. But my favorite film in the franchise remains Avengers: Infinity War, and if you’ll recall from the end-credits scene, just as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is about to disappear into a Thanos-snapped dust cloud, he pulls out an ancient-looking pager and manages to send off one final message. As the pager falls from his fingers and starts sending the message, its screen changes to reveal a logo familiar only to hardcore Marvel fans.

 

That brief end-scene introduced us to one of the most powerful characters in the MCU, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). (And those who have seen Endgame—which, seriously, by now should be all of you—will attest to her abilities.) It also perfectly set up Captain Marvel as the 21st and final Marvel film that would precede Endgame. I’ll admit, I didn’t recognize the logo on the pager, nor did I know who Captain Marvel was or anything about her story, so I went into the film fresh, and curious about what bits of the MCU puzzle this might fill in.

 

While Marvel films are usually met with excitement and anticipation, there was actually a lot of hate surrounding Marvel’s release—so much so that Rotten Tomatoes adjusted its rating policy when it was clear trolls were posting negative reviews and hatred over Larson’s casting and acting before the film was even released. Further adding to the controversy, Captain 

Marvel was originally a male character in the comics (although, different characters have taken up the Marvel mantle, and there is precedence for the character to be a woman), and many felt that casting Larson was a way to push a social agenda.

 

All of which didn’t interest me or sway my opinion in the least.

 

Give me a good movie I can sit and enjoy for two hours, and I don’t care if the lead is a man, woman, animal, or robot. I’ve got two daughters and I’m all for female empowerment. (And for the record, my 12-year-old loved it, saying “Captain Marvel was so cool and tough!”) And, if you avoided Captain Marvel for fear it would try to cram some social agenda down your throat, I’d strongly suggest you reconsider.

 

The first thing you’ll notice about Captain Marvel is a change to the opening credits scene. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say the folks at Marvel once again know how to give you the feels.

 

It seems like the Marvel team knew Captain Marvel would be a new character to many, and they chose a storytelling style that played into this, as we discover things about Larson’s character’s past along with her. The story opens with Vers (Larson) as an elite member of the Kree Starforce Military living on Planet Hala. Vers suffers from amnesia and just has snatches of visions and images of a previous life, but none of which she can assemble into a cohesive whole.

 

During a mission to rescue a deep-cover operative from a band of alien shapeshifters known as Skrulls, Vers is 

captured and her memories are probed by the Skrulls as they try to determine the location of some experimental tech Vers was involved with in her previous life on earth as Air Force fighter pilot Carol Danvers.

 

These memories lead both the Skrulls and Vers to Planet C-53—aka Earth—where we encounter a digitally de-aged and fresh-on-the-job S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with two working eyes by the name of Fury. (“Not Nicholas. Not Joseph. Just Fury.”) From here, the film moves forward with a steady stream of action, with Danvers gradually regaining memories of her life on earth as they piece together clues to hunt the experimental tech developed by Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) and avoid Skrull shapeshifters hot on their trail.

 

Taking place in 1995, the movie features a soundtrack that includes lots of era-appropriate tunes including “Waterfalls,” “Come as You Are,” “Just a Girl,” “Man on the Moon,” and more. Sometimes the songs are subtle and in the background; other times they take center stage à la Guardians of the Galaxy and Star-Lord’s Awesome Mix Tapes. There are also some other nice ‘90s-era references to bygone culture like Blockbuster and Radio Shack.

 

Visually, Marvel is a treat. Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR presentation has gobs of detail in every scene. Closeups abound with texture, letting you see the pebbling and grain in Fury’s shoulder holster, or an alien’s skin, or the metallic surfaces of the various spaceships. There is a scene about 10 minutes into the movie where Vers and a band of Starforce soldiers visit a planet that is covered in a smoky, hazy mist. This is a total video torture for noise and banding, especially as the smoke is 

illuminated in a variety of ways from lights, fire, and streaking laser bolts, but the image is always stable, clean, and noise-free.

 

The movie greatly benefits from HDR, with lots of brightly lit screen displays and readouts throughout that really pop. There are also lots of scenes in dark interiors that benefit from the wider dynamic range, letting you appreciate the detail of the set design. Near the end, when Marvel embraces her full powers, she literally glows with energy and power, and the effect works especially well in HDR.

 

Sonically, while many recent Disney releases have stumbled, I think Captain Marvel’s Dolby Atmos mix does a lot to correct this. The sound mixers seem to have eased off on the heavy-handed compression and uneven bass mixes that have plagued other releases (see my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron), and this movie has some very scene-appropriate low end that will take your subwoofers to church and flutter your pant legs. Explosions have dynamic depth and punch, and space engines thrum with authoritative bottom end.

 

The audio mix is definitely active and immersive but not overly aggressive. The height speakers are used to good effect to expand the sonic ambience and sense of space, and come into play during the big action scenes. One especially nice 

Captain Marvel

and clever use of the height speakers is during the scene where they’re picking through Danver’s memories, with off-camera voices moving about overhead.

 

While not required viewing prior to seeing Endgame, Captain Marvel does a nice job of filling in some little holes and fleshing out the MCU, and would technically be the first film in the timeline (if you start counting from when Captain America comes out of his ice coma). Its end-credits scene also does a nice job of marrying right into Endgame and explaining why Captain Marvel was absent from the big battle in Wakanda.

 

Available now for early download at the Kaleidescape store, Captain Marvel will be available on 4K HDR Blu-ray June 11.

 

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Apollo 11

What was originally intended as a review has turned into a rant, and for that I apologize. But this needs to be griped about. When Todd Douglas Miller’s new “found footage” documentary Apollo 11 was announced for home video release, I scratched my head over the complete lack of a 4K home version. No 4K disc release. No 4K for Vudu or Amazon or iTunes. No 4K on Kaleidescape, even. The film was, after all, showing up in IMAX theaters. Why limit it to 1080p at home? I shrugged my shoulders, wrote it off as perhaps being due to the low quality of the original source elements, and went about my day.

Then I saw the trailer. In 4K. On YouTube, of all places. And with that, it took me all of thirty seconds to go through the first four stages of the Kübler-Ross model.

 

Denial: I cannot be seeing what I’m seeing.

 

Anger: Seriously? The film looks this gorgeous and we’re only getting an HD home video release?

 

Bargaining: Maybe if I send an angry email to the studio . . .

 

Depression: This sucks. People are going to skip this release because it’s not 4K, which means the studio is going to feel justified in its decision not to release it that way.

To understand why this is a big deal, we need to back up and talk for a minute about the realities of 4K. Most of the movies you buy in Ultra High Definition don’t actually include nearly enough resolution to justify it. Take Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, for example—my nomination for the most visually spectacular film of 2018. It was rendered in 2K resolution (2048×1080). Just a weensy bit higher-res than high-definition, and a long way from the 4,096 x 2,160 pixels that constitute cinema 4K or the 3,840 x 2,160 resolution technically known as UHD. Does that mean you shouldn’t buy Into the Spider-Verse in UHD? Of course not. The high dynamic range transfer is where the real magic of that film happens.

 

The thing is, this is true of most big Hollywood releases—especially those with any appreciable amount of digital effects wizardry. It’s the HDR that makes them worth buying in 4K. Not the pixel count.

 

But Apollo 11?

 

Sigh.

Apollo 11 is one of the handful of cinematic releases this year to actually exist in the form of a true 4K digital intermediate. The bulk of the film—at least the first and third acts—is sourced largely from 65mm military-grade archival footage, which was scanned at an incredible 16K (15360×8640) resolution.

 

Yes, it’s true that the middle passage of the film—the actual journey to the moon and back—is sourced largely from 16mm and 35mm sources, with some high-resolution photography thrown into the mix. But the opening 25 minutes or so, as well as the last 15 minutes or thereabouts, boast some of the most gorgeous imagery I’ve ever seen from the Apollo program, period. And watching in HD (as I did on Vudu), you can tell at times that some detail is being lost in the down-rezzing. The flag on the side of the Saturn V, for example. The faces of the anxious crowds awaiting the launch.

The biggest crime of this HD video release, though, is that one of the film’s most spectacular moments—the launch of the Saturn V—positively cries out to be seen in high dynamic range. You can tell that the burst of billowing fire flowing out of those massive rocket engines is being held back by the limited gamut of the HD video format.

 

Should you skip buying (or at least renting) the film as a result? Absolutely not, especially if you have the slightest interest in the space program. This is one of those rare documentaries that does no egregious editorializing, makes no attempt at historical perspective, adds no commentary except for the news broadcasts of the day or recordings from FIDO and CAPCOM, et al. In tone and content, Apollo 11 has far more in common with those amazing Spacecraft Films DVD archives released a decade and a half ago than something like Al Reinert’s moving documentary For All Mankind

 

In terms of its imagery, though? I’m a veritable Apollo junkie, and I’ve never seen anything like this film. It’s as much eye candy as it is informative documentary, and the fact that it’s Number One asset is being crippled for home video is a crime.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Cold Pursuit

Cold Pursuit

If the plot of Liam Neeson’s latest action/revenge thriller Cold Pursuit seems a bit too much like déjà vu, don’t be alarmed—you aren’t losing your mind. This is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian film Kraftidioten, which was renamed In Order of Disappearance for its release here in the States.

 

I say this because my wife and I spent most of the movie with back-and-forth, “We’ve totally seen this right?”

 

“I mean, it feels like we’ve seen this already. Are you sure we didn’t see this?”

 

“Oh, yeah. I totally remember that part. We’ve definitely seen this.”

 

But, of course, we hadn’t seen this yet. We were just remembering Disappearance, which we’d rented from Netflix years back. That film starred Stellan Skarsgard in the lead role of Nils Dickman, replaced here by Neeson and renamed Nels Coxman—see, totally different.

 

Neeson, of course, is a man known for having a particular set of skills and a guy you definitely don’t want to piss off . .  especially when it comes to his family. But those skills in this case include being awarded Citizen of the Year for being the primary snowplow driver for the Colorado resort town of Kehoe, where he’s responsible for keeping the main route in and out of town cleared and passable.

 

(You might also recall this film from the uproar over some of Neeson’s racist comments during the promotional tour.)

 

I have nothing against remakes, especially when they offer some new, different, or updated take on something. The Magnificent Seven, both the 1960 original—which was a “remake” of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai—and the 2016 Antoine Fuqua version, which featured a ton of modern star power, is one example. The Clooney-Pitt redo of the 1960 Rat Pack vehicle Ocean’s 11 is another. These films both brought a different vision to the source material, especially considering that 40-plus years had passed.

 

But sometimes remakes can just seem gratuitous and solely for the sake of grabbing more money, and that’s how Cold Pursuit feels. Perhaps even more surprising is that the same director, Hans Petter Moland, made this version barely three years after the original. It’s clear Moland had nothing new to say, just a different set of actors to work with. While this isn’t a (near) shot-for-shot remake à la Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho dud, it lands awfully close to the original.

 

Now, that’s not to say that Pursuit is a bad film, or that it isn’t fun to watch, especially if you’re going into it fresh. The movie has plenty of action, and a dark comedy streak à la Fargo that will delight many and helps ease some of the more violent scenes. Neeson handles his role of Coxman convincingly—a father who can’t believe his son died of a heroin overdose and then accidentally discovers he was actually killed by a drug cartel. Coxman works (i.e., “beats and kills”) his way up from the bottom of the drug gang, seeking revenge until he ultimately reaches the man at the top.

 

The story has some nice twists, a decent amount of action, and a clear plot that is easy to follow. Sure, we have no idea where Coxman acquired his fighting skills, but, heck, it’s Liam Neeson doing what he seems to do best, and multiple similar roles have conditioned us over the years to just go along for the ride. (Also, unrelated, but a nice bit of trivia, Pursuit features

stars that bookend the current Star Wars franchise: Neeson from Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Laura Dern from Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, playing his wife.)

 

Filmed in ARRIRAW at 3.4K and taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate, I expected Pursuit to have a ton of detail and a razor-sharp image. And, well, I was a bit surprised to find it really didn’t. Images are clear and totally free of any noise, but they rarely revealed those ultra-sharp micro details the finest transfers do. There’s almost a softness to some of the long shots and background images, which looked more like a 2K upsample. Closeups don’t disappoint, showing a lot of detail and texture in fabrics and the weathering of Neeson’s face.

 

What does work especially well here is the HDR, as much of this film takes place in bright, snowy outdoor scenes. These pop off the screen, and a well-calibrated TV will reveal lots of detail in the snowbanks and mountains. There are also numerous nighttime or dark indoor scenes with deep, clean blacks, and pops of bright lights and color.

 

Don’t expect an over-the-top, reference Dolby Atmos soundtrack, as the height speakers are used pretty sparingly. But, there is some full, deep bass, particularly 

Cold Pursuit

in the opening, and the outdoor scenes feature some nice ambience to expand the atmosphere of your listening room, as well as some good directionality in the gun battles. Dialogue is also clear and intelligible.

 

If you’re going in fresh, there’s no question Cold Pursuit is the better-looking, better-sounding, higher-budget version of the two. But Disappearance was better received by critics, garnering 86% at Rotten Tomatoes versus Pursuit’s 69%. At only $19.99 in 4K HDR from the Kaleidescape store, it certainly qualifies as a candidate for a fun night at the movies. Or you can download Disappearance as well for only $13.99 and then compare them for yourself.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai has never been a great-looking film. I mean, at least not in my lifetime. Whether via VHS, widescreen VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, or even high-definition Blu-ray, it has long been plagued by an overly contrasty, crushed, murky look that didn’t quash its emotional impact but nonetheless seemed like a missed opportunity, especially given the film’s lush setting.

 

Since the biggest problem marring the look of the film has been blacks that are too black and highlights that are too bright, an HDR release may seem somewhat pointless—or even perhaps detrimental. But if anything, The Bridge on the River Kwai’s 4K HDR release via Kaleidescape does a wonderful job of conveying the difference between “contrast” and “dynamic range.” Yes, the new HDR grade darkens the darks a little, and brightens the highlights spectacularly. But the most important thing it does is to introduce more steps between those two extremes, breathing subtlety and richness into the shadows and bringing the image to life in ways I never would have imagined possible. In short, it delivers the nuances inherent to the original film that have never survived before now in the transition to home video.

 

That’s not to say that the film now looks perfect, mind you. Kwai was shot with cobbled-together CinemaScope cameras, without the benefit of zoom lenses. As such, the very first scene we see, of a soaring and circling hawk, was quite obviously blown up extensively, resulting in an overly grainy, noisy mess.

 

Thankfully, such scenes are rare. A more common occurrence, though, is the optical fade transition between scenes. These have always looked rough, but here they look even rougher, if only by comparison to the gorgeous presentation of the rest of the film. To my eyes, it appears that these fade transitions weren’t sourced from the original negative that served as the basis

The Bridge on the River Kwai

for the bulk of the restoration. They look at least a generation removed, and my guess is that in restoring the film, they had to pull the fades from a print. So, as one scene transitions into the next, you’ll go from a vibrant, gorgeously textured scene into an overly contrasty, noisier fade, then right into another lovely scene.

 

Until you get used to this, scene transitions can be a little more jarring in the 4K HDR presentation than they are in the Blu-ray-quality download also included with this release. So, you’re left with a choice: Do you watch the film in truly lovely quality with the occasional, fleeting downgrade to a second-generation source, or do you opt for a sort of bleh-but-acceptable presentation that’s more consistent from beginning to end?

 

Personally, I’ll opt for the former any day, secure in the knowledge that this is absolutely the best The Bridge on the River Kwai will ever look. I’m guessing that the original negatives for those fade transitions were damaged beyond repair in post-production, and as such there’s no good source for additional restoration. But once you accept the fact that a second or two here and there will look a little less than stunning, the HDR download of the film—released here in its proper 2.55:1 aspect ratio, not 2.40:1 as the tech specs would indicate—is an absolute revelation.

 

The Kaleidescape download is also supported by a 5.1 surround soundtrack that seems to be identical to the 2010 Blu-ray release (which itself was based on the restored and enhanced audio track I believe I first remember hearing on the 1994 LaserDisc release). There are some additional ambient sound effects I don’t remember hearing on the VHS releases, which I 

The Bridge on the River Kwai

no longer have the ability to play. The good news is, this isn’t one of those ham-fisted surround remixes that attempt to make the film sound more modern. Everything in the mix evokes the original (which I think was a four-track magnetic soundtrack).

 

I almost completely skipped the Atmos soundtrack included with this release, since I’m not fond of that format for movies to begin with, much less 60-year-old classics. But I’m glad I gave it a listen on a whim. It sounds like the Atmos mix was mostly based on the 2010 remix, which itself was based on the 1993 reconstruction of the original audio elements, but there are a few key differences. Dialogue that was obviously overdubbed sounds less obviously overdubbed, and the height channels open up the sound field and expand the film’s ambience in a truly subtle but effective way. If you’re looking for a soundtrack that pushes your ceiling speakers to their extremes, keep on looking. But if you’re looking for an audio experience that’s true to the original, just with some extra breathing room, give this one a listen. Even if 

you generally like Atmos less than I do.

 

As for extras, you’ll have to download the Blu-ray-quality version of the film from Kaleidescape to check them out, but it’s worth the extra effort. In addition to a trio of period promotional materials and a short documentary about film criticism made for USC film students, there’s a really fantastic retrospective documentary by Laurent Bouzereau made for the two-disc collector’s edition DVD release from 2000. While somewhat glossing over the film’s historical inaccuracies, the doc is a bit more forthright than most retrospectives, and is certainly worth a look.

 

Even if you don’t care about supplemental material, though, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film that belongs in any good film collection. This isn’t one you want to wait for TCM to air, since it rewards repeated viewings. Consider, for example, how its complex themes evolve as you shift attention from William Holden, Alec Guinness, and even Sessue Hayakawa, and focus on one above the others as the story’s main driving force. It isn’t really until you watch it again, placing all three on equal footing, that you can get to the heart of what the film is about: The consequences of ideology crashing into principles, when neither completely comports with reality.

And unless you’re still buying discs, Kaleidescape is just about the only way to own this 4K HDR presentation, since for whatever reason Vudu, Amazon, and many other digital providers are limited to the HD release.

 

Again, due to the way it was shot and edited, and the ravages of time, The Bridge on the River Kwai isn’t a technically perfect film. But Kaleidescape’s presentation so far exceeded my expectations that all of the above nitpicking feels like pedantry. For the first time, the film lives in a form that’s worthy of the best display in your home. And if for whatever reason you’ve never seen it, I must admit, I’m a little jealous that this is how you’ll get to experience for the first time.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid

This must be the anniversary 4K HDR re-release film season, since, after doing recent reviews of the 30-year-anniversary release of Field of Dreams, followed by the 40-year-anniversary release of Alien, this review finds us right in the middle with a 35-year-anniversary release of The Karate Kid. While a classic film, one has to wonder if KK benefitted from the recent Cobra Kai series on You Tube Red, introducing a whole new generation to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and the “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy” Cobra Kai dojo?

 

Either way, we benefit from The Karate Kid looking its best in a 4K HDR release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which has a proven track record of doing some terrific restorations and re-releases (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The film has been fully restored from the original 35mm camera negative. As is common on many recent re-issues, KK also includes a newly mixed Dolby Atmos audio track.

 

I was 14 when KK was released, and can remember seeing it in the theater. Being close to Daniel’s age (well, at least thinking I was close in age; Ralph Macchio was actually an incredibly baby-faced 23 at the time of playing the high-school senior), it was easy to identify with and root for this underdog who discovers an unlikely mentor in building handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), who slyly teaches Daniel karate in order to confront the gang of Cobra Kai bullies led by Johnny and evil Sensei Kreese (Martin Kove). 

 

I didn’t realize until writing this review that KK’s director, John Avildsen, also directed another famous underdog-battles-the-odds movie, Rocky, but there are actually many similarities between the stories and styles. Also, the fighters were all trained by Pat. E Johnson, a 9th-degree black belt, who also choreographed the fight scenes, and whose actual knowledge and love of karate and tournament fighting definitely added some legitimacy and authenticity to the fighting styles and techniques.

 

Where karate films prior to KK mostly focused on fighting, and featured accomplished real-life fighters like Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee taking on hordes of attackers with nothing but fists and feet flying, KK was different in that it positioned karate as a tool to avoid fighting, and examined the spiritual aspect. This was possible only because of Norita’s fantastic portrayal of Miyagi, in a role that earned him a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination. (He lost to Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields.) His performance—and timeless wisdom—definitely hold up, and the relationship between Miyagi and Daniel is the heart and soul of this film. And watching Miyagi, you believe that you could learn to defend yourself by a little waxing, sanding, and painting.

 

Of course, the reality is likely far different, as lampooned in a recent Modern Family episode.

 

“This Daniel dude is about to get his ass kicked. He’s had no real training. You gotta do push-ups, cardio . . . Waxing a car? That’s how we haze the probies at the firehouse. The old dude has no idea what he’s talking about.”

 

“Yeah, why is the kid still listening to that crazy old man? It seems like he’s just using him to do chores.”

 

Time has not been as kind to Macchio’s Daniel, who often comes across as whiny—a bit like how we choose to forget how Luke acted with Uncle Owen on the moisture farm in Star Wars . . . Also, it’s tough to imagine a seasoned karate champion like Cobra Kai Sensei Kreese openly threatening to attack a young boy and old man, but this film uses no grey strokes when painting its villains.

The Karate Kid

Visually, The Karate Kid is a bit of a mixed bag. Many scenes look terrific, but other scenes exhibit a fairly significant amount of grain and noise. As the movie opens with Daniel and his mom driving from New Jersey to California, there is so much grain in the daytime sky scenes, I stopped the film and checked to ensure I was actually watching the 4K version. The grain was also noticeable in other outdoor day scenes, such as when Miyagi is practicing the Crane technique at the ocean.

The Karate Kid

The night scenes generally looked far less noisy, exhibiting clean, dark blacks. The scene with Daniel and Ali (Elizabeth Shue) at the mini-golf course looked especially good, with the HDR highlights used to good effect. HDR is also used effectively in the scene where Daniel is practicing balance on a boat on the water, with the bright

sunlight highlights contrasting nicely with the black shadows. The tournament fight scenes also benefit here, along with colors that are rich and vibrant, especially the canary yellow Chevy convertible that Miyagi gives Daniel.

 

Fine detail is revealed in closeups. There were a few scenes of Ali’s sweaters where you could see individual threads; same with Miyagi’s bonsai trees, where single needles are visible. This level of detail reveals just a bit too much during the scene where Miyagi and Daniel try to catch a fly with chopsticks, and the wire used to move the fly is clearly visible.

 

Sonically, the new Dolby Atmos soundtrack is used sparingly but effectively. Many scenes, such as at the school, tournament, and arcade, benefit from increased spaciousness and ambience. There are some effective hard-pans, such as when we first enter the Cobra Kai dojo and hear Sensei barking orders well off to the side, or when they’re harassing Daniel on motorbikes. Bill Conti’s score is also mixed wide and high, letting the music stand out nicely in key scenes. Don’t expect a lot of low bass here, but dialogue is clear and intelligible throughout.

 

The Karate Kid is one of those films you can revisit and share with new viewers. I watched it with my 12-year-old, and am pleased to say she enjoyed it as much as I did. And the scene where all of Miyagi’s training finally clicks with Daniel is still as great and powerful today as it was 35 years ago. At just $17.99 from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, this is an easy recommendation for any collection.

John Sciacca

The Karate Kid

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Avengers & Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Like millions of others around the world, my family and I went to see Avengers: Endgame last week when it was released. Rest assured, this will not reveal anything about that film, short of it further cementing my feelings that I would way rather watch movies in the comfort and seclusion of my own home, and that I’m an alpha candidate for day-and-date viewing. (Someone actually brought a toddler, who sat and watched an iPad during the entire movie! Fortunately, the Pad was out of my eyeline or I think I would have flipped out!)

 

After watching Endgame, we decided we should really go back and watch some of the other 21 films that had led us to this, many of which we haven’t seen in years. Since my 12-year-old had never seen The Avengers or the followup, Avengers: Age of Ultron, those seemed like two good choices to start our re-watch journey.

 

Fortuitously, both of these films have been recently re-released with new 4K HDR transfers with Dolby Atmos soundtracks, so that made another terrific reason to revisit. After downloading from the Kaleidescape store, we watched The Avengers on Monday and Ultron on Tuesday.

 

The Avengers is part of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which includes the six films released between 2008 and 2012, and comes after each of the principal characters—Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Loki, and Captain America—have been introduced in their own films. (Clint Barton/Hawkeye [Jeremy Renner] had been introduced via a small cameo in Thor, and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow [Scarlett Johansson] was introduced in Iron Man 2.)

 

After teasing us with the Tesseract in a post-credits scene in Thor, and then making it a major part of Cap’s focus in Captain America: The First Avenger, the Tesseract (which holds the Space Infinity Stone) has a starring role here in The Avengers. While the previous films had been hinting and playing at cross-pollinating the MCU’s heroes, here they bring all the heroes together, which makes for a far more entertaining experience. I was impressed with how Joss Whedon—who both wrote and directed—was able to build a story by slowly and organically bringing all the characters together, and then giving them near-equal screen time, which allowed them to interact with each other, and play to their strengths and personalities.

 

Avengers definitely lays the groundwork for the various relationships between the characters that continues to play out over the next films. We see the ties between Hawkeye and Black Widow, the roots of animosity between Tony Stark (Robert 

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Downey, Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), which culminates in Captain America: Civil War (which should really have been titled Avengers 3), and the developing frenemy-ship between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), which plays out in Thor: Ragnarok. Also, the mid-credits scene reveals ultimate baddy, Thanos,though his skin here looks far more purple than blue.

 

The 4K HDR image looks fantastic, with tons of detail and HDR used effectively throughout, bringing

added pop and detail to images. The terrific detail in the costume design is revealed, letting you see the weave in Cap’s suit, and all the scrapes and damage to Iron Man. During one scene between Romanoff and Barton, you see the wear and pores in Barton’s face starkly contrasted with the smooth foundation makeup that makes Romanoff’s skin glow. The added resolution really does a wonderful job revealing those micro-details and texture throughout.

 

HDR is apparent from the outset, illuminating the Tesseract in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secure fortress as well as the multiple explosions. Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor, boot jets, and energy blasts also benefit nicely from the brightness boost, as does Loki’s glowing scepter and Thor’s lightning blasts. Color throughout is rich and vivid, and wonderfully saturated. Visually, the film looks fantastic, and you’d be hard pressed to tell it is seven years old.

Sonically, The Avengers follows in Disney’s frustrating habit of recording at significantly lower levels and being inconsistent with the depth and impact of bass performance. Fortunately, the first issue is solved by just playing the film back at a higher level than you’d normally use. In my case, we went about 6 dB louder on my Marantz preamp than normal movie-watching levels. With this adjustment, Avengers delivers a pretty engaging Dolby 

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Atmos mix, with a lot of surround and height channel information, specifically in the opening sequence with Loki stealing the Tesseract, the big battle scene aboard the flying aircraft carrier, and the final battle scene in New York.

 

Other scenes benefit from added sonic spaciousness that really opens up both the scenes and your listening room. Bass performance is fairly uneven, providing nice thuds and low-end during some scenes, but is missing or non-existent in others. Overall, though, the Atmos mix here does a good job of immersing you in the swirl of action happening on screen, and dialogue is well recorded and easily understandable throughout.

 

Released in 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron has Whedon reprising his role as writer and director, and is part of Phase Two of the MCU, which includes six films released between 2013 and 2015. Taking place approximately three years after the events of Avengers, Ultron sees our heroes called on once again to band together to retrieve Loki’s staff, stolen by Hydra. The staff is then used to create Ultron (voiced by James Spader), which was intended to be a Stark global defense program to protect the earth from further alien attack, but which becomes a sentient being intent on wiping out humanity to save the earth. Ultron brings in James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) to the action, and also introduces us to twins Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), as well as Jarvis-brought-to-life, Vision (Paul Bettany), making for a fuller character ensemble than the first film.

 

Something about James Spader voicing Ultron just takes me out of this movie. Maybe it’s his smug attitude, or maybe it’s from watching him as Robert California on the The Office or as Raymond Reddington on Blacklist. But for whatever reason, this voice casting didn’t work for me, and kept Ultron from being as intimidating as he could.

 

While some of Ultron feels a bit like “let’s build another Death Star” in that you have our band of heroes battling a huge horde of enemies—the Chitauri in Avengers, Ultron’s robot army here—relentlessly attacking a city—New York in Avengers, Sokovia here—Ultron still offers a lot to enjoy. The developing comradery and interactions between our heroes offers some funny moments (the group trying to pick up Thor’s hammer for one) and continues the MCU storyline that eventually brings us to Endgame. The biggest contribution to the story is that the gem inside of Loki’s scepter is actually the Mind Stone, which ends up being implanted in Vision, and revealing just how powerful Scarlet Witch is. The mid-credits scene also shows us Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet saying, “Fine, I’ll do it myself.” (Cue ominous music . . .)

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Visually, Ultron is a treat, with tons of detail in every scene. As with Avengers, HDR is used effectively throughout to enhance bright objects like lightning blasts, explosions, and the glowing blue trim on Black Widow’s suit. Perhaps one of the best examples of how HDR improves the image is when you see the visualization of Jarvis as an orange glowing sphere of light along with Ultron as a blue light sphere inside the Avenger Tower. This scene just glows off the screen in this version, and has far better color depth.

 

Sonically, the levels here are once again low, requiring a liberal adjustment of your normal listening level. Other than that, the audio is really inconsistent and anemic in the low-bass frequencies. For example, the Hulkbuster versus Hulk scene has plenty of moments that should be pounding you in the chest and making your sub flex its muscles, but there is virtually nothing in the low end until the building destruction at the end of the scene.

 

Same with the conclusion. There is some really low-end info when Sokovia is lifting off the ground, but very little in the remainder of the battle. For a big action film, this is definitely disappointing. The rest of the Atmos mix is enjoyable, though I didn’t find it as aggressive as Avengers, and the lack of deep-bass engagement keeps this from being as demo-worthy as it could be.

 

For Marvel fans, these films connect the dots to get us to where Endgame finishes this cycle of the MCU, and now in a 4K HDR presentation, they look as good as you’ve ever seen.

John Sciacca

Avengers & Age of Ultron
Avengers & Age of Ultron
Avengers & Age of Ultron

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.