Iron Man: Extremis / Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. Release Date: June 14, 2011 Studio: Shout! Factory Packaging/Materials: Single-disc Blu-ray case Year: 2009-2010 Rating: NR Running Time: ~1:18:40 (Iron Man) / ~54:00 (Spider-Woman) MSRP: $29.93 THE FEATURE SPECIAL FEATURES Video 1080p high definition 1.78:1 Standard and high definition Audio DTS-HD Master Audio: English 5.1 (Iron Man) / English 2.0 (Spider-Woman) Stereo Subtitles None None Having released its motion comic titles to DVD over the last year or so, Marvel Knights takes its first step into the Blu-ray format with a double feature that pairs two of its best titles. Though "Iron Man: Extremis" has been available on DVD since last year (and is still available for download in high definition through the iTunes Store), "Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D." started out as a bonus DVD with the hardback graphic novel, though currently it too is available in high definition through iTunes. At one point it was actually viewable free on Hulu, but the video streams have since expired. So why choose the Blu-ray over the other options, namely the iTunes Store downloads? In part for economics as the grand total for the two sets of files exceeds the list price of the Blu-ray. The Blu-ray also includes a number of special features unavailable through video-on-demand, as well as superior picture and sound through its 1080p video presentation and lossless audio track (while somewhat more convenient for the consumer, the iTunes options are limited to 720p and lossy Dolby Digital 5.1). The Blu-ray is therefore preferable for its pricing as well as for what's included in the package. Presenting the strongest of Marvel Knights' motion comic titles - in terms of original artwork, story and animation - also doesn't hurt its case. Overall Score for the release (not an average): 4.5/5 Iron Man: Extremis Note: The following includes material from my review of the "Iron Man: Extremis" DVD. The Feature: 4/5 "Iron Man: Extremis" is a six-issue comic book arc written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Adi Granov for Marvel Comics. Considered to be one of the most popular stories for the character, aspects of it were ultimately used in the 2008 "Iron Man" feature film starring Robert Downey, Jr. Indeed, movie fans will find familiar "Extremis's" revised Iron Man origin story, which is seamlessly woven into each installment. Integrating it proves rather critical as the arc is effectively a re-boot for the series, representing not just a change in design of the character's signature armor, but a fundamental shift in how it functions in relation to its human pilot. Flashing back to Stark's first steps as a superhero reinforces the significance of the revisions, as well as provides a foundation for those unfamiliar with the character's history. Whether the re-boot was effective for the series only regular readers know, but based on the "Extremis" arc presented in the motion comic, there certainly appears to be new growth potential. Though Marvel's first entry into the motion comic medium, "Astonishing X-Men: Gifted," had some problems, "Extremis" shows a marked improvement. The "skinning" of 3D wireforms with the original 2D illustrations is more refined, image zooms appear reasonably detailed, and various body movements - including mouths, eyes and hands - look more natural. There's still a kind of puppet-on-a-string quality in regards to the latter, but it doesn't take long to overlook that minor issue and become engrossed in the story, which by and large lives up to its reputation despite ho-hum character development for its main villain. And it's ultimately the strength of its stories that will keep Marvel in the motion comic game, now that the major technical-aesthetic kinks appear to be resolved. "Iron Man: Extremis" is made up of six episodes, which line up with the original comic book issues: Episode One (20:14) Episode Two (14:28) Episode Three (10:12) Episode Four (13:15) Episode Five (10:19) Episode Six (10:07) Video Quality: 4.5/5 "Astonishing X-Men: Gifted" had some ghastly image problems resulting from the poorly executed motion comic process, but fortunately "Extremis" doesn't suffer the same fate. Line art in the 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is clean and free of aliasing, there's no compression noise and likewise no signs of edge haloing. Backgrounds and some gradients still show a hint of color banding, but only under closer scrutiny. Overall detail is also excellent, the fine 3D texture effect on the Iron Man armor coming through beautifully thanks to the format's increased resolution. Image zooming is kept to a minimum, but given the crispness of things at their native size, the method still introduces some noticeable blurriness. However that's more a byproduct of the methodology than the video transfer. The muted color palette stays true to the original artwork, but there's a pleasing sense of depth throughout. Black levels and contrast are likewise strong and well rendered. Audio Quality: 4/5 The audio track on the DVD was limited to a stereo presentation, but the 5.1 mix mentioned in the feature's closing credits finally makes it in for the Blu-ray release. Dialogue in the DTS-HD Master Audio presentation is clear, detailed and intelligible. Support for the score and sound effects are placed well, establishing a balanced and enveloping sound field. Bass activity is clean and robust, but LFE is pretty much non-existent. Special Features: 4/5 The set of extras provides a solid background on the motion comic project and its comic book source material. A Conversation with Iron Man Adi Granov (16:55, SD) interviews the talented artist about how he got involved with "Extremis," his experience working on it, what it's done for his career, and how he feels about its adaptation into a motion comic. Behind the Scenes of Marvel Knights Animation (5:13, HD) provides a glimpse at the work done by voice actors, artists, and animators. The piece was previously included with the "Astonishing X-Men" DVD release. Edge Studios (3:09, SD) interviews DJ Tanner, the voice actor for Tony Stark, about his experience in the recording booth. Magnetic Dreams (6:37, SD) looks behind the scenes at the animation house that made the motion comic adaptation. Marvel.com (3:43, SD) interviews additional voice actors Michael Mitchell, Ed Paul and N. Ronald Levine about their recording booth experiences. "Ready to Go" Music Video (3:08, SD) features clips from the film set to the song, performed by David Ari Leon and Guy Erez, feat. Glen Philips. Marvel Super Heroes -- What the ?! Starring Iron Man (3:11, SD) is one of a series of Web shorts featuring Marvel characters in humorous situations, created with action figures and stop motion animation. In this episode Iron Man hosts a Hollywood Squares-inspired game show. Visual History of Iron Man presents images of Iron Man's 38 armor models, from 1963 to 2007, formatted for high definition displays. Adi Granov Artist Gallery presents 10 slides with 20 images of Granov's "Extremis" artwork, sized for high definition displays. "Iron Man: Extremis" Trailer (3:13, SD) Trailers of other Marvel Knights motion comic productions include: Astonishing X-Men: Gifted (1:54, SD) Black Panther (2:09) Recap The Feature: 4/5 Video Quality: 4.5/5 Audio Quality: 4/5 Special Features: 4/5 Overall Score (not an average): 4/5 Marvel addresses many of the misgivings I had about its initial foray into motion comics and in the process provides a much stronger technical presentation, made all the more apparent thanks to the benefits of the Blu-ray format. With special features providing solid background on the project and its source material, both fans of the "Extremis" story arc and those new to motion comics should be quite pleased. Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. The Feature: 4.5/5 Private investigator, ex-Avenger, and ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jessica Drew (AKA Spider-Woman) is the most screwed over person in the history of the world, or at least she seems to think so. Her recent experience with the shape shifting Skrulls, who imprisoned her and then replaced her with their queen, has left her an embittered woman and a sort of pariah amongst her fellow superheroes. An unexpected invitation to join forces with another secret intelligence agency only seems like another opportunity for betrayal, but S.W.O.R.D., represented by Abigail Brand, offers her a chance to get a bit of payback against the aliens who did her wrong. Sent to hunt down one Skrull in particular, Drew finds herself back amongst familiar faces and settings, giving her a chance to not only restore some of her reputation but find a bit of closure as well. Marvel Knights has hit its stride with this, its third motion comic project. The animators take a more measured approach with their techniques, foregoing the retroactive animation of characters' mouths and limbs in favor of broader movements that are more stylized, atmospheric and subtle. This less manipulated approach also maintains the beautiful intricacies of illustrator Alex Maleev's artwork, making "Agent of S.W.O.R.D." thus far the Marvel motion comic most true to its source material. Effective voice acting - headlined by Nicolette Reed as Drew - brings to life the words of writer Brian Michael Bendis, putting the finishing touches on an animated work that is every bit as engrossing as it source material. The only aspect that newcomers will find challenging is the sizable back story that the narrative draws from, but thanks to resources like Wikipedia it's not difficult to get up to speed on the context. "Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D." is made up of fives episodes: Episode One (10:18) Episode Two (10:09) Episode Three (10:17) Episode Four (12:13) Episode Five (10:42) Video Quality: 4.5/5 Line art in the 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is clean and free of aliasing, there's no compression noise and likewise no signs of edge haloing. Overall detail is similarly excellent, though there are some noticeable mesh-like areas subject to crawl or moire. Colors are bold and deeply saturated and banding in gradient areas is largely absent. Black levels and contrast are equally strong and well rendered. Audio Quality: 3.5/5 Dialogue in the 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is clear, detailed and intelligible. Support for the score and sound effects are placed well, establishing a respectably wide sound stage. Though LFE is non-existent, the track exhibits great depth and fullness. Special Features: 2.5/5 The package of extras shows a noticeable lack of content compared to past Marvel Knights releases. The package even claims there's an interview with writer Brian Michael Bendis, but it's nowhere to be found. "Watch Your Step" Music Video (3:04, SD) features clips from the film set to the song, performed by Dan Phillips with Anna Abbey. Visual History of Spider-Woman presents a combination of origin story and epilogue images of the heroine, formatted for high definition displays. Alex Maleev Artist Gallery presents 10 slides of images from Maleev's "Agent of S.W.O.R.D." artwork, sized for high definition displays. Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. Trailer (:54, SD) Recap The Feature: 4.5/5 Video Quality: 4.5/5 Audio Quality: 3.5/5 Special Features: 2.5/5 Overall Score (not an average): 4/5 Marvel Knights finally finds a quality of animation that upholds the beauty of the original artwork while also imparting the necessary dynamic movement. The stories also continue to be first rate, with Marvel choosing its strongest works to convert to the motion comic experience. The Blu-ray presentation for "Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D." is another great looking and sounding experience, though the special features are meager compared to what has been included in other releases. Still, this title stands as my favorite of the projects so far because of the art, story and animation style.