Oppenheimer

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Universal;
Drama;
Box Office $325.37 million;
$34.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray, $49.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for some sexuality, nudity and language.
Stars Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Benny Safdie, Jason Clarke, Dylan Arnold, Tom Conti, James D’Arcy, David Dastmalchian, Dane DeHaan, Alden Ehrenreich, Tony Goldwyn, Jefferson Hall, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, Scott Grimes, Jack Quaid, Christopher Denham, Olivia Thirlby, Gary Oldman.

Director Christopher Nolan’s meticulously crafted Oppenheimer is a bit of a throwback to the kinds of epics stocked with all-star casts Hollywood used to pump out in the 1950s and ’60s.

Yet this biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, labeled by history as the “father of the atomic bomb,” is also distinctly Nolan, marked by his penchant for nonlinear storytelling and pushing the boundaries of traditional filmmaking. It’s a testament to Nolan’s skill as a director that he’s able to craft a riveting character drama from what is essentially three hours of people just talking to each other.

Based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer frames the story of its title subject through the proceedings of two political hearings. One, set in 1954, finds Oppenheimer (longtime Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy) attempting to restore his security clearance in the face of efforts to silence him from influencing nuclear policy. The other, set in 1959, focuses on the Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a former member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission who sheds light on Oppenheimer’s ouster.

Nolan uses similar points of discussion from the testimony given at both events to explore Oppenheimer’s life through flashbacks depicting the young scientist’s study of physics in Europe and his efforts to expand the field of quantum mechanics research in the United States.

Oppenheimer is poised to pioneer the study of black holes when World War II breaks out, and he is recruited by Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to head the Manhattan Project to create an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany.

Scenes stemming from Strauss’ point of view are presented in black and white and meant to convey a more objective reality, while scenes in color represent Oppenheimer’s perspective and a more subjective interpretation of events.

The highlight of the three-hour film is obviously the middle section depicting the creation of the atomic bomb, with Oppenheimer and Groves bringing many of America’s top minds to a makeshift town in the New Mexico desert in order to turn theory into reality, culminating in the Trinity test.

Oppenheimer, however, is constantly dogged by earlier associations with left-wing causes, and friendships with a number of Communist Party members and Soviet sympathizers, that will ultimately be used as a sledgehammer against him.

Nolan in the Blu-ray bonus features describes the film’s structure as moving from the beginning of the hero’s journey, to a heist movie (the recruiting of a team for a caper of sorts), to a courtroom drama.

Through Murphy’s transformative performance, Oppenheimer comes to life as a man constantly struggling to balance the accolades of his historic achievements with the moral weight of their implications.

The last hour of the film depicts this sort of tug-of-war between America’s efforts to maintain nuclear superiority in the face of Russia developing the technology, and Oppenheimer’s desire to pursue international policies to contain the genie he helped escape from the bottle.

Nolan famously shot the film using large-format Imax cameras, and the results are evident in a pristine 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation. The 4K and Blu-ray disc versions of the film take advantage of this with a variable aspect ratio that shifts between a letterboxed 2.20:1 image and an immersive 1.78:1 that occupies the entirety of a big-screen TV. The DVD and digital presentations are locked at a consistent 2.20:1 ratio.

Sound is booming but dialogue is easy to understand despite most scenes taking place in a conversational tone.

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The 4K and Blu-ray combo packs include a bonus disc containing nearly three-and-a-half hours of supplemental material, led by the seven-part “The Story of Our Time: The Making of Oppenheimer” behind-the-scenes documentary.

Clocking in at more than 72 minutes, the program offers a comprehensive look at the making of the film and the exquisite level of detail employed by Nolan in re-creating the period settings, for the most part. Of note, the set of Oppenheimer’s office includes the actual clock he had in his real office, and scenes taking place at the Oppenheimers’ home were filmed at their actual house in Los Alamos. Nolan was also keen on using practical in-camera effects as opposed to CGI, which lends to the film’s air of authenticity.

The seven featurettes are also available with digital copies of the film. The remaining extras are exclusive to the Blu-ray.

The eight-minute “Innovations in Film” focuses on the use of 65mm to shoot the picture, delving into the cinematography and editing challenges presented. Of note, the production had to invent black-and-white 65mm film stock to achieve the film’s visual style. There’s also a segment on how the film was prepared for digital projection and home video, with the digital version of the film being carefully rendered to match the look and feel of the 70mm Imax presentation.

For some comparisons of the different presentation styles of the film, there’s a full package of the film’s trailers, including an Imax trailer that displays footage from the film in the square Imax ratio, plus the five-minute promo video that played during the early summer. The footage in these trailers isn’t as refined as the film presentation, which demonstrates how much care went into making the film look the best it can be.

A 35-minute “Meet the Press” episode features a Q&A from July 15, 2023, featuring Nolan, author Bird, physicist and Nolan science advisor Dr. Kip Thorne, current Los Alamos director Dr. Thom Mason, and physicist Dr. Carlo Rovelli. It’s an interesting discussion about the relationship between science and policy, and includes some tidbits about how Nolan the screenwriter went a bit deeper than the book in depicting the Strauss confirmation hearing by digging up the actual transcripts.

Rounding out the extras is the hour-and-a-half To End All War: Oppenheimer & the Atomic Bomb, a great biographical documentary about the real Oppenheimer that gives a better context to the events depicted in the film. Seeing the copious footage of the soft-spoken Oppenheimer — he comes across as a bit of a professorial Mr. Rogers — really crystalizes how much Murphy was able to embody him in his performance. This is the kind of bonus feature more movies about real events should include on home video but just don’t anymore.

Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 5/16/23;
Disney/Marvel;
Action;
Box Office $213.75 million;
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for violence/action, and language.
Stars Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, Kathryn Newton, David Dastmalchian, Katy O’Brian, William Jackson Harper, Bill Murray.

With the conclusion of the “Infinity Saga” in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Universe found itself in the unenviable position of having to crawl out from the shadow of the massively successful story arc that dominated its first decade of existence.

For the most part, the films and TV shows following Endgame were standalone adventures, wrapping up loose ends from established characters, or introducing new concepts and characters to the MCU without a clear path as to what the franchise as a whole would be building toward for its next major crossover event.

Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, while completing a trilogy for the “Ant-Man” sub-franchise of the MCU, was also touted as the first big stepping stone to setting up the next major story arc with the arrival of Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), a variant of whom was previously seen on the “Loki” TV series.

Kang, whose various iterations from throughout the multiverse seek dominion over all possible timelines, has already been announced as the next major Avengers villain for the upcoming films Kang Dynasty and Secret Wars, so establishing him in Quantumania, the 31st MCU movie, was seen as being of vital importance to future storylines of the MCU.

The prospect of such developments would also serve to elevate the importance of the “Ant-Man” movies, where before the character was something of a mid-level player in the MCU. But it also made sense given Ant-Man’s connection to the Quantum Realm, which was previously established to have a role in the MCU’s version of time travel and alternate realities.

With Peyton Reed returning for his third stint as an “Ant-Man” director, the MCU’s choice to write the screenplay was Jeff Loveness, who previously was best known for “Rick and Morty,” a cartoon comedy. And the results are a bit clunky.

While it’s fun to check in again Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), aka the Ant-Man and The Wasp of the title, and their Ant-Man family — Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer as Hope’s parents, Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne, the Ant-Man and The Wasp of the previous generation — the arrival of Kang gives the film a much darker tone than the light-hearted heist-movie sensibilities of the first two. The film is missing Michael Peña and the rest of Scott’s X-Con pals, who were a great source of comic relief from the first two movies. Instead, the film has to make due with some superfluous new characters mined from the depths of the Quantum Realm, where the main characters are transported following some misguided experiments.

The film also continues the MCU’s youth movement, with Scott’s now-teenaged daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) becoming yet another hero with a Pym-particle-powered shrinking suit.

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Zipping Scott, Hope, Hank, Janet and Cassie through a portal of visual effects to the Quantum Realm, a fantastical civilization that exists as a hidden layer beneath our own, makes the set-up seem a bit like Tron, though with a world of biological weirdness substituting for the digital frontier.

The premise puts more focus on Janet, who was rescued from the Quantum Realm in 2018’s Ant-Man and The Wasp after three decades of being trapped there, thus making her privy to all its secrets. Her outsized contribution to the story provides credence to the argument that she might be considered The Wasp of the title. The film’s prologue reveals how Janet, just before her rescue, came across a Kang newly exiled into the Quantum Realm, and destroyed his only means of escape. Kang subsequently set up an empire to conquer the Quantum Realm, with Janet joining a resistance movement to his rule.

Thus, Janet and her family join the rebellion against Kang, who is now being assisted by MODOK, a killing machine inhabited by the broken body of Hank’s former protégé and rival, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who was seemingly dispatched to microscopic oblivion by Scott in the first “Ant-Man.”

The visual effects, though colorful and flashy, are omnipresent and a bit overwhelming, while the superimposed face of Stoll onto MODOK’s giant head is just bizarre. The fact that there are so many creatures that live in the Quantum Realm, and so many who look human, just raises questions about what exactly it is, as it seems much more like an alien world than its previous depictions of a sub-atomic netherworld. Humans transported there can now breathe and act relatively normally, though there are at least still mentions of strange phenomena such as a “probability storm” that allows Scott to team up with different versions of himself who exist only as a facet of his potential actions — one of the film’s better sequences.

On the other hand, given that the Pym suits can still shrink and grow relative to what’s considered a “normal” size, it raises the question of if the Quantum Realm actually represents a sub-atomic layer of our world (in which all the characters would already be miniscule), or it’s just another alternate dimension. At one point Scott and Cassie use their suits to become giant versions of themselves, but the abundance of alien-world visual effects around them make it hard to get any sense of scale of how “big” they’re supposed to be.

The setting offers almost no boundaries for the story, aside from the audience’s awareness of the characters, and the performances are all top notch. Rudd is effortlessly likable as Scott Lang, Pfeiffer is commanding as Janet, and Majors is a compelling menace as Kang.

However, a lot of the discussion over the film’s underperformance both critically and financially will likely focus on Loveness’ experience as a screenwriter. This is his first movie, and the fact that he’s already lined up to pen the next “Avengers” films isn’t settling anyone’s doubts about the future of the MCU.

Granted, the studio previously turned over the “Infinity Saga” to a pair of TV comedy writers — the Russo Brothers — and the results paid off, so time will tell. But their first efforts in the MCU, a pair of “Captain America” movies, were far more effective entries in the canon than Quantumania.

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Reed and Loveness provide a feature-length commentary on the Blu-ray and digital editions of the film in which they discuss the storytelling process, and hearing their thought processes of connecting various elements from throughout the “Ant-Man” trilogy should better contextualize the film for a few viewers.

The commentary is the highlight of an extras package that is otherwise rather paltry for a Marvel movie. There are just two behind-the-scenes featurettes: the seven-and-a-half-minute “All in the Family” about the heroic characters of the film, and the 11-and-a-half-minute “Formidable Foes,” about the films’ bad guys.

Also included among the extras are a two-minute gag reel, plus two superfluous deleted scenes running a total of three minutes, with unfinished visual effects.

 

Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 3/28/23;
Warner;
Animated;
$29.98 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief partial nudity.
Voices of David Giuntoli, Tati Gabrielle, Christopher Gorham, Patrick Fabian, John DiMaggio, David Dastmalchian, Gideon Adlon, Karan Brar, Jeffrey Combs, Darin De Paul, Brian George, Jason Marsden, Navid Negahban, Emily O’Brien, Tim Russ, William Salyers, Matthew Waterson.

Comic book superheroes meet Lovecraftian horror in this Elseworlds tale that reimagines Batman as having to fight monsters in the late 1920s.

Based on a comic book miniseries published from 2000 to 2001 co-written by “Hellboy” creator Mike Mignola, the story involves Bruce Wayne as an international explorer who accidentally unleashes an ancient evil while investigating a lost expedition in the arctic. Upon his return to Gotham City after a decades-long absence, he assumes the mantle of Batman to fight the dark forces that infest the city, uncovering a supernatural conspiracy that redefines everything he thought he knew about his family’s origins.

The premise offers a fun way to reshape the Batman mythology while allowing the filmmakers to indulge in their fascination for big scary monsters with a bold, vivid animation style. Among the most interesting elements is the re-imagining of the Green Arrow as a rich, eccentric drunk who bears the weight of his family’s sins for a centuries old pact that is tied to the evil now plaguing Gotham.

The Blu-ray includes a good commentary track with producer/co-director Sam Liu, screenwriter Jase Ricci, DC creative director Mike Carlin, and producer Jim Krieg, in which they discuss the merits and challenges of bringing this particular story to life.

There’s also a 13-minute featurette called “Batman: Shadows of Gotham” that explores the psychological overtones of the story.

Also included is the two-part “The Demon’s Quest” episode from “Batman: The Animated Series” that focuses on Ra’s al Ghul, a character with a crucial role in Doom That Came to Gotham.

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The Suicide Squad

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 10/26/21;
Warner;
Action;
Box Office $55.8 million;
$34.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray, $49.98 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity.
Stars Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena, Daniela Melchior, David Dastmalchian, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Alice Braga, Peter Capaldi, Taika Waititi, Jai Courtney, Nathan Fillion, Flula Borg, Pete Davidson, Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker, Jennifer Holland, Sylvester Stallone, Dee Bradley Baker.

Writer-director James Gunn’s subversive follow-up to 2016’s Suicide Squad resets the franchise by embracing the absurdity inherent in comic book movies.

Like its predecessor, The Suicide Squad is based on the DC Comics series about a team of supervillains who are blackmailed into conducting black ops for the American government through the threat of an explosive chip in their head. The 2016 edition, while a financial success, was panned by critics and audiences after it was infamously re-edited by a trailer company into essentially a series of vignettes set to popular music, trying to capture some of the magic that made Guardians of the Galaxy work so well.

So, for the sequel, DC just brought in Gunn, writer-director of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies. The hire came shortly after Gunn was fired by Marvel over some questionable tweets in his past, only to be re-hired for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which he’s working on now.

The Suicide Squad is just another example of why he’s such a good fit for these kinds of movies: a keen understanding of the source material, and a willingness to poke fun at it without undermining the credibility of the story. Here, Gunn assembles a team of some of the silliest comic book concepts ever created, gives their characters emotional depth, and makes it all work.

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This is one of the bloodiest comic book movies ever made, but also one of the funniest, with Gunn expertly finding the balance between the two extremes, beginning with an absolutely insane opening sequence that will leave audiences without a clue of what to expect from this movie.

The story involves the team heading to a tropical island to dispose of a top secret project before the new military dictatorship can expose U.S. involvement in its development. Idris Elba grounds the mission as Bloodsport, a weapons expert. He has a bit of a rivalry with the team’s other weapons expert, Peacemaker (John Cena), as they try to outdo each other running up the movie’s body count. With his earnest penchant for killing anything that stands in his way to achieve “peace,” Peacemaker would seem to be Gunn’s metaphor for American foreign policy (though Gunn found the character appealing enough to write an eight-episode TV spinoff about him, set to debut on HBO Max in 2022).

Other standouts on the team include King Shark, literally a walking, talking man-eating shark voiced by Sylvester Stallone; Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior), who uses her deceased father’s technology to control the minds of rats; Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who was experimented on by his mother with an interdimensional virus that gives him the power to expel dots of deadly energy; and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), one of the few holdovers from the first movie, along with team commander Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the government agent who will detonate their heads if they disobey her.

Like the first movie, the sequel has plenty of songs, but thanks to Gunn, they are well integrated into the structure of the film, rather than seemingly played at random.

The Suicide Squad is fun, vibrant and visually distinctive like a graphic novel come to life, though its hard-‘R’ sensibilities may not appeal to everybody.

The Blu-ray edition of The Suicide Squad comes loaded with hours of insightful bonus material about the making of the film, including a good solo commentary with Gunn.

There are also about 17 minutes of deleted scenes that don’t amount to much, so it’s easy to see why they were cut.

Also included are three fun retro trailers done in the style of 1960s war movies, 1970s horror movies and 1980s buddy cop movies.

The regular Blu-ray Disc of the film contains all the extras. The 4K disc includes just the commentary and one featurette, a seven-minute breakdown of Harley Quinn’s violent escape sequence.

Originally published as a streaming review Aug. 9, 2021.

Batman: The Long Halloween — Part One

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Warner;
Animated;
$29.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for violence, bloody images, language and some smoking.
Voices of Jensen Ackles, Josh Duhamel, Billy Burke, Titus Welliver, David Dastmalchian, Troy Baker, Amy Landecker, Julie Nathanson, Jack Quaid, Fred Tatasciore, Jim Pirri, Alastair Duncan, Naya Rivera.

Originally released in 1996 and 1997 and best known today as a graphic novel collection, the comic book miniseries “Batman: The Long Halloween” is considered one of the seminal works of the Batman canon.

Taking place over the course of a year early in Batman’s career, “The Long Halloween” tells the story of how Gotham City transitioned from gangland violence to being overrun with costumed supervillains, while also tracking the toll it takes on new district attorney Harvey Dent, who eventually becomes the villain Two-Face.

This first half of the two-part animated adaptation (the second half coming in a month) is heavily focused on the mafia side of things, and feels very much like Batman (Jensen Ackles) has been dropped into the plot of The Godfather.

This is a Batman still perfecting his skills as a vigilante. He makes obvious mistakes, isn’t too adept at jumping from roof to roof just yet, and he doesn’t seem interested in being a detective. He forms a pact with Dent (Josh Duhamel) and police Capt. Gordon (Billy Burke) to clean up the gang wars, but this only puts more of a target on Dent’s back, much to the chagrin of his wife. It also opens the door for the costumed crazies that Batman has inspired, such as the Joker (Troy Baker) and Catwoman (voiced by the late Naya Rivera in one of her final roles), as a serial killer begins targeting key mob personnel each month on a festive holiday.

Batman fans already familiar with the “Long Halloween” arc should appreciate the adaptation, which matches the animation style of the earlier Superman: Man of Tomorrow and Justice Society: World War II, potentially putting it in the same shared universe as those adventures. Long Halloween was reportedly intended to kick off this new continuity years ago, but was delayed when it looked as if Matt Reeves’ The Batman would be doing the storyline.

Casual Bat-fans who don’t know the graphic novel will likely recognize many aspects of the story, particularly the troika of Batman, Dent and Gordon, and the focus on Gotham’s mob bosses, from Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, which was heavily influenced by Long Halloween.

The Blu-ray includes a nine-minute preview of the upcoming part two, which delves further into Dent’s transformation into Two-Face.

There are also showcases for previously released Batman animated movies The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 and Gotham by Gaslight.

As is customary for these DC Universe releases, the Blu-ray also contains two cartoons from the Warner Bros. catalog that are thematically similar to the movie — in this case, the “Batman: The Animated Series” episodes “Christmas With the Joker” and “It’s Never Too Late.”

Also included is the newest DC Showcase animated short film, the 16-minute The Losers. This one’s about a special forces unit during World War II caught up in a mission on an island overrun by dinosaurs brought from the past by a powerful energy barrier. The premise seems cobbled together from a few familiar sources and as a whole the short doesn’t amount to much, but the implications of some of the plot developments could be intriguing if explored further.

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Ant-Man and The Wasp

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 10/16/18;
Disney/Marvel;
Action;
Box Office $216.42 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for for some sci-fi action violence.
Stars Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas.

The 20th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe arrived in a somewhat awkward position for the franchise. Coming off the dire circumstances of Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and The Wasp offers more of the lighthearted, fun romp first served up in 2015’s Ant-Man. It’s certainly a shift in tone for dedicated Marvel watchers, but also serves as a satisfactory palate cleanser for the despair that “Avengers” movie dished out.

Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man wasn’t in Infinity War, and this movie delves into what he was up to as Thanos was preparing to battle the rest of the Avengers. Under house arrest as a result of the events of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang (Rudd) is once again recruited by the father-daughter science whiz team of Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne (Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly), who are now fugitives because Lang used their shrinking technology to help Captain America fight Iron Man.

Hank needs Scott’s help to locate his wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the quantum realm, where she vanished 30 years ago after going too microscopic to return. Hope, meanwhile, has become The Wasp, fulfilling the setup from the first film for her to don a shrinking suit of her own.

However, their efforts have attracted some unwanted attention in the form of a criminal (Walton Goggins) who wants to get his hands on their technology, and a girl (Hannah John-Kamen) who needs energy from the quantum realm to reverse the effects of an accident that is causing her to phase out of existence.

Scott, meanwhile, has to avoid getting caught by the authorities by making sure he’s back home before they stop by for an inspection, lest he be sent back to prison for 20 years.

Director Peyton Reed takes advantage of the size-shifting premise to present both some very funny gags and some inventive action sequences. Reed says in an introduction to the film and his feature-length commentary that one of his main goals on the sequel was to really take advantage of the different perspectives that shrinking and growing can offer, much more than he did in the first film.

The film also sets up how Rudd will make his way into the fourth “Avengers” film, leaving even more clues with which fans can speculate about how the whole Thanos saga will be resolved next year.

For the here and now, though, the Ant-Man and The Wasp Blu-ray includes more than 20 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes with some good insights about establishing the characters in this new story, plus how the production design team mixed practical and CG effects to create sets and sequences that immerse the viewer into a world where the scale of everyday items is often out of whack.

The Blu-ray also includes two deleted scenes running about a minute each, which are interesting on their own but weren’t essential to the overall story. Then there are about four minutes of gag reels, including a minute of Stan Lee’s outtakes trying different lines for his cameo.

The digital editions include an exclusive eight-minute retrospective on the concept artists of the now 10-year-old MCU, plus a minute-long commercial for a company at the center of one of the film’s key running gags. Vudu also offers a two-and-a-half-minute featurette about Reed.