It’s interesting to think what took Disney so long to jump in the 4K game. With Blu-ray discs that have always been stellar by nature, it should not have taken the studio 18 months to make the leap. Leave it to Marvel Studios to finally get them to change their tune with James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 paving the way for what are bound to be more spectacularly stunning features. Ultra HD is not a gimmick. While that could be said about 3D — a home format I still love — 4K presentation is just about as close to the director’s original intent as we’re bound to see for years to come. As for Vol. 2, the easiest way to put how it looks? This new demo disc could sell a lot of TVs.
Starting in 1980, Missouri, Earth, a young Ego (Kurt Russell) is eager to show Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) what he’s planted behind the local Dairy Queen. Cut to 34 years later and we catch up with our favorite ragtag team of Guardians — Peter Quill/Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — as they’re keeping the Sovereign’s batteries safe from the multi-dimensional creature Abilisk. Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) is thankful for their service and turn over their prize, Nebula (Karen Gillan), herself captured also trying to steal their batteries.
With plans to return Nebula back to Xandar, the Guardians are quickly on the run from the Sovereign because Rocket decided to steal the batteries himself. They’re saved by the celestial Ego (Russell) and brought to his home planet where he explains his wishes to turn over his kingdom to Peter, his only progeny in the whole galaxy carrying his celestial genes. Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and the Sovereign are hot on Peter’s trail and soon enough, the Guardians find themselves having to save the galaxy once again from an even greater threat.
Disney/Marvel Studios shot for the stars with their first 2160p 4K Ultra HD disc and wound up with a demo-worthy disc of stellar proportions. It is framed in the film’s 2.40:1 aspect ratio — if only it had the alternating aspect ratios of the IMAX presentation — but this is still nothing short of breathtaking from start to finish. There’s been some debate about the film’s completed digital intermediate (DI), but Gunn himself has stated that the film was finished at both 4K and 2K despite being filmed at 8K. With how good the film looks as it is, it boggles my mind to think it could possibly have looked even better. Given a fantastic HDR treatment, it’s also a shame they didn’t jump to give us our first live-action Dolby Vision presentation — supposedly available via VUDU. My own 75” LG UH8500 is equipped with DV so I was holding out hope — seeing how the DV presentation is Gunn’s own favorite — even still, the HDR is a stunner.
A colleague was in house when UPS dropped off the review disc and we quickly popped it in to watch the first two opening scenes. We then decided to put in the standard Blu-ray and rewatch those scenes for comparison. And there is none. 4K is the only way Vol. 2 should be watched. He was instantly saddened that the 1080p video was all he got to go home to. Colors explode off the screen with perfect contrast and brightness. Both waver greatly when watching in standard HD. The fireside scene later in the film is a perfect example. While the Blu-ray suffers from some noticeable crush, the 4K disc brightens the image where you can clearly see the forest behind the characters. Another area where it devastatingly trumps the Blu-ray is with fine line detail. Every creature throughout the film, whether CGI or practical, are completely photorealistic. Rocket is a perfect example. In 4K, every single piece of fur is visible and finite whereas on the Blu-ray he looks fuzzy in every shot. Same thing goes for Groot, he is so lifelike in 4K you feel like you can reach in and grab him right out of your set.
The only anomaly visible is a weird instance of possible banding in the yellow walls of Ego’s ship. Whatever it may be, it’s definitely artifacting. It was something I also noticed watching John Wick Chapter 2. It seems to involve neon swarming and only some may notice it. However it’s a tiny distraction; thankfully the scenes aboard Ego’s ship come and go quickly. Otherwise, true banding is nowhere to be found. There are more than a few scenes of jaw dropping beauty throughout the runtime: the opening Abilisk fight, the Sovereign asteroid chase, a visit to the planet Contraxia, Gamora sitting in a field on Ego’s planet, Yondu’s prison escape, the entire final battle, and, of course, the Ravager funeral — but every scene is honestly a showstopper.
In a rather fortuitous case of good fortune, my Best Buy exclusive Steelbook with the 3D disc showed up before finishing the review! How does it look in the third dimension? It’s obviously not as great as the 4K presentation, but it absolutely kicks the 2D disc’s keester. The best part is that it includes the IMAX formatted alternating aspect ratio changes — something that could have made the 4K disc even better had this version been used. I can’t help but think that being 3D, it didn’t have a 4K DI. Either way, the opened format breathes some much needed life into the action scenes that the standard 2D disc just doesn’t deliver. While some studios keep trying to stray away from the admittedly dwindling format, 3D still has plenty to offer at home and Vol. 2 is a standout full of impeccable detail, pop-out effects, as well as tons of depth in every scene. I dare you not to flinch when Yondu’s arrow comes flying at your face.
Considering how good the video looks, how does the audio fare? Let’s face it, we all know what to expect from a standard 7.1 Dolby TrueHD Master Audio track, so it’s especially nice to see Disney/Marvel finally make the leap not just to 4K, but they’ve brought along their first Dolby Atmos track with it. While the 2D/3D 7.1 track is every bit as good as usual, it’s a typical affair. The Atmos track is where they kick things up a notch. Surrounds are always engaged with overhead filling in the gaps while directionality is always spot on. The sound design manages to make the tape bit in the finale even funnier as we hear Quill move from speaker to speaker asking for tape. Bass is deeper and more refined, while the dialogue is also precise, clear, and never overpowered. Additional audio tracks are included on the 4K disc: English/Spanish 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus and a French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1; subtitles come in English, English SDH, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin (Traditional).
While the special features have all been relegated to the Blu-ray disc — the 3D also has no features, a plus in my book — Vol. 2 has more than your usual assortment for a Marvel release. While they’re still of the standard EPK variety, the cast and crew at least help make them more fun than usual.
“Bonus Round: The Making of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a four-segment feature that comes with a Play All option. “In the Director’s Chair with James Gunn” (8:36) covers the surprise success of the first film and how Gunn set out to make an even better film the second time around now that he can write for the cast as well as their characters. “Reunion Tour: The Music of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (7:37) gives Gunn a chance to rave about how important music is to the creation of a Guardians film. Examples being how the film was scored mostly to the screenplay and how every song was written in and not treated as an afterthought. “Living Planets and Talking Trees: The Visual Effects of Vol. 2” (10:44) allows us a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the films exemplary special effects. “Showtime: The Cast of Vol. 2” (10:41) gives a swift overview of the cast, showing how much fun was had on set and loved working together.
“Guardians Inferno Music Video” (3:35) is a full length music video of the Sneepers song featured in the end credits starring/featuring David Hasselhoff and some fun cameos. “Gag Reel” (3:41) is more clowning around, however, the best part comes from witnessing Russell trying to say Starlord’s name. “Deleted Scenes” (5:04) is armed with a Play All option and include “Adolescent Groot Extended” (1:01), “Memorial to the War on Xandar” (1:18), “Kraglin and Quill Talk Tunes” (0:41), and “Mantis and Drax Feel the Sadness Extended” (2:03). None of these necessarily strengthen the story, but there are some really funny jokes that wouldn’t have been out of place for a second had they been included.
And finally, an “Audio Commentary” is a fun listen with Gunn sitting down to discuss the development and execution of the film. Typical Gunn anecdotes and BFF shoutouts abound, but there is a nice now-poignant story about how one scene was inspired by a campfire performance by Glen Campbell that he was lucky enough to have been part of during a party at Jane Seymour’s house.
Disney/Marvel’s first jump into the 4K arena with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was the perfect place to start. It’s a stupendous presentation from beginning to end and earns the highest marks possible. Giving us a 4K display of the alternating aspect ratio version is just about the only possible way for it to have been even better. As it stands, I think just about everyone is ready for Marvel/Disney to kick it into gear and start releasing their catalogue titles — Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange being the top of the list, considering they’re 4K DI. Even with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales waiting in the wings, Vol. 2 is a disc that could sell 4K TVs like never before. Coupled with an outstanding Dolby Atmos track, Vol. 2 is going to be the disc to beat this year. For the time being, it’s the best 4K disc on the market, period. Obviously.