Skip to main content

I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero.

Black Widow

(SPOILERS) To suggest the MCU largely comprises a production line in which homogeneity is key is stating the obvious, but that hasn’t prevented it from occasionally coming up with something sufficiently distinctive to merit praise. Nor has it, for the most part, detracted from the series being largely watchable, if also largely undemanding. It may have suffered exits of those insufficiently on board with its general directive – Edgar Wright, more recently Scott Derrickson – but it’s also been quite rare for the formulaic nature of Kevin Feige’s visions to get in the way of a serviceably glib time of it. Captain Marvel comes to mind, where the empty space at its centre drew attention to just how mechanical its entirety was. Black Widow is similar, but more so by a significant multiplier. Much like its now deceased supporting character made main protagonist, it’s entirely redundant, not only inessential but also actively retrograde.

As ever, Marvel making a deal of its directors – for reasons of woke, obviously – is entirely beside the point, since seventy to eighty percent of their average picture is second unit and/or CGI/green screen. You might get a sense of someone calling the shots if they also have a screenplay credit, but otherwise, good luck. So Cate Shortland ticks the necessary representational box, but – at best – you could say there’s a spot of faux-Malick natural light (or its post-production equivalent) in there. For more of that – faux-natural light – see the forthcoming Eternals. Come the tediously excessive pixel clash of the climax, her guiding influence is evidently minimal, and consequently, there’s at best a grudging coherence to the editing, Gabriel Beristain likely cursing that whoever was in charge thought it would all somehow come together in post.

Feige is now putting his progressive foot thoroughly forward, in lockstep with the decrees of his overlords (no, not Doomcock, a different overlord entirely), and we’ll see how long the Marvel faithful stick with his every move. It’s been suggested the Disney+ series haven’t been getting the hoped-for traction, but it’s difficult to find non-partial analysis of viewer uptake and more difficult still to access reliable data on that viewer uptake. Certainly, though, in the wake (or woke) of Endgame, there’s a sense of dissipation, that Feige simply hasn’t come up with enough goodies to induce true viewer salivation.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings with its wooden lead? Eternals with its D-list superteam and confusion over why you should care (not to mention its vastly overrated director, but again: see second unit above)? The more of the same (comedy Thor: Love and Thunder, Peter Parker and the New Mentor Figure Stealing His Limelight, Doctor Strange and the Raimi of Madness) may or may not land, but kicking off Phase Four with a prequel, one featuring a dead character you never found the time to give a solo vehicle when she was alive – until you were looking really bad compared to DC’s example of, all places – isn’t really the best way to instil enthusiasm.

Indeed, one might almost think Feige was attempting to prove Ike Permulter’s antagonistic stance towards female-led superhero movies correct, given the weak sauce he’s stirred up so far. Captain Marvel arrived as a belated, retconning attempt to insert Carol Danvers into the MCU and was singularly let down by the devastating combination of uber-godlike powers (so where’s the danger?) and bland lead (and one prone to inflammatory remarks). Making a Black Widow movie retrospectively seems like a slap in the face, since it’s served up as a one-and-done deal (completely with new Widow in the wings… one instantly relegated to a support slot in a TV show, mind).

Now, your mileage may vary and doubtless it does, but I’ve never been a big Scarlett Johansson fan, and I was firmly in the Emily Blunt camp when it came to the character’s initial casting. Scarlett’s emotional void is unfortunately called upon to carry Black Widow, where before she simply failed to fill dud scenes, and the results, or lack thereof, are undeniable when stretched to movie length. Perhaps Black Widow would have worked had it been conceived on a smaller scale, rather than the sub-Bond (sub, sub Moonraker, although the clip isn’t really that representative of a plot steal) fare it attempts to be. Trying to make a good thriller with Black Widow – something closer to Red Sparrow in scale – would surely have been more effective than overlaying the standard-issue, bigger-better-faster-boom Marvel template. But then, what would the shareholders have said?

Indeed, on that level, the Disney+ approach might have yielded some dividends in terms of pursuing a different tone – the counter being Falcon and the Winter Soldier, similarly mechanically retrieved as this, and also lacking genuine superpowered superheroes, but much longer. Natasha Romanoff, at least as Johansson plays her, is entirely uninteresting. That’s not to say the MKUltra meets The Americans prologue, with young Natasha (Ever Anderson, daughter of Milla Jovovich and Paul WS) and her spy parents Alexi Shoshtakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), didn’t have some potential. Quickly squandered when their escape devolves into the standard MCU FX overkill (did Alexei spend the entire flight to Cuba on the wing? I guess that’s just how super-soldiers roll).

The plot doesn’t bear close analysis, revolving as it does around the chemical mind-control agent – and its antidote – that gives villain Dreykov (Ray fackin’ Winstone) power over his brood of Black Widows. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned brainwashing? Too messy, I assume, for a plot from Jac Schaeffer (yay! female writer), Ned Benson (boo! man) and Eric Pearson (double boo!) screenplay. Being able to flick a switch (or release a cloud of transformative gas) makes for less hard work. Naturally, the flicker is a loathsomely evil man, preventing the sisters from doing it for themselves. He lives in the sky (where the processing Red Room facility is based) and is everything you’d expect from Winstone attempting a Russian accent; tiresome, unconvincing and utterly lacking in villainous verve.

There’s some exposition about his entire network of Slags, I mean Widows, calling the shots with world leaders (“…these great men, they answer to me and my Widows”) but it’s a comprehensively unpersuasive attempt to ape the idea of a hidden elite pulling the strings, as well as a rather unsubtle suggestion that Russia is responsible for all our ills (always a popular go-to ploy). We’ve seen this before with Hydra, of course, and the MCU is generally pretty incoherent when it comes to putting to rights the forces behind every wrong (shouldn’t systems improve after their evil orchestrators have gone kaput? You’d think…)

Natasha’s given a very specific guilt complex in this, having killed Dreykov’s young daughter Antonia during her attempt to assassinate him. Turns outs she’s still alive, bioengineered – a transhuman chip in her head – and assuming the mantle of the unstoppable Taskmaster (it was fairly evident that the character would be revealed as a woman – gender swapped from the comic – as soon as she was set up as a mysterious foe). This depth is nanochip deep, however, entailing numerous of shots of Scarlett’s empty eyes pleading with Antonio (Olga Kurylenko, half a decade older than Johansson). More fruitful might have been concentrating on the human-machine conflict in the character, but that might have elicited actual dramatic engagement. Instead, Taskmaster is simply a cypher.

The picture stumbles, perhaps most damagingly – set pieces and villains and fights are all fairly interchangeable in the MCU – with its non-nuclear family dynamic. There’s zero spark between Natasha and “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh, bravely spurning standard Hollywood etiquette of employing a personal trainer), such that you’re half-expecting tumbleweeds to traverse the terrain, or dashboard, whenever they engage in “snappy” banter (most egregious being the self-conscious strike-a-pose dig from Yelena. If she’d said something to the effect of “And isn’t strange how we never see your face when you’re in the middle of incredible stunts?” I might have flickered a smile).

Likewise, comic relief Harbour, who – as a friend pointed out – rather resembles The Cannonball Run’s Captain Chaos in his Red Guardian regalia. Harbour’s really trying hard, but even safe-bet material – “My father goes toilet on my hands” – meets with a frosty silence. Weisz is there to offer Natasha platitudinous tributes (“Tell me, how did you keep your heart?”) and is as entirely forgettable as she always is on those occasions (admittedly fairly rare) when she ventures into Hollywood fare. O-T Fagbenie is Natasha’s sidekick. He’s shit. Julia Louis-Dreyfus returns from Falcon and the Winter Soldier, further cementing her flinty reinvention now she’s in her sixties. I prefer Elaine Julia. I also prefer the original Smells Like Teen Spirit to the dreadful dirge of this slow-tempo “soulful” take.

There’s one inspired sequence in the whole movie, and it stands as testament to how wholly unengaging the main cast are. Melina keeps pigs she trains up in a maze; she can control them remotely, such that she “switches off” one piggy’s breathing. Poor piggy is slowly suffocating during an extended piece of exposition, and all we can think is “Poor piggy!” It’s the only truly dramatic, tense scene in the movie. The whole enterprise would have been exponentially improved as a superhero Babe, with Mr Piggy seeking revenge on Melina: a guaranteed five-star classic.

The choice between venturing to the cinema to see Black Widow or taking in a Disney+ viewing wasn’t really difficult, since there seemed no good reason – cinematically, vista-speaking – to go to the extra effort. There was universal agreement among those assembled of Black Widow’s lack of merit, aside from the attendee who fell asleep. Which speaks volumes in itself. Has the MCU ruptured itself? I’d argue, since Hollywood – and Disney in particular – has been playing the woke card so shamelessly, it’s become less and less easy to bring audiences on board; even those amenable to the “message” don’t tend to like being patronised, something we’ve seen very visibly with the fallout on the Star Wars universe. A similar fate may be in store here, with only fanboy – the series’ bedrock, whether Disney realises it or not – wet dreams (the multiverse) to hold back the tide.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

The Krishna died of a broken finger? I mean, is that a homicide?

Miami Blues (1990) (SPOILERS) If the ‘90s crime movie formally set out its stall in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs , another movie very quietly got in there first at the beginning of the decade. Miami Blues picked up admiring reviews but went otherwise unnoticed on release, and even now remains under-recognised. The tale of “blithe psychopath” Federick J. Frenger, Jr., the girl whose heart he breaks and the detetive sergeant on his trail, director George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel wears a pitch black sense of humour and manages the difficult juggling act of being genuinely touching with it. It’s a little gem of a movie, perfectly formed and concisely told, one that more than deserves to rub shoulders with the better-known entries in its genre. One of the defining characteristics of Willeford’s work, it has been suggested , is that it doesn’t really fit into the crime genre; he comes from an angle of character rather than plot or h

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

You tampered with the universe, my friend.

The Music of Chance (1993) (SPOILERS) You won’t find many adaptations of Paul Auster’s novels. Original screenplays, yes, a couple of which he has directed himself. Terry Gilliam has occasionally mentioned Mr. Vertigo as in development. It was in development in 1995 too, when Philip Haas and Auster intended to bring it to the screen. Which means Auster presumably approved of Haas’ work on The Music of Chance (he also cameos). That would be understandable, as it makes for a fine, ambiguous movie, pregnant with meaning yet offering no unequivocal answers, and one that makes several key departures from the book yet crucially maintains a mesmerising, slow-burn lure.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .