Black Widow review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Cate Shortland
Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 134 min
Opens : 8 July 2021 (Sneaks from 7 July)
Rating : PG13

Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies have become an expected feature of the theatrical release calendar, and 2020 was the first year since 2009 in which none were released in cinemas. While the MCU is branching out on Disney+, it’s good to hear the Marvel Studios logo fanfare in a cinema again. After multiple delays, Black Widow finally arrives.

Set right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a fugitive from the authorities. While attempting to keep a low profile, she crosses paths with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a sister figure who has undergone similar training. The duo eventually reunites with Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) – years ago, the four Russians posed as a family, undercover in rural Ohio. Now, they must work to dismantle the Red Room program run by the ruthless Dreykov (Ray Winstone), and attempt to free the brainwashed women whom Dreykov is conditioning to be the next generation of deadly operatives, known as ‘Widows’. Dreykov’s secret weapon, the enigmatic Taskmaster, is a Terminator-like assassin who can mimic the moves of any combatant he studies. Natasha, who has spent her whole life running from her past, must confront it, finally gaining a degree of closure.

The Black Widow character is long overdue for a solo movie, something that’s been floated since even before the character’s MCU debut in 2010’s Iron Man 2, with a Black Widow movie announced as early as 2004. Scarlett Johansson has never been given a great deal to sink her teeth into with the character, and the preceding MCU films have offered little more than tantalising hints at the character’s dark backstory of being trained and brainwashed from childhood into the perfect killing machine. This is a movie that is interested in its characters, and director Cate Shortland excels at scenes in which people are talking to each other, hashing out unresolved tension. There is a stylishness to the proceedings and a touch of spy movie flair. Several action sequences are entertaining, and the violence seems more brutal, impactful and immediate than in many other MCU films, perhaps pushing the PG13 rating a bit.

By now, we’re used to hearing criticisms of the MCU movies being formulaic. Unfortunately, despite a few stylistic touches, Black Widow still often feels like it’s rolled off the Marvel Studios production line. The pacing of the movie is very much “dialogue scene, action scene, dialogue scene, action scene,” in a way that feels very dutiful. There is an attempt to balance the character stuff with the superhero stuff, and it’s not quite as effortless as it should be.

The big climactic action sequence is stuffed with CGI, and by then it can’t help but feel like the movie is on autopilot. The action sequences in Black Widow and indeed in most other MCU movies are technically proficient, but it seems there are only so many ways a vehicle can flip over. It’s a bit of an open secret that MCU action scenes are mostly handled by a separate team, and some directors are better at making everything fit together than others, so the movie sometimes feels a bit disjointed. The curse of the mediocre villain strikes again – while Taskmaster’s mimicry gimmick is initially interesting, there’s just not a lot to him, and the dynamic of Taskmaster being the heavy and Dreykov as the puppet master is efficient but overly familiar.

The best parts of Black Widow are when the makeshift family of Natasha, Yelena, Alexei and Melina are spending time together. There are bits of the movie that even feel like The Incredibles. The way Natasha views the arrangement as a sham, whereas Yelena still has an emotional attachment to it, is an excellent approach to this setup. The new additions to the cast are all excellent, with rising star Pugh positioning herself in just the right MCU role. Her interactions with Johansson really feel like two sisters bickering, and there’s a believable chemistry between them, conveying the sense of two people making up for lost time.

David Harbour steals the show with a warm, loveable performance as Russia’s very own super soldier. He brings a great deal of dad energy to the proceedings and looks to be having a great time. Weisz is a lower-key, dignified presence, even if Melina is not an especially interesting character as written.

Summary: While not a wholly satisfying swansong for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, this solo outing introduces some enjoyable characters into the MCU and is interested in its characters’ internal lives, even as there is plenty of requisite action spectacle. The movie is at its most enjoyable when it’s about Natasha’s makeshift family unit, with Florence Pugh’s Yelena making for an endearing little sister figure. As is the custom, stick around for a post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Avengers: Endgame review

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast : Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action/Superhero
Run Time : 3 hours 1 minute
Opens : 24 April 2019
Rating : PG13

The following review is spoiler-free.

Following the catastrophic events of Avengers: Infinity War, earth’s mightiest heroes have been crushed. Thanos (Josh Brolin) achieved his goal, wiping out half of all living creatures in existence. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) are all reeling from this loss.

Our heroes must regroup to fight to restore what was so cruelly taken from them. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who was thought to have been among the decimated, was lost in the Quantum Realm. He returns, meeting the surviving Avengers to tell them he might have an idea. What follows is an epic mission to mend what has been broken, one that will take its toll on the Avengers, but a mission which they must complete.

Avengers: Endgame marks the end of the Infinity Saga, a 22-movie cycle comprising the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is a lot on this movie’s shoulders, since it must address the events of Infinity War and function as a satisfying conclusion to the first 11 years of MCU movies. There will be MCU movies after this, of course: Spider-Man: Far From Home is being released in July. However, audiences know Avengers: Endgame must be far from just another MCU movie, and it is.

The ending of Avengers: Infinity War was an audacious mic-drop, a cliffhanger which audiences had to wait a year to see the resolution of. The villain won: it was like The Empire Strikes Back, but orders of magnitude more devastating for the heroes. The intervening year was filled with speculation and theories. Avengers: Endgame packs in the surprises and twists and turns from the very beginning of its three-hour runtime. It’s an extremely clever piece of writing from screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and a massive logistical ordeal overseen by directors Anthony and Joe Russo.

Without going into any details about the plot, it reminded me of how Eric Heisserer described writing The Thing (2011). That film was a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same name, and writing it involved reverse-engineering specific aspects of that film to show audiences how things got to that point. Heisserer called it “doing it by autopsy”. The writing of Avengers: Endgame must have been a similar process.

This is a movie which is constructed to reward fans who have stuck with the franchise since the beginning. It is mostly fan-service, but “fan-service” has taken on such derisive connotations that it hardly seems fair to call it that. This is a movie which will break box office records and it’s absolutely not a standalone movie – audiences are expected to have a strong familiarity with not just Infinity War, but practically every single MCU movie preceding that, because many of the character arcs trace their way back to the beginning. It’s no coincidence that after Thanos’ snap, the original six team members who formed the group seen in The Avengers remain.

The characters of the MCU and their journeys have earned considerable cachet with audiences, and Endgame is intent on leveraging that for maximum effect. By turns heart-rending and triumphant, there are moments in this film which will feel like moments that fans have been waiting for ages to see onscreen, and other moments that are so sad, fans will hope they never had to witness. The film does tend towards the melodramatic, but perhaps this is justified given the operatic scale of the MCU.

The MCU’s original trinity of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor all figure heavily into the plot. Endgame sees Tony taking the loss of Infinity War especially hard, while Steve finds his usual optimism flagging in the aftermath of the snap. Some of the film’s best, most honest moments are quiet dialogue scenes, including when Steve participates in a support group meeting for people coping with the loss of their loved ones in the decimation. The gigantic battle sequences, while cheer-worthy, can feel a little bloated and synthetic as they are in many lesser comic book movies.

While there is a necessary bleakness to Endgame, there are still moments of levity which, unlike in many earlier MCU movies, do not infringe on the emotional heft. The MCU started out with Iron Man, a movie which depicted fanciful technology, but was a safe distance from all-out sci-fi or fantasy. Things have changed since then, characters from the cosmic and mythic corners of the MCU openly interacting with the earth-bound ones. “I get emails from a raccoon, so nothing sounds crazy to me anymore,” Natasha remarks.

Avengers: Endgame is about a clash between good and evil on a cosmic scale, promising blockbuster spectacle and expensive entertainment. While it delivers all that, its greatest asset is its soul. It’s a movie about endings and beginnings, the past and the future and about parents and children. It’s a movie about what we take with us and what we leave behind. There is tremendous catharsis to Endgame and it’s a testament to how Marvel studios constructed something objectively impressive with the MCU, but above all it’s a “thank you” to viewers who have joined the characters on the journey.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong