Marvel’s Black Widow Review

The old saying “better late than never” gets thrown around a lot, but it is very appropriate when talking about Marvel’s Black Widow, which finally give’s Scarlett Johansson’s titular character her long overdue solo film despite being one of the original big screen Avengers. Though you could also argue that Black Widow’s starring role has come too late in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Johansson’s Black Widow debuted in 2010’s Iron Man 2, a year before Thor and Captain America even joined in the proceedings. Though she was a secondary character, and marketed mostly for her sex appeal back then, Black Widow quickly grew into one of the MCU’s more complicated characters. Taken from a young age, brainwashed, and trained as a KGB spy under the “Red Room,” Natasha Romanoff (AKA “Black Widow”) would later gain her freedom and dedicate her life to saving the world, as a means to redeem her tragic past. She would eventually become an Avenger, no less (one of the original six, as far as the MCU is concerned).

Despite not getting her own movie until now, Romanoff had one of the more fleshed-out backstories of the MCU, up there with Iron Man and Captain America themselves. While the MCU hasn’t always done right by Johansson’s character (that forced romance with Bruce Banner that came out of nowhere in Age of Ultron comes to mind), she remained a fan favorite all throughout. And with years of rumblings of a Black Widow solo film, it makes it all the weirder that such a film is only happening now.

As of Avengers: Endgame, Romanoff’s story in the MCU – like many of the original Avengers – is over. As such, Black Widow takes place shortly after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, so I guess it counts as a prequel at this point in the MCU. So here we are, after eleven years, and Black Widow’s long-awaited first solo film is also her last, which seems woefully unfair to the character and to Johansson. I would have enjoyed a series of Black Widow movies.

Still, while a Black Widow movie should have happened sooner, I guess one Black Widow film that serves as Johansson’s farewell to the MCU is better than no Black Widow movie at all. Though the film has its issues, it’s a fittingly entertaining installment in Marvel’s mega-franchise that does give its titular character some additional closure.

Black Widow gives Romanoff that closure by means of finally having her confront the Red Room, the organization responsible for robbing her – and many other women – of their lives by turning them into child assassins (or “Black Widows”). So we finally get to see Natasha Romanoff get some much-desired recompense.

Here we delve even further into Romanoff’s backstory, and learn that, for three years during her childhood, she was part of a family. Well, a fabricated family that was a front by the Red Room. The real identities of her “parents” are Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a Red Room spy and former Black Widow; and Alexei Shostokov (David Harbour), Russia’s only super soldier, the “Red Guardian,” and thus their answer to Captain America (with whom Alexei claims to have a long-standing rivalry). Meanwhile, Natasha’s younger ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) is destined to become another Black Widow.

Once Alexei finished his undercover mission in America, the ‘family’ was broken up, and the sisters separated. While Natasha was forced back into her old cycle of training and brainwashing, things were taken further with Yelena, who became one of the Red Room’s test subjects of full-on mind control. So while Natasha was eventually able to break free, Yelena didn’t have that ability.

Fast forward to the present (of this particular movie), and things take a turn for Yelena when one of her targets exposes her to a substance called Red Dust, which cures her from her mind control, and she then defects from the Red Room. Taking the remaining Red Dust, Yelena sends it to Natasha, hoping the now-Avenger can help her free the other Black Widows from the Red Room’s control.

Naturally, the Red Room is on Natasha and Yelena’s trail, sending its soldiers after the duo, not least of which being the Taskmaster; a mysterious, masked foe. So the two Black Widows will need allies to take down the Red Room and its leader, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Keeping in mind that this film takes place after Captain America: Civil War, Natasha is part of the group of Avengers who are now fugitives from the law (some are already in custody, others are in hiding). So she can’t just call for backup here. But perhaps she can reunite her old “family” for help?

Admittedly, the film treads a lot of familiar ground for the MCU, especially echoing the Captain America sequels, which Johansson’s character is already strongly associated with. The entire “mind-controlled soldiers” idea is very Winter Soldier-esque. And with David Harbour’s character literally being the Russian equivalent of Captain America, you really can’t escape the similarities. On the plus side, the Captain America sequels are highly regarded as some of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so Black Widow is at least aiming high with which past entries it emulates.

Black Widow has some strong themes it wants to convey, though they may get a bit lost in the shuffle at times. It’s obviously dealing with many of the same ideas of freedom that the aforementioned Captain America films also dealt with. And it probably won’t be lost on anyone that it’s a man pulling the strings of mind-controlled female assassins (the film makes sure Winstone’s Dreykov is the kind of villain you can’t wait to see get his ass kicked).

Where the film really delivers is in its action scenes. The set pieces of Black Widow feel more akin to those of the recent Mission: Impossible films than the usual MCU fare. Although Black Widow can’t quite reach the heights of the recent Mission: Impossible outings (admittedly a very high mark), the action sequences here are similarly satisfying.

Perhaps the best aspect of Black Widow are the characters themselves. Natasha has been one of the MCU’s mainstays due in large part to being one of its most beloved characters, and Black Widow is a great way to finally focus on her as a character (though sadly also reminding us that this all should have happened much sooner). Yelena is every bit her equal, not just in combat skills but also as a character, showing a strength and depth that should make her one of Marvel’s primary heroes going forward (don’t wait a decade to give her her own movie!). And Alexei is part huggable bear, part dumb lummox; his fabricated family being just another mission to him, but he slowly begins to realize what his ‘daughters’ really mean to him. Melina may be something of the odd woman out in regards to screen time, but I think her character shows enough promise that she can be expanded on in future movies.

“The fact that Chris Evans’ Captain America never shared the screen with David Harbour’s Red Guardian breaks my heart.”

Sadly, the Marvel villain curse rears its head once again in Black Widow. It’s weird how the MCU has done a (mostly) wonderful job in regards to bringing Marvel’s comic book heroes to life, but its villains haven’t been anywhere near as consistent. People remember Thanos and Loki, of course. And some other villains have received quieter acclaim (Michael Keaton’s Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming really deserves more praise). But many of the MCU’s villains either mimic the heroes too closely, are too underutilized, or fall back on a disappointing twist.

Though I mentioned Dreykov is effective in making the audience hate him, he falls under the ‘underutilized’ category, only really getting a few short minutes of screen time. Meanwhile, Taskmaster falls under the ‘plot twist’ category, with a reveal that ends up feeling as underwhelming as it does pointless. With a stronger villain scenario, Black Widow may have kicked things into a whole other gear.

Black Widow is one of the smaller-scale films the MCU has seen in recent times (‘smaller’ being a very relative term in regards to the MCU). But that’s kind of what I like about it. Just because the Avengers have saved the universe by this point doesn’t mean all of their adventures have to be taken to such extremes. A big super hero romp can still be a great time even if the stakes are smaller and more personal. Though I suppose it’s all the more of a shame that over on Disney+ we have the obnoxiously apathetic Loki beating us over the head with the idea that nothing in the MCU matters compared to Loki’s wacky shenanigans through space and time. But let’s ignore that show for now (please) and appreciate that Black Widow can make a ‘smaller’ story in the MCU still feel important to it, even after all the places it’s been.

The unavoidable dark cloud when it comes to Black Widow, however, is simply that it should have happened years ago. For all the entertainment it provides, Black Widow can’t help but feel like too little, too late. For this movie to finally happen only after Natasha Romanoff’s story has ended and Scarlett Johansson is leaving the MCU behind her feels deflating, and the movie gives off a “contractual obligation” vibe as a result.

Black Widow gives us some great action set pieces, a good story, and Florence Pugh and David Harbour are great additions to the MCU that hopefully we’ll see a lot more of. It may be a fitting sendoff for Johansson’s agent Romanoff, but it probably shouldn’t have been a sendoff in the first place.

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Avengers: Infinity War Review

*Caution: This review contains spoilers regarding the first few minutes of Infinity War, and regarding the ending of previous MCU film Thor Ragnarok*

The Marvel Cinematic Universe proved to be the most successful gamble in movie history. What was at one time (if you can believe it) a risky move to see if the “shared universe” concept of comic books could be translated to cinema, the MCU has since become the biggest franchise in movie history.

When The Avengers was released in 2012, it brought together Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the former four having a feature film or two of their own beforehand, and the latter two having ‘guest roles’ in those same features. At the time, this was an unprecedented feat, and marked the point when the MCU came to fruition.

Little did we realize that The Avengers wasn’t the big payoff, but merely the end of the opening act of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. An unseen threat loomed behind the action in The Avengers, with the film’s mid-credits sequence revealing the foe to be Thanos, an intergalactic despot of immense strength and cataclysmic ambitions. That wasn’t a simple tease to the next Avengers film, however, as 2015’s Age of Ultron felt like an odd detour in the proceedings. The Thanos reveal was a glimpse at the full story arc of the entire MCU.

It would take the MCU a full decade from the release of Iron Man – the first film in the mega-franchise – before it reached its crescendo. After eighteen proceeding films from 2008 to 2018, everything came to a head with Avengers: Infinity War, the “first half” of the conclusion of the MCU up to this point.

Yes, after all this time, Thanos (Josh Brolin) decided to finally get off his floating space chair and go on his universal Easter egg hunt for the six Infinity Stones – five of which had been featured as previous plot devices in the MCU – with which he can alter all of reality as he sees fit with the snap of his fingers.

Infinity War begins shortly after the events of Thor Ragnarok. The spaceship housing the last surviving Asgardians after the destruction of their homeworld has been overtaken by Thanos and his cult-like followers, who have already claimed one Infinity Stone. Thanos has killed half of the Asgardians on the ship and subdued Thor, and bests even the Hulk in quick fashion, before finally killing Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to claim the Tesserect, and the second Infinity Stone within it. A dying Heimdall (Idris Elba) uses the last of his power to send Hulk to Earth, to warn its heroes of Thanos’s impending invasion. The Hulk winds up in the Sanctum Sanctorum, where he reverts back to Bruce Banner, and relays the warning to Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

This all happens in about the first five or so minutes of the film. It’s certainly a strong opener for Infinity War, filled with a surprising amount of emotion, and effectively showcasing Thanos as the ultimate threat in the MCU. Though on the downside of things, if you were a fan of Thor Ragnarok, that film’s hopeful ending is undone almost instantaneously here.

Without going into too much detail, the plot from then on out involves Thanos’s quest for the remaining Infinity Stones, and how it draws the various Avengers (and Guardians of the Galaxy) from all over the cosmos to try and put a stop to his machinations. In terms of the sheer amount of characters present from so many different movies, and how the story takes them to different corners of the universe, Infinity War presents an unprecedented scope.

On top of the aforementioned heroes, we also have Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). In addition, the Guardians of the Galaxy consist of Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Rocket the raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Strangely, despite being one of the original six Avengers, Hawkeye is suspiciously absent.

Unquestionably, this is the biggest cast of any super hero movie. It would be easy for the film to collapse on itself under the pressure of juggling so many different characters and trying to give them all a place in the story. But Infinity War, against all odds, manages to make it work. Sure, its balancing act isn’t quite as perfectly executed as the original Avengers in 2012, but considering how many more heroes were added to the MCU since then, the fact that Infinity War manages to tell a coherent story at all is in itself a minor miracle.

“The man himself.”

In an interesting twist on super hero norms, it’s the villain of the story, Thanos, who is the closest thing Infinity War has to a main character amidst its robust ensemble. And this was probably the only way it could have gone. The first Avengers reused a villain in Loki, in order to keep its focus on joining its heroes together, and it worked beautifully. Age of Ultron floundered more than a little bit because it rushed its titular villain’s entire story arc into a single film that was also trying to tell so many other stories.

The MCU as a whole had been teasing Thanos’s role as the ultimate big bad of its mythology since the first Avengers film, though he was mostly shrouded in mystery. His goal of obtaining all the Infinity Stones was made clear from the get-go, but that was the extent of audience’s knowledge of the character. Infinity War ends up working by being the payoff to Thanos’s hype. While The Avengers could keep its focus on the heroes by enlisting a fully-established villain like Loki to fill the antagonist role, Infinity War kind of does the opposite. Seeing as this is the third Avengers film, the MCU is used to seeing its heroes teaming up by this point. By shining the spotlight on a villain we only saw hints of in the past, Thanos is able to become a fleshed-out character, and serves as the anchor that holds this massive story in check. And Josh Brolin gives a standout performance that makes the character live up to the hype.

On the subject of Thanos, I guess it’s only fair to address the elephant in the room. The Mad Titan’s motives for wanting the Infinity Stones is finally made clear in Infinity War, and it’s proven a bit divisive.

After Thanos’s home planet became overpopulated, its resources were ravaged at an alarming rate, leading to the planet’s complete collapse. After that, Thanos became obsessed with population control, and initially accomplished this by means of traveling to different planets with his armies, and killing half of their population, thus “saving” those worlds from suffering the same fate as his, in his warped mind. Thanos seeks the all-powerful Infinity Stones because, with all six incrusted in his gauntlet, he can eliminate half of all life in the universe with a single snap.

The point of contention with all this being that, if possessing every Infinity Stone would essentially make Thanos omnipotent, why wouldn’t he use such godlike ability to create more resources in the universe? Even I admit that point popped up in my head the first time I watched Infinity War. However, everyone who cries foul that this is some sort of gaping plot hole is sorely mistaken. It’s certainly not a plot hole (at worst it would be considered inconsistent logic within the character), but repeat viewings have proven this to be entirely consistent with Thanos as he is portrayed in the film.

Thanos is an unflinching sociopath. He is nihilistic when it comes to the lives of others, and has a god complex when it comes to himself (suffice to say, a volatile combination). In his perverted mind, making more resources would mean people would ravage them twice as fast. He’s utterly faithless and hopeless in regards to his fellow man. Not to mention, by controlling the population of the entire universe, Thanos would simultaneously be feeding his god complex.

Some would argue that such details need a better explanation in the film, but do they really? If you take the time to study the character, instead of just jumping at the first opportunity to lambast a movie for its perceived faults, Thanos’s actions explain it all. Besides, it’s a vast improvement over the comic book version, in which Thanos is in love with the personification of death, and wishes to wipe out half of all life to win her affections (Geez! Killing half the universe just to impress a girl? Slow down there, High School!).

What ultimately matters, however, is that Infinity War succeeds in making Thanos the ultimate threat of the Avengers and company. Though some may miss the carefree entertainment of the first Avengers film, it makes sense that the series would grow up and mature for its grand finale. And Infinity War is a fittingly dramatic epic that brings a sense of urgency to the MCU that hadn’t been felt before.

“Everyone is here.”

That’s not to say that the fun has gone away from the series. Our heroes retain their distinctive personalities and sense of humor, so the film still finds time to lighten the mood when it’s appropriate (with Tony Stark and Drax getting the best comedic bits). Just don’t expect the villains to be cracking jokes in the way Loki and Ultron did.

Naturally, there’s still a good deal of action sequences to be had, some of which are among the best in the MCU. There may not be a single battle as memorable as the fight for New York at the end of the first Avengers, but we still get a good fill of action set pieces.

Infinity War isn’t perfect, of course. There are so many characters here that, naturally, some will comparatively get lost in the shuffle. It seems every Avengers film features a character who drew the short end of the stick (Hawkeye in the original, Ultron himself in Age of Ultron). Here, it’s Vision who comes across as little more than dead weight for the team. Sure, not everyone could have a big role in a film that has so much going on, but considering the character entered the picture in Age of Ultron with some promise (he managed to lift Thor’s hammer), the fact that he fizzles out so spectacularly in the big payoff movie makes Vision feel like a disappointment.

As stated, Infinity War just has so much going on, that it doesn’t always have as clear of a focus as the first Avengers (though it certainly has more of it than Age of Ultron). Again, I can’t be too hard on it, because the fact that it works at all – let alone as great as it does – is a true achievement. But I’d be lying if I said there aren’t a few moments of exhaustion from the sheer size of the film.

Avengers: Infinity War may have some rough edges, but it is no doubt an appropriately epic and dramatic first chapter to the conclusion of the MCU (so far). It ups the stakes of previous entries considerably, and even tugs at the heart at times. And even when the film may start to feel overstretched at times, it’s memorable villain who lives up to the hype, in combination with the returning personalities of the heroes, helps keep it afloat. This is a grand finale (at least, the first part of it) that actually feels grand.

 

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