“Black Widow” Review!

Black Widow’s story has always been one of regret: both in-universe and on a meta level, because all I felt after watching Black Widow fling herself off a cliff in Avengers: Endgame for the sake of the Soul Stone was regret that this amazing character, one whose incredible empowering backstory and dark potential had only ever been touched on in passing throughout seven Marvel films, was dead and gone before she got the chance to take center stage in a solo film of her own. Black Widow’s self-sacrifice, if it had to happen at all, should have been a triumphant moment. Instead, it plays out like numb resignation to a fate that might have felt more earned if the films had actually given her a consistent character arc.

Black Widow
Black Widow | vox.com

And now, two years after Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) gave her life in service of the Avengers and received a moment’s worth of mourning from the coworkers who had the audacity to call themselves her only family, we finally have a Black Widow prequel – a kind of consolation prize for sticking with the character even as one director after another, from Favreau to Whedon to the Russo Brothers, reduced her to hypersexualized eye-candy for the male gaze. But unfortunately, Black Widow doesn’t help to make Natasha’s death more bearable or more understandable in hindsight: if anything, in trying to right one of the MCU’s greatest wrongs, it introduces elements that seem to contradict Natasha’s motivation for killing herself in Endgame (which is fine by me), yet does nothing to offer a convincing counterargument for why she’s no longer around to continue her own story, all while halfheartedly rushing to fling together explanations for the mysteries she left in her wake; explanations that are underwhelming at best.

Black Widow‘s screenwriter Eric Pearson recently revealed that the first draft of the film’s script was completed in just eleven days…and by the end of the movie when things start to come irreparably unglued, it shows. I’ll be honest, the first and second acts are mostly quite good, and achieve a perfect balance between strong character development and the kind of visceral action we expect from a movie about elite assassins: we get to learn more about Natasha’s childhood (with Ever Anderson playing a young, blue-haired Natasha), and the film plays with some potentially intriguing concepts and themes there, but when the film jumps back to the present (well, 2016, so nearer the present at any rate), it deftly ratchets up the tension by explaining that while Natasha worked under the aegis of the Avengers, her enemies in the Red Room feared that going after her would expose their position – but now, with the Avengers broken up in a post-Civil War world and Natasha on the run, she’s got no protection.

There’s a weird and unnecessary MacGuffin in the form of a mind-control device, and a general lack of direction at points, but all of this stuff is genuinely entertaining – and the first act provides a strong jumping-off point for what could have been a more grounded, intrigue-heavy, mind-bending psychological thriller like the one promised in Black Widow‘s dark and disturbing opening credits sequence. Scarlett Johansson does some excellent work on her own, imbuing her performance as Natasha with the kind of dignity, respect, and disregard for the male gaze that one can sense is freeing for her: and when Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) enters the picture, the two women share an electric connection that carries the film through some of its weaker patches. Pugh is a revelation in this role, and one of the only upsides I can see for Black Widow taking as long to make as it did is that Pugh arrived on the scene at just the right moment to embody this character with equal parts humor and heart.

During the second act, we’re also introduced to Natasha and Yelena’s adoptive parents, Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz): the Soviet Union’s first and only Super-Soldier, and the Red Room program’s most ingenious and terrifying chemist, respectively. Neither character is actually all that important to the story, but I was surprisingly invested in their subplots, and impressed by the level of detail that Marvel put into their backstories and personalities. I had been worried about Harbour, whose “Red Guardian” was mostly used as a punchline in the marketing, but I’m pleased to report that many of his cringiest line-readings in the trailers appear to have been alternate takes, and even the controversial joke where Melina tells him that he got fat is followed up in the movie itself by a far more effective line where she comments that his body looks good.

Black Widow
Natasha, Alexei, and Yelena | radiotimes.com

But the vivid characterizations of Natasha and her found family inadvertently highlight one of the film’s glaring errors – the blank slate that is its villain, Taskmaster. Going into the movie, I felt certain Taskmaster’s unique and formidable ability to mirror their opponent’s movements and fighting techniques would be crucial to the plot. It’s not. We’ve already seen most of Taskmaster’s fight scenes, and all but one or two of their surprise attacks (the Black Panther-style retractable claws, for example), in the trailers. But beyond that, there’s really nothing to this character except a twist that is meant to hit the audience in the feels – except it doesn’t, because we literally don’t know Taskmaster from a hole in the wall. You never told me who I was supposed to think they were in the first place, so finding out who they really are means nothing.

As you can probably guess, hardcore Taskmaster fans are going to be let down – because this version of the character has virtually no relation to the one from the comics, which is actually a problem with a bunch of characters in Black Widow. If Melina Vostokoff is supposed to be anything like the Melina Vostokoff who goes by the alias of “Iron Maiden” in the comics, then there’s really nothing to indicate that beyond what looks like a metal face-mask on a shelf in her armory – which she never picks up, much less wears. Yelena never obtains her own iconic face-mask, which in the comics is modeled after a spider’s with a bunch of glowing eyes. And most egregiously, the character of Ursa Major (Olivier Richters), a giant humanoid Soviet bear who we’d all been excited to see, is literally just a tall hairy guy. These all feel like disappointing callbacks to the days when Marvel was afraid of its source material’s most outlandish aspects.

Blasts from the past aren’t always unwelcome, however. Black Widow‘s fight scenes – in the first two acts, mind you – borrow heavily from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, still the MCU’s best action movie, although they feel less inventive and a bit less visceral, perhaps because of a certain plot device that feels purposefully contrived to prevent characters from dying. But director Cate Shortland gave us what could be my favorite shot of Natasha Romanoff in any of her Marvel appearances, as the heroine, clad in her all-white uniform, suspends from a helicopter during a Siberian gulag ambush and soars ahead of an avalanche like some kind of avenging angel.

Black Widow
Taskmaster | denofgeek.com

But unfortunately, Shortland makes no effort to try and save a third act that’s written with about as much finesse as the Incredible Hulk rampaging through New York. Any waning hope for a redemptive final action sequence is crushed when the movie suddenly disintegrates into a sprawling CGI showdown that feels completely inauthentic to Natasha’s character and devoid of any real narrative purpose. Something needed to explode, I guess, so it might as well be an entire flying fortress so that we can watch a descending battle through the falling rubble that’s over as abruptly as it begins, giving the audience no time to enjoy what could at least have been a cool set-piece if not an emotionally satisfying conclusion to a story that feels like it’s been mangled to fit the old Marvel Movie formula.

It’s incredible that Black Widow was originally intended to kick off Marvel’s Phase Four instead of the more zany, imaginative WandaVision. Although I once worried that the rearranged release calendar would disrupt all of Marvel’s carefully-laid plans, I have to admit Kevin Feige made the right decision by giving us a taste of what’s really in store for the MCU before showing us…this. It’s not that Black Widow isn’t good, because to be honest it probably still lands on the top half of my MCU rankings regardless of its faults, but it’s more of what we’re used to from Marvel: the sloppy CGI third act battles, the in-name-only cameos from fan-favorite comic characters, the wasted villains. I can only hope that the success of Marvel’s Disney+ shows convinces the studio to apply the storytelling techniques that make their shows so popular to their future films, because I feel strongly that there’s a sweet spot somewhere between the creativity of the shows and the bigger budgets of the films that Marvel just hasn’t found yet.

And so we circle back around to the same place where we started: that inescapable feeling of regret. I’m not unhappy I watched Black Widow, but I am sad that Natasha Romanoff’s story doesn’t get to end on the resounding high note I and many others think she deserved. Because this is it. The film doesn’t provide an out for her to cheat death and return somewhere down the line – although the Multiverse could conceivably bring back any deceased character in the MCU, and we know Scarlett Johansson will return to voice Natasha in What If…?.

Black Widow
Natasha and Yelena | nerdist.com

But this whole prequel is basically just a What If…? scenario anyway: what if Marvel had given Natasha an actual storyline outside of her irregular appearances in Avengers movies and crossover events? What if they’d done literally anything to flesh out her personal life? What if she had led her own trilogy like other Marvel heroes, and this was just the beginning of her story, an effective launchpad for something that could have been great? Well, I guess we’ll never know!

Rating: 7.5/10

“The Falcon And The Winter Soldier” Episode 2 Review!

SPOILERS FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER AHEAD!

The Falcon And The Winter Soldier got off to a bit of a slow start last week, drawing in a huge audience for Disney+ but generating fairly minimal buzz online – with the exception of some admittedly very thought-provoking niche discussions about whether Tony Stark should have paid the Avengers, and what Bucky’s reference to “tiger photos” said about his sexuality, if anything. Just MCU stan twitter at its finest.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
Falcon and the Winter Soldier | superherohype.com

Generally, though, there was some concern among fans that The Falcon And The Winter Soldier wouldn’t turn out to be a big conversation-starter like its predecessor, WandaVision, which consistently had even casual audiences going wild with theories – a crucial element of the series’ popularity that backfired in fans’ dumbstruck little faces towards the end. That concern has hopefully been assuaged today. Coming off a premiere I described as soft and fluffy fanfic (albeit a very good one), The Falcon And The Winter Soldier ratchets up the tension, the drama, and the stakes, for all our characters – even John-punchable-face-Walker (Wyatt Russell).

In some way, this is the closest thing to a Walker-centric episode…and hopefully the last time we’ll be asked to dive so deeply into the character’s psyche. During an extended opening sequence that had me terrified the whole episode was going to focus on his backstory, we learn that Walker is a golden boy in the U.S. military, the recipient of three Medals of Honor, and a really bad actor (to be clear, that’s Walker: not Russell, who’s doing a very good job), who’s apparently only trying to do the right thing by stepping into Captain America’s shoes. But as his marching band intro music plays over the Marvel title cards, it’s impossible to take him seriously.

Deep down, even Walker must realize or suspect that he’s a pawn: a tacky, suitably camera-friendly piece of sentient military propaganda designed by the U.S. Government to project a frighteningly familiar image of jingoistic nationalism to the rest of the world, while tales of his heroic exploits distract the media from the government’s more sinister operations elsewhere…in short, he’s the kind of manufactured, consumer-tested Build-A-Bigot that the modern GOP wishes they had, and have been trying to construct for years now (looking at you, Dan Crenshaw)…and he is everything Steve Rogers knew he couldn’t be in The First Avenger, when he too was trotted out as morale-boosting entertainment for the troops.

But while Walker leans into the commercialization of his character, posing with Cap’s shield and marketing action figures of himself, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), the rightful heir to the legacy, has to get back to work fighting the mysterious Flag-Smashers: who serve a valid purpose in the story, but don’t feel very organically implemented, having just suddenly become the antagonists because Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez) has made them out to be. The Flag-Smashers don’t appear to be very well-organized villains, perhaps because they’re not all that villainous: their leader, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), is implied to actually be helping people by smuggling medicine to refugee camps around Central and Eastern Europe.

In return, she and other Flag-Smashers are welcomed into the homes of civilians, calling back to a conversation Sam had last episode about the “tremendous amount of goodwill” that keeps superheroes functioning despite not being paid for their services to humanity. That being said, the Flag-Smashers are still heavily-armed and accompanied by an elite bodyguard of enhanced Super Soldiers, including Morgenthau herself. To deal with the heightened threat, Sam calls in Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who’s conveniently answering texts now. A result of his therapy working, or a plot device? We shall never know.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
Falcon and the Winter Soldier | comicbook.com

We all knew, however, that I wasn’t going to be able to make it through this review without geeking out over the heroes’ reunion – where the conversation quickly turns to “The Big Three”, Sam’s term for aliens, androids, and wizards; the Avengers’ most common enemies. In the back-and-forth, Bucky mockingly namedrops Gandalf, before smugly revealing that he read The Hobbit when it first came out, in 1937 – a miraculous feat given that the first American edition of the book wasn’t published until 1938, which means Bucky didn’t just pick this up on a whim: he literally would have had to order it all the way from England, because he’s just that much of a Tolkien nerd. By a lucky coincidence, yesterday was also Tolkien Reading Day!

The random yet endearing exchange continues the fluffy fanfic vibes I picked up from the premiere episode…and speaking of fanfic, are we gonna talk about the new SamBucky content, or what? Yes, yes, we are. And not just the banter, but the inherent sexual tension of them being forced to roll on top of each other during an action scene, or engage in a “soul-gazing exercise” at the orders of Bucky’s therapist (played by Amy Aquino, who is phenomenal). For me, it’s the way all the heteronormative “bromance” jokes and sight gags accidentally just make the situation more gay.

The episode packs a lot into its back half, including a pretty long action sequence with the Flag-Smashers in rural Germany, which moves from an abandoned warehouse to a highway fight on the tops of two moving MAC trucks like a violent Euro Trucks Simulator mod (complete with random, seemingly driverless car that gets wrecked in the ensuing chaos while trying to pass). Things quickly go wrong: Falcon’s wings are somewhat limited on the narrow stretch of road, and Karli Morgenthau smashes his drone Redwing over her knee, while Bucky’s vibranium arm can’t save him from being dragged under a truck. And that’s when John Walker intervenes to “save” the duo, popping up in the first of many surprise appearances.

This is followed by what feels like an even longer sequence of Sam and Bucky being forced to ride back to the airport with Walker’s team after their humiliating defeat; a cringeworthy opportunity to see how fame has gotten to Walker’s head in a very short time. In the face of mediocrity, Sam keeps his cool, while Bucky loses his temper quickly and insults Walker, before jumping out of the vehicle when Walker’s companion, Lemar Hoskins (Cle Bennett), reveals his ridiculous code name, Battlestar. Sam, as a Black man, is forced by circumstances to remain civil – because the one time he gets angry and raises his voice, later in the episode, he’s immediately surrounded by cops who threaten him.

On that sad note, it’s time to talk about Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), who makes his long-awaited MCU debut surprisingly early. Revealed as a former enemy of Bucky’s from the Korean War era, Bradley it turns out is still alive after six decades lying low in Baltimore: having been experimented on using the longevity-inducing Super Soldier Serum, or some variant of it. In the comics, Bradley’s origin story dates back to World War II, when white doctors used and abused his body to test out their own versions of the Serum, giving him enhanced abilities and a lifetime of trauma. I’ve always believed this reveal would be most significant if Bradley predated Steve Rogers’ miraculous transformation, but there’s no indication that’s the case yet.

Bradley’s introduction sheds light on the MCU’s dark past, while the introduction of his teenaged grandson Eli (Elijah Richardson) illuminates its hopeful future. Eli might seem like a background character in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, but comics readers will recognize him as a member of the Young Avengers. He may even be the first Young Avenger to enter the MCU in his final form, given the recast of Cassie Lang and the fact that Wiccan and Speed will presumably also be recast when they age up to teenagers. In the comics, his powers come from a blood transfusion from his enhanced grandfather.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
Isaiah Bradley | yahoo.com

The history of the Serum is quickly emerging as the through-line of the series’ plot: running parallel to, and beautifully intersecting with, the emotional through-line of Sam and Bucky (and even John Walker) learning what went into the making of Captain America, and what it takes to live up to his legacy. But with only vague hints from Bradley as to his origins, and with Walker revealing – and confirming through his action scenes – that he doesn’t have a drop of Serum in his veins, the Falcon and the Winter Soldier are forced to turn to someone else for help…someone who knows the Serum’s history intimately, and was presumed to have killed all the Super-Soldiers manufactured by HYDRA in Bucky’s image: Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who is exactly the type of thwarted sociopath that creepily plays chess with himself while brooding in prison.

Episode Rating: 9/10

May Calamawy Joins “Moon Knight”!

Although Oscar Isaac has yet to be officially confirmed as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Moon Knight (though it’s pretty clear at this point that he will indeed be donning the antihero’s iconic mantle), the series is moving full steam ahead with a production start date already set for March, and has now begun casting other key supporting roles. May Calamawy has become only the second cast member to join the series, playing an as yet unnamed character who will join the Moon Knight on what Marvel president Kevin Feige described as a globe-trotting, “Indiana Jones-type” adventure.

Moon Knight
May Calamawy | refinery29.com

Calamawy, a Bahraini actress with Egyptian heritage, has risen to stardom through her popular role on Hulu’s Ramy, where she portrays Ramy Youssef’s  younger sister, Dena Hassan, and has helped to break barriers for MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) representation in TV. She will have a chance to do so again in the Moon Knight series, where she is likely filling the role of Marlene Alraune: an important figure in Moon Knight’s backstory. A casting call that MCU Direct was able to reveal back in September of last year suggested that Marvel was searching for actresses of any ethnicity, and in the same age-range as Calamawy, to play a character believed to be Marlene.

At the time, Marvel provided only a few details about the character, including that she would be “a manipulative operative working for a secret organization”, possibly hinting at a connection to the MCU’s S.H.I.E.L.D., or even S.W.O.R.D., which is being set up to have a major role going forward: S.W.O.R.D. agents will be tasked with trying to restrain Wanda Maximoff in WandaVision, and will likely show up again in the Secret Invasion series. In the comics, Marlene’s character has never had ties to either of these organizations, but then again, she’s also been little more than a rip-off of Marion Ravenwood from the Indiana Jones franchise – so I don’t mind if her backstory gets rewritten to better suit the modern setting.

Moon Knight
Moon Knight | superheroes.fandom.com

Marlene in the comics is a stereotypical “archaeologist’s daughter” (not to be confused with the very similar “scientist’s daughter”), and is most often utilized as a love interest to Marc Spector, a.k.a. Moon Knight. While accompanying her aging father on his final research trip to Egypt, she accidentally becomes embroiled in a fight between Spector and his nemesis, The Bushman, who kills her father and attempts to kill her too but is stopped by Spector: who is left mortally wounded in the attack. Spector is then revived by the ancient Egyptian moon deity Khonshu, and given a second chance at life in exchange for his services as an assassin and mercenary, carrying out the god’s dirty work on earth. Marlene accompanies Marc Spector occasionally on his crime-fighting missions, and has some fighting skills of her own that she’s able to put to good use, but most comic readers still only know her as Spector’s on-and-off girlfriend, who at one point leaves him for her ex-husband and then reunites with him later. The MCU has never been great at creating truly messy romantic drama, but WandaVision seems like it might finally reflect a widescale shift towards writing more complex romantic relationships – so I guess we’ll have to see what happens.

But regardless, this is still very exciting casting, and bodes well for Calamawy’s career beyond Ramy. I hope that we’ll soon see other MENA actors join Moon Knight in significant roles, making up for the MCU’s earlier, dated, and deeply offensive portrayals of Middle Eastern characters as terrorists. This stereotype continues to be perpetuated in mainstream media – just last month, Wonder Woman 1984 tried to get away with it too: in what may have been an ill-conceived and tasteless attempt to pass it off as just another hallmark of the 1980’s films upon which the DC sequel was based, like troubling depictions of women, dubious consent issues, and queerbaiting.

Moon Knight
Marlene Alraune | comicbookrealm.com

So what do you think about Calamawy’s casting, and how excited are you for Moon Knight? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!

“The Falcon And The Winter Soldier” 1st Trailer Review!

A number of Marvel fans have been worried – understandably, to some extent – that the big budgets for the upcoming slate of Marvel Disney+ series won’t be enough to keep the shows from looking “too TV”, by which I assume they mean cheap and small-scale. The first trailer for WandaVision, which some viewers didn’t understand was intentionally aiming to replicate the low-budget practicality of classic sitcoms, only underscored those fears. But if nothing else, the first trailer for The Falcon And The Winter Soldier should be enough to convince even the most skeptical critic that these series will maintain a high level of quality, and cinematic visuals of which most movies would be lucky to boast.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes | variety.com

The Falcon And The Winter Soldier feels the most like a traditional Marvel action movie out of all the Disney+ series we’ve heard about so far, but that’s not a knock on the series by any means. Rather, it feels like a continuation of the very best Marvel movies, specifically the latter two installments in the Captain America trilogy – as it should, since it follows Cap’s sidekicks in the aftermath of his surprise retirement and decision to pass the torch (or, well, the shield) to his longtime friend Sam Wilson. The fight scenes are fast-paced, tightly-edited, and visceral; the tone is that of an atmospheric spy thriller, with some natural buddy cop humor; and the characters are heroes we’ve grown to love – Wilson’s Falcon and Bucky Barnes’ Winter Soldier.

From what we’ve heard, the main conflict of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier revolves around a plot to usurp Wilson, a Black man, as the rightful owner of the shield and the new Captain America, by replacing him with a jingoistic white southern guy named John Walker. However, the trailer is still hiding many details pertaining to that storyline, and instead devotes significant screentime to a completely new supervillain played by Solo actress Erin Kellyman – whom we see sporting a black mask marked with a red handprint, and leading a team of ruffians, believed to be the anarchist militia group known as Flag-Smasher. It’s possible Kellyman’s character is also using the name Flag-Smasher as her supervillain identity: in the comics, this character is male, and a frequent opponent of Captain America, who represents everything he most despises. John Walker, on the other hand, appears just once in the entire trailer: making his debut at a hometown football game, to thunderous applause.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
John Walker | superherohype.com

That being said, there’s no reason to fear that the series’ extremely political through-line has been watered down to avoid controversy: Falcon’s first line in the trailer addresses how the legacy of Captain America’s shield is “complicated”, an obvious reference to the storyline in the comics – which the show is believed to feature prominently – where an early and dangerous prototype of the Super Soldier serum was tested on Black men during World War II by racist doctors, mirroring the real-life horrors of the infamous Tuskegee “Study”, during which African-American men were subjected to syphilis and denied treatment even after it became available. Just as Loki is venturing into the realm of historical fiction, it seems The Falcon And The Winter Soldier will do the same, including important social commentary on issues of racism, white supremacy, and white privilege.

The trailer’s second biggest reveal has to be our first look at the island of Madripoor, a fictional nation located in the Indian Ocean and home to frequent battles between Marvel’s most notable heroes and villains in the comics. The Falcon And The Winter Soldier makes it looks very futuristic, a bit like Cyberpunk 2077‘s Night City, with a dark and mysterious criminal underworld supporting towering skyscrapers and hotels. Wilson and Barnes’ business in Madripoor is still unknown, but they appear to be undercover – probably hunting an enemy or looking to strike a deal with somebody shady. To fit in with Madripoor’s clubbing scene, it seems Wilson has a brand new outfit, including a bright red jacket with golden tracery that we’ve seen in set photos, but which looks even better under proper lighting. Bucky’s idea of a disguise is a basic haircut (which, to be fair, looks pretty decent now); at least Wilson has some style.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson | comingsoon.net

The action set-pieces are to die for (and I assume that, in a series as gritty as this one looks to be, lots of characters will die): we’ve got motorcycle chases, fights on top of trucks, brutal one-on-one duels, and plenty of high-flying stunts thanks to Falcon’s trusty pair of wings, which look more fast and flexible than ever before. To tell the truth, I’ve always thought Falcon’s wings looked cumbersome in past Marvel appearances – so whether he’s actually tinkered with the suit to produce better results, or if the CGI is just better, this is definitely an upgrade. Bucky’s vibranium arm, courtesy of Wakanda, is still…just an arm: I hope we get to see some of its other cool features at some point, because Wakandan tech is usually a lot more reliable.

Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of stuff I think is still being kept from us, and this first look is just the tip of the iceberg. The Falcon And The Winter Soldier will premiere in March, leaving plenty of time for us to get another trailer, presumably while WandaVision is still airing.

Trailer Rating: 8/10