“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

“What If…?” 2nd Trailer Review!

In a franchise that has historically been very strict about what is and what is not canon (nobody knows that better than Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans), the medium of animation provides Marvel an incredible opportunity to expand upon the potential of Loki‘s Multiverse shenanigans and explore alternate universes branching off from the so-called Sacred Timeline – in an anthology series named What If…? that will remain (at least as far as we know) entirely separate from the live-action MCU. But although you might think that would narrow its appeal with hardcore fans who tend to get obsessive over the canon debate too, the broad variety of stories being explored in What If…? will likely make this a must-see event.

What If...?
What If…? | etonline.com

The format of the series is simple yet unique. One episode for each Marvel movie released thus far, but putting a twist on the version of events we know from our canon, and following the consequences of that twist down a winding rabbit-hole of endless possibilities. Until today, the marketing for What If…? had largely focused on just two or three storylines: one in which Peggy Carter took the Super-Soldier Serum during World War II instead of Steve Rogers and became Captain Carter (not Captain Britain, although the Union Jack is emblazoned on her vibranium shield); one in which a young Prince T’Challa was abducted from Earth by aliens and became a Ravager in place of Peter Quill; and one in which Bucky Barnes fights a zombie version of Captain America, in what I think might be the series’ Captain America: Civil War episode.

Everything beyond that had been just quick glimpses and unconfirmed rumors until today’s new trailer, which starts out in the back of an armored vehicle moving through the Middle East – yep, the same one where Tony Stark was ambushed in the opening of Iron Man and nearly got blown to bits by one of his own Stark Industries missiles, commencing his journey to becoming Iron Man. But this time around, something unexpected happens. Killmonger – as in Black Panther‘s Killmonger – leaps in to save Tony Stark’s life, effortlessly lifting the missile and tossing it into the sky. And from there, the trailer only gets weirder.

We see an armored Natasha Romanoff zipping through the battle-damaged streets of a city on her motorcycle, having been the only member of the Avengers to survive Ultron’s extinction-level apocalypse in Age Of Ultron. Pepper Potts, wielding some kind of high-tech gun, fights alongside Shuri and the Dora Milaje. Loki invades Earth, not with hordes of Chitauri aliens, but with Asgardian troops; while a tattooed frat boy Variant of Thor parties it up on the planet’s surface. Okoye hurls a spear at a levitating Wanda Maximoff. T’Challa and Yondu fight a muscular, cybernetically-enhanced Variant of The Collector from Guardians Of The Galaxy. Doctor Strange duels Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. Howard the Duck is just…there, for whatever reason.

What If...?
Captain Carter | buzzfeed.com

Before Loki, I was intrigued but bewildered by the concept of What If…?, but now we know so much more about the mechanics of the Multiverse in the MCU that we can kind of get a sense of what’s going on, and perhaps even why. These are all timelines that branched but never got pruned, Nexus Events allowed to spiral further and further out of control, leading to chaotic crossovers with other alternate timelines, and what Miss Minutes described as “multiversal war”. We can see some of that going on in this trailer: Variants like Captain Carter and T’Challa as Star Lord won’t be confined to single episodes, but will also join forces across time and space – leading to a clever recreation of the iconic Avengers group shot in the first Avengers movie that also includes frat boy Thor, a Gamora Variant who’s dressed in golden armor like her adoptive father Thanos and is even wielding the Mad Titan’s sword, and a character who is possibly Killmonger, wearing the Black Panther suit.

Of course, if the Time Variance Authority isn’t around to prune these timelines and prevent a Multiverse, it raises the question of why. My guess is that at the end of Loki, the God of Mischief’s efforts to burn the TVA to the ground are successful, finally freeing the universe from authoritarian control and allowing time to do whatever the hell it wants. Whether the characters in What If…? will discover that and try to hop over into the MCU’s reality remains to be seen, but that could precipitate the Multiverse Of Madness which we know Doctor Strange will be dealing in with his hotly-anticipated sequel.

The only person who seems to have any answers is an ethereal cosmic being known as Uatu the Watcher, who will narrate the series and preside over events, hopefully cluing in audiences as to what’s really going on. Will he always remain on the sidelines, watching but never interfering with time? Will he be mentioned in the MCU at any point? Where does he even come from? As Darcy would say, “don’t know, don’t know, and…don’t know.”

What If...?
T’Challa and Yondu | nerdist.com

What I do know is that the animation on this series looks brilliant: crisp, clean, and richly detailed, allowing for the kind of spectacle sometimes unattainable in live-action except through extensive use of CGI. With the exception of Robert Downey Jr., the voice-acting is provided by the same actors who originated these roles in live-action, including Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, in what will be his final posthumous performance. And my expectations for the next wave of Marvel Disney+ shows are at an all-time high after the resounding success of Loki. I was always excited for What If…? because I’m a big fan of animation, but I’m sold on the concepts at play here too after this amazing trailer.

Trailer Rating: 8.9/10

Marvel Offers 1st Look At Eternals And Upcoming Film Slate

What will it take to get moviegoers back into theaters? Hollywood has been asking themselves that question a lot recently: things were looking up for a moment with the success of Godzilla Vs Kong, but Mortal Kombat‘s limited mainstream appeal made it a poor successor to the Monsterverse epic. All eyes are turning towards Marvel’s Black Widow to make or break the box-office, and just this morning Marvel has released a teaser of their upcoming film slate that’s supposed to work as a little…incentive, to get people hyped up about their theatrical releases after a few months of Disney+ series’ (and streaming in general) dominating the conversation.

Marvel Eternals
The Eternals | comicbook.com

Granted, at least one of these movies will be available to purchase on Disney+ while it plays in theaters, and that happens to be Black Widow, so…we’ll see whether this ends up revitalizing the box-office like it’s supposed to, but either way this teaser gave me all the feels, and a first fleeting look at the upcoming film Eternals, my most-anticipated Marvel feature and the one best positioned to be a serious contender at next year’s Academy Awards race.

When I say fleeting, I’m not kidding – we only get a mere thirteen seconds to admire Oscar-winning director ChloĆ© Zhao’s stunning cinematography, and a range of what will presumably be outstanding performances from an all-star cast including Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie. But thirteen seconds is all it takes to sell me on the film’s premise, and Zhao’s stunning vision for her first MCU project, one to which she has committed herself with the same clear passion as her critically-acclaimed A24 drama, Nomadland.

Spanning time and space, Eternals follows a group of celestial beings (not to be confused with the literal Celestials, who created the Eternals) who have roamed the earth since prehistoric times, subtly guiding the forward flow of human civilization. Thirteen seconds isn’t much, but it allows us to see the Eternals in their ancient guise as godlike superheroes defending the city of Babylon outside the famous Gate of Ishtar (once considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World)…before showing them in their modern forms, revisiting the site of the Mesopotamian city as archaeologists.

We see a little bit of how they’ve each adapted to life coexisting alongside the human race; with some of them, like Salma Hayek’s Ajak, distancing themselves from civilization (Hayek appears to be riding on horseback through what could be the American Southwest or even the Pampas of Argentina), while others, like Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo, have become celebrities among the humans (I love that he’s brought his own personal camera crew along with him to meet the other Eternals). Angelina Jolie’s Thena is the only character we see fighting in the clip (and I could be wrong, but I think she’s only sparring with her fellow Eternal, Gilgamesh), but the choreography looks good and her golden sword is both beautiful and cool.

Marvel Eternals
Angelina Jolie as Thena | indiewire.com

Perhaps my biggest fear was that the Eternals’ costumes wouldn’t look great in live-action, since up until now all we’ve really seen of them is some concept art…which, with all due respect to the artist, wasn’t quite as visually striking as some fans had been hoping. But this clip lets us see a few of the suits in action (not all, though, and not the ones that looked worst in the concept art), and they seem practical, well-made, and simply gorgeous – with Jolie’s Thena making a particularly strong impression, dressed from head to toe in white with gold accents. Her regal, even haughty, stride indicates that she’s not going to allow any opponent to get a speck of dirt or blood on her pristine outfit – and I respect that power move.

While the rest of the teaser does feature some new footage from Black Widow and Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, the two major talking points besides the never-before-seen Eternals footage were both title reveals – Black Panther 2 officially receiving the emotional subtitle Wakanda Forever (that movie is gonna make me cry: I just know it), and Captain Marvel 2 rather unusually being retitled and rebranded entirely as The Marvels.

I’m a bit conflicted on how I feel about the latter title: firstly, because when I got the notification on my phone about this announcement, I honestly thought The Marvels was going to be an MCU sitcom. Of course, the title is supposed to reference the film’s holy trinity of heroines – Brie Larson as Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel, Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau (who also goes by Captain Marvel in the comics), and Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel – but it’s a bit too much of a cheeky pun on the company’s name, and slightly undermines what I feel should be more of an epic and awe-inspiring moment. Some fans are upset that the Captain Marvel solo franchise is now dropping Captain Marvel’s name, and I get that – though I also understand and appreciate that the new title celebrates more inclusivity, and puts the three women on equal status, rather than elevating Carol above her costars.

The teaser is very focused on release dates, some of which we already knew, some of which are a bit of a surprise. Black Widow and Eternals are both set in stone and unlikely to shift around on the calendar – the former is comfortably anchored by a Disney+ simultaneous release, and the latter is being positioned for awards season. Shang-Chi will still release in September, between the two films, while Spider-Man: No Way Home will close out the year on a bang, by all accounts setting up a Multiverse saga that will escalate in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, arriving March 25th, 2022. Thor: Love And Thunder and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will be the big summer event-movies of that year, and The Marvels will premiere on November 11th.

Captain Marvel 2
The Marvels | marvelcinematicuniverse.fandom.com

So far, only Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 are confirmed for 2023 (the former in February, the latter in May) but Mahershala Ali’s Blade will likely end up there too, along with Fantastic Four – the electric-blue logo for which pops up again in the final moments of this teaser, as if to remind us that we never know the full extent of Marvel’s plans for the future. Remember, these are just the upcoming movies.

But how do you feel about the studio’s slate of films, and which is your most anticipated? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!

“Echo” Hawkeye Spinoff Coming To Disney+!

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is probably the least interesting part of the upcoming Hawkeye Disney+ series…which I imagine really sucks for Renner’s hardcore fans, but is great for those of us who are only going to be watching Hawkeye for the amazing women involved: Hailee Steinfeld’s Kate Bishop, Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, Vera Farmiga as Eleanor Bishop, and Alaqua Cox as the antiheroine Echo.

Echo
Echo | marvel.com

And despite being a complete newcomer to the acting scene, it’s Alaqua Cox’s Echo who’s apparently first in line for her very own Disney+ spinoff coming out of Hawkeye, a series that hasn’t even finished filming yet. Variety reports that, while the spinoff is still in the early stages of pre-production, Etan and Emily Cohen have come onboard to write the series scripts. This news, if true, would make Echo the first Marvel character introduced on Disney+ to get her own solo spinoff, further enriching this vast corner of the MCU, and hopefully proving once and for all that the Disney+ series’ aren’t just supposed to act as extended prologues and epilogues to other movies – they are their own thing, and should be viewed as such.

It’s been hard to convince some fans of that latter point, particularly when dealing with a universe where the occasionally eyeroll-inducing need for “interconnectedness” drove viewers away from Marvel’s previous TV collaborations with ABC (which hosted the long-running and criminally underrated Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Netflix (which only just recently relinquished the rights to Marvel’s Defenders content, including beloved heroes like Daredevil and Jessica Jones), after those TV series’ struck out on their own and forged new ground…in the process becoming less essential viewing for the MCU overall. That’s a pattern we saw repeated after WandaVision‘s finale, which proved to be controversial in part because fans felt cheated when the series didn’t halt in its tracks to introduce the Multiverse, or reveal villains like Mephisto and Nightmare, or reinstate Fox versions of the X-Men (though, to be fair, Evan Peters should have been playing Peter Maximoff), despite laying the groundwork for at least two other Marvel films and another Disney+ series.

Echo
Hawkeye | businessinsider.com

The news that Echo specifically is getting a spinoff is exciting for several reasons. The character – whose codename comes from her ability to expertly replicate or “echo” any opponent’s fighting style and techniques – is a deaf Native American antiheroine named Maya Lopez, who rises through the ranks of the criminal underworld to become a widely-feared and respected warrior. While operating in Japan and fighting a faction of HYDRA, she adopted the alias of “Ronin”, the same name we saw Hawkeye himself randomly pick up in Avengers: Endgame, during his five years as a vigilante/serial killer. The Hawkeye series will hopefully explain away all the mysteries surrounding the Ronin identity, including whom it belonged to first in the MCU canon, but Echo’s story doesn’t have to end there.

In the comics, Maya Lopez goes on to help and hinder the Avengers at various points, even playing a critical role in the Secret Invasion storyline which will be adapted for Disney+ in the near future. She’s had complex relationships with many of Marvel’s grittier street-level characters, including Daredevil, Moon Knight, and the Kingpin – who mentored her throughout her childhood, after first murdering her father. Maya later turned on Kingpin and left him temporarily blinded, but he’s honestly the least of the villains she’s battled while wielding her signature nunchuks, from Madame Hydra to the Skrull Queen Veranke – the former of whom at least deserves to be brought back into the MCU, with Mallory Jansen reprising the role she so brilliantly originated on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. In one storyline, Echo even hosted the cosmic power of the Phoenix Force within her during an underwater battle with Namor.

Echo
Phoenix Force Echo | comicbook.com

Echo’s role in Hawkeye is still unknown, though I remain confident in my theory that she’ll be revealed to be one of the last remaining Red Room cadets trained by Taskmaster, positioning her at an intersection between the storylines of Hawkeye and Black Widow and making her the literal “echo” of one of Widow’s greatest failures, still reverberating through current MCU history. Having her own spinoff series, though, vastly expands the number of stories that could be told with the character – from undercover work as a ninja in Japan, to fighting alongside Daredevil on the streets of New York City, all while helping to increase onscreen visibility for the Indigenous and disabled communities.

But what do you think? Are you excited to see Alaqua Cox as Echo? Do you have any theories about her spinoff? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!