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Non-Review Review: Black Widow

Black Widow was originally supposed to release in May 2020.

This would have marked as something of a “coda” movie to the main saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a belated follow-up tidying away loose ends from Avengers: Endgame in much the same way as Spider-Man: Far From Home. Like a lot of the releases immediately following that massive cultural phenomenon, Black Widow feels like a bit of unfinished business. It is the first solo movie based around the only female founding member of The Avengers, a project that gestated in various forms over decades across multiple production companies.

A vicious cycle.

Of course, Black Widow would always have felt curiously out of step and out of time. Scarlett Johansson wrapped up her tenure as Natasha Romanoff in Endgame, with the superhero sacrificing her life in the quest to defeat Thanos. As a result, Black Widow has to position itself earlier in the timeline. It functions as something of an interquel between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, following the title character as she desperately evades capture by United States Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross.

Had Black Widow released on time, it still would have felt like a movie that arrived four years too late. After all, despite introducing Natasha Romanoff as early as Iron Man 2, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would not build a solo superhero film around a female character until Captain Marvel. For all the chaos unfolding behind the scenes, the DC Extended Universe managed to beat Marvel Studios to the punch with the release of Wonder Woman in May 2017. It’s interesting to wonder whether the decision to position Black Widow as a direct sequel to a May 2016 release is something of a retroactive grab at that title.

Widow maker.

Even aside from all of this baggage, Black Widow is a frustrating film. It is a movie that feels only a draft or two (or an editting pass or two) away from greatness. The film grapples with big themes and bold character work in interesting ways that occasionally verge on confrontational. After all, Natasha Romanoff has consistently been portrayed as a complicated and ambiguous figure within this world of gods and legends, an international assassin whose moral and bodily autonomy was violated in the most grotesque ways, and who responded to this by trying to reinvent herself as a superhero.

There’s a fascinating story there, and Black Widow intermittently acknowledges as much. However, when the film gets close to hitting on any nerves, it immediately retreats into snarky irony and wry one-liners that rob the story of any real weight and the characters of any real agency. Black Widow is supposed to be a story about a character asserting her own agency in the face of an uncaring machine. Instead, it feels like a film where the machine always wins.

Black Widow is directed by Cate Shortland. Shortland has a distinguished career in independent cinema, but it seems highly likely that she was chosen to direct Black Widow off the back off her previous film, Berlin Syndrome. Berlin Syndrome was a brutal movie about a woman abducted by a serial killer, and the horrific push-and-pull dynamic that exists between victim and abuser as the character tries to find some measure of psychological (and physical) escape from her tormentor. It is tough stuff, but it is a solid thematic fit for a superhero film that dabbles in themes that are not completely removed from that premise.

To her credit, Shortland brings a certain style and swagger to Black Widow. It would be too much to argue that Black Widow has a particularly strong visual identity on par with something like Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok, but Shortland works with cinematographer Gabriel Beristain to give the movie a clear and sharp look. In particular, Shortland leans heavily on the physicality of her performers. Avengers: Age of Ultron (much like John Wick: Chapter III – Parabellum) suggested that its female assassin school was also a ballet school, so this emphasis on movement makes sense.

In particular, Black Widow leans very heavily on the idea of physical mirroring. Several confrontations feel like acting and improvisation workshops, with characters squaring off against one another and mimicking each other. The film’s superpowered antagonist is the mysterious Taskmaster, a killing machine programmed to imitate the fighting style of its opponent, often matching them pose for pose or blow for blow. When Natasha confronts her surrogate sister Yelena in a flat in Budapest, the two know all of each other’s moves – catching and deflecting blows like a choreographed dance. This mirroring suggests a theme.

More than that, Shortland draws from a host of interesting sources. The film’s opening scene plays as a direct homage to The Americans, flashing back to Natasha’s childhood as part of a sleeper cell in Ohio. The family is discovered, and they are forced to flee, abandoning the life that they built together. Later on, Shortland borrows from one of the key scenes in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, in which a bombing is interrupted by the arrival of a child. In Munich, the protagonists stop the bomb going off. In Black Widow, Natasha makes the choice to detonate it.

She was Black Widow. Now she’s back widow.

These are heavy themes for a comic book superhero movie, particular one produced by Marvel Studios. That said, it would be hard to delve into the character of Natasha Romanoff without touching on these sorts of ideas. In The Avengers, it is made clear that Natasha did terrible things as a soldier and feels guilty about them – killing an innocent child would certainly fit with that. In Age of Ultron, it is revealed that her spymasters forcibly sterilised her, rendering her infertile, to prevent the possibility that anything might be more important than the mission. Black Widow inherits this back story.

Black Widow is at its best when it acknowledges and confronts this head-on. The plot finds Natasha forced to reunite with her original surrogate family to dismantle the Red Room, the programme that trained and mutilated her. Yelena reveals that the Red Room has been operating in secret since Natasha’s defection, training an army of disposable young women, robbing them of their free will and turning them into an assembly line of mass produced killing machines with no free will or self-determination. In particular, Yelena points out that Natasha left her behind in her flight to the West, prioritising her own escape.

This set-up is brutal and horrific, as it should be. Despite the predictable backlash in certain corners of the internet, Captain Marvel wasn’t an especially feminist film. It was much more interesting in the politics of immigration and fear, treating the Skrulls as a metaphor for various marginalised and defamed groups. If anything, Captain Marvel embraces a feminism typical of the era in which it was set, a broad and commodified “girl power” version of feminism that consisted of riding motorbikes, punching guys and assuring the audience that they can do anything.

In contrast, the feminism of Black Widow is a lot harder to escape. After all, the film is about the denial of women’s bodily autonomy at a time when the United States was aggressively attempting to roll back hard won freedoms in the area. It is a film about the mass production of  a grotesque parody of female empowerment as brand management – Natasha is faced with an army of younger disposable catsuit-wearing replacements – at a time when feminists are grappling with the cynical commodification of “girl power.”

Sister act.

This is necessary. This is interesting. It’s good to see a film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe grappling with these ideas head-on. In its best moments, Black Widow is crystal clear in what it is trying to say about these systems of oppression. It feels somewhat appropriate that Black Widow presents its primary antagonist, Dreykov, as a boring and generic old guy in a suit who floats above the world in something that looks like a carbon copy of the Helicarrier from The Avengers, discussing all of the abandoned women on which he feeds as a “resource” that he can use to justify his own enrichment and advancement.

Indeed, there are even moments when Black Widow seems to suggest that Natasha’s problem might be more than just a vague foreign conspiracy. Black Widow makes a point to have its antagonists deliberately mirror the familiar trappings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taskmaster throws a shield like Captain America. Dreykov is introduced with a big bushy moustache that suggests he is an equivalent to General Ross, and the opening credits reveal that he hangs around with both Bill Clinton and Thaddeus Ross. The mechanics of the Red Room don’t look so different from those of The Avengers.

Unfortunately, Black Widow is unable or unwilling to commit to the boldest of its idea. Every time it looks like the film might actually hit a raw nerve or land more than a glancing blow, the movie pulls back into its comfort zone and retreats to the familiar mechanics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is always a quip. There is always a punchline. Any time it looks like the audience might be asked to sit with something that makes them uncomfortable, Black Widow fills the silence with something light-hearted and jokey.

This is most obvious in the dynamic between Natasha and Yelena. Scarlett Johansson is an Academy Award nominee. Florence Pugh is one of the brightest young actors of her generation, and consistently a highlight of the films in which she appears. These are two actors who can play a wide range of emotional drama, and are capable of selling just about anything that a script might request from them. So it’s frustrating that the script never seems entirely clear what it wants from the two.

The Russian Rubble.

Black Widow never really settles on a convincing dynamic between Natasha and Yelena. Are they squabbling siblings on a road trip together, with Yelena mocking her “poser” older sister for being a hanger-on to the “big guns” of the Avengers? Or are they two recovering child soldiers nursing both their trauma and their resentment for one another, struggling to make an emotional connection that training tried to render alien? Black Widow never decides. On a scene-to-scene basis, the dialogue pushes towards the former. However, the larger arc of the movie seems to demand the latter.

Normally when a movie is described as “a draft or two away from greatness”, that implies a script that needed another pass or another rewrite. Watching Black Widow, it genuinely feels like the movie might have suffered from at least one pass too many, with the final few drafts given over to “punching up” the humour in a script that really did not need more humour piled on. It’s one thing to have writers like Dan Harmon do a pass on a by-the-numbers origin like Doctor Strange to add a little flavour, it’s another to decide that a movie about women fighting to assert their agency needs more jokes per minute.

It’s frustrating. In its best moments, Black Widow seems to understand that tale of trauma and tragedy might register better in a different key. The film’s opening credits are an impressionistic montage that takes the audience from that opening sequence to the present day, contrasting Dreykov’s rise to the continued abuse of the women under his influence. The credits are set to a cover of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, recorded as a sad ballad by Malia J. It’s all drum beats, piano accompaniment and string sections.

It is, of course, another example of the classic “sad trailer song” trend, in which a classic song is reimagined as a downbeat dirge dripping with atmosphere and pathos. What better way to communicate that Alien: Covenant is an atmospheric horror movie than to set the trailer to sad remix of Nature Boy? How could a trailer communicate the emptiness of the lives of the protagonists in The Great Gatsby more effectively than with an ironic cover of Happy Together?

Even rendered as an unstoppable cyborg assassin, Hawkeye remains the worst.

Black Widow pointedly doubles down, opening to an even more depressive version of an already absurdly depressive song. It seems like a mission statement for the film, an understanding that maybe this particular entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe might need to have a stronger grip on tone given the themes with which it is grappling. Unfortunately, the movie very quickly comes off the rails, seemingly unable to commit to the refreshing tone teased in its opening fifteen minutes.

The problem is compounded when Black Widow tries to mine the character’s traumatic back story for cheap laughs, often by involving Natasha’s surrogate father Alexei Shostakov. Alexiei is cast as a bumbling over-the-hill superhero, Soviet Russia’s defunct answer to Captain America. He is boorish, loud, and stupid. David Harbour does what he can in a role that is largely thankless, and completely absent the emotional depth that the other three primary characters intermittently gesture towards.

The Avengers made a big deal of the “red” in Natasha’s “ledger”, the terrible things that Natasha had done which she needed to balance. The film treated the metaphor earnestly and seriously, as a way of articulating a trauma that Natasha had deliberately and pointedly depersonalised – reduced to simple calculus. However, Black Widow cannot resist ironic self-aware snark that punctures the perceived pretentiousness of that metaphor. When Alexei is reunited with Natasha and Yelena, he proudly boasts about how much red is in their ledger, a scene played as one of many “embarrassing dad” moments.

Similarly, Age of Ultron made a big deal of how the Red Room had forcibly sterilised Natasha, rendering her incapable of having children. This narrative choice was admittedly controversial, but it fit within the larger themes of Age of Ultron about the horrors of warped and misbegotten progenation. However, Black Widow reduces this to a joke at Alexei’s expense about how uncomfortable men get when discussing women’s reproductive organs. (“I was about to talk about fallopian tubes,” Yelena states.)

Dads, am I right?

The joke itself isn’t bad. It belongs to that new wave of comedy pointing out that grossout humour has largely been dominated by male voices and expectations, like Neighbours 2 or even Blockers. The problem with the joke is its context. Black Widow asks its audience to take the idea of this violence against women seriously, which makes sense when there are accounts of forced hysterectomies within detention camps on the American border. It’s horrific. It should be allowed to be horrific. It shouldn’t be reduced to a punchline about male discomfort.

This is a consistent problem through Black Widow. The film pulls back from its more interesting ideas. The opening allusion to Munich is a bold a provocative statement within a comic book movie. Munich was a famously divisive and controversial moral parable about how blood stains don’t always wash off, and how cycles of violence perpetuate themselves. To frame that in the context of a long-running franchise about superheroes is an interesting and clever idea.

More than that, Munich arguably arrived at a point in Steven Spielberg’s career where the director was pushing back against his reputation as a sentimental blockbuster director, trying to interrogate his own legacy and the way in which he had shaped pop culture. Munich arrived hot on the heels of films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence or Minority Report or War of the Worlds, which rejected a lot of the comforting nostalgia of Spielberg’s more iconic blockbusters in favour of something darker and more cynical.

The decision to directly invite comparisons to Munich within Black Widow feels like a statement of purpose from the film. Indeed, there are moments when the film comes close to introspection or reflection. It is revealing that Dreykov is reintroduced as a man who has literally and figuratively placed himself above the laws of men, mass producing superhuman soldiers who operate without any accountability or oversight. Producing Black Widow as a direct sequel to Civil War, in which Captain America decided that he needed no oversight while conducting unilateral foreign interventions, feels somewhat pointed.

Quality family time.

Unfortunately, Black Widow retreats from these implications at every possible opportunity. When Natasha confronts Dreykov at the climax, it’s notable that she never seems particularly bothered by the fact that Dreykov has essentially set up a superpowered paramilitary organisation without any oversight or checks. She instead criticises him for “ruling from the shadows” and “hiding in the dark”, suggesting that perhaps real power is held by those who openly flaunt their power over others. It’s a small and interesting beat, one which reveals a lot about how the Marvel Cinematic Universe approaches power.

It is notable that Black Widow also walks back that early allusion to Munich. It is unable to let Natasha’s unforgivable sin stand. The movie instead opts to completely erase the red in Natasha’s ledger. It is inevitably revealed that the child that Natasha blew up did not actually die. She lived. She was transformed into a monster. Black Widow features a frustratingly obvious twist that is all but revealed by the listing of an actor in the opening credits who does not appear until the final third of the film, and it is easy enough to figure out who that actor is playing based simply on the film’s set-up.

Black Widow declines to let Natasha live with the consequences of her choices. Much like the film excuses the murders committed by Yelena by blaming them on mind control and programming, the plot is structured so that Natasha can was her hands of the sins of her earlier life. It’s a facile and trite conclusion to her character arc. It’s telling that this shift back towards sentimentality is framed as a direct and literal homage to The Winter Soldier, with Natasha essentially given her own version of the eponymous brainwashed assassin to save. In doing so, she erases a choice that she made years earlier.

For a movie that is so heavily invested in female characters fighting to assert their agency, Black Widow consistently refuses to allow those characters any agency. To be fair, it’s arguable that this is baked into the film’s prequel premise; the audience knows exactly where Natasha’s journey is going after Black Widow, no matter what she chooses to do with it. It is worth pausing to note that the modern wave of solo female-centric superhero movies from DC and Marvel have all been essentially prequels: Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman 1984 and not Black Widow.

“We have to go back.”

More to the point, it never feels like Black Widow allows its characters to make choices that might damage their utility to the brand. Natasha might choose to murder a child to escape her torment, but the film refuses to allow that choice to stand. At the climax, Yelena finds herself caught in a choice between avenging herself on Dreykov and saving her own life, with Natasha urging her younger sister to make an active choice to save herself rather than die trying to murder her tormentor. Yelena is unable to let the matter go, and makes the seemingly suicidal choice in the name of vengeance. Black Widow can’t let that stand.

Interestingly, Black Widow feels like a movie out of time in other ways. One of the film’s central thematic arcs explores the strange dynamic between the United States and Russia in the modern era, in the wake of the clear moral divide of the Cold War. The opening sequence takes place during the mid-nineties, but is framed very much like a Cold War spy thriller. The family escape from Ohio to the safety of Cuba. Alexei monologues at length about his belief in “the Party.” His knuckles are tattooed with the words “Karl Marx.”

The James Bond films are clearly a touchstone for director Cate Shortland in making Black Widow. Early in the film, Natasha is shown watching (and quoting) Moonraker. The plot of a villain hiding at a high altitude and creating an army of interchangeable young women recalls the basic story of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. However, Shortland takes most of her visual cues from Martin Campbell’s GoldenEye, which was explicitly a film about positioning James Bond in a unipolar world.

The opening sequence of Black Widow features the family as fugitives desperately trying to escape the authorities in a personal plane, with Alexei effectively chasing the plane and trying to mount it from the outside. It is a fairly direct lift from the opening scenes of GoldenEye. The next major action scene involves a chase through Budapest with Natasha and Yelena fleeing Taskmaster in an armoured personnel carrier. Taskmaster drives the vehicle through the streets with their entire upper body sticking through a roof, a choice the directly suggests the iconic tank chase from GoldenEye.

Wakanda Forever.

As such, it is thematically appropriate that Black Widow is fascinated with modern Russia. Alexei is presented as the representative of a Russia that no longer exists, a patriotic icon that is explicitly styled on Captain America. Alexei tells tall tales about his battles with Captain America, stories that other characters point out probably never happened. Styled “the Red Guardian”, this superhero is treated as a punchline. He is a relic and an artifact. He is reintroduced in the present day trapped in a Siberian prison. If Captain America spent decades in the ice, then the Red Guardian has spent a similar amount of time on ice.

Alexei’s old fashioned patriotism is contrasted with Dreykov’s cynical opportunism. The opening sequence presents Dreykov and Alexei as old friends, but it is very clear that Dreykov separated himself from Alexei as soon as it became practical for him to do so. Dreykov is an embodiment of a new Russia. He is presented as a ruthless opportunist. The opening credits feature the character photoshopped into various pictures of world leaders, suggesting an international power broker. No longer bound by ideology, Dreykov sells the talents of the Red Room to the highest bidder.

This is a fairly stereotypical view of Russia as it emerged from the Cold War. Communism lost the ideological battle with capitalism, and so the narrative of Russia tended to focus on the nation’s embrace of the once-rival belief system. Newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post made reference to “Russia’s Wild West”, evoking the chaos from which American capitalism emerged. There was a palpable anxiety that Russia had embraced an even more extreme version of western capitalism, reflected in legitimate concerns about the power held by oligarchs.

These figures quickly became standard bad guys in Hollywood movies, essentially an update on the evil communists who populated so many seventies and eighties action films. Indeed, Dreykov doesn’t seem so far removed from the character of Andrei Sator in TENET, another Russian so wealthy that he operates beyond the reach of the authorities. Sator has his yacht to symbolise his status as part of the new post-national elite. Dreykov has a literal sky fortress, one of the perks of existing in a comic book movie universe.

A Russian Strongman.

In this respect, Black Widow feels profoundly affected by the shift in its release date caused by COVID. Had the film been released in May 2020, it would have arrived towards the tail end of the Trump Presidency. Its fears about the secret and shadowy influence of Russian spymasters might resonate more strongly in a climate where investigations into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia were still the topic of conversation. Dreykov feels very much like a villain of the late Trump era.

This even makes sense in terms of the choice to position Black Widow as a direct sequel to Civil War. For better and for worse, Civil War was very much a movie tied to the mood of May 2016. (Even late night talk shows picked up on it.) Much like Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984 serve to sandwich the Trump era, it feels appropriate that Civil War and Black Widow should form a bracket around the period. It’s an interesting and potentially provocative idea, even if it means that the movie’s delay makes it feel curiously outdated.

Of course, Black Widow falls into the same trap as Wonder Woman 1984 and other attempts at feel-good superhero blockbusters attempting to engage with this turbulent moment in American history. Black Widow broaches these interesting ideas and searches desperately for an external boogeyman on which these problems might be pinned. Much like Wonder Woman 1984 struggles to reconcile itself to the reality that “the cruelty is the point”, Black Widow seeks the reassurance of an external threat that it can blame.

Black Widow makes a big deal about how Dreykov has cracked “the key to free will” and has mastered “mind control.” He has implanted sleeper agents around the world who are just waiting for the signal to activate. It’s a familiar superhero movie trope, very similar to the revelations about HYDRA in The Winter Soldier. However, Black Widow goes even further than The Winter Soldier to avoid the uncomfortable implications. In The Winter Soldier, these sleeper agents were an external threat perverting a heroic institution, but at least they had free will. In Black Widow, those sleeper agents are acting without any autonomy.

One Perfect Shot.

It is not difficult to position Black Widow within the prevailing narratives of the Trump era. The film begs to be read as a reflection on how the world is broken. After all, it’s notable that the film avoids a big showy comic book villain in favour of a decidedly anonymous man in a suit. Marvel Studios have a long-standing villain problem, but the generic nature of Dreykov feels like a very deliberate point. Dreykov isn’t a character. He is a walking and talking metaphor for a particular form of political violence. Part of that violence is simply misogyny, but part of it is something more.

Dreykov is the stereotypical portrayal of the Russian state, an ominous and shadow figure waging an “asymmetric assault” on an ideological opponent. His manipulation of his subjects’ free will is not too different from the suggestion that Russia manipulated the opinions and feelings of American voters through a complicated online campaign. Dreykov claims to have invisibly altered the courses of entire governments, which is just a variation on the argument that Russian cyber-warfare swung the Trump and Brexit votes. His network of sleeper agents feel like a metaphor for Russia’s mobilisation of disaffected youth.

Black Widow goes out of its way to suggest that this is as much a story about America as it is about Russia. The opening sequence is steeped in American. Yelena insists that her father play American Pie on the radio as they flee their home, and the song becomes an emotional touchstone for the young agent. Natasha looks out the window as Ohio passes her by, seeing a local football game staged as an image of archetypal Americana.

Indeed, the opening scenes of Black Widow suggests something interesting in this parallelling of Natasha’s experience as both a Russian and an American. The idea of a family of immigrants forced to flee the authorities is evocative. Black Widow leans into the obvious subtext as the family are broken up at the border and separated from one another. The opening credits feature voice over that talks about the fears that “they” are sending “entire families” to live in America posing as American citizens. The next sequence even features the United States Secretary of State once again chasing Natasha from her adopted home.

A good run.

However, Black Widow very quickly retreats from any of the potentially interesting implications of this idea. The film never really explores whether Natasha feels like a Russian or an American. It takes every opportunity to reference Natasha’s time with the Avengers, but never really discusses what it was like for that child to return to the United States as an adult and carve out an identity for herself, only to have that all taken away from her again. Instead, Black Widow focuses entirely on a foreign and external threat.

This is a very convenient and comforting narrative that serves to exculpate and excuse a lot of the chaos of the past decade by placing the blame squarely on a few bad external actors. It avoids any deeper internal reckoning. After all, it wasn’t Russian sleeper agents who voted for Trump or Brexit. These external forces might have capitalised on fundamental gaps within western democracies, but those gaps already existed just waiting for somebody to exploit them. Dreykov feels like a walking and talking conspiracy theory, whose mere existence provides a cathartic punching bag.

After all, to bring it all back to the movie’s cynical bait-and-switch about Natasha’s unforgivable choice to murder a child to secure her own freedom, the movie’s contortions to justify this choice cannot erase the choice itself. Natasha can point out that she was just following orders from S.H.I.E.L.D., which was really HYDRA. The movie can also bend over backwards to reveal that the child didn’t actually die, and so erase her guilt for making that choice.

However, Natasha still made that choice. Natasha still chose to make a choice that would in any ordinary world kill an innocent child because it would mean her own freedom. That choice has moral weight. The fact that the universe contort in such a way as to erase the consequences of the choice doesn’t erase the choice itself. It’s frustrating that Black Widow comes so close to grappling with something interesting and compelling, but flinches at the last minute.

Rising above.

This is what is truly frustrating about Black Widow. There is a great movie buried somewhere in here. It just never breaks free of its programming.

One Response

  1. Agree with much of you said here. It is OK, but could’ve been better. What I didn’t like:
    1) post credit scene could’ve been great—they ruined it with a joke and the usual “sequel-baiting”. Probably the only grieving scene for her that actually worked, and they still managed to ruin it.
    2) it borrowed a lot of what i didn’t like in TWS: CGI fortress crashing from the sky, brainwashed assassin, etc. The fight choreography not as good as TWS, but at least they weren’t over-edited, less shaky camera, etc. So, I like this one better than TWS on that aspect.
    3) despite having characters supposedly trying to atone for their past sins, one character carelessly fired a rocket that caused an avalanche just because,,, well, spectacle.. and of course people dying off screen, which i thought was just lazy. And this in a movie that dare tell about a child being a collateral damage.

    Overall, much like most MCU movies, it doesn’t commit to its “theme”, which reminds of the new Rurouni Kenshin, with its samurai-like dedication to past sins, revenge, and atonement.

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