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New Escapist Video! On How “Black Widow” Demonstrates the MCU’s Humour Problem…

So, as I have mentioned before, I am launching a new video series as a companion piece to In the Frame at The Escapist. The video will typically launch with every second Monday’s article, and be released on the magazine’s YouTube channel the following week. This is kinda cool, because we’re helping relaunch the magazine’s film content – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

With the release of Black Widow earlier in the month, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the film. In particular, the use of humour in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general and in Black Widow in particular. In its best moments, the Marvel Cinematic Universe uses humour to enrich and deepen its themes. However, in Black Widow, it undermines them.

New Escapist Column! On “Black Widow” and the MCU’s Humour Problem…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Black Widow last weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at one of the film’s biggest issues and one of the biggest issues with the MCU in general: the question of tone.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is funny. It has always been funny. This is part of what distinguished it from a lot of its comic book movie contemporaries when it was released. However, as the universe has progressed and evolved, the “house style” has tended towards ironic and self-aware punchlines. Sometimes this approach works beautifully; many of the best Marvel Studios films are also the funniest. However, it can also serve as a distraction that lowers the dramatic stakes and undermines key character beats.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Podcast! The Escapist Movie Podcast – “Will Black Widow Have Us Russian Back to Cinemas?”

The Escapist have launched a movie podcast, and I was thrilled to join Jack Packard and Richard Newby for the twenty-first episode of the year. With the release of Black Widow on streaming and in cinemas, there was only one movie to discuss. So we went for a deep dive into Marvel’s interquel, its character-centric movie for a dead Avenger.

You can listen to back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

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.

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New Escapist Video! “Black Widow – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Black Widow, which is releasing theatrically and on Disney+ Premier Access this weekend.

New Escapist Column! On Black Widow’s Death Sequence in “Avengers: Endgame”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. Given that Avengers: Endgame is one year old and that Black Widow was supposed to open today, it seemed appropriate to discuss Black Widow’s death sequence from Endgame.

It has become a cliché in recent years to talk about “subverting expectations”, a term normally employed by fans frustrated with the direction of franchises like Game of Thrones or Star Wars. In short hand, it seems to imply a bad twist, one that undermines the franchise. However, films like Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and shows like Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who employ subversion for very particular purposes, to catch the audience off-guard and to ask interesting questions about the stories that are being told.

In contrast, the death of Black Widow is the worst sort of subversion or twist. It is a cheap “gotcha!”, designed to catch the audience off-guard by taking a sharp swerve away from the story that has been set up and offering a development simply because it’s unexpected and because surprise has inherent value. The result is something very shallow and superficial, a decision that sacrifices an admittedly predictable and cliché story for something that isn’t even a story at all.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Cullen Bunn’s Run on Captain America & … (Review)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Following Ed Brubaker on a Captain America book was always going to be tough, even if Brubaker had simply been providing the story for his last couple of Captain America & Bucky issues. Indeed, Cullen Bunn took over for Brubaker on one of three on-going Captain America books; with Brubaker still writing Captain America and Winter Soldier. As such, Bunn is somewhat trapped. He can’t really continue Brubaker’s still-unfolding story, but he can’t strike out with his own bold direction like Rick Remender would on a relaunched Captain America.

So it’s no surprise that Bunn’s thirteen issue Captain America & … run feels fairly indistinct. It’s a competently-produced piece of comic book writing, but it doesn’t stand out in the way that it needs to, feeling neither weighty nor fun enough to make the book stand out from the crowd.

He always said Cap was a dinosaur...

He always said Cap was a dinosaur…

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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – Avengers Assemble (Review/Retrospective)

To get ready for Iron Man 3, we’ll be taking a look at some Iron Man and Avengers stories, both modern and classic. We hope to do two or three a week throughout the month, so check back regularly for the latest update.

How do you cash in on the success of a big-budget blockbuster comic movie? Especially a film that has gone on to be the most successful film of 2012, and one of the most successful films of all time? It’s a tough question, and I’d like to imagine that Marvel thought long and hard about how to capitalise off the success of The Avengers. After all, comics are a medium that have been trying any number of desperate ploys to maintain sales and to attract fans over the past decade, so it would be stupid not to try to turn some of the cinema-goers into comic book fans. I made the transition, so it can’t be that tough.

Avengers Assemble, an eight-issue miniseries, seems to have been created as an answer to that question. Not only does it carry the name used by the film in several international markets, it uses the iconic roster from the film, tries to tell what appears to be a continuity-light tale and comes from a high-profile creative team. Unfortunately, these factors all feel rather cynical, rather than a genuine attempt to court new readers.

Hey, it's that guy, from that thing!

Hey, it’s that guy, from that thing!

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X-Men: Inferno – Daredevil (Review/Retrospective)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

This weekend, we’re taking a look at one or two of the smaller Inferno crossovers. These issues are collected in the crossovers companion book.

From what little I’ve read of Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil, I really like it. My experience of her work on the title has been mainly limited to crossovers and tie-ins, but Nocenti has always managed to put her own spin on events – rather than feeling like a satellite title to Mutant Massacre or Fall of the Mutants, her connected issues felt like Daredevil stories staring at a world gone completely mad. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that too few authors remember in this era of event-driven comics. Inferno is no different, as Nocenti manages to take a massive and unfolding X-Men crossover and make it work for her own narrative and characters.

This city’s really going to hell…

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Non-Review Review: Iron Man 2

Legacy. It’s all about legacy. What we leave for our children and what we inherit from our parents. Sometimes it’s bitterness and hatred, sometimes it’s more than we think. Iron Man as a concept is inherently linked to the Cold War and American foreign policy, so it’s a fitting theme for the sequel to tackle. Fathers and sons dominate the film, as does the simple and haunting fact that the now is shaped by the then. Some of us get to change the world, some of us simply leave big smoking craters behind us. Even the bad guy, a Russian, consciously evokes conflicts fading from memory that shaped our modern world.

Sometimes you just need to slow down and take a break...

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