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Black Widow (2021)

If you ask anyone who their least favorite Avenger is, every one of those participants will have the same exact answer: Hawkeye. If you ask that same group who is their second least favorite Avenger, chances are that a clear majority are going to next say Black Widow. The character has been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since 2010 in Iron Man 2, a full decade of idling to gain her solo movie to the point it became a long-running question in the fanbase. Then they killed the character in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and then also announced she would be getting her solo movie, and the fanbase said, “Wait, now?” Delayed a full year thanks to COVID-19, Black Widow is Marvel’s first theatrical release in almost two years and will likely benefit from some low expectations and eagerness to get back to the big screen spectacle of summer movies.

It’s not Black Widow’s fault that she’s paired with a super soldier, essentially Batman in a flying suit, a nigh indestructible god, and a giant raging id monster. There’s a significant gap between that upper tier of the super powered Avengers and the two non-powered members, Lady with Guns and Guy with Bow and Arrow. It’s hard to compete with all of that, and the glimpses we’ve been given with previous MCU movies haven’t exactly been the most nuanced or dimensional for Black Widow (remember her dubbing herself a “monster” because the state took away her ability to bear children?). We’ve had hints about past troubles and regrets, but it’s never been explored with any significance… until now.

Taking place shortly after the events of 2016’s Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from American authorities. She reunites abroad with her estranged sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who has recently broken free of the chemical mind control of the sinister Widows program. Yelena and Natasha were living as sisters for three years as a cover family of Russian agents, with Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) as their parents. They were whisked back to Russia, separated, and thrown back into the Widow program where they were trained to be elite assassins by Dreykov (Ray Winstone, barely flirting with a Russian accent). The combative sisters are being chased by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, other killer Widows still under the chemical-induced mind control, and Dreykov’s best hunter, the ruthless Taskmaster, a masked warrior who can learn and mimic the moves from other fighters. Natasha and Yelena decide the only way to stop Dreykov is to reunite their old family once again.

I’m a little confused by the general indifference Black Widow seems to have generated from critics and fans because I thought, while with some flaws, that this is still a good movie that I would say is on the cusp of being above average for the MCU’s already high bar. Perhaps, again, this movie is benefiting from lowered expectations. I wasn’t going in with too many demands considering my personal investment with the Black Widow character was minimal prior to her sacrificial death. I wanted a fun movie that provided further insight into her character, considering this would likely be the last time we see Natasha in the MCU. I was surprised how emotionally engaged I became with her movie. While the action is fine, it was the dramatic parts that really grabbed me. This is the first MCU movie where I was looking forward to the breaks in action more than the actual action. The pre-credits flashback (to mid-90s Ohio no less) sets up this fractured family dynamic that serves as the core of the movie, the question over whether these relationships ever really mattered on a deeper level or whether each person was simply playing their assignment. It makes for intriguing drama about vulnerable characters sifting through the small measures of happiness they’ve had and the difficulty of reaching out to people that are important to you. Natasha is in a delicate yet reflective place considering her isolation. The movie is structured like a Jason Bourne-style spy caper, jumping from one locale to the next, but it’s more of a family drama about hurt people reconciling and reconnecting. On its own terms, it’s a real family movie.

There are some major themes and some serious subjects with Black Widow and they are well handled and tied to the character journeys. The opening titles, set to a melancholy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” covers human trafficking. This is a story about the systems of abuse, primarily abusive men demanding control from throngs of women, and it’s about overcoming abuse and establishing support systems. For Natasha, she made some hard choices to defect to S.H.I.E.L.D., and many others have suffered because of her decision to escape. Many women could not escape their tormentors, and the level of control only became more methodical. Yelena talks about being conscious of everything but unsure what parts of you are really your own doing, and this seems eminently relatable about victimhood. The movie is about breaking free of unhealthy relationships, coming into your own control, and finding healthy families even if they are troubled and a work in progress. That’s why the family moments resonated as much for me. Real attention was given to the supporting characters in Natasha’s orbit.

To that end, the villains exemplify the themes by design, especially Taskmaster serving as a literalization of Natasha facing off against the sins of her past, much like in 2017’s Logan where Old Logan fought young Logan. Fans of Taskmaster from the comics may well be disappointed by the adaptation because the character was very sardonic and, in here, never utters a word (there is a certain Deadpool-in-X-Men Origins: Wolverine reminiscence). More could have been done but the villain represents the consequences of abandonment. I appreciated that even until the final moment, the villain could be redeemed and meant something more than simply another masked heavy to be blown apart. Dreykov, on the other hand, is just a typically awful abuser and his lack of definition fits. He’s a general stand-in for the toxic control of men accustomed to power and the dismissal of female agency. He’s dull but more a designated symbol.

The traveling Black Widow family van is the real draw of this movie. I have been a Florence Pugh fan since her star making turn in 2017’s emotionally disquieting Lady Macbeth, and I welcome her and Yelena into the MCU with open arms. Pugh (Midsommar) is terrific and full of sarcastic wit, at one point criticizing Natasha’s familiar three-point “superhero landing.” She’s also convincing in all the action and gunplay. Even better, there are several dramatic scenes that allow the talented actress to tap into her prowess. She could make me cackle, then the next minute impress me with the finesse of her leg-swinging attack movements, and then the next make me feel something as she tearfully reflects that her cover family was the best years of her life (as the youngest, Yelena had no idea until they ran off that they were all Russian agents). Her combustible yet affectionate relationship with Johansson imbued so much more emotional investment into the Black Widow character for me. Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) is inhaling any available scenery as a past-his-prime Russian super soldier still holding onto his glory days as a communist answer to Captain America (he eagerly asks Natasha if Cap ever mentions him, so hopeful it’s adorable). He’s a regular source of comedy but also has a credible paternal warmth to him as he tries to don the mantle of fatherhood like a costume that no longer fits quite as well. Unfortunately, Weisz (The Favourite) isn’t on screen as much as the other members of the family unit but I still greatly enjoyed watching her finely attuned deadpan delivery.

From an action standpoint, Black Widow will mostly suffice but there is little to really get the blood pumping. The chases and fights are entertaining without delivering anything new. The third act involves an extended set piece with characters plummeting from the sky amid fiery debris. It’s at least visually interesting and the action high-point of the movie. Under director Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome), the action is easy to follow even as it escalates into big video game carnage and explosions. The lack of development in the action would be more of an issue for me if the non-action elements, the story and acting, weren’t as involving. I feel like Shortland was hired for the dramatics and performances and character moments, less so the explosions.

It took eleven years, one more thanks to COVID, but Black Widow finally has her starring vehicle and the MCU is finally back on the big screen (or your home screen via Disney Plus and thirty additional dollars). I watched the movie with my girlfriend and cheerfully noted it would be the first theatrical Marvel movie we watched during our year-plus courtship, thus a real milestone in modern geek dating (we’ll have many opportunities ahead as there are six more Marvel movies scheduled between now and summer 2022). I was surprised how much I enjoyed Black Widow once it had reassembled its family dynamic and I hope to see the extended Romanoff family members in future MCU editions. It’s a late but welcomed swan song for Natasha Romanoff and her checkered past. For the first time, I felt for her character, and part of that was the result of enjoying her family nucleus and the pathos they brought. Black Widow is a serviceable action movie with fun characters and potent dramatic interactions with heavy, well-realized themes. I’m baffled by the general critical indifference (I have a lot fewer qualms than I did with 2019’s Captain Marvel). It’s the rare big movie where the quiet moments are the high-points, and twenty-plus movies in, that’s at least something new from the juggernaut that is the MCU.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Onward (2020)

In a modern fantasy suburbia, Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) have been gifted with a magic staff from their long-departed father. Barley was only a young child when their father died, and Ian never knew him, and now both are granted an opportunity via magic to bring their dear old man back for one more day. The magic spell is interrupted and, as a result, only one half of their father is brought back to life, the lower half, chiefly his legs. The boys must travel on an epic quest in order to bring the rest of their father back to life before all of him disappears again.

Onward is the first time Pixar has ventured into a fantasy realm and the mixture of the modern with the high-fantasy setting allows for some fun juxtaposition. The teenage worries about fitting in, testing your boundaries, and finding out your sense of self can be very relatable, even in a world of trolls and elves. I enjoyed the combative and compassionate brotherly dynamic between Ian and Barley, and Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) and Pratt (Avengers: Endgame) are terrific together and really do feel like feuding family members. Their high energy performances translate well to animation. The Pixar creative team does enough to provide little distinguishing character touches for both, enough to provide some extra shading so they don’t quite feel like cartoon versions of their more famous Marvel counterparts. Ian is all awkward and lacking in confidence whereas Barley is overloaded with self-confidence and an unshakable sense of arrested development. I enjoyed the small number of memories relating to their father that Barley holds onto, and I enjoyed how Ian listens to a brief, ordinary test recording of his father on a cassette tape and creates a dialogue between father and son. It’s such a sweet moment that also demonstrates Ian’s ache. I enjoyed how the screenplay connects the external to the internal, namely the obstacles on this quest to the personal trials for Ian and Barley. It allows more meaningful payoffs and more rewarding character growth for our duo. I enjoyed spending time with both boys and was glad their quest was more about them than magical ephemera.

Amazingly, what works best in this movie is its emotional core, which sounds slightly bizarre considering it’s a road trip with a pair of legs. As Onward progresses and settles down with its better honed second half, it puts more emphasis on the relationship between the brothers, their hopes and worries for one another, their sacrifices and shames, and ultimately it becomes a movie about two boys trying to find closure with the memory of their dearly departed dad. The genuine emotion of the brothers is enough to pave over most of the undeveloped elements of the world and storytelling (more on that below). I would have thought, going in, that Onward would present a so-so story with an intriguing world of possibility. I’m surprised that my experience was the exact opposite. The story and central relationships are what kept me going, and it’s what ultimately earned some teary eyed responses from me late in the movie. The topic of seeking closure is a personal one for me and something I value highly, so it was very easy for me to plug my own yearning and vulnerability into these characters. They’re going through all this dangerous trouble not just to see their departed father one last time but also to say goodbye, and that got me big time. It gave the entire movie a new weight that I wasn’t expecting. Who wouldn’t want another chance to tell a loved one how much they miss and appreciate them?

The whole concept of being stuck with a loved one’s lower torso allowed me many moments of contemplation. First, I wondered what their father must be going through to only experience the world through his legs. It felt limited. How do you communicate to others? The film finds its ways. How do you express emotions simply from a pair of disembodied legs? The film finds its ways. As Ian and Barley drag him along on a zipline leash, I kept thinking about the dad. What is he thinking in this moment? Is he waiting for some kind of comforting confirmation from his sons to tell him where he is and what is happening? I kept thinking how confused he must be. To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t ever emphasize the potential hell of this half-existence. He’s presented often as a figure of comic relief, especially as his upper torso pile of clothes sloshes around and tumbles off. In a way, the pair of legs reminded me of the visual metaphor of the floating house in 2009’s Up, the manifestation of the protagonist’s heavy grief. They’re tethered to this half-formed memory of their father, unable to fully interact with him and let him go. I was worried that Onward was going to be the Pixar equivalent of Weekend at Bernie’s and it is not.

There are some issues with the movie, nothing major, but enough to make it feel under developed, especially in comparison to the Pixar movies of past. The imagination is there, however, the world-building of this fantasy world is decidedly lacking. There are some cute asides like unicorns as the equivalent of trash-eating raccoons, but as a whole the fantasy world feels underdeveloped to its full potential. There’s a significant story point where the current world has forgotten its magic roots thanks to the ease of technology and its inoculating effects, which seems like a pretty straightforward message for our own lazy world. Again, though, Onward doesn’t dig deeper into this theme or what it could mean for the larger mythology of its own world and its history and the rules governing its magical creatures. I started to wonder whether Pixar could just have set this story anywhere.

Likewise, the supporting characters don’t amount to much and feel like leftovers from earlier drafts where they had richer involvement. The ongoing subplot with their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) teaming up with the fabled beast-turned small business owner Manticore (Octavia Spencer) offered little other than occasional exposition. The Manticore is supposed to best represent how the new world has traded its culture and history for comforts and safety, but it’s not clearly realized and integrated. My pal Ben Bailey reflected that the Manticore seemed like a one-scene character that the filmmakers didn’t want to drop, and so she was stretched through the rest of the film to diminished returns. The last act has a sudden and arbitrary monster to defeat that feels like the kind of thing expected in these sorts of movies, which is a rarity for Pixar and thus a slight disappointment.

Lastly, much of the humor just doesn’t work. The jokes can be stale, safe, or one-note, like a team of very tiny pixie bikers. It’s often silly without exactly being clever. There’s more fleeting visual humor with the incongruous nature of fantasy in a modern setting. There’s less slapstick than you would think considering one of the main characters lacks a torso. I chuckled a few times but, much like the fantasy setting, felt the humor was kept at an superficial level of thought.

Onward isn’t top-tier Pixar but it’s a solid mid-tier entry, an enjoyable adventure with a resonant emotional core that makes me forgive many of the film’s other aspects that don’t quite work. The brothers are the best part, their interactions are the most interesting, and their heartfelt journey and hopeful desire for closure is what ultimately left me emotionally satisfied. The jokes and world and supporting characters don’t feel as developed, but it hits with its core relationship and its emotional center, so Onward works where it counts the most with its storytelling. Mid-tier Pixar is much like mid-tier pizza — still satisfying and better than a lot of other options.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Downhill (2020)/ Force Majeure (2014)

I’ve been meaning to watch 2014’s Force Majeure for some time but it was one of those movies that just fell behind and got trapped by the ever-increasing backlog of “to see” films. Then I discovered that there was to be an American remake by the Oscar-winning writing team behind The Descendants and I decided now would be a good time to go back to Force Majeure. But I purposely chose not to watch the Swedish original until after having watched the American remake, Downhill, to delay prejudicing myself. Both movies have value as cringe comedies prodding fragile masculinity, though the Swedish import runs more with the cascading consequences and the English remake plays more broadly with its big stars.

Both movies follow families on skiing vacations where the father (Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas, Will Ferrell as Pete) abandon their wives (Lisa Loven Kongdli as Ebba, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Billie) and children when an approaching avalanche looks to be imminently deadly. It proves to be harmless but the scare it created was very real, and the damage to this family is also very real. In their dire moment of need, as death looked increasingly possible, this family watched its patriarch run away to save himself (and not before grabbing his phone). The father denies running away, finding his own slippery slope of excuses to pretend and convince his family that everything is still the same.

Downhill takes the very specific tone of the Swedish original by writer/director Ruben Ostlund (The Square) and plays it safer and more broadly. There’s an added context of the ski lodge being a couple’s resort with the idea of horny and available alternatives just a slope away for fun. The movie is practically throwing a more traditionally “manly” and virile romantic candidate at Billie and it’s so obvious and immediate that it reminded me of the sexy yoga instructor from 2009’s Couples Retreat, another movie that involved a holiday retreat with two camps, one more family-friendly and another more hedonistic. It feels too convenient and crass to immediately present our heroine with prime cheating options and have her question her own fidelity. In Force Majeure, one of the best and most awkward moments occurs when Tomas tries to portray himself as an equal victim to his own shortcomings as a man. He lists several faults, including infidelity, that don’t phase his wife, which implies she is well aware of this man’s flaws. It’s such a pathetic moment of emotional manipulation that incredulous laughter is the only natural response, and the movie makes the viewer stay in that uncomfortable squirm. Tomas lays on the floor wailing like a child, which then triggers his children to come out and lay upon their weeping father and then admonish their mother to follow their supportive lead. It’s a hilarious moment and borne from the organic developments tied to character relationships. In Downhill, by contrast, we get stuff like the sexy ski instructor and a really horny, handsy lodge lady (Miranda Otto, in thick accent).

That’s not to say the remake doesn’t find effective ways to make the most of its American infusion. There’s a scene where Pete and Billie are complaining to the ski lodge staff because someone must account for their perceived injury. The moment doesn’t go as they hoped and the security head (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju) refuses to apologize or admit any wrong. He points out all the warnings that the American couple somehow missed, and this only causes Billie to grow in her impotent agitation. It’s a moment that plays to the ugly American stereotype of self-absorption and the insistence to be heard. This scene would not have worked with the Force Majeure characters at all. Billie is a more interesting character and given more ambiguity and flaws than Ebba, who is often the perplexed voice of the audience. There are adaptation changes and new jokes that work for Downhill but more often it doesn’t explore the comic avenues open to it (hashtag jokes… really?). The best jokes are frequently holdovers.

Something I enjoyed exclusively about Force Majeure was how it widened its scope to include the contagious nature of questioning masculine assumptions. The supporting characters have more significance than in Downhill. Tomas’ friend, Mats (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju), begins as an awkward lifeline trying to offer meager supportive explanations to his beleaguered friend’s cowardice (“You ran away so that you could come back and dig everyone out, right?”) and then he too is negatively affected. His much younger girlfriend begins to look at him differently and with suspicion, wondering if he too would disappoint when under a similar life-threatening scenario. She questions whether it’s simply a generational divide and an older generation (Mats) just doesn’t feel as brave and selfless. This eats away at Mats and wreaks havoc with his relationship. You too might consider how well you really know your loved ones and how you might respond as well. It’s such a wonderful what-if scenario to apply to one’s self. This contagious nature of doubt makes the story feel that much more interesting when one man’s failings can spiral outward and ensnare others. This deepened the dark comedy and provided interesting and complimentary side characters. With Downhill, we don’t really get any other characters on the same level of consideration as our main couple, Pete and Billie.

The children actually play a bigger role in Downhill as the relationship between the sons and their father is on the brink. They see him decidedly different and Pete spends time trying to regain their favor and trust and, naturally, failing. With Force Majeure, the children are kept on the sidelines and they’re more worried that mom and dad may be doomed to a divorce rather than being upset or disappointed with their father. Downhill clearly aligns the sons with their mother and has Billie call upon them to provide corroborating testimony to her account in one deliciously awkward extended moment. It’s one area where Downhill bests its source material but again that’s because it also dramatically scales down the importance of supporting adults.

Ferrell (Holmes & Watson) and Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) are such an enjoyable comedy pairing and work together smoothly for Downhill’s broader aims. The Swedish actors are far more subdued, understated, and dry, dissolving into playing mundane, regular folk. You’re not going to get that with Ferrell especially. His big screen buffoon tendencies play well for Pete’s blustery self-deluded narcissism, but he lacks the bite for the destructive self-pity that emboldened Kuhnke. Ferrell’s performance is more restrained than you might assume but he still doesn’t feel like the right fit for the character and where he needs to go. He never stops being seen as Ferrell. Louis-Dreyfus is such a pro and is able to navigate the bleaker comedy with great precision. Her shaken monologue retelling the avalanche incident and pausing on “… to die, I guess” had me rolling.

Downhill is over 30 minutes shorter and yet it feels stretched thin, circling the same comic points, which can make the film feel frustratingly smaller in scope and ambition. The endings are different and come across a similar message over never knowing how a person may respond in the middle of danger. Force Majeure concludes with a scenario that allows its wounded males to save some honor and the women to question their own responses, a paradigm shift of gender expectations. The triumphant recapturing of masculinity builds to its own satirical breaking point, ready to laugh at Tomas feeling like a ridiculous John Wane-style cowboy. In contrast, the American ending doesn’t feel as rich or as earned as its predecessor.

Downhill is an accessible and funny remake that has some smart deviations from its source material to deliver its own version, and sometimes it feels like the filmmakers want to make a much more mainstream comedy. The tonal identity issues sap the comedic and dramatic momentum of the story, which can make the overall film frustrating and unsatisfying at times while you wait for it to settle. Then its 85 minutes are over and it’s done. Force Majeure, on the other hand, is the most confident, strident, and awkward viewing, not to mention longer viewing at two hours in length. It’s actually too long and with a few segments that could be trimmed or removed entirely (drone flying, the first set of friends, getting lost in a snowy fog). There’s even a running joke where the gag is simply that the ski lifts and moving sidewalks are just super slow. The movie takes its understated, dry comic sensibility even to its relaxed sense of pacing. Both movies are funny and emphasize different aspects of the premise of the consequences of cowardice. I likely would have enjoyed Downhill less had I seen Force Majeure first but it’s still a decent American remake for something that was so calculating and exact in tone, a laugh-out-loud comedy that doesn’t play like a comedy. Still, co-writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (The Way Way Back) have enough skill and polished instinct that even a less sophisticated, more obvious version of Force Majeure is still entertaining enough. It might lack some of the edge of the original but Downhill is an agreeable comedy of disagreeable decisions.

Nate’s Grades:

Force Majeure: B+

Downhill: B-

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