Black Widow

Black Widow and Yelena on a bike

“Three’s a trend,” as the saying goes, and with the success of Black Widow, after Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, it looks like the jinx on female superhero movies (Supergirl, Elektra, Catwoman) can finally be declared broken.

It was about time that Black Widow got her own standalone movie in any case, the character having been a bit neglected by the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one Avengers film after another, to the point where it was looking like there was a sexism/patriarchy thing going on.

Smartly heading that sort of criticism off at the pass, that’s the plot too, pretty much, with Black Widow swinging into action to neutralise a drug that turns feisty women into docile automata, a dastardly cocktail dreamt up by Russian mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone), boss of the same Red Room where Black Widow years before learned her tricks.

The action takes place while the Avengers are on one of their periodic “breaks” – between the Civil War and Infinity War movies in terms of timeline – allowing Natasha Romanofff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to track down her wayward sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), before the pair of them team up to locate Russians Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), the agents who raised Natasha and Yelena and who they’d assumed were their parents… but weren’t.

In keeping with Marvel’s “female directors for female superheroes” rule, Cate Shortland takes the helm. She knows a thing or two about female-centred drama, having directed Lore (starring Saskia Rosendahl), Berlin Syndrome (Teresa Palmer) and Somersault (Abbie Cornish). If you’ve seen any of those decidely non-superhero, non-CGI movies, you’ll know that Shortland is no action director but even so she gets things off to an urgent start with a frantic chase opener. Between her, and with Marvel old hand Gabriel Beristain as her DP and the gigantic Marvel technical team behind her, the frequent action sequences are solid enough. That said, notably the biggest dramatic payloads in this film are emotional rather than physical and the best action sequence of the lot – on the Budapest underground – is rooted in actual footage rather than CG trickery.

Rachel Weisz with a high powered rifle
Mother knows best: Rachel Weisz



After the slick opener demonstrating how well oiled that Marvel machine is, the action cuts back to the present day and then proceeds knowingly along the lines of a James Bond movie (look out for a clip of Moonraker on a TV at one point). This means action with quippy interludes to allow everyone to catch their breath. The first one gives Pugh and Johansson a chance to display their funny man/straight man double-act skills as the two sisters get re-acquainted and Yelena rips the piss out of her older sister for one thing or another, like Natasha’s love of the superhero landing pose and the fact that Black Widow is not one of the “big ones” of the Avengers, unlike, as Yelena puts it, “the god from space”.

True, Black Widow doesn’t really have a superpower, just super skills, unless hotness is a superpower.

Later, the second quippy interlude allows the “family” to get re-acquainted, before everyone heads into a showdown with despicable villain Dreykov, the world’s first Cockney Russian. So, a bit origin story, a bit family drama, some fun, some action, all very much standard Marvel fare all in all.

If it sounds rote it never feels it, and that’s probably down to the Yelena/Natasha relationship, with the fierce Florence Pugh particularly well cast as the fearless and caustic little sister. Rachel Weisz is slightly underused as the superspy mother, David Harbour, Russian accent wandering as badly as Winstone’s, is largely a comic character, the big tough superannuated Iron Curtain superhero Red Guardian, who can just about get back into his old costume if he sucks his gut in.

It’s nice to see the Cold War back firmly centre stage as an arena where big dramas can be played out, just as it was in Moonraker’s day, though in Black Widow’s eventual showdown with Dreykov there’s also a critique of the shadowy megarich oligarchs who aim to control the world through fair means or foul. Insert your own Bezos/Gates/Koch narrative here.

Black Widow isn’t alone among superheroes in having family issues (Superman, Spider Man, Tony Stark), but it does look like nervousness on Marvel’s part that Scarlett Johansson’s first “solo” outing for the MCU sees her bolstered by mum, dad and little sis. But then if you’re a widow you’re already defined by a relationship to another person. Next time out, Black Widow’s Dead Husband?



Black Widow – The Official Marvel Movie Special Book at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







No Sudden Move

Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro at a phone box

On the principle that second-rate Soderbergh is better than no Soderbergh at all, a warm hello to No Sudden Move, a pastiche 1950s crime drama with a Maguffin that insists it’s more than a Maguffin.

Don Cheadle, Kieran Culkin and Benicio Del Toro play three prickly guys hired to “babysit” a family (ie hold them hostage) while one of them takes Dad Matt (David Harbour) off to pick up something from a safe. That “something” becomes increasingly important as the story progresses, eventually bathing everything in a Chinatown-style glow as it becomes apparent that behind these no-marks is a vast scheme based on corporate corruption of a sort that makes day-to-day Mob activity look silly.

Talking of mobsters, early on we meet Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser), the face who’s hired Curt Goynes (Cheadle), Russo (Del Toro) and Charley (Culkin), but behind him, so the whisper goes, might be Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta) or possibly Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke), a pair of local mobsters, though there’s also talk of teams moving in from out of town, from Detroit, Chicago or Illinois, or possibly all three. This thing is big, which should make small-fry Curt and crew nervous but doesn’t, because all three of them are hoping for a quick in and out and also because they’re all a bit dim.

Anyhow, what looks like it’s going to be a straight-up family-hostage drama, reinforced by the fact that it’s excellent Amy Seimetz playing the concerned matriarch, becomes something far less straightforward once – big breath – a) it’s established husband/dad Matt has been having an affair with his secretary, b) they were planning on running off to California together, c) the “something” at the husband’s workplace isn’t in the safe, d) one of the gang unexpectedly dies, e) the police arrive, f) the surviving two set about playing one big gangster off against another, hoping to somehow wriggle through the gaps and come out of this morass as wealthier men.

There are more plot turns, a lot more, involving Matt’s shifty boss Mel Forbert (Hugh Maguire), four-square cop Joe Finney (Jon Hamm) and corporate big wheel Mike Lowen (Matt Damon). And as the actual nature of what was meant to have been stolen becomes clear, it’s as if, somewhere in the screenwriter afterlife, Raymond Chandler (the increasingly unfathomable plot) and Robert Towne (the LA-corruption angle) are duking it out for possession of the film’s soul.

Frankie Shaw and David Harbour
Matt gets no comfort from Paula



Here the screenwriter is Ed Solomon, best known for light-hearted larks really, having written Men in Black, Charlie’s Angels and the Bill and Ted movies, but he’s got his pastiche hat firmly screwed on in No Sudden Move, having clearly binge-watched a lot of movies featuring men in hats talking out of the side of their mouths. Some snappy one-liners occasionally move things towards a comedy precipice, especially as it becomes more obvious that our smalltime criminal heroes are incompetent and/or drunk most of the time.

The dead weight of pastiche extends to Steven Soderbergh, who alternates his usual sparkling shooting style with scenes done very dark, often in impressively big interiors full of wood and with ornate ceilings, plus the odd Edward Hopper-inspired exterior shot to emphasise America at its most American, while David Arnold’s score hums along with drums, bongos and double bass picking out a downbeat jazzy vibe.

The best pastiches (like, say, Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS movies starring Jean Dujardin) aren’t just technically accomplished, they re-orient our attitudes to the original material – they have a political agenda.

There’s no such thing going on here. Instead, Soderbergh gives us an accomplished and very cool exercise in style. If you’re in the mood to roll around in one of those, you’ll probably enjoy No Sudden Move more than I did. On top of that, for all the joys of seeing this first-rate cast and laying a small bet on how underused Ray Liotta is going to be (again), there’s a fatal indecision about how comedic things are actually meant to be. It’s like the Three Stooges without jokes.

As for the postscript insisting that the movie has been about a real-life conspiracy driven by a cartel of US car manufacturers, it’s as good as an admission by Soderbergh and Solomon that they’ve failed. Sumptuously.



No Sudden Move – Get David Arnold’s original soundtrack at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021