Black Widow

As the titular Russian assassin of Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster, Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson is given a run for her money by her equally charismatic and talented co-star, Brit actress Florence Pugh.

In what’s intended as Johansson’s swan song in the role, the competitive pair banter to enjoyable effect in a dead pan manner through a stunt and CGI-filled globetrotting spy action thriller grounded by contemporary concerns.

Fans of the franchise will remember Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff died in 2019’s Avengers Endgame, so it’s no surprise this is set prior to that, and takes place just after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.

There are parachutes, avalanches, facially scarred henchmen, a secret lair a Bond villain would be proud of, and a cadre of female assassins Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore would be happy to command. This is Marvel parking their tanks on franchise rival James Bond’s lawn, with all guns blazing while pulling wheelies and doughnuts.

Having been memorably dismissed by Judi Dench’s M as a misogynist dinosaur, 007’s next film No Time To Die features the first female 00 agent, a sign of progress from a franchise which celebrates its 60th birthday next year.

Pre-emptively spiking bond’s progressive guns, Marvel provide us with not one but four female agents, adding to Johansson and Pugh’s dynamic duo the former 007 co-star Olga Kurylenko, as well as cannily casting the Oscar winning actress Rachel Weisz. Who happens to be the wife of current Bond, Daniel Craig. None of this is by accident or coincidence.

Brit actor O-T Fagbenle performs the role of ‘Q’ in providing the women with their vehicles, and in case you’re in any doubt where Marvel’s aim is, we’re even given a glimpse Roger Moore’s 007 film, Octopussy on a TV screen.
There are also nods to the Mission Impossible and Jason Bourne series, not least in the casting of one-time Bourne star, Weisz.

This assault on 007’s cinematic space is not only a further demonstration of how flexible and successful Marvel’s ongoing superhero franchise is in aping various genres, but also an example of how attack is the best form of defence.

By aggressively providing what is in essence a gender-flipped Bond film, Marvel deflects justified criticism it’s received by belatedly handing most high profile female Avenger a solo adventure long after Iron Man, Captain America and co. have had multiple films. Even Ant-Man has had two films to call his own.

However Marvel could now perhaps argue ‘we couldn’t make this movie until we’d ‘found’ a Florence Pugh’. i.e. someone who has the requisite star power and screen presence to casually outshine Johansson in her own film.

Having grabbed a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for outgunning Meryl Streep in 2019’s literary period drama Little Women, Pugh’s not the least intimidated by Johansson and is mostly in a playful mood as she steals the film with breathtaking insouciance.

And having chalked up Johansson and Streep as victims during her irresistible rise, it begs the question who else is prepared to be cannon fodder for Pugh’s career?

That said, Johansson is a generous co-star to Pugh, with the screen siblings sharing a squabbling repartee which at one point pointedly echoes that of Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a similar estranged couple rediscovering the meaning of family.

Speaking of the former Bond, Connery, you may mock some of the Russians accents in this film, in which case I suggest you check out Connery’s Russian accent in 1990’s submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October, and judge whether such considerations are worth an iota of your time.

The possession of vials of mind control gas power the plot, a deliberate physical manifestation of the exploitation of women by manipulative, violent men, the key theme of the film.

In addressing the issues of the #MeToo movement, the film acknowledges and respects the victims who’ve suffered while emphasising healing and the recovery of independence and self worth, as well as offering a note of optimism.

That said, Australian director Cate Shortland puts confident entertainment at the forefront while spending enough time on character to give emotional weight to the action. If more than one set piece sequence reminds you of 1995’s Bond film Goldeneye, then all that proves is Shortland understands her brief as she brings it all nicely to a boil in a finale featuring a massive aerial assault.

This may sound a familiar ending to seasoned Marvel watchers, but far from being the unimaginative rehashing of a much used idea, it’s best understood as being in keeping with Marvel’s signature finale. It’s not as if Marvel are unaware they keep ending films in this manner.

Exciting, funny and full of in-jokes and references, Marvel fans will find plenty to enjoy, and for everyone else, well, you wait six years for one James Bond movie to arrive and now two are coming along at once.

4/5 stars

The Falling

Director: Carol Morley (2015)

Mass hallucination, sexual exploration and death combine to cast a spell of barely believable boredom in this boarding school drama.

After tragedy strikes a strict English girls’ school, a mysterious fainting epidemic breaks out. With the authorities denying anything is wrong, it’s up to the pupils to deal with events.

Schoolgirl Lydia (Maisie Williams) is a moody, bookish brunette, her closest friend Abigail (Florence Pugh) is an annoying, more attractive blonde.

They spend their time embracing each other, licking each other’s fingers and sharing bubblegum. They also read poetry to one another and carve their initials in a tree like lovers do.

The actresses deliver literal line-readings and never come close to suggesting their characters possess interior lives.

Abigail sports love-bites and too-short hemlines. Despite her affection for Lydia she openly enjoys the attention of boys who drive fast cars.

Following nosebleeds and medical examinations, Lydia develops a serious twitch and there’s an outbreak of falling over among the school’s population. This becomes laughable the more people it affects.

There’s a suggestion it could all be caused by a magic spell cast by Lydia’s weird brother Kenneth (Joe Cole) – but doctors insist nothing is wrong with the girls.

Lydia’s mostly mute mother Eileen (Maxine Peake) is a homebound hairdresser who silently suffers a great deal of angry abuse from her daughter.

Greta Scacchi and Monica Dolan play stern school-heads who antagonise Lydia by refusing to take her seriously.

The 1969 setting seems designed to avoid the internet and isn’t exploited for any other purpose, certainly not to create a much needed sense of otherworldly timelessness.

Prosaic camerawork and lighting fail to generate any sense of operatic grandness while the pacing is erratic with scenes alternately dragging or rushing. The editor includes many slow-panning shots of leaves and trees.

There’s a lot of poetry and an alarmingly intrusive rock-folk soundtrack – but none of the disparate elements heighten the gothic undertone in the script; consequently an interesting mood of mystery or fear fails to materialise.