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

Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes (2015)

From the breathtaking beginning to the doom laden finale, the 24th James Bond adventure is an extraordinary explosive and epic episode of the franchise.

The spy filled cinematic year has included reasonably received riffs on the genre including Kingsman, Spy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man From UNCLE.

Now the daddy of espionage returns to slap down the young pretenders.

Returning in his fourth and possibly final film of an extraordinarily successful tenure, the 47 year old Daniel Craig offers an interpretation of Ian Fleming’s alter-ego at least equal to the very best.

Spectre is fresh and ambitious despite the weight of history and expectation.

So spectacular, sexy and superb in all departments, it sometimes feels less than the sum of its magnificent parts.

Yet British director Sam Mendes is playing a bigger game than merely creating a standalone action thriller.

He’s also made a fabulous final chapter in a four film reinvention of an overly familiar character.

Prior to Craig each Bond movie was a self-contained story connected not by story but by character.

It’s now clear we’ve been watching a long form story which began way back with the Englishman’s debut in the role in Casino Royale (2006).

It’s a bold strategic 9 year move inspired perhaps by the 10 year long Harry Potter series and a forerunner of Marvel‘s creation of a cinematic universe.

This approach won’t harm the home entertainment box-set sales.

The famous gun barrel opening sequence is re-installed and few themes create a shiver of expectation as effectively as Bond’s does.

Following on from Skyfall (2012), a message from beyond the grave sends 007 off-piste and outside the law.

As he follows a trail of clues from Rome, to Austria and Morocco, he once more encounters the deadly Quantum organisation.

It’s a procession vodka martini’s, dangerous women, gorgeous locations, terrific stunts, powerful henchmen and a completely cuckoo villain. Bond’s car is quite beautiful even by his standards.

There’s paranoia, conspiracy, betrayal, torture, sex and death.

And as a riposte to those who suggest Craig’s interpretation lacks humour, it’s also very funny.

A trio of European stars add indispensable talent and glamour.

As the oldest actress to be cast opposite Bond, Monica Bellucci’s widow riffs on a character on in The Italian Job (1969).

Lea Seydoux is an excellent foil and Christoph Waltz mercifully keeps a firm hand on his inclination to camp.

An intelligent script works hard to give ample screen time to Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw who return as MI6 stalwarts Moneypenny, M and Q.

They also contribute to the two and a half hour running time and if anything was to be trimmed, it would be this extra muscle.

As cinema owners will be forced to have fewer screenings per day to accommodate Bond’s length, it will be interesting to see if this affects the box office.

This potential shortfall may be compensated for by more expensive IMAX tickets. The opening Mexico sequence certainly warrants the extra cost to the cinema-goer.

It’s dynamically photographed by Dutch-Swedish Hoyte van Hoytema. His work on Interstellar (2014) was one of the few high points of Chris Nolan’s pompous ego trip.

But here the rich wreaths of shadows he wraps around the players are more reminiscent of his glorious work which contributed so much to the success of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

Sam Smith’s theme song sounds thin on the radio but works well in situ over the sensual opening titles.

Mendes encourages his actors to play every scene as if it’s their last. Which for Daniel Craig, may well be the case.

The mythical James Bond, 007

BOND AND KING ARTHUR

King Arthur

In the 23rd James Bond thriller,  Skyfall, director Sam Mendes sought to elevate super spy James Bond, from mere Hollywood action star, to a heroic symbol for England.

By employing poetry, imagery and story elements of Arthurian legend, Mendes stretches an umbilical cord through time to connect Britain’s most modern fictitious national hero, Bond, with it’s most ancient and legendary, King Arthur.

In Le Morte d’Arthur (pub. 1485), Thomas Malory codified the legend of King Arthur from disparate sources and established what we now consider to be the definitive legend.

Arthur is an orphan who wields a weapon only he can command and must fight a traitor, his step-brother Modred, to save his kingdom. Arthur is betrayed by a woman, is mortally wounded in action and hidden away from the world by the lady in the lake. There he will await until his return to once again rescue his land at the hour of his country’s greatest need.

In Skyfall these events and all occur, though not in this order, and are there to subliminally underscore how mythical Bond is.

In the pre-title sequence we see Bond shot by fellow agent Eve, before falling into a river and being pulled under water by a godlike female hand. Being brought low by a woman named Eve is obviously a very Christian idea, reminding us how closely Arthurian legend deliberately echoes the story of Jesus Christ, his betrayal, death and his resurrection.Skyfall

Bond undergoes a symbolic Christian death at the hands of his followers, but remains in limbo waiting to be reborn. He only returns from the dead , when England is threatened by terrorists lead by a former British agent.

In Skyfall Bond/Arthur are tasked with defending Britain from Javier Bardem’s Silva/Mordred. All are orphans raised to be warriors.De la croix

And just as Arthur and Mordred were related, so we have lots of references to Judi Dench’s M as their metaphorical mother.

Bond is revealed to have a birth mother with the name De la Croix.

De la Croix translates as ‘Of the cross’ and so ties in with the idea of resurrection. This feeds neatly into the conceit of Bond regenerating every time a new actor assumes the role.

It’s also a nod to Ian Fleming’s socialite mother, Evelyn Beatrice St. Croix Rose.

Bond’s Merlin figure of course, is Ben Whishaw’s Q. He provides Bond with a pistol registered to his unique palm print so only he can use it. It’s an updated Excalibur, the sword in the stone.

Bond sails through a dragon’s mouth prior to sleeping with his enemy’s mistress.

Dragon mouth

Compare this to how Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon has Merlin invoke the Dragon’s breath to seduce lgrayne, the wife of Duke of CornwalI. John Boorman vividly illustrates this in his excellent telling of the Arthurian legend, in 1981’s Excalibur .

We hear how following the loss of his parents, the barely  teenage Bond spent three days in a tunnel before emerging an adult. An echo of the vigil an aspiring knight had to endure before being allowed to join the chivalric order.

Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson wrote a cycle of narrative poems concerning King Arthur called Idylls of the King (pub. 1859). This is the pertinence of Judi Dench’s M quoting Tennyson as Bond races to her rescue.

All we’re missing is a character called Mallory to appear and oops, that just happens to be the new M’s real name.Fiennes

I don’t believe a director as erudite as Mendes would incorporate these details by coincidence. It would almost impossible to do so by accident.

These details in the subtext of the film echo in the subconsciousness of the viewer. They reinforce the idea of Bond as heroic saviour of the British people.

The conflation of Bond and Arthur places 007 at the centre of British literary, cinematic and Christian cultural tradition, elevating him from the contemporary to the mythical, the once and future king of the franchise.