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

Doctor Strange

Director: Scott Derrickson (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Released on a Tuesday to capitalise on UK schools half term break, this is a movie which doesn’t need the leg up to take the number one spot in the box office chart. The eye popping visuals and star power of Benedict Cumberbatch means this sorcery-based superhero adventure will have you spellbound.

In an astute piece of casting every bit as inspired as having Robert Downey Jnr play Iron Man, the star of TV’s Sherlock star plays Dr Stephen Strange, a brain surgeon turned Sorcerer Supreme.

In the latest introduction of a minor character in the Marvel canon to the wider cinema audience, the impressively psychedelic stylings of this latest product off the assembly line are sufficient to distract us from the functional plot.

Plus its East meets West magic and martial arts action means it possesses it a far stronger sense of identity than some of its franchise fellows. Yes, I’m looking at you Ant-Man (2015).

Despite a distracting American accent, Cumberbatch is alarmingly dashing in goatee beard, glowing medallion and a red cape. Similarly to the magic carpet in Disney’s animated Aladdin (1994), the cape has a mind of its own and is a major character in its own right. It says a lot for the actor’s comic ability he can play straight man to his costume.

The strong supporting cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong. Stan Lee has one his better cameos. McAdams is focused, bright and underused in the role of Strange’s love interest. By coincidence she appeared in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) as Holmes’ love interest Irene Adler.

A rampant egotist, the Doctor’s glamorous lifestyle and career are ruined when a car accident crushes his hands. In Nepal he is trained in the art of sorcery by Tilda Swinton’s mysterious Ancient One. Her sink or swim teaching methods include abandoning her pupils on Mount Everest to find their own way to safety.

Having fun in a role which is absolutely not stretch of his talent, former Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen sports glam rock eye shadow and periodically teleports in to cause carnage. As renegade mystic Kaecilius, he’s attempting to destroy the world with the help of Dormammu, a powerful demon from the Dark Dimension.

The story skips between London, New York, Hong Kong and Nepal in a series of gravity defying, time twisting, space curling, mind bending action set pieces. For a lot of the time it’s like watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception on acid.

This is easily the most visually ambitious, funny and entertaining superhero movie of the year.

@ChrisHunneysett