Black Widow (2021)

Black Widow (2021)

The cover to the Australian 4K steelbook

Film: I’ve always been a fan of low powered/ intellectual heroes. Even though I do dig Superman, and Shazam, I do really love the heroes that spend their time saving the day with nothing more that training and skill. It’s why I love characters likes James Bond, Jack Reacher, Alex Cross and I guess I’ve always loved the idea of an ordinary person making a difference, and maybe wishing that perhaps one day I could make a difference to someone’s life in such a heroic way.

To that end I’ve always loved Daredevil, who had a MCU based Netflix series a few years ago, and even though he does have powers with his sonar ‘sight’, a lot of his character comes from his intellect and his agility. It was in Daredevil comics that I first discovered, and fell in love with the character of Black Widow: a strong, non-powered hero who risks everything for her definition of good.

I was extraordinarily happy when Black Widow turned up in the MCU in Iron Man 2, and was even more happy when it was revealed that she was played by Scarlet Johansson, who I loved in things like Ghost World and 8 Legged Freaks.

This movie is the reward that Scarlet Johansson deserved, as her character wasn’t just a hero, but a moral backbone and solid support to the rest of the Avengers, and her appearance in the brilliant spy-thriller Captain America: Winter Soldier turned her into more than that. This film was written by screenwriter Eric Pearson (Godzilla vs Kong and Thor Ragnarok) from a story by Jac Schaeffer (Wandavision) and Ned Benson (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) and was directed by Lore’s Cate Shortland.

Natasha (Scarlet Johansson) is on the run after the events of Civil War

Black Widow starts in the mid 90s, with us being introduced to a young Natasha Romanov (Ever Anderson), who lives in Ohio with her ’sister’, Yelena (Violet McGraw) and ‘parents’, Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachael Weisz) who we discover very quickly aren’t a family but instead are Russian sleeper agents. They are discovered and have to quickly escape, and we see that perhaps Alexei is more than he seems, and the family return to their Russian handlers, and are separated.

Flash forward to not-quite-modern day Natasha (Johansson), who is on the run from the American government after the events in the dreaded Captain America sequel Civil War (seriously, that was a Captain America film? Shouldn’t it have been an Avengers movie, or just called Marvel Civil War?) who after receiving some mail from her safe house in Budapest, is attacked by a masked villain who seems to know the Avengers every move, including everything from her own repertoire.

It’s not Natasha that our nemesis is after though, but instead a parcel that is amongst the Budapest mail, that would appear to contain a chemical antidote to a particular form of mind control, and was sent to her by Yelena (Florence Pugh).

Natasha returns to Budapest to find Yelena but very quickly they are attacked by a gang of well-trained women who will seemingly stop and nothing to obtain/ kill them, under the leadership of the aforementioned villain known as the Taskmaster.

This leads the to discover that the training ground that perverts young women, including the both of them, into operatives known as ‘Widows’, the Red Room, is still in operation and so they decide to tear it down once and for all, but they need the help of Alexei and Melina, who may have information to help them find the boss of the Red Room, Dreykov (Ray Winston).

The villainous Taskmaster!

I actually feel sorry for Johansson with the release of this film. Ready to come out just as the global pandemic hit, it was delayed and delayed and then unfortunately dumped onto Disney+, not giving it the opportunity to be the success it perhaps should have been, and garnering a female hero in the Marvel universe the superstardom she may deserve. (yes, I’m aware that Captain Marvel exists but let’s face it, it was shoehorned in so the Avengers actually stood a chance against Thanos).

Johansson continues to play Black Widow as a full-tilt action hero, but with heart and soul. She’s easily the most rounded of all the characters in the Marvel movies and that’s a tribute to her acting ability. She’s probably one of the best cast in the Marvel films.

The addition of Pugh, Weisz and Harbour is refreshing too. These are three actors who have been chosen due to their abilities to act rather than fulfilling a body ideal! He’ll, Harbour even promotes his so-called Dad-bod and can still be a superhero. The best thing about it is that they have been built around Johansson’s character and really feel like a real family, and not a reel family.

There is one problem with this film and that’s cinematic history. Sure, as a Marvel machine movie under the control of The Mouse ™ it was going to have lots of people see it, especially seeing as how the Marvel movies now have a requirement to see everything other wise you’ll miss out on key points to enjoy the total soap opera of it all, but the basic plot line of a Russian school training women to be secret agents has been seen in film before. Before you Marvel Zombies jump on me and say she was around before the other things, yes, I know that (I am a comics fan of 45 years standing), but MCU exclusive fans may not know that and if they don’t know the history they will just see this as a copy of Salt or Red Sparrow, which is a shame.

Thankfully the script is still full of mystery, action and heart, tells a great story about how strong family bonds can be, and that ‘family’ can mean more than who a person can be related to by blood, but can have a greater meaning of support, trust and experience. Shortland’s direction really showcases all this brilliantly, and it’s juxtaposition of some of the very male-gaze shots of the female cast, particularly some Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque low angled butt shots, make for an unusual visual gumbo that works perfectly.

There are finer details of the film though which are are great addition to Black Widow’s legend. Where she got her training, what her and Hawkeye were doing in Budapest, the so-called ‘red in her ledger’ are all touched upon but not so heavily that this film requires too much knowledge of other Marvel films to make sense. Like the Antman film it does sit outside as an action film by itself.

That’s not to say there isn’t some references back to the comics either; Alexei refers to another character as ‘Big Bear’ and his alter-ego, The Red Guardian, had a teammate in a Russian version of the Avengers in the comics who was a ‘big bear’ named Ursa Major.

It’s a great action film, and Harbour plays a great comedy part to the seriousness of the entire situation. It’s not as bombastic as other Marvel films but it has more heart than most of them and the redemption of Black Widow’s past is a solid addition to her legend, and makes her sacrifice in Endgame a worthwhile one.

Score: ****

The menu screen to the 4K release

Extras: As usual, we have a bunch of extras on this disc, but they are all too short. Considering that Widow is FINALLY getting her due after a career supporting the other Marvel heroes, it’s a shame there was a ‘comic to film’ history of the comic character done for the disc. That seems to be something lacking from a lot of the Marvel disc releases as they distance themselves more and more from the source material.

Sisters Gonna Work It Out looks at the chemistry between Johansson and Pugh, and the way the characters worked together on screen.

Go Big If You’re Going Home looks at the story and the locations and set design of the film. It’s a bit of a confused hodge-podge that wants to tell a lot but doesn’t have the time to tell any of it appropriately.

Gag Reel. The Marvel Gag reels stopped being funny at about Ant-Man. They don’t need to be on here anymore as they look more like deliberately acted gags.

Deleted Scenes: there are 9 deleted scenes, some of which have some beautiful cinematography and it’s a shame to see it wasted, but as usual, the film doesn’t suffer with their absence.

Score: **1/2

WISIA: It’s a Marvel movie, I rewatch Marvel movies, even when they are as bad as Thor Ragnarok, so yeah, it’ll get rewatched.

Yelena (Florence Pugh) gets his with some red gas!

This review was done with the Australian 4K release, with the extras reviewed off the accompanying Bluray.

Avengers (2012)

Avengers (2012)

Film: I started my horror and comic journey at about the same time.

As a kid, my dad, every Saturday, would take me to the local newsagency in Thirroul, NSW and when he grabbed his Sunday paper, he’d buy me either a comic, or an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland. We moved away from that town, and the new place’s local newsagency only had comic, so for several years my monster love was reduced to either Godzilla films on Saturday afternoons, or the various horror comics from Marvel or DC (or their local reprinters like Newton Comics would do), or if I was lucky, a Vampirella.

Comics became my big bag until video stores emerged a few years later, and I loved them dearly. As a kid I was all about Aquaman or Captain Marvel (now known as Shazam!) with an occasional Hulk or Spiderman comic, and maybe an Archie or two, but in the 80s I became a full-tilt, no holds barred Marvel zombie, and the Fantastic Four, the X-men and the Avengers became everything I needed. I even entertained dreams of become a comic writer or artist one day.

I still have a gigantic comic ‘universe’ in my head that I’d like to do one day.

Anyway, the Avengers comics of that period were amazing, and I never believed we would ever see a movie based on them.

… and then the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off!

The MCU, as you should all know, is a juggernaut of a movies series starring all the Marvel heroes… well most of them except for the ones licensed to other companies(well except for Spiderman, but that’s another story), is what seems to be a bunch of individual movies, but in actual fact is the greatest, biggest budget soap operas in the history of entertainment.

This film, The Avengers, takes placed directly after 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, and was written and directed by Josh Whedon, from a story developed by himself and Zak Penn.

The Avengers is the culmination of the previous films and here, the heroes, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo and a HUGE team of CGI effects people) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) join together to fight against Thor’s brother, the charismatic and deceitful Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who has stolen a powerful, seemingly mystical item known as the Tesseract, from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his agents of SHIELD, including Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders).

SO the battle to retrieve the item begins, but what the Avengers and SHIELD don’t realise is, is that Loki has an ally in the alien race known as the Chitauri, who wait in another dimension to create Hell on earth if they aren’t stopped…

That comic collecting kid in me loves this movie, even though it does, like most of the films, take a few liberties from the source material, like the absence of Ant Man and the Wasp (who were founding members), and the early joining of Captain America (who didn’t become an Avenger until issue 4 of the comic). They do however do some fun stuff that pays homage to the comics, like Hawkeye’s turn as a bad guy (he was originally an Iron Man villain of sorts) and dodgy and adversarial combination of characters, which the early Avengers comics played upon to be a contrast to the ‘family’ vibe of Marvel’s first group comic, the Fantastic Four.

I also liked Edward Norton as Bruce Banner/ The Hulk, so Ruffalo’s replacement of him came as a surprise, but Ruffalo’s a charismatic actor, so it was easily overlooked. What wasn’t easily overlooked was the continued employment of the terrible, B-movie soap actor made good, Chris Hemsworth, who doesn’t seem able to rise to the occasion when dealing with far greater actors and comes across as a pantomime version of the character he is supposed to be portraying. At least Downey Jr and Jackson are playing themselves as they basically always have, and they are such cinematic legends, they can get away with it.

My only other criticism is a criticism I have of most modern day superheroes, and that is that it’s apparently just fine to be a killer with no regard for human life, but that’s not a criticism of this film, just of comic films, and comics in general.

The film clicks along at a brilliant pace and is a visual spectacle, and the story is pure comic book, which is exactly what it requires to be successful. Whedon clearly loves his comics books and the respect he has for the characters is clear. His strength is also team dynamics, which is apparent from his previous experience with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly.

This first Avengers movie is a fun rollicking adventure, which only relies on a couple of films worth of back story rather than the gigantic amount the later films suffer from, which become almost unwatchable by themselves as individual movies anymore.

Score: *****

Format: This release has the film in three formats: in 3D, a normal bluray and a digital copy. The film was reviewed on the regular bluray and was presented in a flawless 1.78:1 image with an epic Dolby Digital 7.1 audio.

Score: *****

Extras: The disc starts with an ad for an app called Marvel Avenger’s Alliance.

There are a bunch of cool extras on this disc:

Marvel One Shot: Item 47 is a short that Marvel used to do on their home video releases but unfortunately stopped. This is a cool one about a couple of thieves who have ended up with a Chitauri weapon and decide to use it for their own benefit… but don’t think SHIELD will be quite down with that. Much like one of the others focuses on Agent Coulson, this one gives Jasper Sitwell a go at being a hero… well before we find out the horrible truth about him in a later movie.

Gag Reel is just that, but back before they became contrived an unfunny, like they did on the later releases of other Marvel films.

Deleted Scenes has 8 deleted scenes, none of which are missed, but are interesting to see, particularly the Maria Hill interrogation stuff.

A Visual Journey is clearly the making of the film and only runs for 6 minutes. Shame, as I reckon a film this big deserves a little more than just a few minutes.

Score: ****

WISIA: It makes me cry with joy pretty much well every time I watch it, which is frequently.

RIP Stan Lee

It was a very strange day for the To Watch Pile.

Yesterday, I found out that a friend of mine, whom I met through a fellow love of movies, records, comics and Doctor Who, had passed away and that led to a restless night, and I awoke to find out the comics legend Stan Lee had also passed away.

Stan Lee is known as the father of Marvel Comics and there is no doubt he was an innovator whose editorial and organisational skill was outstanding, and his collaborations with comic greats like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and John Buscema have become literary classics greater than comics fans of the 60s, 7os and 80s could ever have dreamed.

He had become so ingrained in the editorial voice of Marvel that comics fans all knew of Stan’s legend and recognisable image, but more recently he achieved more mainstream popularity from his appearances in the Marvel films, and stuff like Big Bang Theory.

You will be missed, Stan, thank you so much for co-creating such a layered playground for so many writers and artists to play in and entertain we, the fans.

First Look: PlayStation 4 Spider-Man

One from the to play pile…

First Look: PlayStation 4 Spider-Man

I love superhero video games, even more than horror-related ones. I think it’s because in general I find that horror games occasionally plod, and depend on jump-scares for their horror value, but that’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it?

Games occasionally try to replicate the feelings one get when one is encountering another source of that genre. Horror games want to emulate a great horror film, but they can’t really as the greatest horror films tell a lot of story in their short timespan, and a horror game that does that doesn’t have much interaction, which defeats the purpose of it being a ‘game’.

Superhero games work perfectly as superhero comics are action surrounded by story, which means a LOT of interaction as part of the storytelling, as that is the nature of the genre.

When people talk about superhero games, DC usually gets discussed first as they have dominated video games with their brilliant Arkham Asylum games and the Injustice series, which combined the best of the DC Universe and Mortal Kombat… but Insomniac Games may have turned that around.

Now I have only had this game for a little over a day, but I’m in love with what it does. It’s true to the character and the design of everything is immaculate, from the Fisk security employees to the multiple Spidey costumes, which so far I have opened his original suit, the video game suit, a punk suit, the Scarlett Spider suit, the Iron Spider suit and it looks like heaps more are available.

It really feels like a Marvel comic set in New York as well. The city is magnificent and bloody huge! It’s obviously not as densely populated as one would expect to see as the real New York, but I imagine the processor of most systems would have trouble with that kind of population.

Our story isn’t a part of either the regular Marvel Universe or of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but is instead it’s own thing and starts about 8 years after Peter Parker first became Spider-man, and the arrest of Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin starts a series of events that will bring a new gang to light on New York, and will bring Spidey up against many of his old foes.

The action is fast and you get very quickly into the game as it tastes like a Marvel product, especially with Stan Lee making an appearance as Restauranteur Mick!

There is heaps of cool releases of this game, I grabbed the special edition which came with an art book (which contains spoilers) and a download code for some cosmetic extras. Also available was a ‘statue’ edition, which came with a statue of Spiderman, and a PS4 edition which came with a ‘Spiderman’ themed PS4.

There is heaps of cool other stuff available too. Funko have made Pops of the 4 main characters, and there is an amazing art book from Titan Books, which is totally worth it if you are into cosplay as the designs of EVERYTHING from this game feature within its pages.

So far I am having a blast with this game and am finding it a decent challenge with a fun skill tree to advance through. The last open-world game I played for a long time was Watchdogs 2, and I’m thinking that this game will take over from that with mindless fun can be had with bank-robbery styled side quests, and puzzles to expand your Spider-armoury.

All in all, if you have a PS4 or like Marvel characters, you need this game.

Marvel Masterwork: The Fantastic Four Volume 1

MARVEL MASTERWORKS: THE FANTASTIC FOUR VOLUME 1

Ask any comics fan what is the most important ‘modern’ comic, and most will say Fantastic Four issue 1. It’s the comic that put Marvel on the map and for years was known as ‘The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine’ and for years, it was!

The creation of the Fantastic Four was instigated by publisher Martin Goodman, when he heard that DC’s Justice League of America was doing well, so he asked one of his writers, Stan Lee, to create something similar. Lee’s concept was to instead of making the members ‘super-friends’, he would instead create a super-family so the connection between the members was more permanent. The one member who wasn’t ‘family’ was made to think of his powers as a disability, and stayed with the team to get a ‘cure’. Lee created this by using older characters mixed with new ideas, and comic legend Jack Kirby was called in to co-create not just the team, but what would become the Marvel Universe.

The Fantastic Four is a super hero/ adventuring group consisting of four people with extraordinary powers bestowed on them by cosmic rays that washed over them: super intelligent Reed Richards aka Mr Fantastic, who has a stretchy, malleable body, the powerful Sue Richards, aka The Invisible Woman (though in this particular collection is Invisible Girl) who can turn invisible and create invisible constructs, pilot Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, a man with a literal rocky exterior and young hothead, John Storm, the Human Torch, who can burst into flames and fly.

These four are essentially explorers (like DC’s Challengers of the Unknown, a comic Kirby worked on) but end up in situations where they have to use their powers to perform acts of heroism.

Unfortunately for Lee and Kirby’s greatest creation, the FF has been cinematically mistreated over the last few years with three films that contained some gross miscasting, bad storytelling and even just daft realisations of classic comic imagery. Actually, Galactus from Rise of the Silver Surfer is probably one of the top three badly realised comic to movie bad guys ever (he’s like a giant cosmic fart), the other’s being Green Lantern’s undulating vomitus, baby faced Parallax and Doctor Strange’s pan-dimensional burp version of Dormammu… seriously, three of comicdom’s greatest villains reduced to various excretions.

These have of course, caused Marvel to stop production of the comic after several awesome relaunches by major writing and artistic talents! For me, the Marvel universe is a lesser place without Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny, and even though Johnny is now a member of the Inhumans and the Thing has been a Guardian of the Galaxy and an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (well, kind of), it’s not enough. 

I impatiently await their return…

Story: Stan Lee’s writing of this period may seem hokey now, but it was revolutionary at the time. His depiction of a family in crisis as they become more than adventurers, and their subsequent battles as they get used to acting as a fighting team and become accustomed to their powers is wonderful, and the jargon is a fun read too. This collection sees the FF get their powers, and then come up against the threats of the Mole Man, Skrulls, Miracle Man, Doctor Doom, the Sub-Mariner, Kurrgo…. and many more! It’s a roller coaster of fun which has time travel and adventure of all types. The best thing about this collection is that it kept some of the little mistakes made when these comics were first published, like when the first time Sue, the Invisible Girl, becomes ‘invinsible’…

Score: ****

Art: Jack Kirby is my favourite comic artist of all time, but I prefer his work from the 70s to his sixties work. That’s not to say this isn’t amazingly detailed art, it’s just not as much for me as what he was doing in OMAC, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Demon, which was blockier, but for me more dynamic.

Score: ****1/2

WIRIA: It where the comics we read today come from, so how could I not revisit it regularly. Revolutionary.

R.I.P. Joan Lee

The To Watch Pile would like to pass on our condolences to Stan Lee for the passing of his beloved wife Joanie. 
Not many people know that she was part of the inspiration to create the Fantastic Four and Spiderman as Stan was considering not doing it, but she suggested that he wants to quit comics anyway, so he may as well do what he likes, and damn the consequences. As the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman. Stan has told this tale many times, and I myself am one of those types who owes his successes to his wife.

He, along with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, birthed the Marvel universe around her trust in Stan’s ideas.

I may criticise Lee on my Facebook page, but it is partially tongue in cheek, and I do believe that he and his gang, along with Julie Schwartz and Carmine Infantino over at DC, rebuilt the superhero comic into what it is today. 

Joan, a former British hat model, apparently suffered with a stroke earlier this week. She is survived by Stan and their daughter, J.C.