Slow Deaths July 14, 2021
On Black Widow, Fear Street Part 1: 1994, and No Sudden Move
espite being introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe a little more than 10 years ago (in 2010’s Iron Man 2), and despite being a consistent fan favorite,
the taken-for-granted superspy-turned-Avenger Black Widow, a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), has continuously gotten her own solo movie put off. That long-winded deferral at last ended Friday with the imaginatively titled Black Widow, finally released in theaters and on Disney+ after numerous COVID-related delays. (Before the onset of the pandemic, the film was essentially supposed to kick off the 2020 summer-movie season; we were so young then.) It’s a bit puzzling that the movie is being put out so far after Black Widow’s initial introduction, not just because the film — a prequel — is set right after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016) (which I and I’m sure many others have almost completely forgotten about), but also because,
spoiler alert, the character died in the last Avengers movie.
Black Widow, only the second Marvel movie to put a woman hero at its center, is good-enough escapism. But it’s also a little jinxed from the outset. It’s harder to care about what’s going on in a movie when you know for a fact that its title hero is going to die anyway — even if that’s not going to happen in this film specifically — and when so much of the movie feels like set-up for the coming decade’s phase of Marvel movies. (In Black Widow, the heroine’s little sister is figured prominently, ostensibly in part because, in future films, she will be Black Widow 1.0’s successor.) You watch
Black Widow consistently thinking about how much more impactful it might have been had it been released five or six years ago. MCU has at long last made an effort to give its heroine its due, but its delayed positioning dresses her up and gives her no place to go.
The film begins in 1995, with Natasha (Ever Anderson) enjoying a seemingly typical childhood in Ohio with her sister, Yelena (Violet McGraw), and parents Melina and Alexei (Rachel Weisz and David Harbour, both expectedly great). But almost as soon as we’re invited into this bucolic prologue, the dream is over. When Alexei comes home from work, he’s shaken up and nervously clutching a floppy disk (it’s 1995!); he tells the family it has less than an hour to get in the car to leave everything behind. The nearer this family gets to its escape destination — an airfield sheltering a plane fated for Cuba — the clearer we get on what is actually happening. This situation is a bit like one from the TV show The Americans (2013-’18): Melina and Alexei are actually Russian sleeper agents — not man and wife — who have been hired to pose as average Americans to more easily steal information from the U.S. agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Yelena and Natasha, unrelated to anybody here, are merely orphans recruited to take part in the charade.
This is all a lot for a pair of little girls to take in. But their employer, referred to almost exclusively as General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), is pitiless; this might even be the most humane thing he will put these faux sisters through. Moments after arriving in Cuba, Yelena and Natasha are again snatched, forced to train in Dreykov’s Red Room. (The latter place can only really be described as a top-secret superassassin training academy exclusive to women and girls.) In the movie’s sordid opening credits, backed by an embarrassingly somnolent cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991), the program is likened to sex trafficking. The girls trained under it have almost universally been taken against their will. And during the initiation process, these forced participants are also essentially microchipped by Dreykov so that he can from then on control their every move to complement their incoming fighting expertise. As her placement in the MCU implies, Natasha was eventually able to get out from under Dreykov’s clutches. When Black Widow’s timeline picks up 21 years after the prologue, though, Yelena (Florence Pugh) is still being forced to do Dreykov’s bidding — that is until she accidentally comes into contact with a chemical compound that nullifies his grip on her.
Yelena’s unanticipated freedom sets the rest of the movie into motion. She reconnects with Natasha (after initially getting into a well-choreographed if characteristically-for-Marvel over-photographed fistfight to test loyalties) in Budapest in a bid to thwart Dreykov’s plotting. They then pick up Alexei, now locked up in a Siberian prison and obsessed with his “glory” days, and Melina, who remains one of Dreykov’s top scientists and runs a pig farm, to assist them. On an action front, Black Widow is perfunctory, though I did appreciate how the majority of the time it feels more aligned with, say, a Bond movie than the overblown, CGI-addled giganticness favored most regularly by Marvel. The latter stuff still comes around — it’s by now a requirement in the MCU — but it’s thankfully pushed until the very, very end. (Yes, it’s ugly to look at once it inexorably arrives.)
Dramatically and comedically, Black Widow is one of
Marvel’s more assured offerings. Pugh and Johansson make for credible sisters; when they tease each other it really feels sororal, and that easy chemistry provides a sturdy foundation for some of the movie’s biggest laughs. Yelena’s a backseat driver who makes fun of how Natasha, used to her celebrity status as a superhero, tends to pose like a fashion model slinking around in tight leather while she fights. Natasha can’t help but roll her eyes when Yelena waxes excitement over a new vest she bought. So many pockets, Natasha muses. One of the better parts of the movie is low-key and just between them: drinking cheap beers al fresco on a warm night, relieved after so long to be able to commiserate with someone who has a true sense of what the other has gone through.
And the time spent at Melina’s farm, where this “family” reconnects after years apart and with a lot to get off chests, has enough emotional believability that you wish this stretch of the movie would go on longer than it did. When Yelena says, “the best part of my life was fake and nobody told me,” it has a real resonance you want amplified by some “yes and”s. (Screenwriter Eric Pearson seems to have had 1980’s Ordinary People in mind with these scenes.) Marvel has certainly tried exploring familial dysfunction before, but this is the first movie where it didn’t strike me as ultra-forced. I think that’s also a testament to these four performers, who in their careers have tended to show a knack for locating emotional shading in scripts that didn’t have much of it. (Something I like a lot about Pugh’s performance is how, despite the character’s propensity for sarcasm and a spiky comment to counteract someone else’s sincerity, you’re never unaware of her immense sorrow at how much of her life hasn’t been hers; she just wants to have an apartment of her own, where she can come home to the friendly licks of a pet puppy.)
But, again, the far-too-late placement of all this slows down dramatic momentum. We keep thinking how great it would have been learning this history about (and these old relationships that make) Black Widow had we been seeing it in the 2016 in which the film is set. How much would it have enriched subsequent movies to feature the character? There’s a feeling, watching Black Widow, that the MCU is saying “sorry we took so long!” Only the apology feels disingenuous — relayed with half-hearted tonelessness — because the Johansson iteration of the character won’t get explored beyond this (there’s no way there’ll be more prequel movies) and because so much of Pugh’s scene-stealing place in the movie is baldly about making us like her a lot, maybe even more than the eponymous star, since we most likely are going to be spending the next few years with her as a successor. In the end, Johansson feels like she’s getting discarded rather than unreservedly celebrated. While Black Widow might have been received as a surefire bang in 2016, in 2021 it feels like a whimper — more apology gift than heartfelt honoring.
Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow.
rom the Nightmare on Elm Street movies to the Halloween series, horror franchises tend to ad-lib, to varying success, as they continue adding new chapters over time. You can always tell when universe-
expansion is forcefully foisted on a property rather than in the cards from the beginning. Consider how the Friday the 13th saga includes a trip to outer space, or how the finale of the Evil Dead movies plops its hero into medieval times to freshen things up. Netflix’s new Fear Street series is, in contrast to the bulk of horror franchises, more intentional about its world-building. This isn’t a show but, in a so far unprecedented move for the streaming service, a methodically released movie trilogy. Each chapter is based on a story from R.L. Stine’s YA-oriented series of the same name; each film will be released, starting July 2, on Fridays.
All these movies are co-written and directed by Leigh Janiak (2014’s Honeymoon); all are shot and soundtracked in a way meant to obviously evoke not just their respective time periods (each is set in a different decade) but the horror tropes in vogue at the time. The series notionally fits in with Netflix’s generally unimaginative proclivities for ripely marketable nostalgia-baiting and engineering content for binge-watching. This, at first, put me off. (It’s worth noting, though, that Fear Street was purchased rather than produced by the platform.) But after watching Fear Street’s first chapter, 1994, I was mostly won over by this flashily made throwback, especially in an era preoccupied with subtler, colder “elevated” horror. On-the-nose and arguably excessive needledrops (no more “Creep” by Radiohead!) aside, 1994 is plenty likable, playfully-rather-than-cynically winking at mid-‘90s horror while telling an increasingly gripping story that fuses nicely to the series’ overarching narrative.
1994’s opening, which watches a mad slasher kill a disaffected teenage mall-bookstore clerk, is a little misleading. Its beats resemble the prologue of Scream (1996) almost to a T, with its centering on a cordless phone, use of an in-fashion young actress as the progeniting victim to quickly earn and then break our trust (Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke is Drew Barrymore’s stand-in), climactic slow motion, and stab-wound locations.
Based on that, one might initially think 1994 will evolve into a standard-fare stalk-and-slash movie. But 1994 uses this masked killer(s) as one conduit into a more complicated, largely supernatural story. In the 1600s, we come to learn, a witch was lynched in the movie’s main setting, Shadyside. Through possession, her spirit has apparently continued having a hold on the town by ostensibly taking over the bodies of seemingly random youths to vengefully wreak murderous havoc. (Hawke’s killer was not someone with a bone to pick — someone who classically “snapped” — but someone who tragically just happened to be the witch’s latest target.) Violence is so regular in Shadyside on account of this curse that it’s often colloquially called “Killer capital U.S.A.” by outsiders and locals alike, or, because that doesn’t roll off the tongue quickly or even that well, “Shittyside.” The town over, untouched by black magic, is — of course it is — called Sunnyvale.
1994’s plot is propelled by a cheerleader named Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch). After inadvertently disturbing the witch’s remains, she becomes another possessed-body-in-waiting. She, her ex-girlfriend Deena (Kiana Madeira), Deena’s younger brother (Benjamin Flores, Jr.), and a couple of their mutual friends (Julia Rehwald and Fred Hechinger) spend most of the movie trying to outpace the witch. When not pummeling Samantha’s brain with creepy visions suffocated in red, this vindictive villain has a handful of her lackeys chase this makeshift Scooby gang through a hospital, a police station, their high school, a grocery store — everyplace in this tiny town that can host a nail-biting chase through a long hallway. Most of these locations are rendered prettier than life would allow. Janiak loves ogling neon glows whenever they cut through darkness. (Even Hawke’s early death, saturated in the humming blues and reds of the almost-closed-for-the-night mall, is a little like a lovingly photographed music video.)
None of these characters has that distinct a personality besides what they offer the plot. (Though I imagine, since it seems as though the survivors of 1994 will take part in the frame stories of the subsequent movies, they might get slightly more developed in future “episodes.”) But they’re affable enough to make later death scenes have a good amount of sting. The relationship between Deena and Samantha — made contentious because the latter moved to Sunnyvale and decided to start dating the captain of the football team at its high school — successfully works as the emotional crux of the movie. It’s a will-they-or-won’t-they toss-up tested by possibly-impending doom. This romance is also the film’s utmost divergence from the strictures of pastiche (the film in general avoids generally conservative slasher-film moralism); I can’t think of many — really, any — ‘90s slasher movies with openly (to the audience) gay protagonists. I also saw somewhat of a parallel between this movie and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
(1985), though I’m not sure how much the film wants us to read beyond its literal meanings. In that Nightmare sequel, the title murderer’s attempts to possess the body of a likely closeted teenage boy felt like an over-the-top allegory for the internal struggle preceding coming out — something with which Samantha, too, is struggling.
Janiak doesn’t skimp on requisite genre violence just because everything comes from a YA series; there’s a clever kill-off with a bread slicer from which we will get no recovery time because there is another person that needs to die immediately afterward thanks to an axe to the skull, for instance. But Janiak also, in a way that puts you vaguely in mind of Steven Spielberg or Rob Reiner, reinforces how much bigger emotions and stakes feel when you’re a kid, which makes 1994 feel a great deal more youthful, permeated with an aura of oversensitive naïvete, than most slasher movies, which are regularly slickly adult. (The teens in them rarely exactly call to mind teens, often because those cast as them are quite a bit older than the people they’re playing.) Everything feels to a certain extent like an adventure or scavenger hunt until something gnarly enough happens to crash anything resembling fun and games. It remains to be seen if the Fear Street series will holistically deliver on the promise and solid foundation erected by 1994. (I did watch part two — 1978 — the other day, and I liked it maybe even more than 1994.) But, for now, I’m content to look at it as a standalone movie — a pretty thrilling package of nostalgic nods and winks that has a decent amount of substance underneath all its gesturing.
o Sudden Move, now on HBO Max, has plot in spades. It has so much of it that, just before the closing credits, a long title card reassures us that the narrative could technically keep going for the next
couple of decades if it wanted to. This intricate ensemble crime thriller, directed by the ever-prolific Steven Soderbergh from a forever-in-motion script from Ed Solomon, is set in 1954 Detroit. Rudimentarily the film is about a blackmail scheme that evolves into a heist. Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro, playing luck-deprived career criminals recruited by a local, shifty-eyed crime leader (a welcome Brendan Fraser), are continuously at the center of the progressively labyrinthine action. No Sudden Move has been made in a style evocative of its era’s film noir movies; though the narrative is engrossing at least at first (I think it eventually gets too complicated to resolutely know, or even fully care about, what’s going on), this is markedly a film where drinking in danger-choked period atmosphere and enjoying the company of a starry ensemble cast might be more important than an unwaveringly firm grasp of the narrative. (Other co-stars include Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta, Amy Seimetz, Bill Duke, and Matt Damon, all of whom are excellent in thinly written roles they give further life to.)
No Sudden Move is mostly just scheming on top of more scheming. Cheadle and Del Toro, who have a contentious dynamic on account of the Del Toro character’s open racism, try everything they can to keep their heads above water. (They figure out, early in the movie, that they were actually to be dispensed of when they got hired.) All eventually takes on more consequence: we learn that the heist, whose sought-after item (stored in a case) is long kept a secret, has a deep connection to the auto industry, and will have a profound effect on the retention of power by sector leaders. Solomon smartly and directly positions this piece of fiction into a real milieu defined by its corruption and avarice, keeping up with Soderbergh’s long-standing affinity for connecting fictional narratives to broader systemic duplicity. I can’t say I’ll continue thinking much about No Sudden Move — for the insistently productive Soderbergh, it feels more in line with his “exercises” (which are still often delectable) than his more significant movies — but it’s good for an evening. Typically for Soderbergh, you expect a masterfully made and engagingly acted movie and get one.
Black Widow: B
Fear Street Part 1: 1994: B+
No Sudden Move: B