Issue #51: Action Whomp-Busters 🧲

Black Widow + Snake Eyes

We might have been on vacation during blockbuster season, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t (figuratively) front row for every tentpole flick while we were gone. So as we gear up to prep for awards season, we’re looking back at the high-budget, action-packed fumbles of our notorious hot vax summer.

First up: Cate on Black Widow — the long-overdue solo film for Marvel’s not-so-favorite first lady. Then: Zosha on the bummer of her summer — Snake Eyes.

Cate on Black Widow

Over a decade into the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a solo Black Widow film was more than overdue. The defected Russian spy turned Avenger played by Scarlett Johansson has been kicking around the franchise since its very first film back in 2008, and has consistently been overlooked as a player on the team. In fact, despite being one of its longest-serving members, Black Widow isn’t even the first female character to have her own film — ceding that honor to 2019’s Captain Marvel. But 2021’s Black Widow, currently at the center of a lawsuit filed by Johansson against Disney, (settled at the time of this publication) somehow still doesn’t quite do the character justice, even with 13 years headstart. 

The first thing to know is that in the MCU’s current time, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow is dead, having sacrificed herself to find an infinity stone in the quest to beat Thanos and undo “the blip.” Rather than extending the universe, this film takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War in which the Avengers fracture, and many end up jailed or on the run. Natasha is in the on-the-run camp, and contacts an old friend to get her safely to a hideout in Norway where she can bide her time and hide from the government. Instead, she’s accosted by a super-soldier who is in search of a package her long-lost sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) has sent to her for safekeeping. In unraveling the mystery of the intruder, Natasha discovers that the Red Room where she was trained as a spy still exists, and continues to pump out damaged young women molded to be killers. Only this time, it’s worse. Instead of merely using fear and intimidation to control its charges, it is now using a neuro-chemical agent that overrides their free will — a direct response to Natasha’s long-ago defection.

From a big picture perspective, it’s a compelling story. Natasha’s time in the Red Room has been the subject of her regrets and nightmares over the course of several films. Her forced sterilization there was a major sticking point in Avengers: Age of Ultron. So, it makes complete sense that it would be the subject of a solo film. But unfortunately, Natasha’s story up until now has been so poorly handled that what should feel like a redemption, ultimately feels like a retcon.

Black Widow leans hard on themes of family. In the film, Natasha is torn from her constructed family as a child at the end of a Russian op. The parents she knew were spies, and her sister was another orphan stolen from the streets and taken to the Red Room because no one would be looking for her. The movie asks us to believe that the few brief years in which they lived together in suburbia were so meaningful, and their loss so great, that she has eliminated all reference to them in her present day life. She does not pine for or miss them, and she does not acknowledge their existence. Instead, she pines for children, calling herself a monster in Ultron because she can no longer have kids. Here, she seeks that family out again, knowing they are the only clues she has to finding the Red Room and shutting it down for good. 

One of the big criticisms of Black Widow over the years is that she has been the receptacle for the other team member’s pain. She talks the Hulk down when their missions are over, and she sacrifices herself for Clint Barton (Hawkeye) because his own family makes his life more worthy. Here, Natasha just endures pain. One of the big things that sticks out in this film is how often she is beaten, bruised and just straight up tossed around a room. It is the least empowered she has ever been in the MCU, and it shows. In the film’s climax, she is physically unable to harm the villain, and must instead endure his abuse. Getting out from under his control involves breaking her own nose.

But the bigger problem with the film is that it suffers from the girlboss-ification of female characters that has seeped into media over the few years. The women that Natasha finds in the Red Room are trafficking victims turned into assassins or discarded for their lack of utility. Instead of focusing on the way that these women had their lives stolen (it stuck out to me that this is the most black women I’ve seen in a Marvel movie since Black Panther) it tries to wrap a neat bow around “taking charge of your destiny.” That’s all well and good for a new job, but international imperialism driven by the coerced reproduction choices of disenfranchised women? Not so much.

The movie has some interesting things to say about grief, loneliness and longing, but it never gives itself time to say them before heading back into the next big (excellent to be fair) set-piece. Pugh’s Yelena is a marvel of a character, at once defiant and wounded but still sarcastic and quippy. She’s the bright spot in the film by a landslide and gets all the funniest lines.

But as will so many MCU films before it, Black Widow falls into the black hole of a third-act helicarrier demolition that is as boring as it is recognizable. While the movie makes for a fun afternoon, it adds little to the world’s overall mythology and doesn’t do enough to contextualize the Natasha Romanoff we’ve come to know. In the end, Black Widow is just too little too late.

Zosha on Snake Eyes

No one wanted to walk out of this theater fist-pumping another silly, blindly jingoistic G.I. Joe movie more than me. As someone who still has a soft spot for G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — don’t go watch it because I told you it’d be good, you’ll only disappoint yourself — I was ready to sit in a theater and loudly cheer on whatever ludicrous action set piece they could pile in front of me. But alas, Snake Eyes had different plans. 

Following the origin story of the mysterious Snake Eyes (here played by Henry Golding), the masked ninja on the G.I. Joe team*, we see Snake (yes that’s what they call him, thanks for asking!) go from revenge-thirsty drifter making his money through underground fighting rings, to working for the (a?) yakuza. It’s there that he takes pity on an infiltrator he’s sent to kill who, as a thanks for sparing his life, takes him to his ninja clan’s compound and offers to train him as an elite warrior. 

Pretty much all of this save for a second act twist could be gleaned from the trailer, and you’d think you’re in for a good time. But it’s here where I must unload my heavy heart onto you: this movie bored me. Action movies (modern blockbusters in particular) so often have to artfully pull their audience through increasingly high-stakes and frankly bonkers action set pieces, ensuring that not only are they getting a bigger hit of dopamine with each one, but also that they can track any number of things — where the characters are in their story, how their arc is reflected in how they fight, and even just where they are within the fight itself. And unfortunately, Snake Eyes cared for none of this. Their elegant precision weapons are swung like axes through the air. To appear more visceral and cutting, Snake Eyes enlists quick-cutting shaky cam for almost every fight scene, most of which entail good guys standing in the middle of a circle of bad buys. There’s little to no evolution in how the characters fight, no advancement of technique or plot through their mannerisms within it. And because the camera cuts almost every other second, the action is not only hard to appreciate, it’s damn near impossible to follow. 

And so your eyes glaze over a bit for the action scenes (which, again, in an action movie, are the bulk of the film!) and you settle in on the plot. Which, hey, who knew, also bad! Characters make choices built on quicksand logic, temperamentally switch allegiances and develop little to no chemistry. There is a whole thing between Snake and the chief security officer of the compound Akiko (Haruka Abe), although calling it a “whole thing” suggests that there’s much there that’s interesting or sensical. Instead it’s either distracting from the development of Tommy (the aforementioned heir played by Andrew Koji) and Snake’s relationship — which, though shortchanged, has the foundation to support a better brotherhood plotline — or else just downright stereotypically wedged-in romance. The characters move where the plot wants them to go, and while its demands are trivial Snake Eyes takes every choice so seriously it leaves no oxygen left for the rest of us. 

I cannot stress how it brings me no joy to impart this to you; I wanted Snake Eyes to be the sleeper hit of the summer, the gaudy action movie I whipped out at group movie nights and said “no seriously you guys, trust me.” Instead we have an overcooked studio hodgepodge, hoping to be so many things and ultimately being nothing of consequence at all, and at least two solid movie recommendations from Zosha: stay away from Snake Eyes (2021), and go watch De Palma’s Nic Cage vehicle Snake Eyes (1998) instead. Rotten Tomatoes gave it one less percentage point, but I’ll be damned if it’s not a lot of fun.  

*Or so I am led to believe; again, my only point of reference is the forgotten 2009 cinema, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.  

Assorted Internet Detritus

CATE: Noom is still a diet, The Rotten Roys are back in action, makeovers are in actually, the trouble with Tammy Faye, Squid Game and the scourge of capitalism, a folksy human jukebox, and after all these years we’re still a single mom who works too hard.

ZOSHA: The oral history of Dawson crying. The right words on climate change have already been said. A surprisingly fun profile of Penn Badgley. Who can afford to die anymore? What combines your two favs: In the Mood for Love and Clue. Facebook wants Instagram the way it is: a weight-loss app.

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Zosha + Cate <3