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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Black Widow

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After calling Scarlett Johansson “the smartest, toughest female action star,” film reviewer Justin Craig declared: “it’s time ScarJo gets her very own Marvel franchise.” But when asked if a Black Widow film is in the works, Johansson had to fumble her way through a politic non-answer: “You know, I think it’s something that, um, again I think Marvel is is certainly, um, listening, and if, you know, working with them for several years now, you kind of see how, ah, they respond to the audience, um, demand I think for something like that.”

Marvel president Kevin Feige says it’s “possible,” but makes no promises. Meanwhile, Johansson is creating her own superwoman franchise. She literalizes her Black Widow codename by playing an actual man-eating spider in Under The Skin, and her voiceover computer operating system Samantha in Her is way way beyond anything Tony Stark could build.

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But I had my highest hopes on Luc Besson’s Lucy.

If there’s a director geared for writing and shooting a superheroine movie, it’s Besson. His 1990 Le Femme Nakita spawned an immediate Hollywood remake (though there really is no reason to see Bridget Fonda in Point of No Return) and later a Canadian-made TV series (thank you, USA Network, for keeping the French name). The Fifth Element was a bit of a mess, but an entertaining one, especially the fact that the “supreme being” is supermodel Milla Jovovich cloned from a severed hand to protect Earth from a giant black cloud of evil space death. I think magic space stones were involved too—the same plot Marvel seems to be headed toward now. And let’s not forget The Professional, Besson’s hyper-violent pedophiliac action-thriller co-starring twelve-year-old Natalie Portman (no wonder she fell for Chris Hemsworth when he and his hammer dropped out the sky in 2011).

I’m not really sure what Besson has been doing since the 90s, but it did not further hone his film-making skills. Lucy is not a good movie. But it is a superheroine movie. Lucy, like so many of her comic book counterparts, is the next leap in human evolution, one accidentally triggered by a ruthless drug cartel that continues to supply the script with shootouts and car chases. Lucy has Professor X’s mind-reading and telekinetic skills, invulnerability to pain, a cybernetic ability to interface with machines and airwaves, and the power to change her hairdo at will.  Johansson doesn’t wear an “L” on her chest (the t-shirt is cut too low), but her name does meet Peter Coogan’s requirement of “a superhero identity embodied in a codename” since Lucy, as we’re told very early, is the name of the first human being (who also makes two pleasantly bizarre cameos).

Morgan Freeman, reprising his science-guy helper role from the Batman trilogy, delivers some painfully scripted superpowers-science in the form of a literal lecture, complete with Powerpoint bullets and audience Q&A. Besson intercuts these with Johansson’s literal bullets and scantily costumed T&A. The film begins in Taiwan and ends in Paris, with occasional French and Korean subtitles. It would be significantly improved if the subtitles were deleted and the English dialogue dubbed in Latin or Old Norse or any other language the majority of viewers won’t understand. Because then we could enjoy the sequence of spectacle, which is Besson’s well-disguised strength.

Freeman’s faux-science distracts from the fun by pretending that the film suffers from internal logic. It doesn’t. Although the plot ostensibly follows Lucy’s brain growth, intercutting incremental percentiles from 10% to the climatic 100%, her actual superpowered behavior is random. When a kick to the stomach bursts the bag of drug-mule super-serum in her intestines, Besson flings Johansson around his rotating prison set till she’s writhing on the ceiling. This doesn’t really make sense—is she flying?—but it looks cool. The CGI team tries to disintegrate her during her flight to Paris, which looks cool too, but what exactly does that have to do with Freeman’s immortality soundclip? Once recovered, Lucy can dispose of a dozen armed cops with a flick of her hand—although for some reason those pesky martial arts gangsters require time-consuming one-by-one levitation. Also why, as she’s teetering on omnipotence, is Paris traffic quite so challenging? Oh, and why do her very first acts of drug-induced super-intelligence include hand-to-hand combat and two-gun marksmanship? Are those skills about brain capacity?

I prefer Johansson’s performance before her robotic transformation. Imagine the Black Widow quivering in fear and vomiting on herself at the sight of blood. Johansson fans could argue that Lucy should only be analyzed in relation to Her, since Lucy builds a supercomputer and downloads herself in her final moment of corporeal existence, ending the film with a text to her cop boyfriend: “I AM EVERYWHERE.”

But I’m gong to reroute us to 1933 instead.

1933 reign of the superman

If you don’t think Lucy counts as a superhero movie, read Jerry Siegel’s short story “The Reign of the Superman.” Before teaming up with Joe Shuster to create their comic book Superman, Siegel wrote a tale about a ruthless scientist who uses a starving vagrant as his lab rat. Lucy is a privileged college student, but she’s equally clueless when abducted and implanted with a mysterious super-drug.  Siegel’s is derived from an asteroid, but its effects are similar. Soon his anti-hero is reading-minds and projecting his thoughts across the universe too.

Unfortunately such unlimited power transforms him into a hate-mongering monster bent on world domination. Lucy’s transformation leaves her morally challenged too. She murders a hospital patient to make room for herself on a surgical bed with the excuse that the guy wouldn’t have lived anyway. When her cop sidekick comments on the tourists barely scrambling out of the way of her car and the string of exploding wrecks she’s leaving in her wake, Lucy says something about the illusion of death, which apparently gives her a license to kill and collaterally damage.

But, like Siegel’s second and far more famous Superman, Lucy finds a way to hold on to her humanity. When her hunky sidekick complains he’s no help to her, she kisses him. She needs him because he’s a “reminder,” she says. One of the students in my Superhero course made exactly that argument about Lois Lane.

So while Lucy is not the leap forward in superheroine evolution I’d hoped for,  perhaps Johansson, like Siegel in “The Reign of the Superman,” is running some experimental test work before delivering a full dose of her superwoman prowess.

lucy poster

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I’m teaching my Superheroes seminar again this Spring term at Washington & Lee University, and Marvel very kindly scheduled The Avengers to fit on the syllabus. So my students and I abandoned our classroom and strolled downtown to our smallville theater. Here’s their analytical verdict.

Ryan Scott: “Though The Avengers features many of today’s biggest film stars and relies upon state-of-the-art special effects, in many ways the film harkens back to the earliest superhero comics, especially in the level of violence carried out by the heroes.  Just as the original Superman of Siegel and Shuster flings his enemies into the sunset, so do the Avengers rack up an impressive body count in the film’s climatic battle.  And just as Bob Kane’s Batman packs a pistol in his first few appearances, so do Captain America, Black Widow, and Nick Fury spend much of the film shooting their enemies.”

Lauren Woodie: “One of the main themes that I have observed in my reading of superhero comics is the superhero’s ability to act above the law. Superman constantly takes the law into his own hands and will sometimes even fight against the police. This theme is highlighted in “The Avengers” mainly by the fact that the Avengers operate under the control of an organization called Shield, which seems to transcend all governments much like the superheroes it encompasses.”

Mihai Cirstea: “To viewers like myself, who are not avid followers of the superhero genre, The Avengers was successfully appealing because of its constant humor that lightens up the heavier comic book influences. The scene that I found particularly amusing was when the Hulk smashes Loki back and forth against the floor like a rag doll. Stark’s humor, of course, also adds levity to the movie with his constant sarcasm. These moments of humor reminded me of the Superman comics, in which Siegel often offset the heavy plot with a snarky quip from his hero.”

Marie Spear: “To my surprise, I found that I had to stop myself from reading into all the different tropes and traits we have looked at class while watching The Avengers so that I could focus on the fun happening onscreen. I like how the director was able to bring in heavy undertones like god vs. science, such as with Thor, or the struggle of dual identities, and still have the movie be a ton of fun. My only criticism is that it is a little too long.”

Anna DiBenedetto: “Whedon’s The Avengers takes a comical stance on the powerful and almighty superhero triumph.  After the Hulk and Thor have a battle against one another on the starship, in a later scene, after they have both teamed up to defeat the flying, bad fish, they are standing over the dead corpse.  Then after a moment of silence, the Hulk punches out his left hand and sends Thor flying away.”

Paul Nguyen:  “The foremost appeal was the action and hilarity, but besides that, there was an intriguing use of superheroes of many types. None fell into the shadow of another. Captain America’s patriotism was well emphasized as well as his physical prowess. Thor’s god-like presence was well felt, but his obvious superiority to the others did not overshadow the overall awesomeness of the Avengers. Iron Man’s wittiness came through well. Hulk’s violent hilarity was strong, especially in his thrashing of Loki. It was about the superheroes as a whole rather than a single superior superhero.”

Anna Dorsett: “The Avengers, while thoroughly entertaining, does not skim over the darker portions of a superhero’s struggle. Dr. Banner, for example, overcomes his inner struggle and finds balance with his human self and super human self with the acceptance and support of the Avengers- he, as a human, found a positive purpose for his destructive power, which he formerly despised. Each character has incredible power, but also a weakness within- some form of humanity that works against them to give the storyline more drama and make the character more relatable. It’s a great thing to watch.”

Nick Lehotsky: “The Avengers proves entertaining, reflecting the reversed tropes seen in superheroes like Hancock. The indifferent, often aggressive attitude society maintains towards these “freaks” because of their massive property damage and pseudo-celebrity attitudes [I’m looking at you, Tony Stark] still resonates with audiences. It is as if we are continually perplexed by the superhero’s interactions with our society, and the hope that they shall always continue saving humanity. The Avengers is just what it is promised to be-a witty, action packed, Marvel stamped [via Disney] money making monster. I just hope the sequel provides more character depth.”

Adele Irwin: “I found the relationship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to be the most intriguing. Each as individuals are likable characters with level headedness, senses of humor, and scientific intellect. Their friendship within the Avengers is appealing because they bond before the entire group comes together. Rarely have alliances between Superheroes been seen up to this point in our reading, making the collaboration between these two characters within the Avengers group entertaining and original to me, taking the superhero trope of selflessness to an entire new level.”

Shannon Nollet: “The Avengers, unlike some of the earlier superhero stories, gives a female a strong role. Not only is the Black Widow human, but she is able to fight the aliens just as well, if not better, than her male companions. No longer are the women simply the damsel in distress or doting love-interest. In Whedon’s The Avengers, women fully take part in the action.”

Chris Levy: “Each character has a well-defined fatal flaw, and these flaws almost lead to the failure of their mission. Tony Stark has major humility issues, threatening his ability to work with the others. Captain America’s long slumber has caused him to be somewhat outdated. Thor is not mortal, and thus does not truly understand human behavior. As the Hulk, Dr. Banner’s flaw is obvious, while the Black Widow struggles to put her dark past behind her. These characters are superhuman, yet still struggle with flaws like every other human.”

Zabriawn Smith: “My favorite character and message was Captain America. The time capsule jokes by Tony Stark were hilarious, but when it came time to battle it the old stars and stripes that led the way. I enjoyed the theme of returning to roots to move forward. He had a lot more edge than he did in the comics; seeing Captain America allow one of his teammates push his buttons was startling and eye-opening.”

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