Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014) Madhouse studios, Directed by Kenichi Shimizu; Screenplay by Mitsutaka Hirota; Story by Marjorie Liu
For some specific critiques, I’ll have to drop some spoilage. Just sayin’.
There are some neat nods to Marvel Comics here. For example, although the locations range from Slovenia to Istanbul to Hong Kong, the main throwdown is, of course, in Madripoor. Not that the place is much different visually from Hong Kong as presented in the film, but still. And there are several cameos by characters that let a geek like me, well, geek out a bit, such as having the Avengers cavalry include War Machine and Captain Marvel (who, coincidentally I think, were shown to be dating in recent Captain Marvel pages.) Not that these characters got any lines or much more than a couple of sequences, but still.
There’s a much bigger role for a character I REALLY grew to love but has dropped out of Marvel’s favor, apparently, and that’s Amadeus Cho. In this film, he’s “one of SHIELD’s greatest scientists” with no mention of his unique powerset, but still. There’s even Kirby the coyote cub! And for being one of SHIELD’s greatest scientists, he doesn’t really do all that much but work on some computers for our title heroes and provide some comedy relief for joining in on the Avengers cavalry at the end for some reason. But still. Oh, and his personality and character isn’t much more than geeky young ADHD kid with a crush on Black Widow, but sti– oh, forget it. It’s nice to have him here, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense if he’s basically interchangeable with the Tinkerer or Forge or some other minor, one-note Marvel character who could have done the same thing. Oh, Cho!
But really, I just couldn’t wait to write this review, specifically this paragraph right here. It’s because of one moment that made me laugh out loud and non-stop for a couple minutes. There is one character which I DID NOT SEE COMING at all. You see, it turns out that one of the Bads in the film (not the Big Bad, but one of the mini-Bosses) is…
wait for it…
are you ready?
It is, none other than …
If you are like my viewing-buddy who still don’t understand why I’d be cracking up, here’s the picture I had to stop the movie to show him:
Yes, that’s right. Elihas Starr, a.k.a. Egghead. Former archenemy of none other than Ant-Man, in this film he not only was “one of SHIELD’s brightest scientists” at some point (are all of their scientists this by now?), he was in fact the Black Widow’s love interest. In fact, his love interest is what fuels his descent into super-villainy so that he can prove himself worthy of her, as she’s always galavanting off into adventures instead of paying attention to him. In fairness, here’s what he looks like according to Madhouse studios:
So anyway, his mad scientist love is revealed at the end of Act II, as I said, which surprises everyone out of the blue, including, it seems, the Black Widow herself, and thus it all comes out as kind of pathetic. After waiting through more exposition and being introduced to the MacGuffin, you almost think that the Widow will use some super-spy skills to ingratiate herself to the organization (and you almost sympathize with Starr’s anti-SHIELD rhetoric), but no, it’s really just a big fight between them, because Starr has, like any good mad scientist, experimented on himself, and the Widow has to escape with help from the Punisher.
I’ll admit it– the film had me on the edge of my seat. But not for the reasons the filmmakers hoped, I think. I kept waiting for Starr to actually transform into Egghead with, you know, an actual egg-shaped head, but no, sorry. More strangely, in Act V, the Black Widow suddenly starts interacting with Starr as if she’s been in love with him all along! Wa-waaah! There was no reason for him to join with the bad guy terrorist organization or experiment on yourself anyway! As if that’s not tropey enough, Widow gets to hold him in her arms as he lays dying from trying to save her from the Big Bad, named Orion, in the final showdown. (Is it giving them too much credit that the villains are named Starr and Orion?) The villain is taken down in one final blow, of course, by the Punisher with a stab in the eye, so Widow and Starr can share those last moments of his death together.
As you can see, if you care about Women’s Studies critiques, this is not the film for you. The Black Widow appears like a capable character, but in fact does very little on her own. Although she can go toe-to-toe in a fight against the Punisher or even against Starr or Orion, these fights are actually taken over and triumphed by a male character instead. The first one? Her fight against the Punisher is interrupted by Nick Fury. The second one? Her fight against the Punisher is stopped when Amadeus destroys the plot device. Against Starr? Starr actually beats her several times graphically in the stomach to send her flying over some rails, “luckily” being caught by the Punisher. Against Orion? Tropey McTropeson, I mean, Starr sacrifices himself by standing in the way of the fatal blow.
At this point, I’m wondering why she’s even in the film at all. She only holds off the Punisher until SHIELD captures him, but when the plot needs to go forward, she has to break him *out* of SHIELD in order to get to the next level. (Even though it’s been clearly demonstrated that the Punisher is brainwashed and can be triggered by the very people she is bringing them to.) She gets Amadeus motivated by promising him a kiss, I guess? That’s agency of plot, right? Moreover, her character isn’t notable in any way, as she only gives exposition or commentary, often in the form of a flippant remark. What is her basic character in this film, anyway? She just kind of does what she’s told, either directly from a character or meta-directly because of the dictates of the formulaic plot.
Oh, right. I know what purpose she serves. Remember that tracking shot I talked about in the pre-credits sequence? The one that started by focusing on her boobs and moving to her face? Yeah, that happens a lot in the film. There’s also more than a few times when the camera angle is shifted, such as in a low angle, but the foreground is some portion of the Widow’s lower anatomy. If we’re going to have to listen to some exposition focused on the Punisher, we better do it by looking past a butt-shot!
Which is a shame, because there are *hints* of things that could make a better story for a strong female hero. Heck, just switch Starr’s name for the Widow’s actual husband from the comics, Alexei Shostakov, the Red Guardian, who (basically) was a soldier and a hero but turned villain/antagonist. The guy was even a former Russian agent, which is what the terrorist organization in the film was comprised of! It’s a natural fit and actually amps up the pathos in a more natural way, while putting the Widow for some soul-searching as she questions her entire history. And why not have that guy be the Big Bad after all, allowing the Widow greater stakes in the final battle? All very simple fixes that keeps the already-basic structure of the film in place.
Of course, I could ask why the Punisher is even here as well. Like I said, it’s not like he really changes in the course of the story. The Widow tries to get him to go “easy” on the cannon-fodder, as they were once innocent “like his family” once was. In the denouement, however, the Punisher tracks down the one arms dealer that almost got away, clearly returning to his original modus operandi. These token attempts to compare/contrast the two don’t go anywhere beyond superficial sentences here or there.
Oh, right. I know what purpose he serves. Guns are pretty cool, so we might as well explore violence vicariously through gratuitous bullet-firing and knife-stabbing. Take that, bad guys!