Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow first appeared in Iron Man 2 over a decade ago and died in 2019. Naturally, this was the perfect time to finally give her a solo film. I will acknowledge that Black Widow isn’t quite as easy to do a film about as Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel. Black Widow’s origin story is horrifying when you think about it hard enough. This movie, while it essentially montages over that period, makes it clear that she was essentially abducted as a child, tortured, operated on against her will, and brainwashed to be a perfect killing machine. Essentially, she’s the bad guy in most movies. So, doing a movie about her confronting that past, while it didn’t get as dark as it could have, was naturally going to have a lot of uncomfortable moments. The film tries, and largely succeeds, to balance this out with humor, but there are still a lot of parts of the movie where you will likely squirm a bit in your seat. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s definitely not what you expect from a Marvel movie.
The film takes place right after Captain America: Civil War with Natasha Romanov on the run from General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). After seemingly finding a good place to hideout, she receives a package that was sent by her sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), and is attacked by the assassin codenamed Taskmaster. Escaping, Natasha reunites with Yelena to find out that the Black Widows and the Red Room that trains them are both still operating, despite the fact that Natasha believed she killed Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the man operating it, as well as his daughter Antonia (Olga Kurylenko). The pair decide to find the Red Room through their old handlers and fake parents, the Soviet Super-Soldier Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz).
There are a lot of things this movie does well. It spends a lot of time taking apart tropes forced onto female characters in action films, with Yelena even calling Natasha a “poser” and those conversations are usually pretty hilarious. Actually the humor is mostly on point, particularly with the banter between Johansson and Pugh as well as David Harbour’s self-deluded super-soldier persona. The action sequences are excellent and contain some of the more fun entries into Marvel due to the fact that almost all of the characters in this film are not superhuman. It’s a little harder to know when something is dangerous when the characters can bench-press a bus or hold a helicopter in place. When most of the people can suffer collateral damage from explosions or getting punched a lot, then it seems like they’re in more trouble when they are being chased by an armored vehicle. The movie also does a good job of distinguishing itself from most of the other female-led movies by not trying to be an origin story and not trying to make its main character a paragon of virtue. Black Widow is almost a reformed supervillain and that’s not a common main character for a blockbuster film.
There are some downsides, though. The movie touching on the abuse that the girls suffer in the Red Room is deeply disturbing, but the fact that they end up bantering with Harbour and Weisz, their fake parents who essentially handed them over to be tortured, is almost more unnerving. They make jokes about genital mutilation at one point to make Red Guardian uncomfortable, but it still seems weird for them to not want to just put a bullet in his head for allowing them to go through that. While maybe you can forgive Red Guardian as he is kind of an idiot who really bought into the ideology that what happened to them for the best, Melina is a genius who helped design the program they went through. They should want her to die painfully, not be a surrogate mom again. Also, there’s nothing that can really happen in the movie that’s too surprising, because we know that Black Widow survives only to die five movies ago.
Overall, though, this was definitely a movie that was worth seeing.
Sometimes solid performances and a few good added twists can elevate an old set-up back into interesting territory. This movie could have fallen on its face, because a lot of the elements are old tropes reheated, but giving Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro the lead and having a cast full of excellent supporting characters really manage to keep this film thoroughly enjoyable. It helps that Soderbergh’s pacing is pretty tight, moving from one source of tension to another without making it unbearable on the viewer.
Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) is an ex-convict who is desperate for cash. He is contacted by mob recruiter Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser) and agrees to help babysit a family as part of a blackmail scheme. He’s joined by fellow crooks Ronald and Charley (Benicio del Toro and Kieran Culkin) and they break into the house of accountant Matt Wertz (David Harbour). They hold Matt’s wife, Mary (Amy Seimetz), and his children hostage while forcing him to get a copy of a document for the mob boss Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta). When Matt returns, without the real document due to it being removed, Charley decides to execute the family and Matt, but Curt shoots him in the head to prevent a massacre. Now Ronald and Curt are both wanted by the mob and the police, but they both decide to try and steal the real document and use it to buy their freedom.
This movie has just the right number of moving parts introduced at just the right times, because as the plot builds, it ends up having a large number of characters and subplots colliding but you never really feel lost. It helps that, by having so many talented supporting cast members, the characters are more memorable. Aside from those listed above, other supporting characters are played by Jon Hamm, Bill Duke, Matt Damon, and Julia Fox, all of whom keep you focused on their actions better than expected. The film also keeps the focus on the fact that Curt and Ronald are at the mercy of any number of people, because anyone can want to turn them in for a reward. In a way it changes the heist film formula from being two parts getting in to one part getting out and instead makes most of the plot about getting away with the goods. Thankfully, Soderbergh is very used to these types of films and can handle this shift in the structure.
The Hellboy remake can go straight to Boy. I tried harder writing that joke than the people who wrote this movie.
Hellboy (David Harbour) is a demon hunter who also is a demon or a half-demon or something like that. Whatever, he’s big, he’s red, and his right arm looks like it was pulled off of a different action figure and glued on. He works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, an organization that fights all the stuff that you traditionally find in those creepy German fairy tales preying on children: Ogres, giants, witches, Ted Nugent, etc. The BPRD is led by Hellboy’s adoptive father Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian “C*cksucker” McShane), who found Hellboy after he was summoned by Nazis and Grigori Rasputin (Markos Routhwaite) back in 1945 and elected not to kill him despite the fact that Hellboy was summoned to bring about Ragnarok.
After killing a Mexican Vampire (Mario de la Rosa) who tells him the end is coming, Hellboy is sent to hunt giants with the Osiris Club, a bunch of rich English guys who have been doing this since knights were en vogue. They quickly stab Hellboy in the back and try to kill him to prevent the apocalypse and he falls into a river.
At the same time, a boar-man named Gruagach (Stephen Graham/Douglas Tait) beseeches the Baba Yaga (Troy James/Emma Tate), the Russian Witch, for a way to get revenge on Hellboy. We’re later told that this is because Hellboy stopped him from being able to switch places with a baby and be raised human. Baba Yaga tells him to find the pieces of the witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich) and put them together, which apparently isn’t hard because there are only like 7 pieces, instead of the hundreds that you’d think a body would end up in over 1500 f*cking years. Seriously, why do all these damned “separated body parts” stories keep the number so small rather than just having the caretakers go “oh hey, another year passed, let’s cut another piece off and throw it into a new mine shaft?” This is why Voldemort’s an idiot.
Whatever. Hellboy gets out of the river, because of f*cking course he does, only to find out that apparently there actually were giants that easily killed the giant hunters. Hellboy kills them in what is admittedly a pretty cool fight scene, but then the movie has to keep going by having him pass out as a young woman named Alice (Sasha Lane) arrives. She saves Hellboy, revealing that she’s a medium and also the baby Hellboy saved from Gruagach. The BPRD shows up to tell Hellboy that the last piece of Nimue is in the custody of the Osiris Club, who have now been massacred. It’s also revealed that Nimue wants Hellboy to kickstart the end of days, because that’s what they always want him to do in these movies. He’s joined by a werejaguar named Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), who has secret orders from M11, the British BPRD, to kill Hellboy if he needs to.
Hellboy gets transported to Baba Yaga’s house, who hates Hellboy for taking her eye, offers to tell Hellboy Nimue’s location in exchange for one of his eyes. Hellboy cheats her, resulting in her cursing him, because we need an emotional thing later. The heroes head to the location and kill a bunch of witches, but Nimue’s back because movie’s gotta movie. She poisons Alice, but Hellboy goes and wakes up Merlin to cure her, who also offers Hellboy the way to Excalibur, because apparently he’s descended from King Arthur through his mother. Hellboy passes, however, despite it being the weapon that cut Nimue apart in the first place. Also, almost no version of the Arthurian myth has Arthur leave a surviving royal lineage, and the ones that do mostly say that the Pendragon line only produces male heirs, so I’m calling bullshit on this “descended from Arthur through his mother” crap.
Merlin the Plot Device dies and so do most of the supporting characters. The key characters fight Nimue in a church, like one does. Hellboy kills Gruagach and falls into a pit containing Excalibur, rendering Hellboy’s earlier decision pointless. He refuses to pull it out until Nimue kills Bruttenholm, completing Baba Yaga’s curse. Hellboy pulls the sword, which starts the apocalypse for some reason, until he kills Nimue, because cliche hero’s gotta cliche hero. Later, they find Abe Sapien, which is too little too late for this film.
Thank goodness the third season of Stranger Things came out, because I would hate for a movie like this to hurt David Harbour’s career. Actually, his portrayal of Hellboy was one of the only good things in the film. He conveys a lot more complex emotions than the dialogue allows, he looks great as Hellboy, he’s completely distinct from the version of Hellboy in the other films without feeling like a betrayal of the character, and also he feels like he’s actually giving the film effort. I love Ian McShane in general, but from his narration at the beginning of the movie, I thought he was phoning it in. Given the quality of dialogue he was reading I can’t quite blame him, but still, at least Harbour tried to make lemonade out of the pile of lemon-scented dung that they gave him to work with. Daniel Dae Kim, an actor I normally like, also seemed checked out, like he was upset that he was the second choice for the role after Ed Skrein backed out over the whitewashing of the character. I didn’t see American Honey, so I have no idea if this was above or below average for Sasha Lane. Milla Jovovich… well, she was Leeloo, she gets a pass from me. What kind of pass? If you can’t answer that, punch yourself in the head and go watch The Fifth Element.
The acting really isn’t the problem, compared to the story and the dialogue. The story feels like it was cobbled together from a bunch of different scripts precisely because it WAS exactly that. This movie adapts like three or four different plotlines from the Hellboy comics and that’s kind of a mistake out of the gate. Not only are those all fairly long plots to work in, they’re also from comics that occurred pretty far into Hellboy’s run, where the series didn’t have to worry about establishing characters or trying to quickly convey how they’d previously interacted. Even more, the film had to convey how the world you’re building is different than the only previous one we’d seen in the medium, and it’s quite a bit different from both the previous movie and the comic. A big difference is the presence of Hellboy on Earth. In the Guillermo del Toro films, Hellboy is a well-kept secret. In the comics, he’s the world’s most famous supernatural investigator. Here, he’s sort of in-between, not in hiding but also not publicly super recognized. So, basically, this film had to distinguish itself, establish a world, convey a complicated story, explain the history of the characters, and also kick-ass at the same time. That can be pulled off (like Into the Spider-Verse did), but it requires a great script and some efficient storytelling. This was not that script.
It’s difficult for me to pick exactly when I realized I was probably going to hate this film, but since it was during the flashback that opens the movie, I’d say it was about 25 seconds in when Ian McShane is throwing in some random “f*cks” to remind people what the rating is. However, I can absolutely say when I realized that I definitely was going to hate the film, and that’s when Hellboy delivered the line “if my face could talk it would disagree with you.” That line is so terrible and delivered with such unearned confidence in its quality that I just about vomited. Everything after that wasn’t much of an improvement, but my standards had hit “The Room without ironic pleasure” at that point, so I couldn’t care.
I also pretty much gave up hope of any redemption in how the plot was going to play out when the knights stab Hellboy in the back and ask him “we’ve been doing this for a thousand years, you didn’t really think we’d need your help, did you?” This is stupid on several levels. First, why didn’t Hellboy ask himself that, particularly given that they explain the history of the hunt before setting off? Second, it turns out that the giants are real and they quickly massacre the knights, so they DID need his help and they could have killed him after he helped them kill the giants. Third, their plan was to blame the giants for his disappearance so that Bruttenholm wouldn’t notice, but Hellboy kills all of them single-handedly while heavily wounded, so it seems like it would have been suspicious anyway. I’d say that hey might not know that he’s that strong, but they’ve been studying him for 60 years. Fourth, why even take him on a real hunt if you’re just going to kill him? You’re doing it to prevent the apocalypse, couldn’t you have thought of a ruse that would be more likely to kill him? Fifth, you decapitate giants, but you think you can drown a freaking demon? Lastly, this entire act pretty much ends up doing nothing, as it has almost no impact on the rest of the story, meaning it was pointless.
AND THAT’S MOST OF THE MOVIE. Something kind of easily preventable happens, Hellboy kind of deals with it, but then his decisions are rendered pointless by circumstances so that they can get to the next plot point.
This movie sucks. David Harbour is pretty good and some of the fights look neat, but everything else is poorly executed.