Marvel’s back in business

Scarlett Johansson stars in a scene from the movie "Black Widow." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (CNS photo/Disney)

Cinema operators feared for their industry when the major Hollywood studios withheld movies during the height of the Covid-19 closures. Now that most cinemas have reopened in North America and Europe, as well as in the major Asian markets, those fears have subsided.  

This year’s box office trends in New Zealand, where cinemas remained open, indicate that the practice of holding back so-called “tentpole” attractions has been over-rated. These are movies that draw bigger-than-usual audiences — including the kind who go to the cinema only once or twice a year.  

The figures show consistent attendances, despite an increasing number of new movies from streaming services for home viewing. Of the 12 movies with box office takings of more than $1 million up to July, five could be categorised as family- or children-oriented. Two (Cruella and Raya and the Last Dragon) were also available from Disney Plus.  

Three of the million-dollar-plus movies were thrillers or action-based, led by Fast & Furious 9; two were horror (including A Quiet Place, Part II); and two were arthouse, being the New Zealand hit Cousins, and Oscar-winning The Father 

Family films do best during school holidays, leaving cinemas heavily dependent on regularly-attending adults. They gave strong support to Six Minutes to MidnightThe CourierNomadland, and A Call to Spy. Foreign language productions have been largely absent, except for the recent French and Italian festivals.  

Likely to join the million-dollar category is Black Widow, the first release from Disney’s Marvel Studios since Spider-Man: Far From Home in July, 2019. It is also streaming at a premium on Disney Plus.  

The original Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) died in an act of self-sacrifice halfway through Avengers: Endgame. The story traces her origins as the daughter of a Russian “sleeper” family in Ohio, as in The Americans, an innovative 2013-18 TV series.  

Cold War espionage lifts the plotting and characterisation of Black Widow above its Marvel stablemates. The parents, played by Rachel Weisz and David Harbour, also have a younger daughter (Florence Pugh), who has a grudge against her older sibling.  

The plot jumps ahead for a couple of decades as the re-united sisters and parents elude some KGB baddies. This requires a car chase through an exotic capital city (Budapest), and plenty of gunplay.  

More black widow assassins are under the control of a master criminal (Ray Winstone), who runs the Red Room, and is a threat to global peace.  

The first half is a sign Marvel can produce some credible characters, with domestic relationships that go deeper than comic cut-outs.  

Credit must rest with Australian director Cate Shortland (Berlin SyndromeLore) and her experience in Europe. It is also a step up for Marvel screenwriter Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok).  

The second half reverts to an overdose of the familiar special effects created by an army of graphic artists, including those of Weta Digital, complete with a post-credit teaser. 

Rating: Mature audiences. 134 minutes. 

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Nevil Gibson

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