As “Avengers: Endgame” wraps up 11 years of storytelling over 22 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) – one of the six original Avengers – has emerged as one of the most enduring characters in the franchise.
The red-haired Russian assassin turned SHIELD super-spy first stepped onto the scene in 2010’s “Iron Man 2.” As the MCU’s first female superhero, Black Widow carried the mantle for years, paving the way for others like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Wasp (Evangeline Lily), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). Intelligent, strong and always in control, Black Widow set the bar for female superheroes in and outside the MCU.
Black Widow wasn’t the first female superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to headline her own solo movie – that went to “Captain Marvel” earlier this year. But whatever the character’s fate may be in “Avengers: Endgame,” Black Widow is set to finally get her own film. The standalone, speculated to be a prequel about Natasha’s spy training, could go into production as early as this summer.
Throughout her six appearances in the MCU so far, Black Widow has grown tremendously as a character. Let’s look back at how the character has evolved over time.
“Iron Man 2”
When moviegoers first met Natasha, she was a “sexy secretary with a skill set on the side,” according to Johansson. Indeed, the film initially focuses more on Black Widow’s looks than her spy skills. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) hires Natasha to be Tony Stark/Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr.’s) assistant. The genius/billionaire/playboy/philanthropist openly ogles his attractive employee, which makes for some cringe-worthy scenes.
It’s only when SHIELD Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) appears that Tony learns Natasha is more than a pretty face. One of the highlights in the often-criticized sequel is Black Widow’s stunning action sequence in the Hammer Industries building. Wearing her now-familiar black catsuit, the spy somersaults, kicks and fights her way through a group of security guards. Black Widow, welcome to the MCU!
From the moment Black Widow comes onscreen in the epic 2012 teamup, the character shows she’s in control of any situation. Though she may be tied down to a chair during her opening interrogation scene, Natasha makes it clear that she’s the one doing the interrogating.
But the film also reveals the internal struggle driving Black Widow. Throughout “Avengers,” Natasha is working to make up for the bad things she’s done in her past. “I’ve got red in my ledger – I’d like to wipe it out,” she says. First, she saves a mind-controlled Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) from the grasp of villainous trickster Loki (Tom Hiddleston), paying back the SHIELD archer who once spared her life. Then she tricks Loki into revealing that unleashing Bruce Banner’s Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is the linchpin of his plan. And during the Battle of New York, Black Widow uses Loki’s scepter to close the portal he opened to allow the Chitauri aliens to invade the city.
Every Avenger has their role to play in the film. With her smarts and stealth, Black Widow secured her spot as a vital member of the team – and got some red out of her ledger.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
The 2014 political thriller brings together two of the most unlikely Avengers – the idealistic Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and the morally gray Black Widow. In the process, the film gives us one of the best friendships in the MCU as the two learn to trust each other.
The revelation that Hydra infiltrated SHIELD for decades rocks Natasha. In her quest for redemption, Natasha realizes she traded in her blood-stained KGB past not for an honorable agency like SHIELD, but for another corrupt organization. It’s a valuable insight into the motivation of the hardened warrior we’ve come to root for. And it’s a blow that Cap – with his eyes now open to the compromised government he once pledged to serve – can understand.
As the two bond to take down Hydra, Black Widow and Cap form a partnership that stretches into future MCU films, up to and including last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War.”
“Avengers: Age of Ultron”
The 2015 superhero teamup delves into Natasha’s past and psyche more than any of her MCU appearances. As the superhero attempts a romance with Bruce Banner/Hulk, Black Widow is haunted by flashbacks of her super-spy training, brought on by Scarlet Witch.
During the flashbacks, Natasha relives the “Red Room” training and its “graduation ceremony.” This is a sterilization procedure that all female recruits must go through, in order to “make everything easier, including killing,” she explains. In order to complete her training, Natasha was forced to have the procedure, depriving her of the choice of motherhood. During her moving soliloquy to Bruce at Hawkeye’s farm, Natasha mourns losing this choice to decide her future. The bold storytelling allows Natasha to be vulnerable without taking away an ounce of her strength.
“Captain America: Civil War”
After the massive devastation from the Sokovia incident in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the Sokovia accords are proposed to keep Earth’s mightiest heroes in check. As the heroes take sides over the accords in the 2016 film, Black Widow finds herself in the middle of Iron Man, who supports government supervision over the superheroes, and her good friend Captain America, who believes the heroes’ judgment is more trustworthy than the government’s.
At first, Natasha joins Iron Man’s side. “If we have one hand on the wheel, we can still steer,” she says. But throughout the film, she looks out for Cap, warning him not to go after his childhood friend, unstable assassin the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). As the divided superheroes face off in an iconic airport battle, Black Widow chooses loyalty and friendship over the accords as she helps Cap and the Winter Soldier escape. The last we see of Natasha is the super-spy going into exile.
“Avengers: Infinity War”
As the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) works to collect all of the Infinity Stones to wipe out half of the universe, Black Widow is called back into action. The fearless spy, now sporting blond hair after being in exile, returns with Captain America and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) – the same team setup established in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” – to assist Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch during an attack from Thanos’ minions.
Black Widow doesn’t see much character development in “Infinity War” as the superheroes are preoccupied with saving the universe from Thanos’ snap, which does not go as planned. But as one of the surviving Avengers, Black Widow is determined to undo the damage from the Decimation. She will play a key role with her fellow OG Avengers – Cap, Iron Man, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye/Ronin and the Hulk – to restore their fallen comrades in “Avengers: Endgame,” ready to accept whatever fate befalls her.
We’ll learn what happens to Black Widow and her character arc as “Avengers: Endgame” storms theaters this weekend.
This Thursday evening, cineplexes will fill their theaters with multiple screenings of “Avengers: Endgame.” At just over three hours long, the final chapter involving Marvel’s heroic collective will force movie fans to stay still for an eighth of a day without intermission. How are we to survive? Go without a large popcorn and soda so that you don’t have bathroom breaks? Not doze off right before a pivotal moment? We at Take 2 have you covered. We’re offering four ways that will help you watch the Avengers take on Thanos and still have a great day at the movies.
1) Practice makes perfect.
If you have never seen a three-hour movie, now is the time to do so. Some of the best films ever made are more than 180 minutes and have won a ton of Academy Awards, including “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Gone With the Wind.” Many, like “Titanic” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” do not have intermissions. This is a small test of endurance, so try not to hit “pause” while you are watching these at home. Also, keep the cellphone and tablet away so that you can concentrate on what you’re watching. If you have snacks or need to go to the bathroom, keep a notebook and pen nearby to see how many times you wander away from the screen. That will give you an idea of what your viewing habits are.
2) If you gotta go, download an app.
If your bladder influences your time at the movies, there’s a helpful app just for you. Run Pee is an app that sends a buzz to your phone when it is OK to go to the bathroom and not miss an important part of the movie. The app supplies spoiler-free “cues” that alerts the user what line will be said before a spot on unimportant action happens. It also mentions if there are mid-credit and end-credit scenes, which is almost a given with any Marvel movie. Admittedly, Dan Gardner, the creator of Run Pee, says that “Endgame” will be a difficult movie to prepare for the app, and the team will watch the movie multiple times before posting to the app. Anyone hoping to watch it Thursday night may not have the app as a reference.
3) Have an at-home movie marathon.
Ryan Chattaway is a cinephile and vlogger on YouTube who sets up an annual 24-hour movie marathon challenge. The set-up is to spend 24 hours or multiple marathons up to 24 hours of watching movies. It sounds easy, but it is quite a challenge as Chattaway has set up guidelines for viewers. The rules, eight in all for 2019, always include one that is at least 170 minutes long. If you want “Endgame” to be a part of the challenge, it can be that longest film. You can watch “Endgame” and another movie after that, and you will be nearly a quarter or more of the way through the challenge.
4) Watch a Bollywood movie.
While there is a fair amount of three-hour Hollywood movies, many lack ongoing humor, music and action sequences. Too many are historical dramas or epic tales. But nothing compares to the length of an average Bollywood flick. Three hours watching a screen is common, and streaming services like Netflix make it easy to catch one. 2001’s “Lagaan,” for example, is nearly four hours long set in 1890s India involving a cricket match. If that’s not your type, try 2004’s “Swades” about a NASA worker who returns to India to find the nanny who raised him.
Bonus: Don’t forget the trailers!
With “Endgame” being pushed as the biggest cinematic event of the year, expect more trailers than usual before the movie. Local Cinemark and Regal franchises average about 25 minutes of previews and R/C Wilkes-Barre Movies 14 shows about 15 minutes. Expect these numbers to go up, particularly since Marvel is a part of Disney and Disney just acquired Fox. We will most likely see trailers for “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker,” “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” “Toy Story 4,” “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and “The New Mutants,” and possibly “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” “Ad Astra” and “Spies in Disguise.”
You may find yourself in the theater for four hours to see “Endgame.” If you can’t handle that, perhaps wait for it to arrive on home video.
Star Wars fans erupted into a tizzy last week when the trailer and title were released for the ninth – and final – entry in the Skywalker saga. “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” promises to wrap up the 40-year saga by bringing together characters from all three trilogies.
There’s a breathtaking shot of Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has been developing her Jedi abilities throughout the new trilogy, somersaulting onto a TIE fighter. General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and Rey share an emotional hug. We see charming smuggler Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) reunite with his original ship, the Millenium Falcon. And whose sinister laugh is that at the end? Why, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) – maybe you’re not dead after all!
But the most provocative thing about “The Rise of Skywalker” may be the title itself. After 2017’s “The Last Jedi” divided fans, the name of the newest Star Wars film is an intriguing choice. With J.J. Abrams, who directed the franchise’s return in 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” back at the helm for Episode IX, the title is almost certainly a reaction to Rian Johnson’s polarizing film.
In “The Last Jedi,” the dark but conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) tries to convince Rey to “let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” The phrase defined Johnson’s agenda to push the beloved franchise past the Skywalker saga and into the future.
To bring home the point, “The Last Jedi” shockingly kills off franchise protagonist and legendary Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). It also claimed that Rey – who “The Force Awakens” insinuated had connections to key characters in the saga – was the daughter of nobodies. Then the film ends with an unknown boy with a broom using the Force, an indication that the future of the Jedi lies with characters outside the Skywalker family.
However, the trailer for “The Rise of Skywalker” demonstrates an intent to close out the trilogy where the franchise began – with the Skywalkers. Though Luke is now dead, his voiceover permeates the new trailer. “We’ve passed on all we know – a thousand generations live in you now. But this is your fight,” Luke says.
Luke may well be referring to the legacy of the Jedi living on in Rey. But could he be suggesting something more specific?
After “The Last Jedi,” some fans were upset that the film did not establish Rey as a Skywalker. A popular theory after “The Force Awakens” was that the blue lightsaber that belonged to Luke and his father, Anakin, called out to Rey because she was Luke’s daughter, and therefore the weapon was rightfully hers. Could “The Rise of Skywalker” be referring to Rey’s true parentage? In the trailer, Rey has apparently pieced back together the blue lightsaber, which was torn in half in “The Last Jedi.” Abrams may seek to connect the bread crumbs he set up in “The Force Awakens” and confirm a family connection between Rey and Luke.
However, “The Rise of Skywalker” could also refer to a known Skywalker in the movie. Kylo Ren’s real name may be Ben Solo, but as the son of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia, the character is really a Skywalker through his mother.
The trailer shows Kylo Ren piecing together his Darth Vader-like helmet after breaking it in “The Last Jedi.” Though Kylo Ren seems firmly on the Dark Side after killing Snoke in “The Last Jedi,” Luke says in the trailer that “no one’s ever really gone.” Does this mean that Kylo Ren – like his grandfather, Darth Vader – can still be redeemed? And if so, what part might Rey have to play in it?
With “The Rise of Skywalker” not set to hit theaters until Dec. 20, these questions will keep Star Wars fans speculating for months. Though the trailer was light on plot details, it’s probably safe to expect that “The Rise of Skywalker” will do some course-correcting after “The Last Jedi.”
Coachella has become more and more of a platform for Hollywood over the years. When Lady Gaga stepped in for Beyonce in 2017 as a headliner, the pop star turned the music festival in the desert into a movie set, with Bradley Cooper shooting her set as part of “A Star is Born.” The film would wow audiences a year later, and bring Gaga her first Oscar for best original song.
This year’s festival has attracted several topline actors who are exploring their musical side and singers who have dabbled into acting. Thanks to the festival’s live stream on YouTube, people at home didn’t have to fork over a fortune to stay in the desert for three days, experience FOMO or be in the presence of lots of sweaty people.
The festival’s opening day Friday was electrified by three acting talents at various degrees of their music careers. Donald Glover was one of the three headliners under his persona Childish Gambino. With Coachella possibly serving as his stage name’s swan song, Gambino sported the look he had in the celebrated music video, “This Is America,” dressed only in simple gray pants. The set had an improvisational feel with the camerawork similar to a documentary.
With the opening video filled with festival-goers who were not amused that the actor/musician/renaissance man was performing. Some suggested that they would be excited if he brought in a special guest on stage. It was an unexpected opening, but the 55 minutes that followed proved those naysayers wrong.
Early in the set, Gambino addresses the audience of 100,000, telling them to put the cellphones away as the concert was his version of church. With singers in church choir garb, Gambino meant business. Times of reflection (paying tribute to his late father and the recent death of Nipsey Hussle) blended with jubilance (getting everyone to sing along to “Sober”). About two new songs were included in the set, but Gambino’s past hits were front and center.
Glover/Gambino also debuted a short film co-starring Rihanna, Letitia Wright and Nonso Anozie titled, “Guava Island.” Directed by frequent “Atlanta” collaborator Hiro Miruai and written by his brother Stephen Glover, Donald Glover stars as Deni, a musician who lives on the island whose boss, Red (Anozie), does not want him to sing at a festival in fear that the workers will not return to their textile factory the next day. Rihanna is Kofi, Deni’s girlfriend and muse who works in the factory, and Wright is her co-worker Yara.
Shot in Cuba, the film is saturated in animation, color and culture. The music is some form of Gambino’s hits, including a new visual take on “This is America.” Unfortunately, Rihanna doesn’t sing in this short film, but her acting is good.
Prior to Glover/Gambino taking the main stage, Janelle Monae brought her “Dirty Computer” act to Coachella. For 45 minutes, the singer brought elements of her 2018 “emotional picture” and accompanying world tour to the festival as clips from the short film were projected onto the stage. Contrasting Gambino’s simple wardrobe, Monae had five costume changes during her set. Also, her stage featured a red throne and multiple dancers. Performers Lizzo and Tierra Mack made appearances as Monae performed “I Got the Juice.” Although she has appeared in films like “Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight” and “Welcome to Marwen” in the last three years, Monae made her return to music about a year ago.
Another actress balancing a musical act at Coachella is Charlotte Gainsbourg. The daughter of actress Jane Birkin and singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte Gainsbourg has kept an active music career while starring in movies like “I’m Not There,” “The Science of Sleep” and “Antichrist.” Sandwiched between Monae and Gambino at Gobi stage, Gainsbourg performed with her band in white T-shirts and blue denim. For a stage that was more for electronic bands, Gainsbourg offered a more subdued set, with only long light beams serving a stage decor. Much of the set featured songs from her 2017 release, “Rest,” with tracks she served as the songwriter.
On Saturday, there were not as many actors on the bill, but mixed in with the dance crowd was Idris Elba. For those who only know of the British actor for his television roles in “The Wire” and “Luther” or his films, “Pacific Rim,” “The Dark Tower,” “Beasts of No Nation” and the “Thor” series, some may be surprised to find out that Elba has as DJ altar ego as DRIIS. He has even hosted documentaries on hip house and club music, and is starring in the Netflix series, “Turn Up Charlie,” as a struggling DJ. The two-hour set, according to The AV Club and PopSugar, Elba’s real skills were on display under a scatter of lights. The crowd was on its feet in Instagram posts as he spun classic house hits from Inner City and more. Unfortunately, his set was not part of the live stream.
If you missed any of the weekend acts, Coachella is streaming the second weekend, starting Friday at 8 p.m., on YouTube. “Guava Island” streamed for free for 18 hours on Amazon and one hour on YouTube on Saturday, but is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Since the DC Extended Universe got off the ground in 2013, the comic book franchise has struggled to find its way on the big screen. Initially embracing a dark feel with polarizing entries like “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the franchise has gradually turned lighter, refreshed by the acclaimed “Wonder Woman” and last year’s hit “Aquaman.”
Now the DCEU’s latest installment, “Shazam!” – the seventh film in the franchise – aims to be a light-hearted and fun entry. A dynamic Zachary Levi plays the titular role to perfection, leading a delightful cast.
But while the film may be different from the other movies before it in the franchise, that doesn’t make it better. “Shazam!” suffers from wild mood swings as it tries to balance elements of comedy and horror. The superhero origin film conjures up a mixed effort as the DCEU moves away from a unified cinematic universe.
“Shazam!” follows sullen and streetwise 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who’s been in and out of foster homes after he was separated from his mother as a youngster. After his latest effort to find her goes awry, Billy winds up in a group home where he meets Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled teen who is fascinated by superheroes.
After he stands up to some bullies tormenting Freddie, Billy is summoned by Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), an aging wizard who passes on his magical powers to the teen to protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins. By saying Shazam’s name out loud, Billy discovers he can transform into a grown-up superhero (Levi). It’s a gift he can use to help others, but that he also learns how to exploit.
However, evil scientist Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), in league with the Seven Deadly Sins, believes Shazam’s powers would be better suited for him. With the help of Freddy and his new foster family, Billy must discover what being a superhero really means before the sins are unleashed upon the world.
Largely a standalone film, the entertaining “Shazam!” ties into the DCEU with clever references to Superman and Batman. While DCEU films tend to overload on CGI in the climactic battle between hero and villain, “Shazam!” smartly reins it in and takes a surprising route. The film has memorable action sequences, including a suspenseful bus crash and an exciting carnival finale.
Levi and Asher introduce Billy/Shazam to the DCEU, playing two sides of the same coin. Levi is a breath of fresh air, lighting up the screen. As the adult version of Billy, Levi taps into the childlike aspects of the character, capturing the wonder of being a superhero. Some of the film’s funniest scenes are when Shazam and Freddy are testing the superhero’s abilities, from bullet resistance to super strength to flying. Levi and Grazer, who was also excellent in 2017’s horror hit “It,” have a fantastic camaraderie that makes their unusual friendship believable.
While Levi carries the superhero duties, the young Asher tackles the more adult issue of Billy’s search for family. He has some of the most emotional scenes in “Shazam!” as he comes to terms with his abandonment. Through Asher, Billy builds connections with his foster family, including the precocious Darla (Faith Herman) and the studious Mary (Grace Fulton).
What hurts “Shazam!” are its sudden shifts in tone. The film, rated PG-13, has been marketed to young kids. But “Shazam!” goes from being laugh-out-loud funny to spine-tingling scary, without warning. The tonal whiplash is jarring.
Director David F. Sandberg, who helmed “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation,” reveals his horror background in the film’s frightening moments, which may be too intense for young viewers. The dark elements are an unneeded callback to the tone of earlier DCEU movies.
The film’s villain is also weak. Strong gets a lot of screen time as Sivana. But the character is one-note as the scientist has been holding onto the same grudge for decades. It’s a curious decision to grant so much time to the character when there’s no effort at developing him.
“Shazam!” diverges from the established DCEU by trying for a more fun tone, even if the path it carves is a rocky one. Hopefully the planned sequel will smooth out the edges.
3 out of 5 stars
Say hello to Captain Sparkle Fingers and his tragic origins story.
The DC Comics movie machine has churned out another character from its library with the introduction of “Shazam!” Starring Zachary Levi as the title character and Asher Angel as the teenage alter ego Billy Batson, the latest PG-13 DCEU offering blends tragedy with a doses of humor and product placement to protect magic from supervillain Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) and the Seven Deadly Sins (monstrous CGI ghouls).
Unlike Batman or Superman, “Shazam!” takes place in an actual city, Philadelphia, with its motto fitting that for a foster group home that takes in Billy after he has run away from some many foster homes in the past. Philadelphia is not gloomy like Gotham City or towering like Metropolis, but the city of brotherly love has the right elements for training a superhero. At the home, Billy finds comic-book obsessed Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a disabled teen who becomes his best friend. After taking on Freddy’s bullies at school, Billy is snatched from the real world and into a magical lair where a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) gives him superpowers to fight off the Sins. It’s in this same lair that Dr. Sivana acquired dark magic and the will to defeat his nemesis.
The darkness in the origins story is classic DC and should not be repeated in future “Shazam!” reboots. It is countered with the lightness that is the teenager stuck in a superhero’s body. Billy, as himself and as the hero, rarely makes the right decision throughout the film. Freddy lives through Billy’s powers, serving as his “hero manager” and hype man. Their times together are comical, especially as they try to figure out what superpowers Billy has and what name he should have.
Compared to the six other DCEU movies, “Shazam!” is a middle-of-the-road offering. The effects are OK, the action is lukewarm and the symbolism is not strong. The climactic fight scene is not memorable, but the laughs are. With this comic being less known than heroes like Aquaman, the Dark Knight and Man of Steel, there are tons of DC toys, T-shirts and collectibles littered throughout the film to hammer in your head that this is not Marvel. It’s more distracting than it is helpful. Then again, Hounsou appears in this and in “Captain Marvel,” so if you are confused about which comic giant made this, you are justified.
Despite its shortcomings, “Shazam!” is a fun time at the movies. Remembering that these are kids being forced into impossible situations makes it a good exercise to suspend logic and practicality. Levi looks like he’s having fun being a fish out of water (sorry, Aquaman), and it works on many levels. Angel and Grazer are equally entertaining, and the rest of the foster kids create a believable, unconventional family. It also helps with the family theme that this all takes place during Christmas, so it will have a long life as a holiday movie.
“Shazam!” is a close attempt to making a good superhero movie. Let’s hope that the unavoidable sequel will not be a banal reproduction.
3.5 out of 5 stars
If you’re a member of Generation X (1961-81) or an early millennial (1977-83), the past three weeks have been filled with nostalgic looks at recent cinematic classics that shaped your adolescence and early adulthood. Two titles disrupted their genres with a fresh but dark look, and it’s highly likely that you own one of them in your movie collection. Let’s take a look back:
30 years ago: “Heathers”
Debuting in 1989, the teen comedy starred Winona Ryder as smart teen Veronica stuck in a feared clique of rich snobs, led by Shannen Doherty, with its members taking the name Heather. Their last initial and love for shoulder pads distinguished them. Veronica was more like a pet than a peer to them, having not earned her “Heather” name yet. When she meets JD (Christian Slater), the school’s residential sociopath, the teenage lovebirds pick off their rivals and make them look like suicides.
The twisted, R-rated film followed years of tamer teen flicks like “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” where the central character’s biggest obstacle was getting a date for the dance or getting out of school trouble. Having a film about teen suicides, homicides, F-bombs and sex was not the making of an instant hit. Its theme song, “Teenage Suicide” by Big Fun, was not exactly radio friendly. During its theatrical run that started on March 31, 1989, “Heathers” only made $1.1 million. Thanks to home video and cable TV, the dark comedy found its audience years later, creating a cult following.
Its DNA is sprinkled throughout pop culture. In music, the California-based band The Donnas had its members named like the Heathers, replacing their first names with Donna and going by their last initial. Pop duo The Veronicas, composed of twin Australian sisters Lisa and Jessica Origliasso, got their band from a line in the movie when Veronica explains why she’s not a Heather. The fashions in “Clueless” from 1995 would not have existed if “Heathers” hadn’t arrived first.
“Heathers” also hit the stage with productions in Los Angeles, New York (off-Broadway) and London starting in 2014. An updated TV show sharing the movie’s name aired last summer in a unsuccessful, 10-episode run.
While it remains popular to film fans, some of the film’s ideas have not aged well. With the dangers of bullying, suicide and school violence at the forefront, “Heathers” would receive the same scrutiny as it did 30 years ago, if not more. Omar Sanchez of The Wrap recently saw it for the first time with his roommates, and the 24-year-old summed up how his generation would feel about it.
After 30 years, the shocks of real life have reset the Richter scale of offensiveness. What seemed absurd in 1989 feels entirely plausible after Columbine, Parkland, and too many other school atrocities to list.
Sanchez suggested that “Heathers” comes with a content warning label for the violent acts, including sexual assault, that it depicts.
I was familiar with the film by the time I was in middle school in the early 1990s. It was the movie of sleepovers before it was replaced by “Clueless.” In fact, many of the teen-centric movies and television shows were taking a darker turn at the time, possibly spurred on by “Heathers.” But I didn’t watch the R-rated version until the early 2000s. I owned a DVD copy and would watch it as one of my feel-bad-but-it’s-good movies. I think that if I had discovered “Heathers” at the same time as Sanchez that I would think a warning would be needed as well.
Director Michael Lehmann did not make many movies after “Heathers,” most likely because of the widely panned “Hudson Hawk.” Instead, he has found success in directing TV shows, including “American Horror Story,” “Californication” and “Jessica Jones.” Ryder became of the top Generation X actresses in the 1990s with her roles in “Reality Bites,” “The Age of Innocence” and “Little Women.” By the early 2000s, however, her career was sidelined when she was convicted of a shoplifting case and sentenced to community service. She has made a resurgence this decade, starring in the Netflix series “Stranger Things” and in movies like “Black Swan” and “Destination Wedding.” Slater would also go on to star in “Pump Up the Volume” and “True Romance,” but would later be stuck in supporting roles and voice work. He has staged a comeback in television with a role in “Mr. Robot.”
20 years ago: “The Matrix”
A movie about linear algebra, philosophy and computer hacking sounds entertaining, right? At the time that “The Matrix” was released March 31, 1999, I was a computer science major knee-deep in all the math requirements for the major. Seeing binary code as wallpaper didn’t appeal to me at the time.
About six months later, it was released on home video and fellow students were asking their professors about the film’s themes and how they relate to philosophy and religion. (Note: Never take math, computer science and philosophy classes in the same semester.) If you had to take classes where the work was performed on matrices and you then had to write out long proofs to go along with them, “The Matrix” would feel like your academic nightmare on screen.
At winter break, I returned home to find my father waxing poetically about the film. “Have you seen ‘The Matrix’?” he asked. “Ugh” was my first reaction, but since I had passed that torturous block of studies, I was ready to finally see it. Off to Blockbuster we went.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and my dad’s favorite actor Laurence Fishburne, Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is a desk guy by day and a hacker by the name of Neo at night. When his illegal activities are discovered, Morpheus (Fishburne) leads him to safety but also unplugs Neo from the great illusion that is The Matrix. The system is a glamorized world from reality, where human bodies are used as batteries to it. Agents, including Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), see Morpheus, Neo and Trinity (Moss) as threats to this digital mirage.
While many may have been swept away by the special effects like the crazy bending moves Neo does to dodge bullets (known as Bullet Time) or the kung fu lesson between Neo and Morpheus, I could see all those lessons the professors drilled into my brain. Much of Neo’s path to becoming the One is self-realization, freedom of the mind, and pursuit of the truth. These tasks were imbued with principles from classic philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (my favorite philosopher) and Christian and Buddhist themes.
Not only were the effects stylish, so were the threads in this movie. Outfitted by costume designer Kym Barrett, dark trench coats, PVC bodices and tiny sunglasses were all the rage for the characters. Inside The Matrix, the good guys wear black, with clothes that stored a massive arsenal. Outside it, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar wore gray rags.
Cinematography and production design were well calculated to give a seemingly sci-fi voyage a film noir look. It’s not exactly black and white, but rather black, gray and green.
What’s remarkable about “The Matrix” at its time was the casting. This was a very diverse collection of actors in roles that had not been widely available to women or people of color. Moss is introduced as tough-kicking Trinity right out the gate, and Reeves, who had mostly starred in slacker or light-hearted films (except for “Speed”), has a demanding action role. Fishburne had a wide-ranging career before he was cast as Morpheus, but he didn’t have a part quite like this one.
The directing team The Wachowskis had only made one film, the low-budget modern noir, “Bound,” before releasing “The Matrix” for Warner Bros. in 1999. With an explosive $27 million opening weekend, the siblings could tell their story as the trilogy they attended it to be. They followed the first with “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” in 2003. As more opportunities opened for the pair, they became open with who they are. After the release of “Speed Racer” Lana Wachowski revealed in 2012 she transitioned to a transgender woman, years after being known as Larry and being the subject of derogatory gossip. Lily, previously known as Andy, also came out as a transgender woman in 2016. Lily wrote a statement for the Windy City Times describing her and her sister’s experiences with the media and highlighting how destructive transphobia can be.
Being transgender is not easy. We live in a majority-enforced gender binary world. This means when you’re transgender you have to face the hard reality of living the rest of your life in a world that is openly hostile to you.
Several fans of “The Matrix” and film experts sensed that the film had transgender-related themes. And movie catalogues, historians and more have respected them by changing their past credits as the Wachowski Brothers to the Wachowskis or by their individual names.
“The Matrix” trilogy would be the first series thaton VHS, in the theaters and on DVD. Those decisions were based on peer pressure (“The Matrix,” dad), serious anticipation (“The Matrix Reloaded”) and required closure (“The Matrix Revolutions,” didn’t like the second one so much).
Reeves has become an even bigger action star since 1999, including the “John Wick” trilogy. In between the big-budget fare, Reeves continues to make indie films, including the aforementioned “Destination Wedding.” In his directorial debut, Reeves teamed up with “Matrix” stuntman and kung-fu choreographer Tiger Hu Chen in the 2013 film “Man of Tai Chi.” Fishburne has appeared in starring and supporting roles in film and television, including “Black-ish” and a few “Superman” movies. The Wachowskis have yet to match the financial success of “The Matrix,” but their Netflix series “Sense8” made waves in LGBTQ representation on screen.
“Trailer Talk” rounds up recently released trailers for upcoming and anticipated movies.
Trailer Talk takes on a thriller-horror vibe this week with new trailers out for “Joker,” “Annabelle Comes Home” and “The Dead Don’t Die.”
The DC Extended Universe is branching out. Warner Brothers/DC Comics seems to have found more success with films that stand apart from their attempt at a unified movie universe, such as “Aquaman” and this weekend’s new release “Shazam!,” which has been getting a lot of positive buzz. Now comes “Joker,” a standalone movie that focuses on the origin of one of the most iconic villains in comic book, TV and film history.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker” doesn’t fit the mold of your typical special effects-laden comic book film. Judging by the unsettling trailer, the film looks like a character study that examines the Batman villain’s descent into madness. The trailer gives off Martin Scorsese vibes as Phoenix’s itineration appears to transform from a struggling comedian into a murderous psychopath. There’s even a disturbing moment where Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, forces a smile onto the face of a young boy (is that you, Bruce Wayne?).
How will Phoenix’s version of the classic villain hold up against previous portrayals of the character? We’ll found out when “Joker” hits theaters Oct. 4.
“Annabelle Comes Home”
She’s ba-ack. The demonic doll returns in the seventh (!) entry in the “Conjuring” Universe and the third film in her own franchise.
After the solid prequel “Annabelle: Creation” traced the creepy doll’s beginnings, the new film shows Annabelle behind glass at the home of married demon hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in a welcome return). But the doll won’t be contained for long. This time, she’ll be terrorizing the Warrens’ daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace, recently seen as a young Carol Danvers in “Captain Marvel”) and her babysitters.
The frightening trailer reveals that Judy shares her mother’s clairvoyant gift. But will it be enough to survive the night? Also, the final scene in the trailer is pure nightmare fuel.
“Annabelle Comes Home” enters theaters June 28.
“The Dead Don’t Die”
The star-studded horror-comedy looks to offer a fresh take on the zombie genre. “Zombieland” veteran Bill Murray partners with Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny to fight off the undead when zombies take over their small town. Joining the fight is a katana-swinging Tilda Swilton, channeling the Ancient One from “Doctor Strange.”
The impressive cast also features Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, Danny Glover and Rosie Perez.
“The Dead Don’t Die” staggers into theaters June 14.
Finally! Tickets went on sale online today for “Avengers: Endgame,” the highly anticipated conclusion to what is now being called the Infinity Saga in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Avengers: Endgame,” which comes out April 26, vows to wrap up more than 10 years of storytelling over 22 films in the MCU.
In addition to the ticket presale announcement, Marvel Studios released a “special look” teaser trailer showing mostly new footage from the film. It’s only a minute long compared to standard two-and-half-minute trailers, but there’s enough for us to dig into, including a long-awaited superhero reunion. Let’s dive in!
“If we do this, we’d be going in short-handed,” Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) says in the trailer’s opening moments. The scientist is referring to the Avengers’ plan to undo the deaths of their fallen comrades after Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapped half of the universe out of existence in last summer’s epic “Avengers: Infinity War.” By not revealing what the plan is, the trailer continues Marvel Studios’ determination to keep its big mystery under wraps.
Recent trailers, including the second full trailer, have looked backward, including mourning the fallen Avengers as well as integrating flashbacks from the first “Iron Man,” the “Captain America” films and the first “Thor.” However, the new teaser looks forward and offers hope. “It’s not about how much we lost, it’s about how much we have left,” Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) says.
After floating adrift in space and recording somber messages for his fiancee, Tony reunites with the love of his life, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye/Ronin (Jeremy Renner) and the newest Avenger – Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel herself (Brie Larson) – are all seen smiling. In fact, Captain Marvel is flying Earth’s mightiest heroes on a mission.
But the biggest reunion is one fans have been waiting for since “Captain America: Civil War.” It’s been three years since Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man have shared a scene together. That changes during a key moment in the trailer, featuring the two superheroes standing face-to-face in a city (New York?).
“We’re the Avengers. We gotta finish this. You trust me?” Tony asks Cap, looking him square in the eye. “I do,” Cap says – and the two shake hands. (Even writing this, I can’t help but gasp in glee!)
After being absent from the last trailer, Thanos returns, decked out in his battle armor. “You could not live with your own failure. Where did that bring you? Back to me,” says the Mad Titan. Is he referring to time travel? Or are the remaining Avengers simply heading to what looks like Titan for a rematch?
Though we don’t know, what we do see is the “trinity” of OG Avengers – Iron Man, Captain America and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – walking together, possibly toward a showdown with Thanos. Chills!
The Avengers will do “whatever it takes” to take down Thanos when “Avengers: Endgame” hits theaters in just over three weeks. You can order tickets for “Avengers: Endgame” online, but be prepared to wait. Fandango, Atom Tickets and AMC Theatres websites and apps are crashing due to the high volume of ticket sales, with fan experiencing over hour-long waits.
Filmmakers try to leave their mark on a genre with trinkets appearing throughout their movies. Horror has been the one theme in which these creators had have the most lasting impression. Jordan Peele’s latest in the horror realm “Us” continues his need to show audiences the ugly truth – this time replacing the teacup from “Get Out” with red jumpsuits and shiny scissors.
“Us” unfolds through 1986 flashbacks and present day mostly from the perspective of matriarch Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), recalling a time she was frightened while at Santa Cruz Beach in California as a child and the paranoia she has as an adult when her own family are going on a vacation in the same area. Her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), is the corny, happy-go-lucky dad with Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) as the cellphone-obsessed daughter and Jason (Evan Alex) as the playful son. The Wilsons are friends with the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), a more well-to-do couple that Adelaide and Gabe try to keep up with in a materialistic way.
But coincidences pop up throughout the Wilsons’ getaway, heightening Adelaide’s anxiety, and it all comes to a head when the family is visited by a group of hand-holding doppelgangers, known as the Tethered, sporting red jumpsuits and refusing to leave without a fight. Red (also Nyong’o) leads the scissor-armed family that she insists has been forced to live underground, in the shadows, while Adelaide could stay in the sun. How can the Wilsons survive when their tormentors look and act like them?
Peele’s second film is a spiritual cousin to “Get Out” with both movies featuring a protagonist forced to confront childhood trauma while trying to stay alive in the present. While it’s heavy in symbolism and cinematic tributes, it would be unfair to say that “Us” is a knock-off of the films and issues Peele brings forth. He keeps it fresh with the casting and tone, and he keeps the suspense going. There are moments of light humor, usually reserved in a space where audiences aren’t used to seeing. Duke’s cheesy father routine as Gage is something that is never portrayed by a 6-foot, 5-inch guy or by a man of color. He is clueless, almost in a Chevy Chase or Tim Allen way, that it is believable that he would have something to be afraid of.
With the symbolism, you may need a movie lover’s guide book, the Bible, a color theory test and the brief history of Reaganomics in order to catch all the Easter eggs (and there are rabbits, more than the ones that are in “The Favourite”). There are the obvious ones, like “Jaws” and “Funny Games,” but the subtle ones, including two Paul Thomas Anderson movies.
But in between deciphering what Peele is trying to convey on screen and what scares he has up his sleeves is a nerve-wracking performance by Nyong’o. In the years between her Oscar win for supporting actress in “12 Years a Slave,” Nyong’o has only been in more supporting roles or hidden behind CGI and voice work. This time, she’s in full command, going from anxious loner to worried mom to fighter as Adelaide, plus pulling a double role with a haunting voice as Red.
Music is probably the best actor of all in “Us.” The trailer brought back Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It,” and this track goes through more transformations and torture than any character on screen. It goes from a headbopper to a “Girl, you better run” anthem. And more informed audience members may start thinking about the song sampled on the track, Club Nouveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad,” you’re probably not wrong about how that song works in the film, too, particularly when composer Michael Abels mixes it into the score.
“Us” will stay with you for a few days, and you may need a second viewing. At face value, Peele could do without retracing some of the steps he took in “Get Out,” but compared to mainstream horror offerings, “Us” is bringing it back to its creepy roots.
4 out of 5 stars
Two years after “Get Out” became a cultural phenomenon, Jordan Peele continues to establish himself as a father of modern horror with “Us.” The writer-director’s sophomore effort is relentlessly chilling, unnerving and brutal.
“Us” is a visceral roller-coaster, ramping up the tension at every turn – and there’s a lot of them. Unlike “Get Out,” “Us” is more of a genre film than social commentary, playing to and against the conventions of horror. But Peele still holds up a mirror to our country in a film that’s rich in meaning while doubling down on the scares.
The film follows the Wilson family – mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), dad Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex) – during their summer vacation in Santa Cruz. Reluctant to go to the beach, Adelaide is troubled by memories of a childhood trauma she experienced there years earlier.
As strange coincidences pile up, her worst fears come to pass when her family comes face-to-face with their evil doppelgangers. Terrorized by their own doubles, Adelaide, Gabe, Zora and Jason are thrust into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse as they must battle their shadow selves in order to survive.
The less you know about the plot of “Us” going into it, the better. Peele weaves a tale of terror that sprouts from a relatable seed – an average family going on vacation – into a sprawling mystery that makes you question what you think you know. Dropping one surprise after another, Peele reels in moviegoers while keeping them perched on the edge of their seats. There are clues spread throughout, but it’s up to us to decipher them.
The film isn’t gory, but it does get bloody. “Us” subverts horror tropes while leaning into them. When the music cues up to put the audience on edge, that’s also when Gabe cracks a joke, giving viewers a break from the tension. Peele blends humor and terror in an unexpected way that amplifies the other.
“Us” isn’t just a home invasion thriller. It’s a home invasion where the invaders aren’t strangers, but the main characters themselves. The doppelgangers are animalistic, guttural and bloodthirsty, a dark reflection of the Wilson family. “Us” causes us to look inward as it delves into the theme that we are our own worst enemy. By the time the film ends, it will make you question who the monster is – if there’s a real monster at all – or just victims.
It’s an American story, as “Us” can also mean “U.S.” Peele sprinkles in red, white and blue imagery throughout the film, from the doppelgangers’ red jumpsuits, Adelaide’s white outfit and the ocean’s blue hues. The film recognizes that we live in a divided country – not by race, as “Get Out” explored, but by economic standing. The Wilsons often compare themselves to their neighbors, the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), who recently bought a fancy new car. “Us” questions how far we are willing to go to rise above our station.
In a film that grows more twisted with every scene, “Us” is anchored by Nyong’o’s incredible dual role. After doing voicework for films like “The Jungle Book,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and its sequel, “The Last Jedi,” the Oscar winner thankfully re-emerged in front of the camera again in last year’s smash “Black Panther.” In “Us,” she gives an emotionally wrought performance.
As Adelaide, Nyong’o is fierce yet vulnerable as a protective mother and wife suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. But as Adelaide’s doppelganger, Nyong’o must portray a different, darker side of the same coin. She does both beautifully as the audience looks to her as the story unfolds. Duke is warm and goofy as a father trying to make sense of it all. The youthful Joseph and Alex demonstrate a resilience beyond their years as the siblings are forced to fend for themselves.
An excellent follow-up to “Get Out,” “Us” shows Jordan Peele is no fluke. The horror maestro has more original stories up his sleeve to contribute to the genre. Those expecting more overt social commentary may be a little disappointed as the film is more open to interpretation. But like “Get Out,” “Us” keeps you thinking – and talking – long after the credits roll, forcing us to take a deeper look at ourselves.
4 out of 5 stars
Sunday’s headlines for the weekend box office went something like this:
“Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Stuns With $70 Million Opening Weekend” (Variety)
“Box Office: Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Opens to Shocking $70.3M” (Hollywood Reporter)
“Get Out! Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ shatters records with $70.3M” (Associated Press)
This kind of talk was the result of early box office predictions for the horror flick starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, where Universal, the studio behind Peele’s sophomore hit, and experts that ranged between $35 million and $40 million. Even the pre-movie program Noovies had “Us” at a low standing in its fantasy movie box office game.
Shocking! Stunning! Shattering! Who could have thought that audiences would outdo what experts could predict.
Well, no one was paying attention to Twitter or Rotten Tomatoes in the weeks leading up to this past weekend.
Buzz was high when “Us” opened South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, earlier this month, with reviews giving the film an early 100 percent approval before slipping into the 90 percent range. Universal also booked special screenings with black critics who are usually underrepresented in the field on both coasts.
Before early screenings last Thursday, the box office prediction stories were out, with the low-ball $35 million prediction in play, often pitting targeted audiences against each other. As Rebecca Rubin described in a March 19 report:
As the only new nationwide release this weekend, “Us” will face the strongest competition from “Captain Marvel” as the female-fronted adventure starring Brie Larson enters its third outing in theaters.
Rubin’s description ignores that “Us” is a female-fronted horror, as though audiences can only decide on movies according to gender or race. Yet, last week, a report showed how 2018 global box office numbers reached $41 billion, with three of the top five money-making movies having audiences being less than 50 percent white.
However, on Twitter other movie insiders were warning not to underestimate the draw of films with a black cast. Franklin Leonard, founder of “The Black List” and a film executive, was out early before Thursday night’s screenings:
Always. Take. The. Over. On. Industry. Tracking. Of. Black. Movies.
I don't know how many times I have to tell y'all this. https://t.co/sS5YGyxU0t
— Franklin Leonard (@franklinleonard) March 21, 2019
Matthew A. Cherry, a football player-turned-filmmaker who also works for Peele’s Monkeypaw Production, also weighed in early as Thursday.
Over. We want the record! https://t.co/pHYYkWwjM7
— Matthew A. Cherry (@MatthewACherry) March 21, 2019
After the box office numbers came in Sunday, Twitter was buzzing with “I told you so” tweets.
Those who are “stunned” might want to stop underestimating marginalized filmmakers. Because none of us are surprised. https://t.co/RYlSCOV8yO
— April (@ReignOfApril) March 24, 2019
"stuns" as if zillions of people weren't saying $30 mil or whatever was laughably low https://t.co/58mOx9Wh4i
— Danny Bowes (@bybowes) March 24, 2019
Unfortunately, this back-and-forth with box office predictions and outcomes surrounding nonwhite-led films and the reaction to their success has been ongoing, with headlines not getting any better. In November 2013, “Best Man Holiday” beat “Thor: The Dark World” at the box office, and USA Today used the headline, ‘“Holiday’ Nearly Beat ‘Thor’ as Race-Themed Films Soar.” The headline was later reworked, but the damage was done. The holiday romantic comedy, starring Nia Long and Taye Diggs, could only be characterized by the race of its cast, not by the plot or themes. In an Los Angeles Times article shortly after capturing box office gold, director Malcolm Lee noted what others were thinking.
“I didn’t like the thing people were saying that we were overperforming. It’s been demonstrated time and again that African American movies perform. But the reaction is still ‘wow,’ like they’re still surprised.”
Less than six years later, the “wows” and “shocks” still exist.
The box office draw from “Us” broke ground and records, including best opening for an original horror movie, original R-rated movie, and film with a black woman in a leading role.