Bottom line: A fun if middling entry in the MCU filmography.
Full disclosure: I’m a full-on Marvel fanboy. One may argue—and I do—that the run of films from 2008’s Iron Man to 2019’s Avengers: Endgame constitutes the greatest display of studio-driven filmmaking in the history of the movies. Twenty-two interlocking films telling one overarching epic story, culminating in the final defeat of arch-villain Thanos. Thirty main characters, literally hundreds of supporting characters, dozens of directors and screenwriters, all tasked with realizing the overarching vision of producer Kevin Feige. Nitpicks aside, Feige’s ability to maintain series continuity while juggling dozens of overlapping storylines—Marvel’s version of Loki’s Sacred Timeline—is worthy of He Who Remains himself.
The first three “phases” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) were unprecedented. No studio has ever pulled off such a feat, and no studio is likely ever to do so again—including Marvel. Before we can judge the kickoff of the MCU Phase 4 with the September release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Feige and company have delivered a long overdue and bittersweet coda to the story of the first female Avenger: Scarlett Johannson’s Natasha Romanov, AKA the Black Widow. In terms of its overall MCU ranking, Black Widow falls squarely in the middle of the pack. For fans of Johannson’s Romanov, however, it’s a fitting if muted sendoff for the character.
On the Sacred Timeline, Black Widow takes place shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which saw the Avengers splintered, with the Tony Stark-led faction operating under the Sokovia Accords and the Steve Rogers-led faction either in jail or on the run. Hiding out in a safe house in Norway, Romanov plunges into new danger and intrigue when her long-lost “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) delivers the film’s MacGuffin: A mysterious briefcase filled with vials of glowing red serum. Why serums in Hollywood action movies always glow is a question I’ll leave for you to ponder.
The arrival of said briefcase sends Romanov on a globe-trotting mission to confront her past as a Russian assassin programmed to kill by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone delivering a truly terrible Russian accent), the mysterious director of the “Red Room.” Romanov’s pursuit of Yelena leads to a reunion with the two Russian sleeper agents who posed as her parents while raising her in Ohio: Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), AKA the Red Guardian, the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America; and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who helped Dreykov create the Red Room training protocol. The mission of this reunited team of super-spies: Find Dreykov before he unleashes a plague of mind-controlled Black Widow spies to wreak havoc upon the global order.
What follows is two hours of what we now recognize as Marvel assembly-line product, with a Jason Bourne-inspired midsection followed by a climactic and explosive battle in the villain’s lair straight out of Roger Moor-era James Bond. It’s all fine: the action is fine, the one-liners are fine, the direction is fine, the climax is fine, even if the villain’s plan is ripped off from the 1969 Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The performances are what elevate the proceedings: Johannson’s wry and world-weary take on Romanov, Harbour’s comic relief, and particularly Pugh’s star turn as the hotheaded heir to Johannson’s slot in the MCU. Success breeds success, and Marvel’s ability to have their pick of veteran A-listers and exciting newcomers provides built-in protection against a run-of-the-mill script, which Black Widow’s script certainly is. Are the film’s performances better than it deserves? Most certainly—but that’s the Marvel advantage.
So, Black Widow is fine, if in no way transcendent. We’re all conditioned to expect a certain baseline of quality from Marvel products, the same way we expect a baseline of customer experience from Target or Starbucks. At this point, it would be shocking if Marvel released a truly terrible film; the last true dud was Thor: The Dark World, released eight years ago.
Still, Black Widow highlights what could become a recurring problem with Phase 4 of the MCU: the franchise’s insatiable need to use its latest film to set up the next one. In effect, that need reduces Scarlett Johannson to a supporting player in her own movie. The film’s purpose is not to explore the character of Natasha Romanov the way the Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor entries explored and deepened those characters; rather, its purpose is to introduce Pugh’s Yelena Belova, the new Black Widow. Pugh is a rising star, and it’s exciting to think of her presence in upcoming MCU releases. But it’s a problem when your film’s titular heroine is the least interesting character in her own movie.
But: Like I said, I’m a Marvel fanboy, so I enjoyed the ride. If you’re on board with the MCU, you’ll have a good time. If you’re Martin Scorsese, then Black Widow is the latest harbinger of the cinematic apocalypse. Neither reaction is wrong.
Ranking: As always, we place each new MCU entry into our overall ranking, which is true and inviolate. Black Widow enters at number 16, leaving the Top Ten unchanged.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
3. Avengers: Infinity War
4. Thor: Ragnarök
5. Captain America: Civil War
6. The Avengers
7. Iron Man
8. Captain America: The First Avenger
9. Black Panther
10. Avengers: Endgame
11. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
12. Spider Man: Homecoming
13. Ant Man
14. Doctor Strange
15. Spider Man: Far from Home
16. Black Widow
17. Ant Man and the Wasp
18. Avengers: Age of Ultron
19. Captain Marvel
21. Iron Man 2
22. Iron Man 3
23. The Incredible Hulk
24. Thor: The Dark World
King Crimson's guitar freakout "Fracture," which debuted on the prog-rock group's 1974 LP Starless and Bible Black, has long been considered unplayable. Don't tell that to Italian guitarist Maria Barbieri, who fucking slays the song in this video. Enjoy!
Today, most modern literary critics choose the latter course. For my part, I prefer the first option. Art must first and foremost be free from censorship, and even the most irredeemably offensive works of fiction may yet offer moments of insight. Is it possible to condemn the whitewashed history and “happy slave” tropes of Gone With the Wind while still admiring Scarlett O’Hara as one of the strongest female protagonists of 20th Century fiction? Is it possible to get carried away by Avatar’s exciting plot while recognizing it as yet another variation of the “white savior” trope? Each reader or viewer must make her own choice where to draw the line. What we must not do is censor another reader’s ability to make that choice.
Which brings us to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his seminal “sword and planet” novel A Princess of Mars, published in 1912. I first read the book in high school, back when I was supposed to be reading Ethan Frome, at a time when no one much thought about whatever problematic tropes might hide in the books and movies we consumed. Reading it again today, it’s hard not to be troubled by the book’s opening, when Burroughs’s hero John Carter flees from the Apache “red savages.” Or by the paper-thin character of Martian princess Dejah Thoris, who exists solely to be rescued, married against her will, and fall in love with the hero at first sight.
If you dig deeper, you will also learn that Burroughs himself was a believer in the natural superiority of the white race and a casual proponent of the odious theories of eugenics popular in his day. He wasn’t a virulent racist like H.P. Lovecraft—but he wasn’t exactly not a racist, either. Compared to Burroughs’s Tarzan novels—insanely popular in their day—his Barsoom novels seem enlightened.
But. The book was published in fucking 1912. Pretty much every white person in 1912 assumed that white supremacy was a natural law, like gravity. The question for the modern reader is thus: Can you compartmentalize the less savory dynamics of A Princess of Mars and evaluate it as a work of fiction, if not enjoy it?
If you’re a fan of fantasy and science fiction and you’re interested in exploring the foundational works that shaped modern genre writers, then A Princess of Mars is essential reading. Once you get past the flowery purple prose and the stilted proclamations, declarations, and speeches that pass for dialog, the book is often terrifically entertaining.
A Princess of Mars was originally serialized in All Story magazine, and the serialization shows. Such modern writerly notions as the fifteen-beat plot, clear character arcs, and the hero’s journey are all absent here. The plot is essentially an episodic travelogue, with John Carter leaping from one end of Mars—called Barsoom by its warring tribes of green and red Martians—to the other, mostly in pursuit of Dejah Thoris, the novel’s titular princess. Along the way, he befriends a “calot”—the Martian equivalent of a dog—named Woola, a towering six-armed green warrior from the Thark clan named Tars Tarkas, and Kantos Kan, a red-skinned warrior from the Martian city of Helium. The novel is stuffed full of gladiator combat, great armies clashing, the siege and investiture of Martian cities, palace intrigue, and even aerial combat featuring the great sailing war-barges of Barsoom.
Set aside the troublesome tropes, and what’s not to like? In Burroughs’s time, the idea of a “flawed protagonist” had yet to pierce the conventions of pulp fiction. Jay Gatsby could be flawed, but John Carter and the pulp heroes of his day were expected to function more as the questing knights of the Round Table: morally upright, flawless of character, undefeatable in combat. John Carter is therefore never in any real danger. He vanquishes every foe, masters easily every Martian weapon, language, and custom, and is soon hailed as a conquering hero everywhere he goes. Carter is definitely a white savior trope; he essentially civilizes the green Tharks, and he transforms Tars Tarkas from cruel warlord into noble ruler and father. And, of course—spoiler alert!—he wins the heart of the princess of Mars.
So: If you can temporarily place the troublesome tropes in a box and settle into the rhythm of the florid prose, you might absolutely enjoy A Princess of Mars. I enjoyed revisiting the book, and I’ll probably read a few more in the series. The Tarzan books, however, I’ll probably skip. Like I said, everybody has to draw the line somewhere.
It wasn't a hard decision. Today, the odds of an unpublished author, however brilliant, with no pre-existing name recognition landing a traditional publishing deal are about the same odds as Hillary Clinton winning the Presidency.
Even if I were inclined to seek a traditional publisher, the list of drawbacks is much longer than the list of advantages. First, finding an agent might take six months or longer. Then, my agent might take another six months or more to find a publisher willing to take a chance on me. The time to publication from acceptance to released book is typically another year. That means two more years would pass before my book would see the light of day.
Even if a publisher signed me to a deal, the terms would be onerous: small advance, punishing royalty rates, and no leverage. Meanwhile, the publisher would no doubt request a raft of changes to the book before agreeing to publish it. I'd have no right to choose or influence the cover image, the marketing copy, or the design of the book. They would call the shots; I'd have less power or influence than the in-house publishing interns.
So to sum up: A traditional publishing deal would grant me scant profits, no control, and an unacceptably long time to publication. So why would any author, famous or not, seek out a traditional publisher? For all the resources available today to the self-published author, trad-pubs still offer three avantages: 1) editing and design resources for which the author otherwise has to pay out-of-pocket; 2) the ability to get your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores; and 3) marketing and promotional support.
Look deeper, however, and those so-called advantages disappear. First, there are plenty of reasonably-priced editing and design resources available to the self-published author, and the increased royalty rates for every book sold will, if the book is successful, more than cover those costs. Second, the odds of a publisher successfully getting my book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble next to the two hundred copies of Game of Thrones they already stock are still quite small; I'm much more likely to sell more e-books through self-publishing than I'd sell hard copies through B&M stores. Third, most trad-pubs are more interested in how you, the author, are able to help them market and promote your book than they are interested in spending their own money to market you.
So, self-publishing it is. Shit is getting real: this week I incorporated my LLC and opened a business bank account, which means I'm now in business. My book is being professionally edited, a kickass designer is working on four interior illustrations, and I've joined the Alliance of Independent Authors to learn from successful self-published authors from around the world. It's going to be an interesting ride. To those who have followed me on my FB author page and/or on this web site, thank you-- I hope you enjoy taking this ride with me.
My current obsession: Memphis retro-soul outfit Southern Avenue. I've been a Staples Singers fan for decades now, and no band better channels the soul-stirring joy of Mavis, Pops and company than these young folks. Looking forward to seeing them live soon.
I had the pleasure of catching the Fleetwood Mac reunion show in Columbus, OH last fall. With the classic Mac lineup back in action for the first time since the '90's, it was everything I could have wanted in a Fleetwood Mac show. The Mac had long been on my bucket list. Growing up in the '80's, I was mesmerized by Stevie Nicks; she was my first schoolboy crush, and I'd drop whatever I was doing to watch her twirl around in the "Gypsy" video on MTV. Lately I've been revisiting the band on YouTube and came across this rare jammed-out performance of "Rhiannon" captured on a Midnight Special show in 1976. Wait for the band to begin freaking out at the 3:00 mark.
One of the first reader questions arising from my recent article on the dangers of McStorytelling was the obvious one: “Okay, smart guy: if McDonald’s is an example of poor brand storytelling, then give us an example of a company who does it right.”
Fair enough. First, some ground rules. When we talk about brand storytelling, we’re talking about far more than the brand’s marketing materials, television commercials, web site, or social media presence. I’d argue, in fact, that traditional marketing and advertising activities are the least essential component of your brand story. Why? Because it’s the easiest part to fake. Anybody can pay an agency thousands (or millions) of dollars to craft a marketing campaign. If that marketing campaign doesn’t reinforce what your customers already know about you through the brand experience, however, then the campaign will fail on the core storytelling components of sincerity, consistency, and resonance. In my previous article, I argued that the McDonald’s “Signs” campaign, while sincere in its conception, failed on the core story elements of consistency and resonance.
For an example of a company that excels at all three elements of brand storytelling, consider Amazon. Forget for a moment Amazon’s inability to turn a profit, its questionable labor practices, and its strong-arming of publishers, and focus on the story Amazon tells to its customers. Chances are, you can articulate Amazon’s story without much prompting: Amazon puts the customer first in everything it does.
How do we know this story? Amazon does little to no advertising, after all; other than occasionally promoting its latest device, you would be hard pressed to recall the last time the company advertised through traditional media. And yet Amazon dominates online retailing, and poses a significant and lasting threat to traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. Amazon’s story is not only central to its success; I’d argue that it’s the primary reason for the company’s success.
Amazon’s story begins with its storyteller: CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos has been telling Amazon’s story since he started shipping books out of his garage in Bellevue, WA in 1995. This Bezos quote sums up Amazon’s story in a single sentence: “The most important single thing is to focus obsessively on the customer. Our goal is to be earth’s most customer-centric company.”
In his book “Start With Why,” author Simon Sinek details how successful companies define their reason for existence—their “why”—well before they get to the “how” and the “what” of their business model. Customer-centricity is Amazon’s “Why.” Jeff Bezos articulated this “why,” and then built a company to demonstrate it.
In a storytelling approach to brand building, we would call the “why” your “thesis statement”—your brand’s core message. Articulation of your thesis statement is but the first step in telling your story. To demonstrate the sincerity of his story, Bezos spent the next two decades incorporating the message in every aspect of his business. From its low prices, to its free returns, to its recommendation engine, to its one-click online ordering process, to its free shipping to Amazon Prime members, Amazon continually and consistently delivers on its brand promise. The company is famous for its data-driven approach to improving the customer experience, even conducting A-B tests on its web site font sizes to deliver the best online experience it can.
As the company has branched out from its retailer roots to develop its own devices and deliver streaming media to its Prime members, it has maintained focus on demonstrating its core thesis. The company developed the Amazon Kindle to make downloading and reading e-books easier for its customers. It has developed its own tablets and smart phones not because it needed or wanted to compete head-to-head with Apple and Android, but rather to make it easier for its own customers to purchase, download, and stream Amazon content.
Amazon also continues to add benefits to its Prime membership program such as free streaming movies, television shows, and music. The company has landed with both feet into original television and film production. It has even developed a proprietary line of diapers and baby wipes exclusively for Prime members. With as many as 50 million Amazon Prime members paying the company $99 per year for the Amazon experience, Bezos’s company has likewise achieved that elusive element of resonance in its story—it has demonstrated sincerity and consistency in its story so well that its customers are willing to pay for the privilege of living it.
Perhaps the most telling proof in Amazon’s commitment to its brand story is that it puts the needs of its customers before that of shareholders. Every company claims to be customer-centric, but few companies indeed are so customer-centric that they’re willing to risk shareholder attrition by trading short-term profits for long-term customer relationships. But that’s precisely the message Bezos delivered to shareholders in an April, 2013 letter outlining the company’s long-term vision. Money quote:
“I think long-term thinking squares the circle. Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.”
That, folks, is customer-centricity in a nutshell. More recently, Amazon has suffered share price declines, as some investors have grown tired of taking a back seat in Amazon’s relentless quest for customer satisfaction. Far from getting spooked enough to change his strategy, however, Bezos instead responded to investor concerns in an earnings call by stating, "As we get ready for this upcoming holiday season, we are focused on making the customer experience easier and more stress-free than ever.”
Bezos has succeeded by building his company around a sincere, consistent, and resonant brand message. Amazon is a first-class example of brand storytelling—and it didn’t require a clever Super Bowl commercial to deliver that message to its customers.
Rick Ferguson is principal and managing director for Phabulousity, a brand storytelling consultancy based in Cincinnati, OH. Interested in having us tell your story? Hit us up here.
Here's the latest trailer for Marvel's The Avengers: The Age of Ultron, premiering May 1. I particularly enjoy James Spader's oily-voiced Ultron. The boy and I will be chowing down on some popcorn on opening night.
Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.