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REVIEW: AVENGERS "GRAPPLE BLAST" BLACK WIDOW
By Thomas Wheeler

This AVENGERS movie broke plenty of box office records during its run in the theaters, and as of this writing has just come out on DVD, etc. Marvel Productions made use of the two previous Iron Man movies, as well as the Captain America, Thor, and Hulk films to build up to this epic featuring "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" in one amazing cinematic experience.

Naturally, there has been an action figure line. And, somewhat predictably, the toughest figure to find in the series -- in part because this character wasn't even part of the initial assortments despite considerable screen time in the movie -- was the Black Widow. Once again, the axiom of "female action figures just don't sell well -- it's a boys' toy!" come through once again.

Fortunately, I was able to find the figure, officially designated "GRAPPLE BLAST" BLACK WIDOW. Let's have a look at the Avengers from a comics and cinematic standpoint, and then the Black Widow, and then have a look at this superb action figure.

The Avengers made its debut in The Avengers #1 (Sept. 1963), and was created by writer-editor Stan Lee and artist/co-plotter Jack Kirby, following the trend of super-hero teams after the success of DC Comics' Justice League of America.

Labeled "Earth's Mightiest Heroes", the Avengers originally consisted of Iron Man, Ant-Man (Dr. Henry Pym), Wasp (Janet Van Dyne), Thor, and the Hulk. The original Captain America was discovered by the team in issue #4, trapped in ice, and he joined the group when they revived him. The rotating roster has become a hallmark of the team, although one theme remains consistent: the Avengers fight "the foes no single superhero can withstand". The team, famous for its battle cry of "Avengers Assemble!", has featured humans, mutants, robots, gods, aliens, supernatural beings, and even former villains.

The first adventure features the Asgardian god Loki seeking revenge against his brother Thor. Using an illusion, Loki tricks the Hulk into destroying a railroad track. He then diverts a radio call by Rick Jones for help to Thor, whom Loki hopes will battle the Hulk. Unknown to Loki, the radio call is also answered by Ant-Man, the Wasp, and Iron Man. After an initial misunderstanding, the heroes unite and defeat Loki after Thor is lured away by an illusion of the Hulk and suspects Loki when he realises it is an illusion. Ant-Man states the five work well together and suggests they form a combined team; the Wasp names the group "the Avengers" because it sounded "dramatic".

The roster changes almost immediately; by the beginning of the second issue, Ant-Man has become Giant-Man and, at the end of the issue, the Hulk leaves once he realizes how much the others fear his unstable personality. Feeling responsible, the Avengers try to locate and contain the Hulk, which subsequently leads them into combat with Namor the Sub-Mariner. This would result in the first major milestone in the Avengers' history: the revival and return of Captain America. Captain America joins the team and he is also given "founding member" status in the Hulk's place. The Avengers go on to fight foes such as Captain America's wartime enemy Baron Zemo, who forms the Masters of Evil, Kang the Conqueror, and Count Nefaria.

In the 1970s, the adventures increased in scope as the team cross into an alternate dimension to battle the Squadron Supreme and fight in the Kree-Skrull War, an epic battle between the alien Kree and Skrull races and guest-starring the Kree hero Captain Marvel.

As to the movie, officially known as "Marvel's The Avengers" it was produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, and is the sixth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is written and directed by Joss Whedon and features an ensemble cast that includes Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård and Samuel L. Jackson. In The Avengers, Nick Fury, director of the peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., recruits Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and Thor to form a team that must stop Thor's brother Loki from enslaving the human race.

Development of The Avengers began after the success of the film Iron Man in May 2008, when Marvel announced that The Avengers would be released in July 2011. With the signing of Johansson in March 2009, the film was pushed back for a 2012 release. Whedon was brought on board in April 2010 and rewrote the screenplay originally written by Zak Penn. Production began in April 2011 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before moving to Cleveland, Ohio, in August and New York City in September.

The Avengers premiered on April 11, 2012, at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, California. The film, released everywhere else May 4, has received positive reviews from most film critics and set numerous box office records, including the biggest opening weekend ever in North America.

As to the storyline: After his fall from Asgard into space at the end ot the Thor movie, the Asgardian Loki meets the Other, the leader of a warmongering alien race known as the Chitauri. In exchange for retrieving the Tesseract, a powerful energy source of unknown potential, the Other promises Loki a Chitauri army with which he can subjugate the Earth. Nick Fury, director of the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D., arrives at a remote research facility during an evacuation. Physicist Dr. Erik Selvig is leading a research team experimenting on the Tesseract, and Agent Maria Hill explains that the object has begun radiating an unusual form of energy. The Tesseract suddenly activates and opens a portal, allowing Loki to reach Earth. Loki takes the Tesseract and uses his staff to enslave Selvig and several agents, including Clint Barton (Hawkeye), to aid him in his getaway.

In response to the attack, Fury reactivates the "Avengers Initiative". Agent Natasha Romanoff is sent to India to recruit Dr. Bruce Banner; agent Phil Coulson visits Tony Stark to have him review Selvig's research; and Fury approaches Steve Rogers with an assignment to retrieve the Tesseract. While Barton steals iridium needed to stabilize the Tesseract's power, Loki causes a distraction in Stuttgart, Germany, leading to a confrontation with Rogers, Stark, and Romanoff that ends with Loki's surrender. While being escorted back to S.H.I.E.L.D., Thor, Loki's adoptive brother, arrives and frees Loki hoping to convince him to abandon his plan and return him to Asgard. After a confrontation with Stark and Rogers, Thor agrees to take Loki to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s flying aircraft carrier, the Helicarrier, and imprison him until the Tesseract can be acquired.

The Avengers become divided, both over how to approach Loki and the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D. plans to harness the Tesseract to develop weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent against hostile extra-terrestrials. As the group argues, Barton, and Loki's other possessed agents, attack the Helicarrier, disabling its engines in flight and causing Banner to transform into the Hulk. Stark and Rogers try to restart the damaged engines, and Thor attempts to stop the Hulk's rampage. Romanoff fights Barton, and knocks him unconscious, breaking Loki's mind control. Loki escapes after killing Coulson, and Thor and the Hulk are each ejected from the ship. Fury uses Coulson's death to motivate the Avengers into working as a team. Stark and Rogers realize that simply defeating them will not be enough for Loki; he needs to overpower them publicly to validate himself as ruler of Earth. Loki uses the Tesseract, in conjunction with a device Selvig built, to open a portal above Stark Tower to the Chitauri fleet in space, launching his invasion.

The Avengers rally in defense of New York City, but quickly realize they will be overwhelmed as wave after wave of Chitauri descend upon Earth. With help from Barton, Rogers, Stark, and Thor evacuate civilians, while Banner transforms into the Hulk again and goes after Loki, eventually beating him into submission. Romanoff makes her way to the portal, where Selvig, freed of Loki's control, reveals that Loki's staff can be used to close the portal. Meanwhile, Fury's superiors attempt to end the invasion by launching a nuclear missile at Manhattan. Stark intercepts the missile and takes it through the portal toward the Chitauri fleet. The missile detonates, destroying the invaders' lead ship, thereby disabling their forces on Earth. Stark's suit runs out of power and he falls back through the portal, but the Hulk saves him from crashing to the ground. Romanoff deactivates the portal to prevent further invasion. In the aftermath, Thor returns Loki and the Tesseract to Asgard. Fury notes that the Avengers will return when they are needed.

In the first of two post-credits scenes, the Other confers with his master - who turns out to be none other than Thanos - about the attack on Earth.

That should make for a heck of a sequel if they follow through on it -- and they'd be crazy not to. Now, let's consider the Black Widow.

Black Widow - real name Natalia "Natasha" Alianovna Romanova, also known as Natasha Romanoff was created by editor and plotter Stan Lee, scripter Don Rico, and artist Don Heck, the character first appeared in Tales of Suspense No. 52 (April 1964). The character was first introduced as a Soviet spy, an antagonist of the superhero Iron Man. She later defected to the United States, becoming an agent of the fictional spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., and a member of the superhero team the Avengers. Commonly depicted as a femme fatale, the Black Widow was ranked as the 31st sexiest woman in comics by the Comics Buyer's Guide.

The Black Widow's first appearances were as a recurring, non-costumed, Soviet-spy antagonist in the feature "Iron Man", beginning in Tales of Suspense No. 52 (April 1964). Five issues later, she recruited the costumed archer and later superhero Hawkeye to her cause. Her government later supplied her with her first Black Widow costume and high-tech weaponry, but she eventually defected to the United States after appearing, temporarily brainwashed against the U.S., in the superhero-team series The Avengers No. 29 (July 1966). The Widow later became a recurring ally of the team before officially becoming its sixteenth member.

The Black Widow appeared for the first time in her trademark skintight black costume in The Amazing Spider-Man No. 86 (July 1970). In short order, she starred in her own series in Amazing Adventures #1–8 (Aug. 1970–Sept. 1971), sharing that split book with the feature Inhumans. Immediately after her initial solo feature ended, the Black Widow co-starred in Daredevil #81–124 (Nov. 1971–Aug. 1975) and then in the super-team series The Champions, which ran 17 issues (Oct. 1975–Jan. 1978).

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Black Widow appeared frequently as both an Avengers member and a freelance agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Natasha was born in Stalingrad, Russia. The Black Widow was a Soviet agent trained as a spy, martial artist, and sniper, and outfitted with an arsenal of high-tech weaponry, including a pair of wrist-mounted energy weapons dubbed her "Widow's Bite". She wears no distinctive costume during her first few appearances but simply evening wear and a veil. Romanova eventually defects to the U.S. for reasons that include her love for the reluctant-criminal turned superhero archer, Hawkeye.

Romanova's parents were killed in a fire when Romanova was a child. She was saved from death herself by Ivan Petrovitch, who raised her as a surrogate father. He first appears in Marvel continuity in the Widow's 1970s Amazing Adventures feature, in which he is introduced as her chauffeur and confidant, without this back-story revealed. Romanova as a child appears in a flashback to 1941, in which Petrovitch, the superhero Captain America, and the mutant Logan (who would later become the superhero Wolverine) rescue her from Nazis on the fictional island principality of Madripoor.

A revised, retconned origin establishes her as being raised from very early childhood by the U.S.S.R.'s "Black Widow Ops" program, rather than solely by Ivan Petrovitch. Petrovitch had taken her to Department X, with other young female orphans, where she was brainwashed, and trained in combat and espionage at the covert "Red Room" facility. There, she is biotechnologically and psycho-technologically enhanced—an accounting that provides a rationale for her unusually long and youthful lifespan.

Romanova grows up to serve as a femme fatale. She was assigned to assist Boris Turgenov in the assassination of Professor Anton Vanko for defecting from the Soviet Union, which served as her first mission in the United States. Natasha and Turgenov infiltrated Stark Industries as part of the plan. She attempted to manipulate information from American defense contractor Tony Stark, and inevitably confronted his superhero alter ego, Iron Man. The pair then battled Iron Man, and Turgenev steals and wears the Crimson Dynamo suit. Vanko sacrificed himself to save Iron Man, killing Turgenev in the process, using an unstable experimental laser light pistol. Romanova later meets the criminal archer Hawkeye and sets him against Iron Man, and later helped Hawkeye battle Iron Man.

Natasha once more attempted to get Hawkeye to help her destroy Iron Man. The pair almost succeeded, but when Black Widow was injured, Hawkeye retreated to get her to safety. During this period, Romanova was attempting to defect from the Soviet Union and began falling in love with Hawkeye, weakening her loyalty to her country. When her employers learned the truth, the KGB had her gunned down, sending her to a hospital, convincing Hawkeye to go straight and seek membership in the Avengers.

Later still, she begins freelancing as an agent of the international espionage group S.H.I.E.L.D. She is sent on a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. mission to China by Nick Fury. There, with the Avengers, she battles Col. Ling, Gen. Brushov, and her ex-husband the Red Guardian.

In March 2009 Scarlett Johansson signed on to play Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow in the film Iron Man 2. In the film she is an undercover spy for S.H.I.E.L.D. posing as Stark's assistant.

Johansson reprises the role in The Avengers. Shortly after Iron Man 2's release, she had expressed a desire to reprise her role in the film. In the same interview, Johansson claimed that Marvel Studios was "really behind" including Black Widow in the movie. At San Diego Comic-Con International 2010, it was confirmed by director Joss Whedon that Johansson would be playing Black Widow in the film.

In September 2010 during a press conference for the Iron Man 2 DVD release, Kevin Feige stated "We've already started discussions with Scarlett about the idea of a solo movie and have begun putting together concepts. But The Avengers comes first."

So, how's the figure? Well -- long overdue, for one thing. There was supposed to be a Black Widow figure in the action figure line for Iron Man 2. But, she wasn't in the early assortments, and the line started to run out of steam, and other Marvel-based movies needed the space in the toy aisles and -- so it just never happened.

Granted, I have no reason to believe that this Black Widow figure is the same one that would've been released in the Iron Man 2 line, nor do I believe it is. If nothing else, this figure has a 2011 production date.

Fortunately, the figure was also worth the wait. This is really an excellent figure!

The headsculpt is superb, and looks very much like the actress who plays the character in the movie. The facial detail is superbly painted, and the hair, a separately sculpted piece, is astoundingly well detailed. Additionally, since Black Widow's hair is a bit shorter than usual in the Avengers, the hair length isn't a hindrance to head articulation on the figure.

Black Widow's uniform is basically a SHIELD uniform. Let's face it, most of the character -- with the possible exception of the Hulk, and really, what can you do with a pair of somewhat torn pants -- have costumes that, while respectfully close to their comic counterparts, certainly closer than some I've seen in other movies, are also adapted somewhat to fit better into the more real-world environment of a live-action movie.

Black Widow's costume in the comics is basically black spandex. Attractive, certainly, but not especially detailed. The cinematic version adds some details in keeping with her status as a SHIELD agent, including certain high-tech ridged details on the costume, and the SHIELD emblem imprinted on both shoulders -- very neatly, I might add.

Black Widow does have her trademark wristbands, much as the character in the comics does, and if you look beneath the separately molded belt that the figure is wearing, you'll see a secondary belt that's part of the figure, and has a strong resemblance to the Black Widow's own emblem, so the character and figure retains a certain distinctiveness.

Painted detail on the uniform is relatively minimal. The SHIELD emblems are impressive, but beyond this, it's mostly a few lines of gray and silver designed to accentuate the costume details, which is otherwise almost entire black. That and her fingers are painted in a flesh tone. Fortunately, all of the painted details are nicely done.

Black Widow is very agreeably articulated, and is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, including a swivel, wrists, legs, upper leg swivel, knees, and ankles. This is actually better than some of the other 4" scale Avengers figures.

Now, the figure's full name is "Grapple Blast Black Widow." So where do we get the "Grapple Blast" part of this? From her accessory, of course. Most of the Avengers figures come with some generally outsized accessory designed to add "play value" for the kids that might buy the figures. The only exception to this that I am aware of is the Hulk, who's pretty outsized to begin with and would probably just smash any extra hardware he was given.

Black Widow's "Grapple Launcher" consists of a black backpack with a red hinged top, into which a grapple-like missile can be inserted, and fired through a spring-action mechanism, which also causes the red top of the backpack to spring open during launch. It's fairly clever, even if the character didn't use anything much like it in the movie.

Black Widow also comes with two small pistols, which can fit into the holsters on her belt, although I would also recommend storage in a Ziploc bag. These are some very tiny firearms that could be easily lost.

Any complaints? None whatsoever. My only regret is that there isn't also a 6" scale version of this figure to go along with the excellent 6" scale Avengers figures that were produced as Walmart exclusives. That line included all of the major players, including the villain Loki, as well as Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, and a superb Hulk, that's so big he actually had to be placed in a near-seated position just to fit in his package -- but no Black Widow. It's not necessarily surprising, but it is a bit disappointing.

However, at least Black Widow did make it into the 4" Avengers line, and Hasbro really did a magnificent job with this figure. If you're a fan of the Avengers, and more to the point the Avengers movie, then you'll definitely want to bring this figure into your collection.

The AVENGERS figure of the BLACK WIDOW, officially known as "GRAPPLE BLAST" BLACK WIDOW, definitely has my highest recommendation!