‘Black Widow’ Review

Ed. Note: As a special Sacred Walloween treat, all five films running this week will be themed to reflect upon the most “trendy” pop culture costumes of the year, just in case you don’t have a costume yet

I wish I was able to write about Black Widow in the bubble from which I first saw it, before it was the center of a major, potentially landscape changing lawsuit. I yearn for that innocence. Because of this lawsuit, there is now a massive weight placed upon the newest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one that is entirely unearned. For despite the excitement surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s final go-round with the franchise she helped build, and a fairly game cast of actors, Black Widow is the epitome of Marvel’s cookie-cutter format. It is average in every sense: average as a superhero film, average as a spy thriller, and average as cinema goes in general.

Shortly after going on the run for violating the Sokovia Accords, former Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) flees to a safe house in rural Norway. However, after an attack by a Super Agent known as The Taskmaster, Romanoff finds herself suddenly thrust into her past as a Black Widow assassin. Having learned that the former Soviet agency is still functioning, and that they plan on slowly toppling the world’s governments under their new regime, or something. In order to stop them, since her former Avenger friends aren’t on speaking terms, Natasha has to assemble a new team, consisting of the sleeper cell family she was raised in during the 90s. This includes her Black Widow “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), her chemist Black Widow “mother” Melina (Rachel Weisz), and her Captain America knockoff father Alexei Shovstakov (David Harbour). Can this team work together to topple Soviet General Dreykov’s (Ray Winstone) master plan? Is this a Marvel movie?

Black Widow’s greatest crime is that it is just average. Normally, this would not be a capital offense – most Mavel movies, and indeed, most movies, are average. But here’s the issue. Even when a film is solely average, there is some level of competency at the top. Fun action like the Captain America films, quippy dialogue like Guardians of the Galaxy, or dazzlingly distracting CGI work, like Ant-Man or Captain America. Black Widow just doesn’t have any of that. There is certainly a decent amount of blame that rests on Cate Shortland’s shoulders, whose background in smart television sitcoms is apparent in the strength of the human interactions vs. the terribly choreographed stunt work and shoddy CGI setpieces. I mean, really. This is the one Marvel character who actually engages in real world conflict and hand-to-hand battles. You couldn’t even try to make it visually entertaining?

But really, the blame should not land on Shortland’s shoulders – at least not entirely. No, Black Widow’s greatest downfall comes not in its direction, or even in the terrible fight choreography. It comes in Eric Pearson’s script. A staple in the Marvel writers’ room, each scene stumbles its way through terrible punchline after terrible punchline. There’s a meme existing on Film Twitter that every joke in a Marvel film consists of “Well that happened.” I’m not as big a downlooker on the MCU as many of my contemporaries, but it is hard not to hear lines like “In English, please!” and “You don’t actually believe that, do you?” and not think they have a point about these movies being written by a bot.

Pearson’s screenplay is even more unsettling when you realize that it constantly undercuts its characters. At one point, Natasha stops in the middle of a fight just to throw a hissy fit. Alexei’s Red Guardian alter-ego – the Soviet’s answer to Captain America – has a running joke involving his belief that Captain America is his archenemy…even though Steve Rogers, having “died” in 1943 and resurrected in 2012, would exclusively exist in a world where he and the Red Guardian would be allies. And the Taskmaster, a villain capable of “mimicking the fight styles of every Avenger” (sigh), despite possessing a creepy appearance and demeanor, is completely undercut by the belief that the villain’s identity is some “big twist” – even though anyone with half a brain could guess the identity a mile away.

Perhaps what hurts Black Widow the most is the fact it is so clearly a ripoff of the Jason Bourne series. In fact, the entire film is almost exactly a mediocre Bourne film, with the exception of a flying Soviet hideout and a super-strong Russian man. But it is in the realization that Pearson’s mediocrity is most apparent. The Bourne series has always worked because of its two-pronged approach: expertly executed action sequences that act as emotional extensions of a grander story about government overreach and military malfeasance. Not only is Black Widow’s action subpar (as already mentioned), it also seems to operate under the belief that those shady dealings and extrajudicial murders were, actually, Cool and Good. It’s a complete misunderstanding of what makes these types of films work, what makes Black Widow an interesting character, and why we, as audiences, would want to follow her story.

All of these mishandlings are disappointing because, at the end of the day, there’s honestly enough elements here to make a quality film. There’s an interesting story here, and occasionally it is accompanied by interesting bits of filmmaking. Take a look at the opening scene, even if it is just a knockoff of The Americans (right down to the aesthetic and opening credits). Sleeper cell Russian spies raising two children to believe that Ohio is the “Greatest Place On Earth” isn’t just intriguing storytelling – it’s comedy gold. The film touches on the darkness of Natasha’s backstory with a respectful aplomb, from an opening credits sequence showing young girls being sold to shady government agents to a more nuanced take on the trauma of being forcibly sterilized (although with that being said, this “nuanced” look comes in the middle of a “time of the month” joke, lest you forget a man is writing this).

And as mentioned before, Shortland’s ability to craft the familial sequences stand tall as the best work in the film. After all, the idea of a dysfunctional team of super spies and secret superheroes is a terrific concept – Spy Kids and The Incredibles have built successful franchises on the subject. They have a warm, joking appeal, mostly thanks to the character of Alexei, a fascinating character that the milquetoast MCU most likely will never wholeheartedly explore. I could watch an entire series based on the former Soviet superweapon who has “Karl Marx” tattooed on his knuckles and laments his personal ethos as “I wanted the Communist Party to feel more like a party!” I wish the entire film was just focused on these four driving around listening to “American Pie” (inspired) or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (an insanely bad choice that almost feels hilariously brilliant). Sadly, this element is only a fraction of the film, leaving audiences to wonder, “what if?”

If there’s anything in this film salvaging it from the depths, it’s the performances. I don’t necessarily mean Scarlett Johansson, sadly, who somehow finds herself short-shrifted yet again by the MCU – this time in her own f*cking movie. She is, as always, fine in the role, but she is given less to do and to emote than even The Winter Soldier – arguably her greatest moment as the character. Of course, it is easy to see why she got screwed, considering the director and writer’s affections for Harbour and Pugh’s performances. In Pugh’s case, this obviously has to do with the set-up for her future in the franchise, but at least she’s a charismatic, humorous addition to the team. Pugh has a natural star power, and it is easy to see why the film is so fascinated with her. Harbour, meanwhile, almost steals the show away from his costars. It helps that he has an actual character to play, as opposed to a cardboard cutout theater lobby character, simply meant as fodder for future Avenger movies.

Harbour adds a pathos and depth to a man committed to a cause, but considered a joke by his contemporaries, constantly looking for family and redemption. It is a funny, committed performance from a solid actor. As for Weisz, she’s a rather interesting study in acting. The Academy Award-winner gives a decent performance as a terrific character that is horrifically underwritten. This is a character who was tortured as a child, and has now grown up to continue that cycle of torture herself. The film is not interested in exploring any of this, so it is up to Weisz to portray this through looks and emotion. She mostly succeeds. As for the rest of the cast, it’s almost not worth mentioning them. The great Ray Winstone is utterly wasted as an underwritten shady Soviet general. The BoysO-T Fagbenle has a humorous, but minor role as Natasha’s bag man – in fact, his role had to be expanded to its negligible five minutes of screen time because audiences, as shocking as this may seem, actually like seeing good actors perform opposite each other, as opposed to standing in front of green screens. And I won’t even mention the talented Olga Kurylenko, who is utterly wasted in this film.

Black Widow is a non-entity, a wasted effort by talented actors and directors to make up for sidelining a beloved character for 20+ movies. Natasha Romanoff is a fascinating character, and a worthy send-off could have been possible. But that’s not what the writers wanted to do, and that’s not what Marvel wanted to do. This film was a rush to avoid the bad publicity of killing off Scarlett Johansson before giving her a solo outing, and it shows in every frame onscreen. And while I occasionally enjoyed the occasional well-constructed moment, or the performances of Pugh and Harbour, I can’t help walking away feeling, “Was that it?” And no movie, no matter the ultimate result – good or bad – should make you feel this empty inside.

C+

Black Widow is now streaming on Disney+, as well as available to rent or own on Blu-Ray, DVD, and VOD

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