Black Widow is a lot of things. It’s long overdue. It’s a great deal of fun. It’s a bit of a mess. It’s admirably quirky and original, until it isn’t. It’s a significant entry in the genre of feminist superhero films. It’s too little too late.
We waited a long time for this film. Not only the 15 months its release was delayed again and again by COVID — but also the 11 years that Natasha Romanoff has been integral to the Marvel Cinematic Universe without getting her own solo film. In all that time we saw multiple sequels for Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, then origin stories for Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy — and then sequels for Ant-Man and the Guardians, two fairly unnecessary Spider-Man entries, and on and on.
The thing about this absurd delay is not only the sexism but the irrationality. Black Widow is one of the five founding members of the onscreen Avengers. She’s a trailblazing female superhero. She’s an enormously popular character, subject of endless fan tribute and cosplay, and played with depth by one of the biggest movie stars in the world. A Black Widow solo film released in the early, pre-saturation, pre-COVID years of the MCU would likely have stomped at the box office.
I always think of my niece, and how much she loved the character when she was young and the franchise was relatively new. My brother, an artist, made a really detailed Black Widow Halloween costume for her when she was seven; it was adorable, and spoke volumes about Natasha’s appeal for girls and young women.
In the end, they waited so long to give the Widow her own film that Scarlett Johansson dipped out of the franchise, and her character was killed off in the middle of Avengers: Endgame. (I could write an entire article about the audacity, the complexity, and the injustice of that fictional death.)
So Black Widow comes to us now with a lot on its plate. It has to function as a late-ass origin story, while at the same time tying up Natasha’s character arc posthumously, so to speak. It has to powerfully represent women in the MCU and in the genre. And like any other piece of Marvel content in 2021, it has the businesslike task of moving the grand MCU narrative forward.
It’s a valiant effort, and entirely worth your while, but there’s no denying it’s kind of a letdown too. It’s not the powerful standalone Natasha deserved years ago. I wanted to love this film; I’m more invested than a 50-year-old dad should be. I liked it a lot, and I’m keen to watch it again, which says something. It’s not the Black Widow film we wanted, but it’s the one we have.
I’m inclined to credit director Cate Shortland (whom Johansson actively headhunted) with everything good about Black Widow, and blame everything that doesn’t work on the grinding industrial juggernaut that is the MCU. I’ve been cheering for Shortland ever since she was attached to this project three years ago, not only as a woman director but as an Australian indie filmmaker — a local hero. I’ve worked in the small, tight-knit film sector here, and it felt like one of us hit the big time.
Shortland has done a great job. It’s a great looking film, with its indie feel and its lovely magic-hour exteriors; it’s probably the best-looking MCU film since Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. (Marvel’s practice of hiring indie directors to bring freshness and originality to these massive franchise flicks, which goes all the way back to Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, is an entirely sound one.)
And Shortland allows Natasha to live and breathe — finally, for once. Here Natasha is badass as always, but she’s also funny, she’s vulnerable, and, most importantly, she has motivations all her own.
Johansson — who was deservedly nominated for not one but two acting Oscars for two roles last year, and who probably reckons she’s outgrown the MCU — is great in her swan song in the role, as usual. As Natasha Romanoff she’s never phoned it in (neither have most of her colleagues for that matter; good acting is one of the major reasons the MCU works). Despite inconsistent, sometimes shabby treatment by various directors and screenwriters, she’s made every line count. She’s made Natasha feel like a real person — an absurd thing to type about a movie superhero but true, especially given the long haul of eight films spanning more than a decade.
Part of what’s sad about Black Widow is that we finally get Natasha (and Johansson) leading a Marvel film, but she’s already dead and we know this is it. Things could have been a lot better.
Black Widow started out as a villain in her first appearances in the comics almost 60 years ago. She was a Soviet agent and femme fatale — so, a bunch of clichés about the Cold War and seductive, dangerous women, which continue to haunt the character to this day.
Eventually Natasha defected and joined S.H.I.E.L.D. and then the Avengers. She was a secondary character in the comics for decades, and didn’t get her own limited series until 1999. Her character shifted and changed over time to suit different narrative needs: superspy or sex object, role player or rogue with her own agenda.
As Natasha came into her own as a character in the modern era, her backstory was fleshed out. The horror of her past — kidnapped as a child in Russia, psychologically tortured in the Red Room and trained as a killer — became a crucial part of her. As with many beloved Marvel characters, that darkness and trauma, however cartoonish and melodramatic, was the key to her enduring appeal, along with her aesthetic. The black catsuit, the violence and mystery of her former life — that stuff is just cool. So is her mortality — she’s an ordinary human who holds her own against gods and superpowered beings simply by means of her intelligence and training. In the hands of good writers she’s a fascinating character in search of redemption.
These contradictions have carried over into the films. Again, she very often serves the needs of the story, and the male characters, and not the other way around. In one entry she flirts with Steve Rogers; in the next she has a thing for Bruce Banner/Hulk, which turns into a gross Beauty and the Beast analogy and includes an infamous shot of Bruce falling on her breasts, thanks to dirtbag director Joss Whedon. She even contemplates running away with Bruce during a crucial battle, which is just weird; then this storyline is completely dropped. Later the Avengers are splintered into factions under political pressure from the U.S. government. Natasha first supports one faction, then switches sides just in time for it to be convenient to the plot.
Cap and Iron Man get to have strong, consistent characters across the saga. Even casual fans can recognize who and what they are supposed to be. Natasha’s motivations and loyalties waver. Does she fear commitment because of her traumatic past? Is her volatility dramatically justified? Or is it just bad, sexist writing? Both are true at different times I think.
Even when the writing of her character is at its strongest, Natasha always ends up being a mediator, or an attractive sidekick. The one sent to fetch Bruce from India; the one Steve counts on for tech support, or who is there to remind him what friendship is. The manic pixie dreamgirl of the Avengers, or — in her final role as leader — their den mother.
A lot of credit goes to Johansson for rolling with all this and crafting Natasha into such an appealing and memorable character anyway. To the degree there’s coherence to Black Widow — and despite it all, there is — it’s mostly because of her.
Johansson’s run as Natasha has encompassed the Me Too era, and you can see her personal growth take place in her performances. She’s admitted that when she was younger she allowed herself to be treated as a sex object onscreen and thought better of it later. I’m thinking of the contrast between two scenes nine years apart: the first in Iron Man 2, in which Jon Favreau (in dual capacity as actor and director) ogles her as she changes into her catsuit in the backseat of a car, as if it was a striptease; and that remarkably vulnerable moment in Endgame — slumped in her office chair, eating a peanut butter sandwich for comfort, eyes welling with tears.
Black Widow — which is set sometime after Captain America: Civil War — gives us a lot more of that intimate mode. Just being able to spend more time with the character over two hours feels kinda feminist. Natasha relaxes, she drinks beer, she watches James Bond. She goes on a road trip with her “sister” and they talk about Christmases of their childhood. The screenplay (by Thor: Ragnarok co-writer Eric Pearson, with story by WandaVision creator Jac Shaeffer and Ned Benson) is entirely unconcerned with romance, though Natasha does flirt gently with her fixer (O-T Fagbenle). Johansson really shines with this laid-back approach.
[major spoilers follow]
The best thing about the film is its lightheartedness. Because of the character’s baked-in edginess, and the impending tragedy of her fictional death, I wasn’t expecting that, but it really works. Johansson has always been ready with a one-liner as Natasha, but here the buddy-movie banter between Natasha and her “sister” and fellow Red Room survivor, Yelena (Frances Pugh), turns that wryness and sarcasm from a bonus into a feature. Pugh is terrific and funny as Yelena, and the chemistry between the two is a treat.
It occurs to me there’s something feminist about the banter too. At one point Yelena goes into graphic detail about the forced sterilization of the girls in the Red Room, nonchalantly detailing organs that have been cut out of her. Endgame treats this backstory as the ultimate tragedy of Natasha’s life: she can never be a mother and that’s the reason for her self-sacrifice. The suggestion is that her life is worth less than the other Avengers’ because she can’t reproduce. But Black Widow turns this into a joke and then moves on, as if to underscore that, however horrible it is that their reproductive choice was violently taken from them, it won’t define these women.
In general, Natasha’s and Yelena’s relationship is an unexpectedly great depiction of sisterhood, shared trauma and survival, and I wish it could have gone on longer over more films or a series.
When their long-lost “mother” Melina (Rachel Weisz) and “father” Alexei (David Harbour) are added to the mix, things get really indie-quirky. The dialogue-heavy middle act, as this dysfunctional “family” reconnects, is like a satire of a sitcom — which is a good thing. From Ant-Man to WandaVision, this kind of satirical mode has frequently been the MCU at its best, and the superhero stuff wouldn’t be nearly as effective without it. Shortland often lets the comic bits go on for several beats longer than you’d expect; that’s gold in today’s climate of rapid-fire editing and generic dialogue. As in WandaVision, there’s something lovely about the depiction of these misfits as an alternative family.
Similarly, the willingness to make fun of Natasha’s most recognizable tropes — her fighting stance, her overpronunciation of “Budapest” — is a nice balance between affection for the character and deflating some of the sillier elements of the MCU.
Harbour is something else as Alexei Shostakov, the Red Guardian — the Soviet supersoldier and counterpart to Captain America, now washed up and languishing in a Russian prison. With his mountain-man beard and his KARL MARX knuckle tattoos, he’s a shambling parody of the entire superhero genre, down to its implicit nationalism. He drinks, he whines incessantly, he smells bad (according to Yelena), he tells cringey anecdotes, he makes throwaway references to Marx’s theory of the withering of the state. He’s also adorable. Harbour makes a heroic effort to steal every scene he’s in but Johansson, Pugh and Weisz are too good and funny themselves to let that happen. The feel of their family dynamic is as if Wes Anderson made a superhero film.
The Marxist stuff is deeply amusing to me; I have to try hard not to read too much into it. I’d love it if Red Guardian signalled pop culture’s willingness to embrace socialism, but it’s much more likely that making him into commie comic relief is just a way to deal with a character invented during the Cold War 50 years ago.
The same issue has plagued depictions of Natasha herself, as writers for both the comics and films often seem torn between all the Cold War tropes and the historical reality of the collapse of the Soviet bloc 30 years ago. This confusion isn’t confined to fiction; mainstream reporters often fall back on those same tropes in their coverage of contemporary Russia — whether it’s lazily referring to the FSB as the KGB, or stoking 1950s-style paranoia about nefarious Russian elements at work in the U.S.
Indeed, Black Widow‘s opening sequence details how Alexei, Melina and the young Natasha and Yelena were a Russian sleeper cell posing as a family in Ohio in 1995, when Natasha was ten or eleven (and when the USSR was already kaput). Later the two girls are separated from their “family” and sent to the Red Room to be trained as spies and assassins. The credits montage indicates the team of mind-controlled female killers has secretly shaped recent history — disposing of politicians, starting or ending wars.
So is the Red Room part of some vast Putinist plot to undermine Western democracy? One can well imagine how the story might have fed into the current U.S. imperialist narrative about Russia. Thankfully, Shortland is much more interested in Natasha as a person, and the conspiracy stuff is kept comic-book vague.
But there is a political aspect of the film that does land. As a character, Black Widow is pretty indefensible from a leftist standpoint — “superheroes are cops,” as the argument goes, and she’s arguably more cop than most. But the plot of this film — perhaps reflecting this generation’s growing alienation and disillusionment — takes pains to depict Natasha as a rebel, poised against the system. As the story opens she’s in hiding from the U.S. government — fallout from the events of Civil War. When Yelena escapes the Red Room and tracks her down, they make it their mission to free the remaining women from its control.
So the narrative becomes one about collective liberation, as well as redemption for Natasha. It’s a nice touch, and it resonates post-Me Too. Big bad Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who violently manipulates the lives of dozens of women, even sorta resembles Harvey Weinstein.
Unfortunately, the plot machinations in getting Natasha to her confrontation with Dreykov are pretty standard, and so is his Bond-villain monologuing. By this point the MCU is suffering from narrative fatigue. There’s life left in it, as indicated by the creativity and satire of WandaVision and Loki. But recent efforts at suspense and intrigue — especially in the often embarrassing The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — have landed with a thud. Black Widow gives us a confrontation on a high-tech floating fortress, for about the third or fourth time in the saga, and it’s all very predictable when its engines fail and Natasha has to fight her way off the crumbling superstructure. I found myself wishing these scenes could have had the punch of Netflix’s The Old Guard, another feminist comic-book adaptation directed by a woman.
The action throughout is hit or miss. Some of it is terrific, especially in the prologue’s chase on an airstrip, and in the hand-to-hand fight between Natasha and Elena, with its overt references to the Jason Bourne flicks and John Woo. But in some of the more involved chases and shootouts, the CGI effects are curiously flat and unrealistic — a problem that plagues quite a few MCU films.
Overall there’s a palpable sense that Shortland and her actors just aren’t as interested in the action as they are in the characters, and honestly I feel the same way.
Other things that don’t work:
- The Russian accents that Harbour, Pugh and Weisz try on are laughable, worthy of camp. It’s distracting. I really don’t understand this choice — Natasha has an American accent, and so do the other three in the U.S.-set prologue. Chernobyl worked wonderfully with mostly British actors playing Russians and speaking like themselves.
- The opening montage’s use of a pop cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (by Malia J) made my wife and I stiffen and exchange baffled glances — not the mood you want at the start of a long-awaited film. To be clear I’m not defending some bullshit notion of rock purity — I thought the use of “Come as You Are” in Captain Marvel was great. “Teen Spirit” is just such a well-known anthem with so many cultural connotations and parody versions, it makes for cognitive dissonance here. I’m trying to remain objective though: I imagine this will play better to a much younger audience (as will a lot of other things about the film).
- Taskmaster is an example of a villain who works well on the comics page but not onscreen. A villain who can copy the fighting style of any superhero — it sounds cool but it’s all so vague, just a hodgepodge of uniform ideas and visual references without much sense of extra threat. We see Taskmaster employ a shield like Cap’s, a bow like Hawkeye’s, Black Panther claws, and, briefly, Natasha’s fighting stance, but the rest amounts to some pretty ordinary fighting choreography. The melancholy reveal of their identity towards the end adds sudden interest, but it comes too late to make for the right drama, especially when compared to a tragic villain like Erik Killmonger.
Sadly the conclusion is the weakest part of the film. Things get very tedious with all the callouts to the larger MCU narrative. This kind of fan service is increasingly important to the franchise, and to all franchises — it keeps the fans buzzing weeks and months after the release of every new episode or installment, and coming back for more. Sure, it can be really fun to decode the ads on WandaVision or to spot Howard the Duck in Endgame, but when this stuff gets in the way of the storytelling, as it increasingly does, it’s lame.
Because Black Widow is in some ways a prequel to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, its concluding scenes suffer from that funneling effect that mars the ending of, for example, Rogue One, which went to annoyingly great lengths to feed into the plot of the first Star Wars film. For some reason the geeks can’t imagine a prequel that doesn’t do this, that doesn’t pedantically tie up every last detail — god forbid some things are left to the imagination. Everything has to funnel towards the already existing episode.
So we get plodding and unnecessary scenes establishing Natasha’s possession of a quinjet, her plan to break the other Avengers out of prison, and even the costume she wore in Infinity War — her vest and her blonde dye job. It’s not only boring, it unravels the drama, spoiling the emotion of our final moments with the character. She looked cool in Infinity War but we didn’t need the damn backstory of the vest.
The after-credits scene is just annoying (and I’m guessing Shortland didn’t direct it). Here we have Yelena at Natasha’s grave — the first time a character has really been allowed to mourn her onscreen, if you don’t count Bruce and Clint being sad for 30 seconds before getting back to business in Endgame. During the prolonged denouement of that film, with its suffocatingly sentimental memorial service for Tony Stark, there is hardly any mention of their other fallen comrade, who happened to have been the leader of the Avengers when she sacrificed herself to make the completion of their mission possible.
Anyway soon Julia Louis-Dreyfus pops up at the grave to congeal it all into comedy. As much as I love JLD and savor her presence in the MCU, this is jarring. And then we realize it’s all just a setup for the next Marvel series, Hawkeye, and that fatigue sets in again. The makers of the MCU, who never gave Natasha Romanoff a fair shake in her 11 years in the franchise, won’t even allow her to rest in peace.
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