Poor Scarlett Johansson. After 8 movies appearing as Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff in a supporting or cameo role, across 11 years (lengthened by global catastrophe related delays), her Marvel super spy character finally gets to star in her own movie… and it’s only okay. I mean I enjoyed watching it and I’ll say some nice things about it, but I can’t deny it lacks the kick of most Marvel movies without being different enough from them to feel like its own thing. Maybe this would’ve been cool if it was the one they made early on with plans to improve on the formula in subsequent adventures, but instead they made it after the character has been killed off and Johansson is presumably ready to move on with her life. If this is all she gets in the end I almost wish Emily Blunt had stuck with the role (she was cast but couldn’t get out of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS!) so Scarlett would’ve had more time to do her more adventurous roles like UNDER THE SKIN, LUCY, MARRIAGE STORY, JOJO RABBIT and hell, I’ll even say GHOST IN THE SHELL. More problematic, but more interesting.
The good news for people who like Marvel but get overwhelmed keeping track of all the shit is that this one is low on continuity and tie-ins. It references the basic Black Widow backstory and I don’t remember what that’s all about, but I didn’t feel like I missed anything important. It takes place however many movies ago when she’s been set up and is on the run, so that eliminates most “what does this mean for the larger Marvel universe?” concerns. (It also makes me realize how much more attached I am to Star Wars than the MCU: Star Wars makes me say, “Ah, this must be not long after Order 66, interesting,” and the MCU makes me say, “It’s after CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – who gives a shit?” I treat Marvel more like the serials Star Wars was emulating – on to the next chapter, no time to look back. But I’m sure there’s a whole generation who feel differently.)
Natasha gets some mail from one of her safe houses that draws her into some spy movie shit with her little sister – or rather the person who played her sister 21 years ago, from the ages of 3-6, when they were Russian spies posing as an American family in Ohio, before the younger one was sent away for her Black Widow training. Yelena (Florence Pugh, THE COMMUTER) has gotten ahold of a chemical compound that has freed her from the mind control of Russian spy boss Dreykov (Ray Winstone, BEOWULF), who has sent a helmeted Winter Soldier type super-assassin, Taskmaster (WONDER WOMAN 1984 fight trainer Andy Lister) to destroy it.
Black Widow thought she killed Dreykov and destroyed “The Red Room” (where he brainwashes and trains troubled orphan girls to be his assassins) a long time ago, but apparently not. I don’t remember if that’s something we were told in another movie or not, and it doesn’t really matter. The two quasi-sisters reluctantly team up to finish the job.
It’s a very Cold War theme – free will vs. control by Russia. I think the more interesting themes are the ones about family – the idea that the people who played the parts in this fake family have some of the bonds and of course the issues (betrayal, abandonment, resentment) of a “real” family. And this plays out as the sisters get together and, for mission purposes, reunite with their fake parents, busting fake dad Alexei (David Harbour, HELLBOY) out of prison because they think he knows where Dreykov is, and then going to find fake mom Melina (Rachel Weisz, DEATH MACHINE), a brilliant scientist who developed the mind control methods Dreykov uses.
Of course they end up working together as a spy team and softening to each other. There are some fun spy tricks and twists, but honestly fewer than I’d like. If this is supposed to be the Marvel version of a spy movie I think it should have more outlandish gimmicks than a real one, not fewer. And since the scene that turned Black Widow into an actual good character was her introduction in THE AVENGERS, when she seemed to be captured for an interrogation, but was in control the whole time and did a flip and smashed the chair she was tied to, there oughta be a whole bunch of thrills like that in her own movie, not a little bit. I like Black Widow when she’s like Blade: three steps ahead of everybody and not revealing it until the most badass time to do so. We only get a taste of that here.
I’ve come to accept that I can’t go to a Marvel movie for the action. The fights are fine by mainstream (not straight up action genre) American standards, and the most Marvel-y/FX-based sequence (involving skydiving) actually, come to think of it, is my favorite part of this one. But especially on this movie about a character who doesn’t have super powers or rocket suits, just elite fight training, we all would’ve flipped out for it if it had some JOHN WICK, ATOMIC BLONDE, EXTRACTION or NOBODY level action filmmaking in even a couple sequences. Once again they’ve hired some of the actual best in the business – second unit director Darrin Prescott did all three JOHN WICK movies – and had them do work that’s not nearly as exciting as what they’re known for, despite having literally about ten times the budget.
And that’s despite having it all departmentalized so the supposed experts are handling the spectacle. A potential director who took a meeting for BLACK WIDOW, Lucrecia Martel (THE HEADLESS WOMAN, ZAMA), said in an interview that they told her, “Don’t worry about the action scenes, we will take care of that.” She said she was thinking, “Well I would love to meet Scarlett Johansson but also I would love to make the action sequences.”
I’m not saying they suck. They’re fine. I just think it’s sad that such a multi-billion-dollar pop culture monopolizing force doesn’t want to push their artform and craftsmanship at least to the current state of the art, if not beyond it. As much as Disney and Pixar at their peaks always talked about story, it was also without question that they were gonna do what it took to be ahead of the curve on every technical aspect of their mediums. Action is such a big component of super hero movies these days, and it’s not like they’re Tim Burton caring more about the mood and atmosphere. I just can’t fathom why they wouldn’t want to become the gold standard for action scenes. I’m not sure they’re even aiming for, like, third place.
(That better fucking change with SHANG-CHI or I’m gonna be genuinely offended. But this would’ve been a good one to start on.)
Director Cate Shortland (LORE) and writer Eric Pearson (Agent Carter, THOR: RAGNAROK, GODZILLA VS. KONG), (story by Jac Schaeffer [THE HUSTLE, WandaVision] and Ned Benson [THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY]) may be more interested in the emotional character stuff with the family bonds and all that, which is the more successful part of the movie. I do think some of it feels a little forced, though. Harbour is pretty funny as Alexei and I like the joke of him cluelessly trying to connect with “his girls” by telling them how proud he is of all the people they’ve killed. But they have him refer to it as “red on your ledger” as Black Widow and Hawkeye do in the AVENGERS movies, and it just seems too phony. Also, using Yelena’s childhood favorite song to create a sweet moment between her and Alexei would work alot better if I hadn’t spent the whole earlier scene not even remotely buying that this 1995 six-year-old was obsessed with fucking “American Pie” by Don McLean. Kids can get into completely random things, sure, but do they have to be ploddingly, shallowly on-the-nose completely random things? No, they do not.
I was gonna say, “I guess it would be too goofy if it was [insert song that was popular in 1995]” but now that I look at it, “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan, “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey, even “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” by Bryan Adams, all of these I honestly think would work better. They’d get a laugh but then it would become sweet if the actors seemed sincere about it.
Oh my god – what if they’re singing “Fantasy” and Alexei suddenly bursts into the ODB part?
I’m glad it wasn’t “Cotton Eye Joe” at least.
One weakness that harkens back to the earlier MCU films is the lack of a good villain. Dreykov is completely generic, and Winstone isn’t allowed to do anything novel with it. Taskmaster is also generic and, unfortunately, just a completely not at all cool looking costume design. There’s also a pretty funny misuse of cinematic language when they make a big deal out of his helmet being removed. Everything about the scene tells you, “Oh, the identity of the Taskmaster is a surprise? Shit, who is it!?” And the helmet slooooowly comes off and finally you see the face and it’s…an actor who has not been in the movie previously. So we have to wait for the characters to explain who it is.
Narratively it works, because the identity of the character and their meaning to Black Widow’s past changes the dynamic of their fight and makes it more interesting. This is a good part of the movie. But it’s marred by this rookie move of building us up for a type of pay off that’s not there.
The one thing about the movie that does obviously change the Marvelous Cinematical Universals going forward is introducing this Yelena character, who seems set to replace Black Widow. A post-credits scene implies, and IMDb confirms, that she’ll be a major part of the upcoming Hawkeye Disney+ series. I have mixed feelings about this because yes, I enjoyed the character and it will be cool to see her again, but on the other hand I think Pugh is one of the best actors of her age group, and they better give her a better payoff than they gave Scarlett if they’re gonna rob us of more performances like MIDSOMMAR and LITTLE WOMEN just to do one of their not-as-good-as-the-movies-just-longer TV shows. Don’t be greedy, Marvel. Share our natural resources.
You know what’s real different in this incarnation of Black Widow? Sometimes her suit is white instead of black! Do we get new insights into who she is and where she’s coming from though? I don’t know, I guess. I like that when she’s a teenager (played by Ever Anderson, daughter of Milla Jovovich and Paul Wrestling Superstar Anderson) she has blue hair, so she’s always been into changing her hair style and color. But I should probly be discussing something deeper than that. I like Johansson, I like her in this role, I think she’s cool, but I don’t think she’s taken to a new level here. Maybe there’s not enough time because she has to share her story and spotlight with a sister who was never mentioned before, played by an actress who kinda steals the movie.
But maybe that’s the best thing about the movie – I’m not against “here’s a beautiful woman in a catsuit doing flips and kicking guys,” but the time has come for more “here is the story of the complicated sisterly relationship between these two women in catsuits occasionally doing flips and kicking guys.” They had an abusive childhood and Yelena kind of forces Natasha to face it and come to terms with it, not to mention bring accountability to the main person responsible and prevent it from happening to other women. Healing and growing and skydiving. That’s all good stuff.
I liked it. I wish I loved it. R.I.P. Natasha Romanoff – Avenger, hair icon, chair smasher, American.