Too Little, Too Late – Black Widow

Natasha Romanoff was always an underserved character within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Introduced in Iron Man 2 purely as an object of hotness before pulling some decent martial arts, the majority of Scarlett Johansson’s screen time as an Avenger has focused much more on her sex appeal than her utility as a superhero. It’s still one of the more laughable moments of the franchise to have that splash page shot in The Avengers of everyone in a circle getting ready to let loose, and all she gets to do is cock a gun.

Part of this is lazy writing and producing, and part of it is simply the culture of comic fandom. Johansson is an undeniably gorgeous woman, and I’m guessing there’s a statistically significant portion of the American male population that wishes they could trade places with Colin Jost. But it really was a shame that the one woman on the team was also arguably the weakest, trading spots in that argument with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. While Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America all got stand-alone trilogies, Nat had to settle for cameos and side roles within other people’s narratives, and what hints of development we got for her were still shrouded in the overall sexualization of her character. Even when Kevin Feige et al finally wised up to the idea that women deserve their place of honor in this canon, Nat got left out of the equation, as she was unceremoniously killed off in one of the worst moments of Avengers: Endgame, before we got that pure fan service shot of all the other MCU women in the final battle.

This is a character that most definitely deserved better, including at minimum her own film, and ideally a way to bring her back from the dead, like the MCU seems to do with every other dead hero over the last decade and a half. After a year’s delay from COVID, we finally have the movie, in the form of Black Widow to officially launch Phase Four of the Universe. And after seeing it, there is definitely some stuff to recommend, but it would have been a lot better if Nat had gotten her due in a more time-appropriate manner. Because given how the film is framed, we end up with a no-stakes adventure filled with mostly boring action and superfluous filler rather than the well-earned send-off (or welcome back) to a beloved character we all wanted.

The first major mistake is the movie’s setting, which is in the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, where the Avengers are split up and some imprisoned for their lack of cooperation with the Sokovia Accords. In fact, one of the early scenes has General Ross (William Hurt) trying to track Natasha down for her extrajudicial actions. It really only plays as a reminder that the character exists, because he hasn’t been relevant in years, but more importantly, it tells us that there’s no real suspense to anything we’re about to see. We know Nat dies in Endgame (and don’t you dare complain about spoilers; you had two years to watch it multiple times), and we know that this takes place about three years before Infinity War, so we know she’s going to survive and triumph over whatever she encounters, and even if she somehow gets caught, obviously she’ll break free to rejoin the main narrative. That automatically dilutes almost all of the action, which was already handicapped by the MCU’s motif of shaky cams and hyperactive jump cut editing so that no one can really follow what’s going on.

And even when the film slows down long enough to have a story, it’s one that barely registers. Natasha had mentioned previously (I believe in Age of Ultron) that she couldn’t have children because of the way she was brought up as an assassin, which she feels makes her a monster, and thus relates to Hulk/Banner in a somewhat romantic way that never got explored again beyond “Hey, Big Guy.” As such, that clandestine organization – the Widows, trained by the Red Room – serves the main antagonist role. Run by a Russian general named Dreykov (Ray Winstone, who I normally love, but he makes no ripples here), women from around the world are plucked from families, brainwashed, given hysterectomies, and raised in secret to be mind-controlled killers. Only a chemical compound that looks like red glitter and pixie dust can free them. Dreykov is a one-note misogynist who has no clear motive other than the nebulous idea of “power,” so he doesn’t feel like a real character, and his chief lieutenant, an armored soldier called Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), is basically the “Everyman” character created by Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, as she mimics the fighting styles and weaponry of all the individual Avengers (which really means she can make Black Panther claws come out of her hands while flying around with rocket boots like Iron Man). Taskmaster’s identity is supposed to be a mystery, but the story lays it on pretty thick as to who it is, and while I won’t spoil anything, I will say that if you look at her and think she looks like the Arkham Knight, trust that instinct.

Had this film been made and released around the time it was set, right after Civil War, you’d have the makings of a pretty decent outing, even if it wasn’t remarkable, because there are some really interesting things on display here. The film opens, as many superhero movies do, with a flashback to the protagonist’s childhood, which in Nat’s case is Ohio in the 90s. She plays with her sister Yelena (the always amazing Florence Pugh as an adult) and has what appears to be a nice family life, until her father, Alexi (David Harbour), comes home from work to inform her mother Melina (Rachel Weisz, who is great but doesn’t get nearly enough to do in this movie) that they’ve been exposed and have to flee the country. A chase ensues to an airstrip where a wounded Melina flies a plane to safety with Alexi hanging on to the wing after lifting a truck with his bare hands. Alexi, as it turns out, is the Red Guardian, Russia’s only official supersoldier, essentially their counterpart to Cap. Also, no one in this “family” is actually related, as once they reach Cuba, Alexi is imprisoned and the girls are conscripted into the Widow program.

This is actually a compelling backstory. It’s layered, there’s some genuine mystery in its presentation, and that first indication of Alexi’s power as he casually lifts the truck out of the way is a surprise moment of awesomeness. But this goes back to the core problem of making this movie now as opposed to five years ago. Had it come out back then, Nat would still be a fairly fresh character worth exploring. But now that she’s dead, no matter how cool the sequence looks, it feels like little more than filler, a footnote for a character we should be actively rooting for, rather than mourning her lost potential.

Once we get to the film’s present, even without a blood bond, there is a genuinely fun and intriguing dysfunctional family dynamic amongst our four stars, aided immensely by the fact that they’re all spectacular actors (all three women being Oscar nominees – and Weisz has won – while Harbour has a SAG award and two Emmy nominations for Stranger Things). They crack jokes at the dinner table, Melina casually almost kills a pig while making sexual innuendo, and Yelena takes the piss out of Natasha for the hair tosses and cat poses when she fights. The first in-person meeting between Nat and Yelena is also a fun way to dispense with the “mirror” fight cliché that the MCU leaned on heavily in earlier films.

There’s some absolute comic gold here, and not in the lazy one-liner sense that carries a lot of the MCU’s humor. The dialogue and interplay is really quite good when they’re bouncing off each other, even though the writing suffers when it comes to the larger plot or exposition. David Harbour chews scenery with such delight that I wonder if it was bacon-flavored. Even the absurdly bad Russian accents the characters put on (except for Nat) are fun, because there’s almost a hint that they all know they could just speak with American ones, but choose not to just for shits and grins. There’s also a character called Mason (O-T Fagbenle from The Handmaid’s Tale) who acts as a sort of “fixer” for Nat and has good chemistry with her. Again, had this film come out immediately post-Civil War, we could really explore this guy and his relationship with Nat, because describes him as one of her oldest friends, even though this is his first appearance. But because this is a jump backward and Nat’s dead, we’re left to hope he makes some other cameo appearance in some other spinoff film or TV show, which is just a waste.

There are some stylistic flaws with this film that downgrade it a bit as well. The opening montage that I guess demonstrates Nat’s life from adolescence to adulthood is set to a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that’s so awful that I nearly stuck my fork and straw in my ears to drown it out (I was at a dine-in theatre). I’ve mentioned this before, but this trend over the last decade or so of doing deep, breathy, faux-ethereal dirge-like covers of popular songs for movies and trailers has got to stop. They’re cheesy at best and ear rape at worst. This may be the most insulting one yet. And I thought Kurt Cobain was spinning in his grave after Moulin Rouge. Yeesh.

Similarly, the film likes to put a location stamp on every new place in huge letters, basically assaulting your eyes, but there’s no consistency. It starts with “OHIO,” then goes to “CUBA” and “MOROCCO,” before then changing to “BUDAPEST.” Now, why do that? You started with a U.S. state, which is fine as it’s part of the larger land mass of the country that makes up a good chunk of the continent, but it could be argued that as a subdivision, the next two should also have narrowed the location rather than just listing a full country. And then to go to a world capital (there’s a fun argument over how to pronounce it), you then plaster the word on the screen, which we already knew we were going to, and how to spell it, so why not go for a native spelling, or a phonetic one to keep the joke going, or just say “HUNGARY” to maintain some semblance of order. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and the ultimate payoff for this runner is very unsatisfying to boot.

There are very weird choices when it comes to maintaining the PG-13 rating. It’s kind of hard to sell the idea of a cadre of assassins who really aren’t allowed to be all that deadly, for one thing. But for another, when they do get to, it’s not believable. There’s a scene where one character literally guts the other like a fucking carp, and yet you don’t see a drop of blood except for a brief stain on a shirt after the victim dies. Uh, no. We distinctly heard and saw a stab, followed by a slice at stomach level. There should be a goddamn pool of blood and guts on the street, but no, can’t offend the MPA or sacrifice box office for reality, can we? But at the same time we’re fine with Yelena giving VERY graphic details of having her sexual organs removed? Okay, then.

Finally, and I’ll be as spoiler-free as I can with this, the post-credits scene is horrible. It involves a character from one of the Disney+ shows, but because the film was originally supposed to come out first, this was meant to be that character’s introduction. That’s all well and good, but the scene itself turns out to be awful, introducing a mind-bogglingly stupid idea, and rather than giving us a good joke or a tease for what’s to come in Phase Four, it appears to be a promo for another Disney+ show. I can’t fully speak to the motivations of production, and since I don’t watch the MCU spinoff shows, I can’t really speak to the viability of this particular character, though I have some outside familiarity.

What should be noted though, is that in my packed auditorium, when the movie ended, the house lights came up for the credit roll, but everyone knew to stay seated for the final scene, because all the MCU movies have one (with the exceptions of The Incredible Hulk and Endgame, I believe). Because the lights came up, some people got up and walked around to stretch their legs, while others chatted with one another or looked at their phones. The reception to the film already felt lukewarm, as the crowd never clapped or cheered, and only laughed at the really funny moments. When the credits were finally done and we got our tag, these were the reactions I could hear from the back row:

“Oh come on, we waited 10 minutes for THAT?!”
“Bullshit!”
“BOO!”

Apart from a couple snide remarks at Captain America’s PSA after Spider-Man: Homecoming (the overall response to the film, and the scene, was good, and I certainly liked the joke), I’ve never heard an audience boo something in an MCU film. What could have been a great sendoff for a beloved but mishandled character gets rendered moot by the timeframe and half-assed action. What could have been a grand opportunity to expand upon the character and make her more than just the hot chick who cocked a gun that one time occasionally scratches the surface of something funny and entertaining, but ends up rather pedestrian and at times outright boring due to an utter lack of tangible consequences. What could have been a chance to see Black Widow redeemed, or maybe even revived, went out with a whimper on one of the worst tag scenes ever, one that seems to be more in service of driving streamer traffic than anything else. It’s passable, but it should have been a game-changer.

Once again Nat gets the short end of the stick.

Grade: C

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are you most looking forward to in Phase Four? How much would you have to be paid to arm wrestle the Red Guardian? Let me know!

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