Black Widow

Black Widow is an odd entry in the MCU: a solo outing for a female superhero that has already died (see Avengers: Endgame), and who’s actor (Scarlett Johansson) has gone on record saying that she will not return to the role after this outing.  In spite of those headwinds, anticipation for Black Widow was high.  Unfortunately, Black Widow is of two minds: quirky indie dramedy interspersed with a Marvel movie.  The comedic elements are fine, but don’t mix well with the going through the motions action sequences.  Johansson and Florence Pugh, as younger sister Yelena, are fine, and David Harbour is funny as an over-the-hill Red Guardian.  The movie’s two villains are dull as dry toast, however.  We know Natasha survives all of the proceedings, so the stakes are non-existent.  Worse still, Black Widow references two events that would be much more exciting to see than anything we end up seeing.  A disappointment.  Not recommended.

I don’t think anything is as depressing as reviewing a movie that you really looked forward to seeing, but were disappointed in it.  Black Widow definitely falls into that scenario.  There was so much build up, having to wait over a year to see it in a theater.  The movie also followed three very well received entries: Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From HomeCaptain Marvel, released between Infinity War and Endgame, was hugely successful even though I thought it narratively thin.  Black Widow was also the largest release this summer, with a higher theater count than Fast and Furious 9.

Aside from scheduling and logistics driving anticipation for Black Widow, the movie is the first (and the last) solo outing for Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow.  The character died midway through Endgame, sacrificing herself so that Clint Barton could bring back the Soul Stone from Vormir, so Black Widow is a prequel of sorts, a solo outing along the lines of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America.  Marvel’s vocal fanbase (or antagonists) on the internet had been harping for a long time that the Black Widow had never gotten her own solo movie, and now that we have it, It feels superfluous.  

I never had a problem with there not being a Black Widow movie.  Not every Marvel superhero needs their own solo movie.  The Hulk hasn’t had a solo movie since 2008, but he’s played a major role in all of the Avengers movies and Thor: Ragnarok.  Clint Barton (a.k.a. Hawkeye) hasn’t had a solo movie either, but that hasn’t detracted from the contribution he’s had on the team.  Besides, there are so many Marvel movies, it’s not like we’re devoid of content to watch.

Regardless of whether the Black Widow should have gotten her own solo movie or not, I’ve enjoyed Scarlett Johanssan’s performances in most of the movies I’ve seen her in, including all of the Avengers and Captain America movies.  Her acting plays off well with her Avenger brothers, giving them an empathic sounding board during quiet moments.  The only perceived misstep (or mistreatment) with her character, as loudly called out by fans, would be her relationship with Bruce Banner.  The Marvel movies are so incredibly popular, they attract a lot of attention, including criticism that reads like people who’ve found a big platform to rant about one creative decision (out of thousands) they took personal offense to.  Honestly, were Natasha and Bruce the first two people ever who worked together and developed an attraction for each other?  Maybe folks would have been happier if she had a secret boyfriend or husband, like Clint, but I digress.  Johanssan’s scenes with Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner and yes, Mark Ruffolo were some of the best purely dramatic moments in the first four Avengers movies.

All of the above is a long way of saying that anticipation due to pandemic rescheduling, coupled with one of my favorite actors starring in a movie featuring her signature superhero character, really got me excited about seeing Black Widow.  As I mentioned above, the movie was a disappointment for me.  I’ll get into the specific reasons why, but as I revisited the movie in my mind days after seeing it, I remembered that Marvel does not bat 1,000.  They routinely release movies that underwhelm, fail to obtain liftoff, or are just kinda meh.  Every fan of Marvel movies probably has a list like mine, but below are the Marvel-produced movies that just didn’t work for me:

  • Thor: The Dark World
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2
  • Ant-Man and The Wasp
  • Captain Marvel
  • Iron Man 3 (or maybe 2)

My list isn’t very long.  You may very well like some or all of the movies above.  I liked parts of those movies, but they failed to transport me in the way that the others did.  All of those movies were successful financially, some wildly so (Captain Marvel).  Every movie studio would love to put out 25 movies, have them all make money, and have a handful that fans gripe about but still pay money to see at least once.  For me personally, the experience of watching any of those six is waiting for excitement that never happens.  Thor: The Dark World, has some of the best special effects of any Marvel movie, but it’s villains are dull as moldy bread.  Ant-Man and The Wasp has scenes that are funny visually, but compared to Ant-Man, the second one was boring.

In reflecting on what I perceive to be Marvel’s artistic failures, I noticed that Black Widow had a lot in common with them.  Universally, all of Marvel’s movies are well made, competently directed and well acted.  A production schedule that spans a dozen years and twenty five movies involves a lot of planning.  That only 25% don’t catch fire is remarkable, but no less disappointing for fans.  I had high hopes for Black Widow, and unfortunately it did not reach escape velocity.  All that’s left for me to do now is examine what went wrong.  But first, a quick recap of the movie’s plot.

Black Widow starts promisingly enough.  Natasha, her sister Yelena and parents Alexi (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) live in a suburb of Ohio, circa 1995.  Natasha had a long career as a spy for Russia before she became an Avenger, so her family situation obviously is a pretense for a spying mission of some kind.  Unfortunately, fake father Alexi comes home and tells their fake mother Melina that their cover is blown.  The fake family makes fast for a getaway plane.  Along the way, Alexi shows off his skill, speed and strength that makes him legendary as the Red Guardian.  Once the plane lands in Cuba, Natasha and Yelena are turned over to the nefarious Dreykov, who admits them into the Black Widow program.

Twenty-one years later, Natasha is on the run from Secretary Ross.  (Chronologically, Black Widow takes place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.)  She manages to avoid a confrontation with him and hides out in a beat-up RV provided by friendly colleague Mason.  Natasha receives a package from her sister in Budapest that contains vials of a red substance that glow.  The Taskmaster is looking for those vials as well, and tracks down Natasha.  She narrowly escapes from the Taskmaster, and heads to Budapest to get answers from Yelena.

In Budapest, suspicion runs high, and Natasha and Yelena fight before deciding to trust each other.  Yelena tells Natasha that the Red Room is still operating.  The red vials are an antidote for Dreykov’s mind control of the Black Widows.  Natasha doesn’t believe Yelena, since she and Clint Barton killed Dreykov, the mastermind behind the Red Room, before they joined the Avengers.  Natasha and Yelena are pursued by fellow Black Widows and the Taskmaster, who they managed to escape from.

Natasha, now convinced that her nemesis is still alive and that the Red Room program is still operating on all cylinders, is set on destroying Dreykov once and for all.  To do that, they’ll need the help of their fake parents.  Natasha and Yelena free Alexi from a supermax-like prison in Russia, and meet up with Melina at her pig farm.  There, they bicker like the American family they pretended to be and plot to take down Dreykov.

Dreykov, however, still controls Melina and the fake family are quickly captured.  The family planned for this outcome, and each set about taking down Dreykov’s flying fortress in the sky.  Dreykov reveals how he controls hundreds of Black Widows around the world, and that the Taskmaster is his daughter, rebuilt from the explosion Natasha and Clint intended to kill him.  Natasha overcomes Dreykov’s power over her and destroys Dreykov’s computer, while Melina sends the fortress crashing to the earth.  Once on solid ground, Yelena and Natasha free the Taskmaster from Dreykov’s mind control, and she escapes with the other Black Widow to parts unknown.  Natasha tells Mason she’s heading out to free her Avenger brothers being held captive in Secretary Ross’s floating prison.  There is a credit cookie that I won’t spoil here.

All of this probably sounds like exciting stuff, but inexplicably it is not.

Black Widow contains numerous plot holes, many of which are distracting because they are so glaring.  Given that the movie is a one-and-done solo adventure for Natasha (and Johansson), I would have assumed Marvel would have put all of the resources necessary towards delivering a top notch story.  Instead, the plot is a mess, the result of elements from other spy movies (Mission Impossible, The Bourne Movies, Captain America: Winter Soldier, to name a few), and an indie dramedy about a family that bickers thrown into a Cuisinart.  The dramedy scenes work for the most part, but the action sequences felt familiar and lifeless.

Natasha and Yelena’s slugfest at the beginning of the movie makes no sense.  Yelena fights Natasha because she can’t be sure whether Natasha is under the influence of the Red Dust.  If that’s the case, why did she send the antidote to Natasha in the first place?  And even if Natasha is under the influence of the Red Dust, why do the two suddenly declare a truce and stop fighting?  It’s not like the Red Dust wears off from exertion.  Even more silly is when Yelena says that Natasha needs to take Tylenol after a fight.  Shoot, the two of them were throwing each other into walls, furniture, tables, etc.  They should need more than Tylenol after all that roughhousing.

After fighting each other to a draw, Yelena and Natasha first bond over brewskies, then over their shared admiration for vests with lots of pockets.  These scenes go on far too long, and eliminate any dramatic tension that had gone on before.  Marvel movies do tweak audience expectations, but they usually manage to deliver the goods.  Instead of scenes of Yelena and Natasha plotting their shared revenge and taking out bad guys, we get scenes from an independent movie featuring sisters who snipe at each other.  (Sure, the Avengers movies have their snarky asides, but those bits aren’t the basis for long stretches of those movies.)  Johansson is very good at character-driven roles, in dramas and comedies.  Heck, she was nominated for two Academy Awards in 2019.  Black Widow really wants to be a small scale dramedy, but grudgingly turns itself into a big Marvel action movie after a long stretch of dialog.

Marvel movies are criticized for having uninteresting villains, and that is true more often than not.  For every Loki, we get Malekith of the Dark Elves and Obidiah Stane.  On the scale of boring villains, The Taskmaster would have to be near the top.  (Ronan the Accuser, you still rule!)  The Taskmaster never says a word throughout the entire movie.  Her costume looks like it’s made of Kevlar with purple highlights.  She wears a helmet that completely obscures her face.  Her costume isn’t even as good as the guys in Daft Punk.  Even at the end of the movie, when she’s freed from her father’s tech and the Red Dust, she remains speechless.  Unlike Ghost in Ant-Man and the Wasp, the Taskmaster doesn’t have a visually interesting super-ability.  She can mimic whomever she’s fighting.  Or maybe she can anticipate what her opponent will do next.  Cool.  At best, a fight between the Taskmaster and a similarly non-enhanced superhero would be a draw.  Two characters fighting to a draw is not a compelling outcome.  Captain America: Winter Soldier had a similar villain, but Bucky only wore a partial face shield, and his metallic arm made him look interesting and made his action sequences exciting to watch.

The Taskmaster is a villain with no agency.  Similar to the Ghost in Ant-Man and the Wasp, the Taskmaster doesn’t choose to be evil: she’s forced to.  Left partially incapacitated as a result of Clint and Natasha’s assassination attempt on Dreykov, her father turns her into the Taskmaster.  She’s transformed into a highly effective killing machine first when Dreykov fills her head with technology, then by controlling her with the serum developed by Natasha’s “mom” Melina.  You would think that the Taskmaster would be suitably motivated from the near-fatal injuries inflicted  by a traitor would be sufficient motivation towards choosing a life of evil.  In other words: revenge.  Instead, Black Widow makes plain that the Taskmaster had no choice in the matter, making somewhat innocent of all of the evil things she’s done.  Adding an unwelcome sense of deja-vu is the fact that the Taskmaster has essentially the same character arc as Winter Soldier.

The action sequences are way too short.  I don’t have official stats on this yet, but each of the movie’s big action sequences felt brief.  The scene where Natasha and Yelena have a beer together seemed longer than the one where the two of them were trying to evade capture by the Taskmaster.  Natasha and Yelena breaking their fake father Alexi out of prison went by fast as well.  Then we listen to the three of them bicker on the chopper, then while walking to the pig farm.  In retrospect, I wanted all of the action sequences to be longer, so that the comedy would be shorter (or nonexistent).  I can’t think of another Marvel movie where I wanted the action sequences to be longer.

The Black Widow never defeats the Taskmaster.  In their first confrontation, Natasha quickly realizes that she can’t overpower the Taskmaster, and is fortunate when she is thrown off a bridge into the river below, where she escapes by swimming away.  When she’s paired with her sister Yelena, I thought that the two of them together would be able to overpower one bad guy.  Nope.  Instead, they drive away from her as fast as they can.  Then, when their car is totaled, they hide from the Taskmaster in an air duct in the subway.  Natasha’s final confrontation with the Taskmaster only happens because Natasha feels sorry for her and frees her from her holding cell.  Their final battle has the two of them flying through the air while they both plummet to the ground, but it’s not a true battle of good versus evil: it’s Natasha trying to right a wrong. Or at least not make a decision she feels guilty about even worse.  Like Ant-Man and the Wasp, Black Widow goes to great lengths to rehabilitate its villain, and the action and drama suffers as a result.

The big hero versus villain confrontation in the third act is actually between Natasha and Dreykov.  After Dreykov monologues endlessly about his plan for world domination, Natasha finds she is unable to physically attack Dreykov.  He, probably with Melina’s help, devised a way to condition the Black Widow’s minds so that when they can smell his pheromones, they are unable to physically attack him.  (Think Alex in A Clockwork Orange.)  Natasha’s plan is to have Dreykov punch her in the face enough times so that it will break her nose, leaving her unable to smell Dreykov’s pheromones.  Unfortunately, Dreykov doesn’t punch her in the nose enough, so Natasha has to slam her head on his desk to finish the job.  Having the Black Widow break her own nose so that she can beat up a sixty four year-old man is just plain insulting.

Dreykov is also a very uninteresting villain.  As played by Ray Winstone, he’s an oaf, with no nuance or charisma.  Given his control over a fleet of super vixens (Fembots?), he’s clearly a stand-in for the patriarchy.  That’s fine, but he is very, very dull.  I didn’t for one second believe that he was the mastermind behind a secret spy cabal, able to deploy and control hundreds of agents around the world.  (The logistics seemed daunting, even for IBM’s Watson.)  Dreykov seems more like a henchman than the ultimate bad guy.  Somehow, Black Widow manages to commit a double-fault by having two equally uninteresting villains.

On the hero front, the Red Guardian starts out as the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America, but after the opening sequence, is reduced to a series of punch lines.  I like David Harbour.  He’s great in Stranger Things.  He’s actually funny in Black Widow.  But after we see him in the past, he’s reduced to a fat jokester.  At one point Yelena tells him that he’s living off of his past glories.  Even more incredible is that even he can’t defeat the Taskmaster.  True, Alexi is older and out of shape, but he has super speed and strength!  He showed us as much when he escaped from the gulag.  How he can’t be a suitable match for the Taskmaster is beyond explanation.

I really expected to see the fake family wreak havoc on Dreykov and his flying fortress of evil.  Instead, we get the Red Guardian getting his ass handed to him, the Black Widow getting punched in the face, Melina doing her Obi-Wan imitation by trying to bring down the Death Star, and Yelena doing…some stuff.  We’ve seen a family of “supers” work as a team to bring down a bad guy before:  The Incredibles.  The action spearheaded by Black Widow’s “family” is not compelling or interesting.  I hate to say it, but they’re The Mediocres.

Since Black Widow was released after Endgame, everybody knows that Natasha has already died.  Furthermore, Johansson has said that Black Widow will be her last appearance as Natasha.  Knowing the fate of the lead character ahead of time casts a pall over the movie.  In some ways, what is depicted on screen is pointless, since we know none of it has any consequence in the battle with Thanos.  I had a similar feeling with Rogue One.  We know everybody in that movie dies, so what is the point?

Surprisingly, Natasha is a very passive character in this movie.  I don’t have any official stats on this, but Pugh seemed to have more dialog than Johansson.  Perhaps Johansson, one foot out the door when this movie was being made, was perfectly fine with playing second banana to Pugh’s character.  Johansson does her best with the movie that she’s given, but Black Widow felt like a movie made out of obligation rather than an actual passion project.

Lastly, was I the only one who noticed that the plot device with Yelena sending her sister the antidote vials, only to have Natasha find her and bring the vials with her, lifted directly out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?

The movie also raises a number of questions it doesn’t bother to explain, like:

  • Where did Natasha and Melina get the computerized face changer gizmos?  Why have we never seen that tech in any Marvel movie before?
  • Where did the Taskmaster and the rest of the liberated Black Widows end up?  There were at least two dozen in the fortress of evil, and Dreykov showed Natasha what looked like hundreds around the world.  Where did they go pre-snap?  What happened to them post-snap?
  • Was Natash under the spell of the Red Dust before she started working for SHIELD?  If she was, how did she get out of it?
  • Why is destroying Dreykov’s computer terminal sufficient to completely wipe out his network of Black Widow agents?  Didn’t anyone behind this movie ever heard of The Cloud?  Certainly Dreykov, master planner that he is, would have his system backed up in The Cloud.

The movie pays lip service to two things I really would like to see, but now never will.  First is Budapest.  Natasha and Clint had talked about Budapest several times in the Avengers movies.  In Black Widow, Natasha explains to Yelena what she and Clint did there and why, and we see Dreykov’s building explode for a couple seconds.  And that’s it.  Natasha says that she and Clint had to avoid capture for days.  Instead of starting with Ohio, Black Widow should have started with Budapest.  Marvel executives reportedly agreed to not have any of the other Avengers show up in the movie.  That decision cost the movie what would have been an exciting opening.  

The second bit of unseen MCU lore hinted at but never seen is mentioned at the end of the movie, when Natasha tells Mason she’s going to free the Avengers being held in Ross’ floating prison.  I really want to see that on screen!  But I never will, unfortunately.
Finally, I want to give a shout-out to the marketing team that put together Black Widow’s trailers.  I saw all of them several times, and was completely geeked to see this movie.  If I had known beforehand that the movie had other designs, and was an indie dramedy first and a Marvel movie second, I probably still would have seen it.  As it stands, I feel like the victim of a bait-and-switch.  The movie I saw had all of the scenes featured in the trailers, but the trailers hid so much, they were like a magic trick.  The movie promised is not the one delivered.  I wish  Johansson’s swan song as Natasha Romanoff was better than it turned out to be, but I have a feeling she’ll do just fine with the rest of her acting career.

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