Cinema Dispatch: Black Widow

Black Widow and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directed by Cate Shortland

Wow, 2020 feels like a million years ago doesn’t it?  Not only that, it seems that spy movies were in vogue as not only this movie but The King’s Man and the new James Bond movie were set to come out before finding out the one thing you can’t stealthy murder your way around is a global pandemic.  Thankfully things are starting to clear up (though the pandemic is by no means over, GET VACCINATED!) and some of those 2020 holdovers are making their way to theaters.  We already got Fast 9 and Spiral, s s turn to save movie theaters with their latest billion dollar blockbuster!  Is this spin-off film for one of o now it’s Marvel’ the MCU’s most iconic characters the true start to the next wave of Marvel movies, or is did it miss its chance when the world turned upside down last year?  Let’s find out!!

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run after the events of Captain America: Civil War and is laying low in a trailer somewhere when she gets a message from her long lost spy-sister containing vials of some mysterious substance.  She is immediately attacked by a mysterious person in a mechanical suit with a skull painted on the faceplate, and so she goes to see her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) who first tries to punch her a bunch of times before revealing that the vials are some sort of antidote for a mind control drug that the current crop of Black Widows are injected with; including herself who is only free now after a botched operation that her a face full of the anti-puppet juice.  With Yelena now free and Natasha having nothing better to do, the two of them start working together to bring down General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the scumbag leader of the Black Widows who is now coming after them.  To find Dreykov though, they will need the help of their spy-dad Alexei (David Harbour) who was once the Red Guardian (the Captain America equivalent for the Soviet Union) and is now wasting away in prison, as well as the help of their spy-mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) who was a Black Widow herself and still has contacts with the organization.  Can this awkward family reunion get Natasha and Yelena the information they need to save the women under Dreykov’s control and end the program once and for all?  Will their spy-parents help them on their journey or will they be a bunch of Boomers about it and question why they feel so entitled to not being mind-slaved by the state?  How much is Marvel regretting their decision to end Black Widow’s story in Endgame, and how big of a sales pitch did they give to Florence Pugh?

“I’m telling ya, sis.  Four movies MINIMUM that will all make over five hundred million at the box office!”     “I’ll think about it, but no promises.”

I’ve liked pretty much every Marvel movie that’s come out, even the ones that don’t quite reach the high bar the franchise has set like Ultron and Iron Man 2, and the only times I’ve ever really turned away from an entry in this series is when they lean very hard into dour tones and franchise shakeups.  This movie, I’m sad to say, falls into that camp; maybe less so on shaking things up but it definitely hitches its wagon to a grim and grittier version of the MCU that I can do without.  The movie was struggling to feel relevant for me when they first announced it (AFTER the character had canonically died a movie prior) and with the delays due to COVID it just feels that much more like a relic of a bygone age; a big budget spectacle to be sure, but one that also feels stitched together from pieces of movies that we saw and moved on from almost a decade ago.  Perhaps if it wasn’t trying so hard to punch above its weight class or GENUINELY felt like something transgressive and bold then it might have overcome its rather stale template, but we’ve seen what can be done with the MCU in those Disney+ shows and this coming out after WandaVision, after The Falcon and The Winter Solider, and right in the middle of Loki feels… well it all feels too little too late.

I give it ten years before Chris Evans looks EXACTLY like this.

 Now before I get ahead of myself here, I do want to say that this movie is perfectly fine for the most part.  It seems impossible at this point to make an outright BAD Marvel movie given the resources they have available and the faith that Disney and the producers put in the filmmakers and actors to do their jobs, so at its worst it’s still an okay movie.  Scarlett Johansson is still great in the role, and the new cast they’ve brought in for this one is MOSTLY good.  We’ll talk about the villain soon enough, but David Harbour is fun as an insecure schlubby super dad, Rachel Weisz finds a decent tone in the latter half of the movie, and Florence Pugh proves to be a solid foil for Natasha; acting as the super spy version of a bratty younger sister.  The drama fell a bit flat for me but the comedy is for the most part on point with Pugh getting a lot of great lines and Harbour being an absolute riot when he’s not being utterly despicable.  There’s a lot of dark humor in this movie as characters use it as either a coping mechanism for their trauma or a mask for their inadequacies as the whole movie is about dealing with your past and the way that it informs you now; especially in the ways you don’t want or expect it to.  It’s a solid through line that has significance for all the major characters in here, and while it’s not as deep as say The Mitchells Vs. The Machines (which you can watch right now without going to a theater or paying Disney thirty bucks), it at least tries to make Black Widow more than an implacable badass and gives her a somewhat relatable pathos.  The point is that I’ve seen MUCH worse out of the Mouse House and I probably wouldn’t even put it below the agreed upon worst movie in the MCU which is Thor: The Dark World, and the ones that I personally have issues with like Civil War and Infinity War

CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG!?

Where things start to fall apart though is in the connective tissue; the narrative itself upon which the themes and performances are hung upon.  We’ve seen A LOT of spy thrillers in the last few years, and this one just is not up to snuff as far as intrigue and pacing.  Even Captain America: The Winter Solider, with its blunt explanation for all of America’s ills (IT WAS HYDRA ALL ALONG), still had twist and turns that kept things interesting and a core conflict over where the line between safety and oppression.  This one tries to have as weighty a subject as the exploitation of young women throughout the movie is harsh and disturbing, but it’s not done in a particularly interesting way which means all this brutal imagery throughout the movie ends up feeling excessive and cheap.  I’m willing to admit that perhaps I’m not the right person to fully appreciate the gravity of the situation being shown here as women are genuinely in distressing situations throughout and despite the BIG BUDGET SUPERHERO veneer it DOES speak to a real problem that exists in the world, but it all feels like allusions rather than narrative as the other Widows who are supposedly the ones our cast of heroes are trying to save are barely on screen and hardly built up to be a threat.  Where all the acting and drama went towards are the family dynamics and a rather underwhelming villain played by Ray Winstone who is both underwritten and too much for this movie.  He’s one note as a misogynistic monster who as far as I can recall has about three line in the first two acts of the movie before the entire third act has him play that one note incessantly.  He’s perhaps better than some villains like Malekith from Thor 2 and Kaecilius from Doctor Strange who are one note AND low key where this guy is playing it to the sleaziest and most contemplable heights, but like the violent imagery against women it feels a bit excess for what is otherwise a disposable character.

Something tells me this would work much better if he was played by David Tennant and was wearing A LOT more purple…

More than anything else though, this movie feels old; even for 2020 which at this point feels like a million years ago.  The action has that Paul Greengrass shaky cam style which is bizarre to see in not just a Marvel movie but a movie made a good decade after everyone got sick of that kind of camera work.   The self-serious tone of everything that isn’t witty banter also feels a good bit behind the curve as movies like this that AREN’T James Bond have moved in a more lighthearted and emotionally well rounded direction where dourness and pain aren’t the only emotions that have resonance in the story.  Marvel’s been doing it for years, the DCCU finally figured it out with movies like Shazzam, and I’d even say that Charlie’s Angels managed to have a lot more going for it than this film here which has AT LEAST twice the budget.  Even within its own franchise it feels like a time capsule as it takes place in the immediate aftermath of Civil War which came out five years ago and is frankly another mark against this as the status quo that movie left things in was the first time I genuinely went cold on the MCU.  If none of that is enough to convince you, then perhaps the fact that all three of the Disney+ Marvel shows are better than this can be the final nail in the coffin.  WandaVision had a more satisfying story about trauma and loss than the one I got here, The Falcon and The Winter Solider is a much more intricate and engaging spy thriller that gets the most out of its themes, and Loki is a much more interesting study of its main character than what we get for the main character in this one.  With all those choices already out there, how could this possibly stand out?

I mean sure they’re fighting in mid-air surrounded by explosions and sharp debris, but did you SEE the magic show in WandaVision!?

The only thing this movie has going for it above its contemporaries is it’s huge budget, some funny dialogue in between the more dour moments, and a goofy performance from David Harbour that walks the line between stealing every scene he’s in and not shifting the movie’s focus to himself over the main characters.  If that’s enough for you and you are a die-hard Marvel completionist, then I would recommend it as a matinee at best.  To reiterate it’s not a TERRIBLE movie or even a BAD one, but it’s also a movie that feels completely out of its time and frankly should have been released on Disney+ for free instead of their ridiculous PREMIUM ACCESS service.  For some, the deeper themes about family issues as well as the unflinching look at abuses and traumas that women have to face will be enough to carry this through its runtime, and not everyone is going to feel as blasé about the action as I did.  Still, I referenced a lot of movies and shows in this review that does what this movie is trying to do and I’d recommend them all before seeing this one.  It gets a pass from me because of the technical chops on display and its genuinely good elements that are stuck in a rather uninspired and paint by numbers narrative, but this also means that the next few Marvel movies are gonna have to try MUCH harder for me to not just write it off and hope that EVERYTHING becomes a Disney+ mini-series.  Make it so, Disney!  Give me a six episode Squirrel Girl show and we’ll be square in my book!

2.5 out of 5

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