In many ways, Black Widow is a peculiar film, simultaneously relic and preface, an epilogue that occurs before the story ends, and, with Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, an introduction of another piece of the post-Phase 4 MCU. And it was all these things before COVID-19 pushed back its release way, way back.
It seems unlikely Black Widow was ever envisioned as more than a coda to the grand finale of Endgame, one that set up a baton exchange between Widows while doing what MCU movies do best—print box office money for the Mouse.
Yet in other ways, especially as relates to its genre-specific weaknesses, Black Widow is all too familiar.
Set after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Black Widow opens with a Widow on the run, and makes it clear her ability to hide comfortably outpaces the efforts of people like Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) to seek. The early scenes and overall plot arc of the film suggest a familiar—and savvy—approach by Kevin Feige and company.
Within the larger context of the MCU, and outside of the “gang’s all here” milestones of the Avengers movies, the individual films have worked best when all the costumed shenanigans have been placed within the conventions of established genres: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Cold War thriller, Ant-Man is a heist, and Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok, space opera.
Viewed from that perspective, Black Widow hews mostly to the form of the high-octane modern spy thriller, à la Bond and Bourne, as chases, crashes and explosions abound. During it all, one suspects that the writers, in pursuit of “how cool would this look?!”, have lost track of the fact that most of the characters are not superpowered. Granted, this suspension of disbelief kryptonite is a weakness of plenty of spy thrillers, but when capes and tights are involved, you need every ounce of “the rest makes sense” you can keep. By the time other hallmarks of badly written thrillers appear—the never-ending flow of “insta-henchmen,” somehow always there and still in pursuit even as the entire secret lair is disintegrating (such focus!)—well, it takes its toll.
Director Cate Shortland tries to leaven this particular loaf o’ unacknowledged concussions, fractures and tissue damage with family drama and trauma. Flashbacks and present action introduce Rachel Weisz as Melina Vostokoff and David Harbour as the single traditionally superpowered character in the movie, Alexei Shostakov (a.k.a., the Red Guardian). Beyond the general joy of seeing Weisz in another comic book adaptation, these scenes work well initially—the flashbacks and jailbreak in particular—but as the scope of the current crisis, and the role of Weisz’s character in it, is revealed, the jokes don’t so much land as disappear down a bottomless pit. (I haven’t seen a more morally imbalanced/unearned “plot pass” given to a character since Mirage in The Incredibles.)
Perhaps most surprisingly given all those lessons presumably learned in Phases 1-4, Black Widow has a villain problem. A flamboyant mercenary in the comics, and not too shabby in two recent videogame iterations, here Taskmaster is unnecessarily shaved down to the all-too-familiar “voiceless, remorseless pursuing villain.” For comic book fans, any sense filmmakers are abashed by the “comic book gaudiness” of a character is triggering, but sadly, that’s about all the emotion I felt with this version of the character. Meanwhile, Ray Winstone, an actor known for chewing huge chunks of scenes with palpable menace, is similarly shackled and reduced by script to an instantly forgettable aside. Instead of something along the lines of Kenneth Branagh’s Andrei Sator (from Christopher Nolan’s Tenet), Black Widow gives us … see, I’ve already forgotten.
So what is there to be excited about with Black Widow? First, it is calorie-free entertainment during a pandemic-starved time. Disbelief fatigue is a slow-onset disease in films like this, and plenty of people are immune to “thinking too much” about such films to begin with. Second, Pugh’s Black Widow, whether she arrives via Thunderbolts, Avengers 2.0 or by other means, is Florence Pugh—no matter how light in calories, Pugh delivers like it’s a steak dinner (and it’s difficult to overstate how crucial that is to pulp fare). Finally, a new MCU movie is exactly that, even if an extremely peculiar one. Its arrival means Shang-Chi, The Eternals and Spider-Man will not be far behind. As WandaVision and, to some extent, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and even Loki have shown, it’s what comes next that the audience most wants to see.
Director: Cate Shortland
Writers: Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson (story); Eric Pearson (screenplay); Stan Lee,
Don Heck, Don Rico (based on the Marvel comics by)
Starring: Florence Pugh, Scarlett Johansson, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone
Release Date: July 9, 2021
Michael Burgin is currently suspended in disbelief.