Directed by Cate Shortland
Written by Eric Pearson, Jac Schaefer, and Ned Benson
And so for the first time in sixteen months, I saw a movie in a movie theater. I've never been overly reverent toward the theatrical experience—most of the great movies I've seen I'll never see in a theater, which somewhat calls into question the centrality of theaters to the magic of cinema—so I won't wax lyrical about it, like some unendurable nerd, though it was nice.
Better to use my customary rambling, then, to consider Marvel Studios in 2021, given that, as far back as it goes, I've been enthusiastic about the phenomenon but also (I prefer to believe) even-keeled in my appreciation of it—for example, I think Martin Scorsese is a hypocrite who could be suspected of seeking free publicity for his own $200 million CGI fiasco, and I think the deadening standardization of one of the few corners of cinema that mass audiences still care about sucks, but I think that complaining about the tiresomeness of a popular genre easily becomes as tiresome as the fad itself—and so I'm irritating superfan to some, wet blanket to others, and neither is how you win friends, influence people, or get them to read your crummy blog. In 2019, Endgame happened, and I think it's objectively surprising that Marvel's audience did not jump off afterwards, since it was such a perfect jumping off point. (As Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) discovered for herself, right?) Speaking more subjectively, Endgame also seems like the wall that Marvel's cinematic universe has not so far managed to get past. Honestly, I doubt it would take much coaxing to convince a casual fan that Endgame was Marvel's last theatrically-released content, and that Spider-Man: Far From Home, which did so little to justify existing, actually never did. (And WandaVision can just eat shit—less the intriguing, art-adjacent psychodrama we were promised than a five-hour catalogue of every Marvel Studios sin.)
But buried in that was a reason to be optimistic, for Black Widow, by necessity, must throw itself back into a pre-Endgame past in order to serve as its dead titular heroine's long-awaited solo vehicle. This slots Black Widow in right after Captain America: Civil War, with Natasha alone and isolated, and, in this way, freed of all the crushing expectations of her shared universe. Black Widow gets an advantage that few Marvel movies can claim, which is the power to actually do its own thing—but also, and just as important, the obligation to render its dramatic stakes comparatively smaller-scaled, lest it disrupt established continuity. And whatever else, Black Widow exploits its advantage well.
If that "whatever else" implies to you that Black Widow is not the triumphant must-see theatrical release of the summer, you're right. But it gets so close. It's not even mediocre, either, but more like a discontinuous mix of the good, the borderline-great, and the inexplicably bad. Up until its final twenty minutes, it was comfortably cruising toward the kind of high-tier Marvel product that I'd giddily give an 8/10, maybe even one I wouldn't discreetly lower to a 7 after a rewatch. If we replaced those twenty minutes with something genuinely good, it'd be a cinch. Obviously, Marvel movies have frequently suffered stilted, compromised, or boring third acts ever since The Avengers inaugurated that as its own item on the studio checklist. But this one might be the only one that's all three on purpose.
Still, until that point, Black Widow fulfills its tripartite function of belated origin story, character showcase, and legacy sequel with aplomb, taking on the "origin story" first by starting in 1995, where we find young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and her "family," an Americans-esque cell of spies in Ohio that includes her "father" Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), her "mother" Melina Vostokov (Rachel Weisz), and her unaware, six year-old "sister" Yelena (Violet McGraw, later Florence Pugh). And, yes, it would be impolite to ask why Yelena was sent along when they already had one kid to complete the ruse, inasmuch as the answer is either "otherwise the movie doesn't happen" or "in an earlier, edgier, better draft, Yelena actually was Alexei and Melina's biological daughter." Yet I feel like it would not be entirely impolite to ask the writers of Black Widow, or any of its crew heads, or its director Cate Shortland, exactly when they believe the Soviet Union to have collapsed, or if they are in fact aware that it did.
For the moment, Shortland indulges in some Malick Lite to get across a half-dreamy sense of coziness, from bike rides through the suburbs to magical swarms of fireflies, a coziness ruptured when Alexei completes his objectives and violently extracts his family to safety (for once he was the Soviet superhero "Red Guardian," and hence precisely the asset any good mastermind would expend on three years of deep-cover wheel-spinning). This can only be the beginning of Natasha and Yelena's troubles, of course, as they're torn from their "mother" and "father," and Natasha's sent back to the icky, sticky "Red Room" project from which she came, though, as we know, eventually she escaped, finding a new life with the Avengers.
Yelena, meanwhile, is sent further underground, winding up in the even worse thing that the Red Room became, and thus are Natasha and Yelena's respective adolescences communicated to us by way of Black Widow's oblique and terrible opening credits montage. It comes complete with a sad girl pop cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which okay, Gen Xer, I liked, alongside a bunch of thrown-together creepy YouTube imagery, which I did not. Half of it's comprised of blender-edited 8mm-like photography of girls from the inside of a QAnoner's head, going for a kind of formalist sleaze-by-association, and which thinks this movie's backstory takes place during the Cold War even more than the screenplay does. The other half is news clips that look like 90s CSPAN threw up on itself. (And as for needle-drops in general, Black Widow largely eschews them, probably an overreaction to the scowls that "Just a Girl" justifiably provoked in Captain Marvel. It comes perilously close to promising an action scene set to "American Pie," and while it's probably for the best that Shortland decided to pay off on that promise in a much smaller way rather than handing it off to Kevin Feige's pre-viz team to screw up, a half-embarrassed voice inside me says I'd have liked to have seen her roll the dice.)
Well, Natasha never saw any of them again until twenty years down the line, for now Yelena's been freed of the Red Room's neurochemical brainwashing and reached out to her "sister" for aid. After a tense reunion in Budapest, they decide the only way out is through, determined to destroy the Red Room and the man behind it, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Till now, Natasha's naively believed she killed him years ago, in an act that's haunted her since, as she effectively used his daughter as bait for a bomb; but for all it stained her soul, it didn't even work, since Yelena assures him he is alive, a notion corroborated by the presence of the Taskmaster, a silent, masked superhuman goon who's been stalking Natasha since she was still back in the States. To get to Dreykov, then, they have to get to an imprisoned Alexei, and then to Melina, ultimately reforging a family that never existed.
Then things explode in the sky, and they are dull, but before that Black Widow performs miracles with that "family that never existed," introducing in Yelena the first unique-feeling personality a Marvel property's had in a long time, and, in Alexei and Melina, arguably the best supporting cast a Marvel property's ever had, period, which is extra-surprising considering that the basis for all three performances appears to have been a mutual challenge to see who could come up with the most ridiculous moose-and-squirrel accent. Pugh wins by virtue of most deliberately equating "Russian" with "sarcastic robot," though it's fair to point out that 1)didn't the movie just tell us she learned English in Ohio? and 2)she misses the opportunities that Weisz seizes to drop her articles, which doesn't necessarily thread more credibility into Weisz's caricature, but is cute.
Truthfully, Pugh wins the movie overall: her goofy accent work might be the least of it as she finds ways to shift Yelena organically across a surprisingly-varied (even moving!) emotional landscape that's only a whisper in the script, finding legitimate differences, for example, between lines that mark her as a resentful stranger and lines that mark her as a resentful sister, while maintaining a dry sense of humor about everything, including being a slave, notably a nervy, funny bit that reclaims the whole "but I can never have children" thing that everybody hated about Age of Ultron. She even gets laughs out of things that aren't jokes, like "I would want a dog." Not every moment is perfection, especially the screenplay's awful running observation about Natasha's trademarked three-point landing—proving that Whedon's spirit lives on in the MCU, and we'll never be free of annoying, sub-Buffy meta-riffing—but Pugh is never more heroic in this superhero film than during her brave attempts to make this particular trash play.
Harbour and Weisz are more uniformly for giggles, but their comedy still comes out of something akin to character—at least out of concept—and Black Widow is gleefully irresponsible when it comes to its embrace of its twisted parental units' completely alien moral register, allowing them open pride, for example, over how their abusive parenting helped raise the next generation of awesome, ruthless killers. If they're ever the "good guys," it's only because they still obviously care about their abandoned children in their own warped, funny ways. Johansson is thus only ever the fourth-most-interesting figure in her own swan song, but then, that's always been the straight-man's duty, and that doesn't mean her performance isn't equally worthwhile; it allows the others to crowd her out, but a cautious, uncomfortable thaw in the face of her "family's" clumsy overtures is what both Black Widow the movie and Black Widow the character require. It's certainly enough to make you wish Natasha's solo film had just been made in chronological order, before Infinity War and Endgame, as an Endgame that sent Natasha and Yelena to the hell planet might've also been an Endgame that wrung some actual emotions out of Natasha's sacrifice.
I haven't mentioned the action in this action film, as it's unusually light on it—it's more concerned with relationships, and, ugh, I guess that's to its credit—but of all of the preparatory setpieces sprinkled throughout the first hour and forty minutes, if not one is amazing, not one is bad, either. Mostly, Black Widow's content to horse around with homage (the siblings meet in a Bournesque apartment fight, with respectable choreography and less nauseating camerawork; soon thereafter we get an overt shout-out to Goldeneye). Their very smallness in this context is still refreshing, and even when it gets bigger and more Marvelesque, with Alexei's jailbreak from a gulag (which tips its hat to Ghost Protocol and On Her Majesty's Secret Service), it's mostly well put-together stuff.* Maybe it's too much to say the film looks good, but "looking photographed and color-corrected by people with ordinary human visual processing" and "not blatantly looking like it was made under covid protocols" is an improvement over some recent Marvel. And Shortland does a proficient enough job moving Black Widow through its paces for a movie that doesn't seem like it should need to be 134 minutes, though it consistently amazes me that Marvel movies can be too long, not exactly be overflowing with stylistic indulgence, and still somehow not have the space to let their first acts breathe.
But then there's that third act. For starters, it's clunkily cross-cut and, thanks to some art direction that feels lifted from a horrid 90s cyberpunk film, often beholden to one freakishly ugly shade of red. Nobody told the pre-viz team that they were doing Moonraker now; the CGI soup in the sky climax feels even more perfunctory than usual, ignoring every idea about weightlessness and certain doom that the writers hazily envisioned for it, and this is on top of some of the movie's dodgier digital effects. (Though not the dodgiest: that's a helicopter that plops out of the air like it was done with free software, though I reserve special ire for the CG red smoke deployed for the Widow mind-control antidote, which makes Black Widow look like a production that cost a third what it did, the irony there being that a production that cost a third as much as Black Widow might not possess the utter hubris to use computers to make red fucking smoke.)
More importantly, it tunnels into a what feels like a different movie, even calling into question its already-shaky premise of "we have a tool for creating brainwashed living weapons, so let's kidnap infant girls" in ways that aren't as productive as the movie thinks, particularly as it moves from PG-13 Red Sparrow to G-rated G.I. Joe, and this at the end of a movie that's had the most immovably-static ideas about lady assassins clad in form-fitting tactical/fetish gear I've seen since 2003. (The title characters excepted, as that'd be like complaining about Superman's cape, but the Red Room's operatives feel more like they're rehearsing to be in a music video for the Charlie's Angels soundtrack than they're training to enforce a secret world order.) The transformation manifests fully in the arrival of the most Goddamned boring villain in Marvel's 24-film history, a reiteration of the insecure masculine boss that the franchise already did better in Captain Marvel (also in every Iron Man, zing). Dreykov represents the most dimensionless antagonism imaginable, the kind that works on such an asphyxiatingly airless level that the only people who could possibly enjoy it are those primed to talk about movies' politics via hashtag. Superficially, but tellingly, Winstone doesn't even bother doing a cartoon Russian accent.
Worst of all is the mess it makes of its "twist," and though I've marked this review as having spoilers, it's frankly an insult to your intelligence to call it a "twist" when it turns out that the chief supersoldier of the guy who fields women supersoldiers is, get this, a woman. (This is especially true when Olga Kurylenko's name is in the title credits but hasn't shown up yet for some reason. Taskmaster is in fact a hybrid performance between Kurylenko, who mainly just stands there, and her stunt artist—let's just say "Ray Park," since attributing credit to the actual person who mostly plays Taskmaster has now become, thanks to our stupid culture wars, the fascist position on Black Widow.) I'll give Black Widow this: it sells its Taskmistress so effortlessly and cleanly that I never once thought, "my favorite B-list Captain America villain, [checks notes] Taskmaster, is not being treated respectfully," though I could quibble that it uses the character's gimmick of copying opponents' styles with a photographic procedural memory so gingerly that if you missed a couple of lines explaining this out loud, you might not think this Taskmaster had a gimmick.
Her particular identity—Dreykov's daughter, having survived Natasha's murder attempt and rebuilt by her father's arcane science—represents a tremendously compelling idea that, astoundingly, the film does nothing interesting with whatsoever. Its use for her is exclusively as a prop for a "redemption arc" that gets spot-welded onto Black Widow's third act—already an uncomfortable fit, considering that an hour earlier we were invited to cheer as Natasha and Yelena murdered hundreds of prison guards and prisoners on behalf of a personal quest. I kept waiting for something to happen with Taskmaster, a surprise that would've brought some complexity to her and Dreykov alike, emphasizing her relationship to him as his daughter, maybe even the one woman he attributed some personhood to (kinda current when this movie was written, right?). Stupid me, I expected human emotion from a character whose dad's just been killed by the same woman who blew off her face. I at least expected something that would justify an actor like Kurylenko being in this film at all, rather than in some notional sequel. But at this extreme Black Widow has confused its actual themes—"ties that bind whether you like it or not"—with its extrinsic importance—"female superheroics"—and, in that grim process, smooshes one female character into a plot device in service of the consequence-free "redemption" of another. (I mean, maybe Natasha doesn't need to be redeemed? Not every superhero needs to act exactly like Steve Rogers, even if they did give this one a vastly more charismatic Bucky Barnes.)
It's the de-individuated womanhood that keeps popping up in these things (The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn being only slightly less bad about it), each and every one somehow still burdened with the unfair obligation of being a representational landmark. Which means that Black Widow didn't really get to do its own thing after all. Or if it did, its own thing is disappointing. It's a weak, unsatisfying ending, predictable almost on a shot-to-shot basis, and even the greatest new characters—even the post-credits promise of Florence Pugh beating the snot out of Jeremy Renner—can only alleviate that somewhat.
*Though Black Widow also often reminds you of what ramshackle, groupwork constructions these things can be, and how it can feel like the people who put them together aren't even talking to each other. Consider the make-up design details on Alexei's prison tattoos, like the KARL/MARX on his fists, or the NATASHA in Cyrillic on his shoulder, and I would therefore assume a YELENA somewhere else—the former being good fun, whereas the latter might actually be important—and which are so unstressed that I would believe that Shortland didn't ask for them, didn't know about them, and was never told.