Black Widow is currently streaming on Disney Plus (for an extra $30 fee) and in theaters now.
By Palmer Rubin
Ah, the Marvel behemoth. Once upon a time, Marvel was a company shedding properties left and right to keep the doors open. There were even rumors that Michael Jackson was going to buy the company (wildly, I’m not kidding). Now, it is one of the biggest cogs in the Disney machine, with complete pop culture domination as its only game. I’m thinking about this on the heels of a writer from IGN being fired over giving their latest show Loki a mixed review (despite being positive overall). Why read a review if you just want your own opinions spoon-fed back to you? Who knows. Out of the Disney Plus shows, that one is my favorite, but we’ve entered a strange period where any criticism is seen as sacrilege even if you overall like the offerings.
I’m also saying this because you saw the thumbnail before venturing forth. Abandon hope, all ye Disney stans who enter. Back before the House of Mouse took over, a lesser entry like an Iron Man 2 with its full-throated worship of Elon Musk and general incoherence was seen as expected. But now Superheroes Are Prestige, they are Modern Mythology, we must only speak glowingly of them. I’ll speak pretty glowingly at times about Black Widow, because in its rare moments of cleverness and ingenuity, there are moments to rival the very best of the MCU. It’s what it is because every entry has enough moments to feel Prestige that you think it above a Brett Ratner movie. I understand this impulse entirely. I’m not gonna pretend there was no stir in my heart when the Avengers returned in Endgame via some vague magical gobbledygook to take on Old Purple Scrotum Chin. It’s a genuine moment, the reaction videos of standing ovations say as much. Every so often, the Disney Algorithm is able to incite actual human emotion out of it, and it fuels us through the next few entries. The funny thing is that while Black Widow is completely unable to do this, it does have its most meaningful moments when it is farthest away from referencing the franchise it must exist within.
Taking place in between a five year old film and a three year old film, Natasha Romanoff is on the run from the vague government spooks hunting down the Avengers after they had a public falling out. She only wants to live on her own in a little trailer, quote James Bond dialogue to herself, and flirt with her hunky private contractor buying her weapons and protection and the like (O.T. Fagbenle of The Handmaid’s Tale, appropriately suave). As this is the MCU, such peace and quiet will not last long. She must be drawn into One Last Mission before the Actual Last Mission that will cause her to end her life in a highly criticized and disliked way two years ago. Got all that? Worry not, for the movie from six years ago that Joss Whedon made is the basis for most of the callbacks? Wait, that’s one of the movies people don’t like either? If you’re not versed in these and this sounds confusing, this is as clear as I can tell it. This tedium is what largely keeps it from being the film it wants to be, because Black Widow has a lot it needs to say even as it grapples with its past. There is a meta element to the film’s antagonists being the series’ own convoluted lore coming back to haunt its lead character, buried within a pile of obligatory worldbuilding.
So Natasha sets off on a quest to destroy the mythical Red Room, a plot device introduced in passing by Whedon over half a decade ago to explain how she became the cold-blooded femme fatale we know and love. She long believed it to be destroyed by her own hand (and its destruction was a vague plot point in the other Whedon movie from nine years earlier, gosh this is a lot!), but her long lost surrogate sister informs her this is not the case. The two team up on an adventure to find the man behind it and destroy it all, all while being hunted by a Terminator-like being called Taskmaster, with all the combined powers of the… Avengers who don’t have powers.
But when I say that the film accidentally feels meta, this is what I’m talking about, especially as far as Taskmaster is concerned. The funny thing is that in spite of all of its worldbuilding bloat, Taskmaster is easily the best part about the entire film. The reason for this is simple: Taskmaster has a ridiculous silly outfit, ridiculously silly powers, and is the literal manifestation of Natasha’s connection to the Avengers trying to kill her. Taskmaster is introduced watching a montage of previous films to learn every single one of their moves (Captain America’s shield, Hawkeye’s bow, Iron Man’s narcissism?), and copies every fighting style the Disney stans have become enamored with. How is that for an allegory? Not to mention that Taskmaster, unlike most Marvel villains, has a genuine sense of mystery and danger surrounding them, just so thoroughly outclassing Natasha and her sister Yelena that you’d fear for their lives if not for knowing she has to live to die in the movie that came out two years ago. I don’t actually want to go into the full story regarding this character because it’s easily the strongest part of the film and the bit that most surprised me. Needless to say, Taskmaster can’t be defeated the normal route, and Taskmaster is already one of my favorite characters in the entire series, period. All Natasha wants is a quiet life in her trailer with her hunky private contractor friend, but the damn obligatory worldbuilding!
But before she was the Black Widow, Natasha once had a surrogate family of Russian spies ingrained in American soil, almost identical to the premise of The Americans. That family will reunite in some form or fashion as she grapples between the fake family of Russian spies and her place in the fake family of dysfunctional superheroes. Even as often as Natasha insists the Avengers are her real family, its own lore contradicts this. After movies of the entire group screwing each other over and trying to kill each other (not to mention Iron Man getting most of them arrested sans habeas corpus at one point), it is really difficult to take any reference to the other heroes seriously. But that fake Russian family will feel like a more meaningful connection than the Avengers ever were, and the film seems to partially agree at points. That’s why it ends up being funny that the best parts of this film are all the elements that have the least to do with referencing the other films nearly non-stop. Florence Pugh, incapable of missing, is a perfectly good Yelena, essentially playing the meta version of her older sister, lampshading the one-knee poses Natasha always does (it’s the Deadpool joke about “superhero landings,” but funnier). Rachel Weisz and David Harbour, playing Natasha’s fake parents, are also plenty of fun. What is interesting is that the trademark “Marvel quips,” the punchlines without setups that you either love or hate, are at their most tolerable here. There are actual jokes in this, and some of them are quite funny! You can see Cate Shortland, our director, most in her element during the emotional beats that involve people just talking to each other, even as most of the action set pieces feel really stale and drawn out. It’s just going through the motions whenever Taskmaster isn’t there and they’re taking out waves of Russian super-spy goons. But a family dinner meant partially as exposition dump and partially as their old fake family roles coming back out at the worst time is affecting because the four sell it so much. This is hardly groundbreaking in any way, but it’s rare to see a Marvel movie have scenes where actors are allowed to bounce off each other like this. It’s the kind of thing that made people fall in love with the first Iron Man film, as poorly as that has aged. People didn’t watch it for the CGI fights, they watched it for Tony and Pepper sniping at each other. Kevin Feige ended up learning the wrong lesson from that film’s mammoth success, as it turns out. There’s a film inside of this about two broken people trying to shatter the structures that made them so that could be really profound. That film only appears in bits and spurts, when Shortland is let off her leash a bit. I don’t buy Natasha and Yelena for a second when their response to mortal danger is to crack wise about it with no context, but I do buy it when the two damn near kill each other in an apartment complex, letting all their mutual rage and hatred out at once. It’s like the film is afraid of stopping for a moment to let either of them process the trauma that is canon to this setting.
That’s such a shame, because it feels like a bait and switch at this point to hear the words “Captain America” and realize the film is trying to flip a dopamine switch that no longer registers for some people. I’m not going to pretend I’m above liking these movies, I am very much not. I just want to see this series, if it cannot fail (and this film will do very well, and this series will last until climate collapse), to just do anything to challenge itself other than brief moments of insight. It’s obvious that Scarlett Johansson, as an entire producer of this film, wanted to make some Big Statements about internalized and institutional misogyny especially as the film hits its more chaotic last act. She certainly is able to get closer to successfully doing this than, say, Gal Gadot ever could, but considering what it’s attached to, the world it belongs to, there’s only so much allowed. If the Red Room in question had been more than a set piece, something that had actual weight and tension instead of things just blowing up in sequence, the way things go down could’ve been seen as a hell of a statement. It very much wants to be in the vein of a Black Panther in the way it makes statements about (white) womanhood. Black Panther, as a film, merely is closer to breaking free of its franchise with its thematic content than this does. Nothing can break free completely though. You almost feel like the Red Room that Natasha is chasing, this factory churning out more people just like her, might as well be the MCU itself, refusing to change and grow, refusing to even remotely try anything that could potentially be a risk. And once again, only Taskmaster feels like the character to make those statements in the way that “arc” eventually leads to.
That’s why the film feels so unintentionally meta, even as it strives to be just another blockbuster you can turn your brain off at. A film about women being controlled and weaponized made me think of the last time Scarlett Johansson took a creative risk: Under the Skin. It might sound buckwild to compare this to that, but it’s clear the latter, in terms of some of its content, is trying to invoke that film during certain spoiler-y parts near the end. Black Widow ends up, whether it meant to or not, becoming a film where the opposite ending happens. Or maybe it is the same, after a post-credits scene hinting at Natasha’s fate is interrupted by a character from one of the more recent properties cracking some jokes at the dead Natasha’s expense and setting up the next upcoming property. Is this all this is going to be now? This is hardly meant as me shaming anyone for watching this movie (“yet you participate in society, curious!”), or to put blame on consumers for enjoying the properties they enjoy. Are you a bad person for really liking this? Of course not. I’m not smarter or better than you for liking this less than you did. Lord knows I’m the same dingus that had an emotional response to Ang Lee’s Gemini Man. I am hardly a person “too good” for action cheeseball stuff. But I also don’t think there’s anything wrong in asking for any kind of artistic statement, or at least one that isn’t as timid as what we end up with here. What’s most frustrating now is knowing that I enjoyed each of these when seeing them in theaters and then realizing they’re not nearly as fun to watch by yourself at home. You need the audience reacting with you, and the thing Marvel does really well is hitting the dopamine switch at the right time when you’re with a group of people. It’s pro wrestling, it’s soap opera, but it doesn’t even seem to want to admit it’s that, either. It’s an effective tactic, and I’m not going to pretend like Feige isn’t a brilliant marketing guru. But that’s all he’ll ever be, he can’t buy any other label. It doesn’t have a price tag. He can certainly work with gifted filmmakers like a Ryan Coogler or a Taika Waititi, but that won’t get him anything past the short-term. It’s tragic, in a way. A recent news story had Waititi revealing that when he was trying to make Ragnarok, he had trouble convincing Feige to let him use Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” as that film’s informal theme song. The problem wasn’t that Feige was against it, necessarily, but that he and every other Marvel executive there had no idea who Led Zeppelin was. I’m not saying that as a mega-fan of that band, but that feels like something that’s impossible to at least not be aware of. Just in case you think I’m making that up, here’s Waititi himself confirming this back in 2017, and that story made the rounds on Twitter earlier this year. What does that say about the architects of the MCU if none of them seem to consume art, even the most mainstream and popular art, on their own time? And what does that say about the way these properties keep turning out? That’s why it’s so novel to see a Coogler or a Waititi involved. Does that make them bad people? I don’t know, and the morality of the person is pointless to assess. But it certainly makes them people who seem completely and totally uninterested in engaging with the world in any terms past the bottom line. That’s deeply disheartening. They’re damned good at the bottom line, though. I may have completely ruined my own chances with ever working with Disney because of this, but I guess that’s the price you pay sometimes. I was just about to direct Captain Marvel 3, too!
So yeah, watching this feels like revealing the Kevin Feige behind the curtain of Oz, so to speak. It’s a hell of a statement to have the sequel to a five year old film exist merely to set up a film that’s already been out for three years and an upcoming property about Marvel’s least interesting character. Scarlett Johansson is free of the behemoth, so to speak, but it doesn’t seem like it was on her own terms. Her publicity campaign for this film involved her roasting the previous movies for overtly sexualizing Natasha before she got enough clout to keep that from happening. What a Joss Whedon could get away with back then is now…slightly more difficult for him than before. What will she do with this newfound freedom? That ends up being the most meta thing of all about this deeply flawed film, one that only shows its potential in bits and pieces. If only those pieces were the whole pie.
I give Black Widow a C+.
Author’s Note: I do want to quickly address something. Avoiding spoilers, there is a character I won’t reveal here who is defined by a physical deformity and both Natasha and an antagonist mock said character for the deformity. It’s a really gross and unnecessary bit that equates physical imperfection as villainy, so if this is something you’re sensitive to, I would not recommend watching this film. Very much some Disney villain type stuff here, and it’s par for the course, but it’s worth directly addressing here.