starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz
screenplay by Eric Pearson
directed by Cate Shortland
by Walter Chaw You know it's gritty because of the gritty cover song interrupting the bucolic prologue--Think Up Anger ft. Malia J's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" this time instead of Rose Betts's "Song to the Siren." Too on the nose, perhaps, although they're both pretty on the nose, let's be honest. Another clue is a montage under the opening credits that shows rows of little girls abducted not for sex trafficking (because Marvel is more comfortable suggesting sex trafficking than, you know, consensual adult eroticism), but for the purpose of creating a Whedon-fantasy team of Dollhouse assassins. I spent most of my childhood reading comics and have watched and reviewed almost all of the MCU films to this point. I've seen none of the TV/streaming shows and don't intend to remedy that because life is incredibly short and also full to bursting with things I desperately want to see that I still won't be able to, no matter how smart I am at managing whatever time I have left. I have no idea what's going on in Black Widow, and I think that once you get bucked off this horse, there's no getting back on. So here's Cate Shortland's Black Widow, the 24th MCU flick, if only the second centred around a female protagonist--one we know has sacrificed herself for the sake of the least interesting/worthy of her male counterparts, meaning this one takes place in either the past or an alternate timeline or something. It doesn't matter. In the comic-book world, there are new #1s every few cycles that are reboots or speculative storylines or something. It's how they get you to keep buying them. What matters is, the more you humanize this character you've already made abundantly clear you don't really care about, the worse her already-loathsome sacrifice feels.
Natasha/Black Widow (Scarlett Johanson) is a trained "killer that little girls call their hero." So says little sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) as she negs her in one of a series of distended dialogue sequences--this one preceding a winsome Terminator 2 exposition dump delivered against a backdrop of children playing soccer, where Yelena reveals that bad guys have discovered how to chemically control little girls' brains. A score shift announces how Yelena, in the midst of her isolation and training, made up an entire mythology about her history to give herself a sense of normalcy and belonging. Black Widow muses that she never let herself think about it. Cue the single minor notes on the piano. Yelena tells her not to deliver a big hero speech, though that's not her sister's style, so she does it anyway. And so it goes. And goes. And goes. And then it starts to get exciting again. Cars and explosions and fight choreography obscured by rapid cuts and obfuscating close-ups. And then more monologues: mordant on the heroic side, meandering on the villainous side. At least half of every one of these films now is spent tending to connective tissue--gesturing at Easter Eggs and laying new ones. Like new villain The Taskmaster, who looks like the blue Power Ranger. I'm not telling you who plays The Taskmaster because I think it's probably a spoiler that would piss off people who have sutured their value as human beings to adjudicating the acceptability of creative decisions made by these movies. The main villain, Russian baddie Dreykov, is played by Ray Winstone, who is approximately as Russian as I am. With the help of brilliant behavioural scientist Melina (Rachel Weisz) and someone called Red Guardian (David Harbour)--a taller, fatter version of Captain America, albeit Russian--Dreykov has enslaved an army of trafficked women.
Late in the film, one of those wall-sized maps reveals how these "widows" have infiltrated every major organization on the planet, which suggests that Black Widow is essentially Red Sparrow without wanting to say the naughty part out loud; "The Americans" but with that MCU fight choreography that seems so particularly white and elderly taking the place of sexual coercion. Even the fighting is culturally insular, to its extraordinary detriment. Imagine a fighting movie like this one choreographed by Iko Uwais. I mean, it's not like they couldn't afford him. Consider an apartment scuffle that reminds of the same sort of thing from The Bourne Identity, what with its use of curtains and other domestic objects in a small space. Except there it felt fresh and dangerous, innovative and intimate, because that was 20 years ago. Consider the chase through a winding city centre with motorcycles and such that... Dare I ask, have you guys seen The Villainess? Or even John Wick: Chapter 3? There's more kinetic energy in that yellowsploitation Snake Eyes trailer than in the whole of this film, but that's the Marvel house style for you. It doesn't have to be, but it is, and it begs the question of what sort of metrics analysis has led them to decide that the most vanilla and flavourless action sequences are the best way to go. Hard to argue against success, I guess, and once your clients are addicted, there's no reason to cut a cleaner product.
There's also a bit where Natasha and Yelena express disgust that their "parents," Melina and Red Guardian, are horny for each other, which frankly sums it all up. It's the sitcom thing of kids being grossed out by the olds fucking, and a distressing amount of time is given over to this gag. Melina says to Red Guardian, "You got fat...but good," and the questions this trillion-dollar telenovela raises about its insensitivity towards imperfection repeatedly go unanswered just as consistently as they're provoked. This is without even touching on The Taskmaster's disability backstory and the idea of patronizing "charity" attendant to its resolution, beyond saying that if there's a theme unifying Black Widow, it's that familial trauma is the tie that binds and, ultimately, the most broken of families is still better than no family at all. What a terrible, naive message. I'm sure seasons of television shows will clarify who all these people are and decades of comic runs have done so with breathtaking levels of sensitivity and insight to boot, but the requirement--hell, the mere suspicion of the requirement--that much study is essential to unpacking the extraordinary human complexities of the MCU is a non-starter for me. Enough.
Though Black Widow is half a mess of puzzle-box solutions and more puzzle boxes, half a melodrama involving a doomed woman who's learned from the events of this film that she should kill herself so a shitty man can go home to his family, the real tragedy of it is watching people like William Hurt and Rachel Weisz squander their increasingly precious at-bats on this kind of product. When Johansson and Mark Ruffalo, in one of the other 23 movies, had a one-minute conversation about fertility and the zero-possibility for a future together, I thought how wonderful it would be if these two actors, at the peak of their powers, got a chance to star in an actual movie together one day. There's nothing wrong with Black Widow that isn't wrong with all of this endless glut of stuff. If you like it already, you'll like it again; and if you got off the bus somewhere, there's not a lot of reason to get back on: the driver's the same and you can catch it further down the line if you really want. I liked to imagine that all of the repudiations of "family" in the piece were a subtle jab at the Fast and the Furious franchise until Black Widow suddenly embraced "family," at which point it becomes a less enjoyable exercise in a monolith trying to absorb another tentpole into its voracious cancer, ever metastisizing/ever the same. There's a reference in here to The Manchurian Candidate (sort of), and a needle-drop of Don McLean's interminable "American Pie" (if you started that song at the beginning of the film, it would nearly be over in time for the mid-credits teaser 134 minutes or so later). Black Widow is the manifestation of the "sunk cost fallacy"--there oughta be support groups. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.