Black Widow (2021)
Written by Jac Schaeffer & Ned Benson
Directed by Cate Shortland
Initially set to be released in 2020, Black Widow was delayed over a year and finally saw its theatrical & streaming release yesterday. It’s been quite a while since we had a Marvel movie, 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, to be exact. So, with this period of palette cleansing, the Marvel shows on Disney+ being the only new things, and that was just this year; how is Black Widow? I think the MCU is undoubtedly in a new phase but not one I am very excited about. Despite having a top to bottom fantastic cast, Black Widow delivers a lackluster script and some genuinely shocking bad special effects. They seem intent on proving Martin Scorsese right.
Set in between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow finds Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johanssen) on the run from the U.S. federal government and their international allies. Meanwhile, Natasha’s estranged sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), is rescued from the mind control of the assassin program both sisters were forced through. Yelena now has access to an aerosol-based antidote to save her “sisters” but needs Natasha’s help. Unfortunately, both women are pursued by the deadly Taskmaster, a killer who can immediately mimic any fighting they see. Taskmaster is the arm of General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the man responsible for Natasha’s training and brainwashing. The women seek out the aid of their former surrogate parents, Alexei (David Harbour), the Captain America of Russia, and Melina (Rachel Weisz), a scientist and the original Black Widow. With the family reunited, they seek to end the horror of the Red Room.
First off, the casting here is pretty impeccable. Florence Pugh is certainly the film’s highlight, and she’s quickly becoming one of my favorite young actresses working today. She always finds humor in her roles when it’s needed and can also pull out great emotion. This is not her best work, but that is no fault of Pugh’s. If you haven’t seen it, Lady Macbeth is a much better display of what Pugh is capable of. David Harbour was solid and provided a lot of comedy relief. He definitely made me want more of The Red Guardian, and with the way Marvel movies work, he’ll likely show up again sometime down the road. Rachel Weisz is excellent, but much like Pugh, the film is a waste of her talent. Try her collaborations with Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Favourite) if you really want to see Weisz at her best. Finally, Ray Winstone is just straight-up wasted as the movie’s underdeveloped and uninteresting villain.
Once you get past the casting, the positive points for Black Widow fall off to almost nothing. Looking at the plot, many odd choices are being made here, and part of that is due to Natasha being dead in the present and this having to be an extended flashback for all intents and purposes. I suspect Johanssen was under contract to perform in X number of movies, and this is the result of that. If you remember from a few years ago, Marvel announced a blueprint for Phase 2 or 3, which included things like an Inhumans movie. Then a deal was brokered with Sony, which brought Spider-Man into the mix, changing the plan. Inhumans was removed, Spider-Man and Ant-Man & the Wasp were added to the schedule. In my opinion, I think this would have been better suited to being a film solely focused on developing Yelena as the Black Widow with flashbacks or sequences including Natasha or placing this chronologically between Infinity War & Endgame.
The story here is relatively generic and poorly derivative. Director Cate Shortland hilariously cited No Country For Old Men, Thelma & Louse, Silence of the Lambs, Oldboy, and “lots of European stuff and South Korean films.” I don’t immediately cast judgment on Shortland for this, rather Kevin Feige and the production heads behind Marvel. It has become apparent that Marvel is unwilling to let directors put their personal touches on most Marvel movies. For some reason, Taika Waititi and James Gunn have been allowed to imbue their films with an aesthetic that makes them feel fresh compared to the rest of the movies being churned out. I think that the “grounded” Marvel movies & shows featuring Captain America and the like are headed down a terrible path right now. It genuinely has given me apprehensions for the Hawkeye series because the bar is so low now. Instead of filming hand-to-hand combat excitingly, they have opted to lean into the shaky-cam Bourne Identity bullshit that makes the fights a blurred, boring mess.
There are moments where the green screen is so comically bad matched with performances that highlight how tired or unmotivated the actors are that it just crushes any small momentum the film might be building up. The third act climax has a moment that is already going viral where Johanssen and Pugh are in front of green screens that look just a tick above a Zoom meeting. It’s an action moment framed so badly that it cannot be tossed off as “they meant to do that.” You will have obnoxious Marvel stans across social media who have made this corporate movie series into their personal identity defending it with some of the most uncritical eyes. There is nothing wrong with saying you had fun watching these movies, but like Scorsese said, you had fun in the same way you have fun on a ride at Universal Studios. These aren’t movies, and that list of inspirations is what you should be watching instead of whatever this is.