Black Widow (2021)

Dir. Cate Shortland. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour

Spoilers great and small abound for a recent MCU entry, but honestly there aren’t even that many in here past what you’d find in your average review on a fan website.

Black Widow is one of those MCU movies which doesn’t ask you to come to it with a lot of knowledge about the MCU. Since “Phase One” ended, I’d suggest that Black Widow is one of only four films which a basically clueless audience member could walk into and still follow without hiccups: Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Black Panther. Short of some mess about the Sokovia Accords after an extended prologue featuring child versions of Natasha and foster sister Yelena (Ever Anderson and Violet McGraw, respectively), there’s not much else you need to know that you couldn’t have picked up from TV commercials or someone else’s overexcited Facebook statuses. This is purposeful.

Black Widow is about a character who’s been dead for two years now, which is longer than anyone planned pre-covid, but still, like, dead. It’s got an opening credits sequence with names on it, which is almost jarring to see in a movie anymore; credits sequences with names are easier to associate with television now, which is what the post-credits scene exists to pump up. There’s one of those mournful versions of pop hits past playing over those opening credits. The sound and imagery alike are nonsense. 1991’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been adapted by Think Up Anger when the last images on screen were from 1995; the flashing and speedy cuts of basically unrelated events is, I suppose, meant to summon up The Americans but done badly. The most super character of Black Widow is Red Guardian, a Soviet super-soldier named Alexei (Harbour); after watching him arm-wrestle some fellow Russian cons into oblivion, we do not see him win a fight again for the rest of the film. It’s possible to make an MCU movie which shies away from the rest of the universe. Even setting aside my somewhat idiosyncratic view on the pleasures of Ant-Man, it’s practically expected you’ll find Guardians Vol. 1 or Black Panther in the top five of the average MCU ranking. Black Widow in practice is not really like those other three pictures. Even by the meager standards of the MCU for social consciousness, I don’t know that its protestations on behalf of hypothetical women ring especially loud; certainly it doesn’t have anything as interesting to say on the behalf of women compared to the conflict concerning assimilationism at the center of Black Panther. It certainly isn’t as funny as either of Guardians Vol. 1 or Ant-Man, though it’s certainly not aiming for humor. The joke that got the biggest laughs at the screening I went to is the running gag about the way Natasha lands with two feet and one hand on the floor; only for the jokes does Black Widow run back to the warm embrace of the MCU. We watch Natasha (Johansson) quoting the lines from a Bond movie from memory in the first half of the movie, and it’s clear that far more than any previous MCU entry, the spy out to smash Soviets is the guiding ethos of the picture.

There’s a reasonably diverting action movie here, although at this point the setpieces and stunts are the kind of setpieces stunts that you can play bingo with in any reasonably diverting action movie. Mark your card for: the heroes fight each other, a double-cross using elaborate costuming, a car chase with motorcycles involved in busy European streets, a prison escape, a mid-air fight sequence. Add in the very MCU problem of having some enormous apparatus fall out of the sky—is this the fourth version of that plot? Somewhere Chicken Little is in a tizzy—and the action feels rote. Shortland does an okay job, all things considered, with the action in this film. It’s just that none of it feels new or exciting because it is playing so extremely to the action tropes of the present moment; Mission Impossible has been there and done that. By trying to get one of everything in there in all these different locations, all we get is a haze of burning structures, limbs flailing, and, well, the pose.

In throwing in its lot with action movies instead of the rest of the MCU, Black Widow aspires to a different tone than most other MCU movies. There’s no glimmer of romance in here. I’m not sure that this is really noteworthy—the MCU is a world where it’s hard to believe anyone has ever heard of sex—but if someone knows a whisper of carnality, it’s because of Natasha. Seeing as “Which burly fellow will we pair Natasha off with?” is a very last decade problem, a Black Widower playing suitor for Natasha or even Yelena (Pugh) would have been not just pointless but unwelcome. Nor is this movie all that funny. Florence Pugh gets a couple of neat one-liners on top of the posing gag—against my will I chortled at her reference to Thor as a “god from space” who doesn’t need ibuprofren—and David Harbour’s cadence signifies humor, but this is not a film which is after making you laugh. There’s some of the same “we choose our families” silliness which is either breaking or cresting anew in the wake of F9 (I genuinely can’t tell the difference anymore), but given that there’s someone talking about this in any action movie whether or not it’s got a comic book origin, I don’t know that there’s anything particularly Marvel about Natasha and Yelena’s insistence that Alexei and Melina (Rachel Weisz) are essentially their parents. Again, I don’t think running a little bit from the MCU is such a big problem. This is the last go-round, God willing, with Natasha. We already know that this side adventure, no matter how interesting it’s made to appear, is just a side adventure. If it weren’t, they would have found a way to squeeze it in somewhere between 2016 and 2019. This is not an insult to the story in Black Widow or to the idea of it. If the uproarious reaction to Rogue One a few years ago tells us anything, it’s that people can go nuts for stuff that’s ancillary to a broader fictional universe. If you can’t fool around a little bit with a film when the main character has already been thrown off a cliff on the planet (quick google) Vormir, that’s a shame.

To my mind, the biggest problem with Black Widow, a film which I think could have been a basically okay action flick with too much lore for its own good, is that it never really gets away from the more mindless plot elements of MCU movies and comic books in general. A lot of Black Widow, far more than you’d expect, is predicated on the existence of mental subjugation via chemicals: that’s mind control to us. In a comic book, a little mind control can go a long way. One needs to think no harder than the Dark Phoenix Saga in Uncanny X-Men to find an example of how hypnosis or mind control or whatever you want to call it can be a powerful, if still ridiculous, tool in the storytelling arsenal. Chris Claremont writes Jason Wyngarde (“Mastermind”) as a hubristic figure who believes that he can harness Jean Grey’s growing power for the gain of himself and the Hellfire Club. What happens instead is that he unleashes a merciless, cruel god who makes the God of Moses look like Moe Szyslak. When Phoenix destroys a star and an entire alien race living on a planet which orbits it, Jean’s culpability for that genocide takes center stage. It takes enormous effort to shake off Mastermind’s influence even for short bursts, and in the end Jean Grey kills herself (I know, but in the moment) because she can’t stop herself from slipping back into Phoenix. This is mind control done with some finesse, because the idea of mind control as something which can control someone’s every thought and action is pure fantasy. It cannot have a scientific explanation; it must be truly mysterious for us not to laugh at something that doofy.

Black Widow moves away from the arcane, or even the vaguely plausible. Natasha was psychologically conditioned by the organization which manufactures Black Widows, the Red Room. This is far more interesting than the possibility that pheromones might prevent Natasha from striking Red Room chief Dreykov (Ray Winstone, who has the farthest to go to the bad Russian accents populating this movie), or that Yelena might need to have some red fairy dust exploded on her to magically and irrevocably break her chemical conditioning. (Black Widow has the same problem that you can find in that Guernsey potato peel movie, which is that the most interesting character in the film is the one who dies mysteriously so that someone less interesting can go forward with her work. Who is the Widow who frees Yelena? How did she break this spell, or, who broke it for her? Is there some deeply buried ally that Natasha might call upon? Who knows! Hey, look, Florence Pugh!) Black Widow takes place in a world where magic is left to the magicians; it’s impossible to imagine a scientist or inventor like Tony Stark or Shuri doing what Melina is doing behaviorally with her fluffy pig subjects, let alone what Dreykov is doing to his army of brainwashed young women. What’s most obnoxious is that you can tell why the mind control stuff is in the movie; it’s to prevent Natasha from killing Dreykov too quickly. It’s not just that we catch him monologuing, but that the monologuing in his little throne room is the entire point of this character existing. After all, in an action movie, who doesn’t want a longer monologue from a fat guy doing a Moscow accent via Enfield explaining how girls are the only natural resource we have too much of and how he doesn’t need to impress anyone.

The second-most obnoxious element of the mind control stuff is to make sure that we never have to deal with mind control or psychological conditioning or what have you in any way that might make us feel some disgust towards the named characters. Yelena’s lifetime of killing people for a shadowy (but very red shadowed) organization is swept away because she didn’t have any control over herself. Natasha, who thought she killed Dreykov and his school-age daughter years ago as part of her defection to S.H.I.E.L.D., turns out not to have killed either one of them. Antonia was saved and turned into a killbot called “Taskmaster” (Olga Kurylenko), who Natasha ultimately saves at great personal danger to herself. The easy way to view this is that intending to kill a little girl and then saving her life when she’s an adult is proof of personal change. I guess that’s the case, but the film’s intention is to smooth out any creases in the persona of a former international terrorist. In so doing, Natasha becomes as plastic and anodyne as Captain Marvel. I suppose this the most MCU thing of all. Before we kill off a beloved character, we must make sure that no matter what was bad about them before, they must be pure as the driven snow when they sacrifice themselves. Tony Stark’s ego has to be sanded down enough to ensure that he can, despite Cap’s observation in 2012, make the sacrifice play in 2019. Natasha Romanoff, internationally wanted woman of mystery and skulduggery, has to be in it to save every ewe and lamb no matter what bad deeds she might have committed once upon a time. You could receive last rites from the Pope and die with more stains on your soul than the MCU allows Natasha to die with.

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