1 out of 5
Directed by: Cate Shortland
Black Widow works for about fifteen minutes.
In those fifteen minutes, set in 1995 Ohio, we’re grounded in idyllic childhood: riding bikes; playing in the background; the setting sun as we’re called in for dinner. Two young girls are beckoned in by their mother (Rachel Weisz), and soon joined by their father (David Harbour), returning home from work. Amidst a generally jovial atmosphere, a troubled glance is exchanged between the parents, and they step aside to have a quick conversation: something has gone wrong, and the plans are starting now.
The plans are escape plans. The family packs little, gets into the car, and tears out for an airfield, boarding a plane while S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicles chase them down the runway.
There are some excellent things happening in this opening, including some very well executed step-by-step reveals that push us into the Marvel U, and a sense of tension and escalation into a tense gunfight / car and plane bit of chicken that has a rough and tumble aesthetic that’s far away from some of the flashier battle openings of Marvel movies.
And when the plane lands, and we’re putting pieces together that this family – a little Natasha Romanov and her “sister,” Yelena, and their faux parents – we’re all Russian plants, put there to obtain some specialized military research, the first big problem with the movie occurs: no one’s speaking Russian.
This shouldn’t bother me as much as it did, except that they sometimes speak Russian, in snippets, and then go for accents the other time, without much justification for why they would switch up for just those snippets. Like, commit. Or give me a softballed line about maintaining cover as to why you wouldn’t speak Russian. Or go Hunt for the Red October and start in one way and then segue into English. Just do something. I totally get the un-mass appeal of a big budget movie done up in subtitles, but the approach here was just about the laziest, most unconvincing, least immersive way to go about it.
Next up: let’s run through Natasha’s Red Room induction (her training as a child as a spy and assassin) during the credits, edited in 90s music video style. In short – let’s remove any impact that sequence may have.
Aaand next up: let’s establish what the setting for our movie is going to be – relatively modern day, during the Sokovia Accord events of Winter Solider and whatnot, positing a reason for our grown up Black Widow (Scarlet Johannsen) to be on the run, and absent from general MCU evetns.
This setting is also something I can kinda sorta understand, but it nonetheless established, right away, a lack of any sense of permanence in regards to the film. My understanding stems from the difficulty of finding a logical time and place for your story when your lead, in the present timeline, has died, and you don’t want to set it so far back in the past that you also can’t cast the recognizable star in her role. So while there was talk of not wanting to do an origin story because it was too obvious (or something), I’d say it was more because you couldn’t have Johannsen’s face on the poster, since Black Widow’s origins would’ve been more from the 1995 era. But setting us inbetween Marvel movies is problematic – while retroactive storytelling is certainly a comic book move, the MCU is a bit smaller than the print universe, and so whatever story is to come likely has to be taken with some ignorance of those other movies: it has to be a big enough flick to merit our attention, but somehow not so big that it wouldn’t have come up in the other Marvel movies. This is what I mean about the permanence of the movie taking a hit: it starts out so heavily, and then plops us into a spot where we pretty much have to accept that whatever we’re watching isn’t going to matter all that much.
Still, this could maybe still work if our writers (Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson) and director (Cate Shortland) can maybe find a more personal tale to tell, but once a grown up Yelena (Florence Pugh) shows up and the long-estranged sisters automatically fall into MCU buddy-cop mode, bantering during being pursued across Budapest streets, I lost any hope of that.
Other sins extend from there: occasionally I appreciate Johansson’s disaffected acting style very much, and that can work for the cold assassin Natasha, but it doesn’t sell me much on her “human” side, and there’s no middleground here, polarizing us either cute sisterly banter or snide banter. Pugh is playing her assassin as snarky, leaving no real “straight” character in the banter mix, and while she gets some admitted laughs, there’s nothing that helps establish her assassinly bonafides – we’re just told she’s a Red Room graduate. Meanwhile, both top tier killers make a ton of tactical errors, and some slick choreography aside (very much focused on that spinny move), I never got a sense of fighting prowess – just choreography.
That’s a step toward talking about the action work in the movie. There are some good setups, but the execution is wholly weightless. One of the first, more frantic scenes – beyond that opening, which should be sectioned off as a short film, for how different it feels – had me questioning why various cuts were made. Action can be done in a myriad of ways, of course, from stuff that gets the job done to shaky cam to one shots and etcetera, but this was a confusing mix of several different approaches – stuff that tries to highlight the physical work; stuff that just tries to give us key landmarks and reactions – such that I never understood what the “feel” of the fights was supposed to be: charming, thrilling, whatever. They were just a sequence of shots. And when the space in which things happens gets larger – a prison break, a floating craft – any concept of geography also gets lost. We also, unfortunately, see some of the questionable CG work that cropped up in Black Panther, with floaty characters and unbelievable rotoscoping. (As wonderful youtube shows like Corrider Crew’s “VFX Artists React” have helped to point out – a lot of that comes down to time crunches, and can’t necessarily be blamed on lacking skills of the computer folk.)
As for the plot, Yelena and Natasha team up to dismantle the Red Room once and for all. That’s fair – although adds to the problem of “that’s probably a big deal we would’ve heard about in the other Marvel movies but oh well” – except just as the movie hasn’t sold me on its lead characters or its action, the way it goes about peeling back the reveals on the Room doesn’t functionally build up any real stakes. Yelena, after all, after apparent years of programming, was able to just kinda sidestep out of it thanks to some magical red gas, and super duper ultra mega ties-to-all-know-S.H.I.E.L.D. spy Black Widow is apparently unaware of the organization (and its thought-dead boss, played by Ray Winstone) still being in operation, despite the various Widow agents we see hopping around in broad daylight often enough, and despite their top secret base being, like, a gigantic flying ship.
There’s some very light attempts at telling this story of a network of mind-controlled female assassins under the auspice of a post-MeToo lens, which could also very much work! but also very much doesn’t. They hardly delve into this beyond some soundbytes, and the main “oh no he didn’t” line, offered up by Winstone, to justify the existence of the Red Room program – which, by the way, is a fucking literal singular red room god dammit – maybe doesn’t even make much sense? It’s one of those lines that sounds pretty evil, but if you asked the bad guy a couple of followup questions, the line would fall apart as not have any meaning. But twirl that mustache and chortle, boyo.
And we need a new villain, so here’s Taskmaster. Some kudos here: they made Taskmaster’s “mimic” ability a technological one, which I liked, and they also incorporated the character’s skull and hood outfit into the design in a non-cheesy way (although it only wears the hood once, alas), so good on the design department. But you know how when a villain is introduced with some unbeatable power – and in this case, a non-powered fighter like Black Widow going up against someone who can study her fight moves and then replicate them within moments should, exactly, be a source of such an unbeatable power – the only way to defeat them is by doing something that disrupts that power in some way? …Wait, did Taskmaster have any powers? The movie seems to forget about that after introducing it. You can just punch them.
I’m not asking for much when it comes to making comic book films “believable,” but I do want some bare minimums done. And I also don’t want every Marvel movie to turn into a faceless banter-fest. You’re bringing in fresh directors, so allow them to bring in their own personality! Looking at Shortland’s resume, there’s no action prior to this movie, and while you have to start somewhere, maybe a huge blockbuster wasn’t it – I can’t say, past that first scene, that I ever got a sense of personality behind the camera. Or in front of the camera for that matter either, with all aspects of the presentation boiled down to something bereft of any consideration for the audience’s immersion beyond making jokes and blowing things up.