Black Widow

Black Widow is too little, too late

The latest installment in the MCU feels awkwardly shoehorned-in despite its strong cast and entertainment value.

Let me be perfectly honest about this: I went into Black Widow hoping against all hope that two years without Marvel movies might have a cleansing effect on my general weariness towards the ever-expanding superhero genre. It seems like my appreciation for the genre is inversely proportional to its saturation, so a bit of a pandemic-forced palate cleanser might have helped reset things. Unfortunately, the unpredictable timing of the pandemic has made it so that the first Marvel movie back after a prolonged absence is one of the most perfunctory efforts yet, a shoehorned-in prequel that was likely designed as a sort of backdoor pilot to accustom viewers to what Marvel would eventually do with its series on Disney+. Barely a superhero movie to begin with, Black Widow proves to be a rather pedestrian espionage effort that’s not particularly convinced of where it stands in the grand scheme of things — a token vehicle for Scarlett Johansson meant as a bit of a victory lap for her underused presence in the MCU.

Set in the rift between the Avengers that happened between Civil War and Infinity War, Black Widow finds Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) on the run from the authorities and thrust right back into her old spying ways. As a child, Romanoff was trained as a Black Widow spy in the Red Room, a tyrannical facility run by sleazebag Dreykof (Ray Winstone), and placed within a simulacrum of a family led by spies Alexi Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melia Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). Years later, the only family she’s ever known (including her “sister” Yelena, played by Florence Pugh) has resurfaced just as Natasha finds herself involved in a conspiracy involving the Red Room and Dreykof.

From the beginning, the character of Black Widow has always been a super-spy rather than a superhero. She has no supernatural superpowers or giant robot suit to fight other giant robots in, so it stands to reason that her standalone film would be a little different from the average spinoff. Black Widow is a bit like the movie most people expected Francis Lawrence’s prickly, hermetic Red Sparrow to be: a spy movie that devotes practically as much time to stealth and espionage tactics than it does to giant flurries of CGI explosions and the like. It’s been one of the only advantages of this ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe — the idea that, at some point, the movies can take divergent paths and utilize different aspects of genre cinema to tell their stories. Black Widow does a pretty good job of setting itself apart in terms of genre, but it unfortunately never really shakes itself free of the shackles of the MCU.

Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh

On one hand, it might be a lot to expect of the most expensive and most risk-averse trend in media; on the other hand, it’s hard not to feel like Black Widow barely justifies its own existence, a prequel uncomfortably wedged into a bygone era. Comic books do this all the time — retconning and revisiting past events from different perspectives — but within the more rigid confines of a 134-minute movie, it starts to feel same-y. Black Widow spends a lot of time futilely trying to establish its own identity and its own world before inevitably falling back on stock Marvel clichés. It’s been clear from the beginning that Marvel’s films are extremely serialized; they’re essentially just a turbo-charged television series, which is never more obvious than in this mid-season episode that mostly treads water from beginning to end.

That’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining. Pugh, Harbour and Weisz are more than qualified to handle the material, and the film strikes a pretty good balance between the self-aware quips of a Joss Whedon movie and the glum blue-grey palette of most modern blockbuster films. There’s even a transparent attempt to bring in some character development to a character that has long felt “established” without actually being established. If Black Widow winds up not being particularly richer thematically or from a character standpoint than most of its ilk, it’s not for lack of trying.  There’s a real attempt by director Cate Shortland to create something slightly askew from the norm, but it ultimately feels undone by its absolute and total lack of stakes. Even for a film set in a world where characters who died rarely actually die, Black Widow feels like padding. It could all be a question of poor timing, after all — Black Widow was originally supposed to come out before any of the Disney+ shows (none of which I’ve watched, to be fair), perhaps as a sort of transitional palate cleanser… but none of that should matter. 

It doesn’t matter what Disney’s strategy is. I could give a shit how this factors into their overall merchandising plan or whatever else motivates such a giant money making behemoth. As it stands, Black Widow simply doesn’t feel like enough. ■

Black Widow opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, July 9. Watch the trailer here:

Black Widow, starring directed by Scarlett Johansson, directed by Cate Shortland

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