It’s somewhat hard to believe, given his understanding of his audience and his relentless drive to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe to new frontiers, that Kevin Feige thought that holding off on making a Black Widow movie until ten real-world years since the character’s on-screen debut in Iron Man 2 had passed and after she was killed off in-continuity would be a good idea. Loud sections of his fanbase had been clamoring for it ever since they saw Scarlett Johansson in a red wig and armor-plated bodysuit for the first time, while others, at least until Captain Marvel was put into production, saw it as a chance to bring much-needed gender diversity to the MCU’s lineup of top-billed heroes, yet Feige remained unmoved, and, naturally, some believed that there was a greater plan afoot. After all, why wouldn’t there have been? Long-term storytelling is clearly effective for and done well by Marvel, and it’s part of the reason we keep coming back, much like the serials that used to play on Saturday mornings during the Depression. We like to see our time rewarded, hence the success here: our investment pays off in bursts of dopamine over the course of years.
The problem with Cate Shortland’s Black Widow is that there very clearly wasn’t any plan in place, and the whole enterprise feels as if it is meant to satisfy the demands of an audience that has changed since, say, 2015 (once could always use the phrase “ticked off the balance sheet,” but the outright cynicism that certain critics regard any Marvel entry assumes a lack of passion on the part of someone like Feige, a dyed-in-the-wool true believer if there ever was one, and also assumes that fans are mindless consumers rather than, in the words of Dave Hickey in his book Air Guitar, informed “citizens” rewarding things that have entertained them). With one key (and expected) exception, little is acknowledged here that would have been detrimental to an audience’s enjoyment of these films post-Civil War, and, worse, what new background information is gleaned here only might have helped her characterization in the lead-up to Endgame (which makes this, in essence, a retcon to give greater meaning to her thinly-sketched development, often in other characters’ films). It’s a massive disappointment, especially following the film’s lengthy COVID-related delays, which, though totally out of the control of the filmmakers, burdened it with the task of “saving cinema,” more so than a Christopher Nolan film or a Fast and Furious sequel could ever.
Before I get fully into the weeds here, I’d just like to say that I’m not going to really criticize the film as its own entity, because that would be reductive in the same way that one can’t judge the whole of a puzzle from the composition and content of its smallest piece, and because I’d probably find it even more lacking than I already do. There’s little wit in the writing or cleverness in the storytelling, which features a dull conflict as well as a vacuous, ill-considered villain; the action scenes, when not stuffed to the gills with overly obvious and tacky CGI, come straight from the Besson school of bloodless, fun-free PG-13 action without the lunatic impulses that make those films compelling (imagine if Taken wasn’t morally hideous and starred, say, Alex Pettyfer, instead of Liam Neeson); and is suffused with what I’ve come to call “corridor aesthetics,” which is the driving stylistic ethos of franchise films like this, with its gunmetal hallways that eventually give way to a bland kind of mise-en-scene that infects everything it touches, even the landscapes. You can tell that the performers are having a decent enough time as it is, given that a solid paycheck and a reasonably stable work environment, compared to other productions, seems to be the draw for many actors, and there are one or two fun performances, especially that of David Harbour, playing Red Guardian, Russia’s equivalent of Captain America, who hit both the bottle and a prison tattoo artist over the course of his years in prison.
But, as previously acknowledged, missing the forest for the faults of a single tree is a mistake, though one might have to worry if that single tree has root-rot or not and whether it’ll spread to the other pines. There’s a weird sort of character collapse that’s occurred over the last decade for some of the original Marvel characters, and Simpsons fans will know it well as “Flanderization,” where a single trait of a character is emphasized so much that the audience and, more importantly, the creators lose sight of the original intention of the character (see Ned Flanders’ descent into “annoying normal neighbor” to “bible-diddly-thumping-iddly ding-dong,” which is where the term gets its name). That’s true for Natasha here, who, over the course of her evolution in the MCU has slowly eroded into the kind of modern “traumatized” heroine that we’ve come to mistake for growth and meaning. Gone is the ferocious, sarcastic, and dynamic character that fans fell head-over-heels for after The Avengers and The Winter Soldier (more on that film in a minute), and instead we have a flat protagonist, for whom a family has been invented to try and write around her shortcomings. Her past, as presented here, is uninteresting, and doesn’t necessarily make sense in the chronology of the real world, given that her “family” begins the film as The Americans: 1996, where they’re doing espionage work in suburban Ohio (and don’t get me started on the reductive, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes-scored camcorder nostalgia that Marvel has taken to in order to stress a specific type of relatable “girlhood” perhaps as an attempt to bridge an imagined gap between their heroines and their male-oriented audiences) for… the FSB? The KGB?
Beyond that, though, the allusion to that critically-beloved television hit suggests early on what the film’s style is, or, perhaps more accurately, what blockbuster genre it has appropriated, to better conceal its narrative similarity to other MCU films. If Winter Soldier was a “paranoid thriller,” a much-mocked moniker given to it by some critics, and Guardians an attempt to make a Corman kid-friendly sci-fi film with a real budget behind it for once, Black Widow is its gritty Bourne-like cousin, smoking cigarettes on the remnants of the Berlin Wall while lecturing you about the nature of Realpolitik. Its misguided credit sequence, set to a slow-mo weepy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” features allusions to Epstein-like conspiracy theory as well as overt depictions of human trafficking, as Nat and her “sister” Yelena (played by Florence Pugh as an adult) are smuggled back into Russia from Cuba by shipping container, which is perhaps as flippant of a reference to real human suffering as anything in a major superhero film since Jimmy Olsen got shot in the head by terrorists in Batman v. Superman, only this time it lacks the outright “fuck you” punch that Zack Snyder delivered to his audience in that film’s opening moments. Ironically enough, the Greengrass-via-Besson style, for all of its pretensions of grit and realism, is undone whenever the film reverts back to traditional superhero-style action, no matter how much Shortland and company want to lampshade some of its cliches (see Yelena’s constant cracks about Natasha’s posing whenever she hops into battle).
The rest of the film plays out as a poorer echo of Winter Soldier, often featuring plot points that have been reheated to the point of blandness, much like day-old pizza microwaved instead of eaten cold. Are our protagonists pursed by a masked silent-but-deadly killer who inexplicably knows exactly how to count their every move? Check. Is that killer working for the big bad and is connected, in some way, to our hero’s most regretted moment? Check. Is our protagonist a person caught between two worlds, struggling to adjust to their new circumstances? Check. Is the villain a maniacal government crony working towards his own ends inside of a security apparatus? Check. Is the finale set aboard a collapsing airborne base? Check. Is part of the focus of the film building a family to supplant other families, including reaching into one’s personal history to find them? Check. Can you blame it on the Russians? Sure! So, if you liked Winter Soldier, what’s so bad about seeing it again with different characters and circumstances? Well, what’s missing is the conflict, both internal and external.
Though it’s become in vogue to rip on it in recent years, especially after the Russos became the directorial face of Marvel and it got saddled with undue pretentiousness, being the movie that Made Marvel Real Cinema given its echoes of The Parallax View and other ’70s thrillers, it’s easy to forget how novel and interesting it was in the context of both the MCU and the superhero film. In continuity, you had the collapse of “The Good Guys,” who were revealed to be Nazis through and through, with the same kind of genocidal ambitions; and out-of-continuity, you had a comic book movie that made genuinely pulpy meat out of the ethical conflict at the heart of Operation Paperclip decade after Spielberg served Hollywood up a slow-pitch meatball with the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And that conflict ultimately mirrored Cap’s, with his discovery that the organization that he believed was his newfound home was, in fact, his antithesis: the very enemy that robbed him of the life he’d briefly been able to imagine after the war ended. It’s a film about accountability: Steve learning to trust his ideals, not his government; Bucky learning, with horror, what he spent the last decades of his life doing; and, importantly, Nat, owning up to the choices that she made as an assassin-turned-hero and confronting her past to the public at large. Importantly, the impact of her development in that movie is watered down by her characterization in Black Widow, where it’s revealed that, unsurprisingly, mind control played a not-insignificant role in her actions. Perhaps that kind of growth is anathema to Marvel in the post-Infinity Saga era, as the retirement of most of the original characters shows there’s ultimately an end to it all (contracts and narrative possibilities, at least), though one would hope that there would be more meaning while they’re training their replacements.
That’s where the delay really starts to hurt things as far as Black Widow is concerned. As I’ve alluded to before, Marvel thrives on narrative propulsion, as even the prequels set in its universe are meant to set up characters and events that will play important roles in films to come. But, notably, this is one of the first occasions where the central character won’t have a part in that Great Big Wonderful Tomorrow, meaning opportunities for further growth are inherently limited to supporting characters (of whom only one is implied to have a continuing presence in the MCU), and the film doesn’t seem to really regard it as a fond farewell to them either, as countless opportunities for potential poignancy are left on the table. Though one could make a case that both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther were true spin-offs, as they were introduced in a previous film and subsequently received one of their own, Black Widow is the first one to actually feel like it could have been a part of a Merry Marvel Spin-off Showcase, and it’s not what I, personally, would have chosen to be the movie for this particular moment. That, most likely, would have been something like Shang-Chi or Eternals, which would have broadened these horizons and definitively kicked off the start of a new era, and allowed it to properly stand in contrast to their streaming shows, which is where the momentum has been for the last year and currently still is right now. If you want a glimpse at the future of the MCU, watch Loki or WandaVision, because you’re not going to find it in Black Widow, an elegy for a hero that doesn’t understand its character’s significance or appeal, and thus has no way of honoring her outside of misremembering past glories, fading away as an echo often does.