NICHOLAS CHANG | REPEAT OFFENDERS
[Warning: Some spoilers for Avengers: Endgame]
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: the Marvel Cinematic Universe peaked at Avengers: Endgame. Unless phase four pulls off a game-breaking risk that makes the MCU exciting, perhaps Marvel will offer something narratively unique beyond the mediocre CGI spectacles and repetitive action sequences. However, Cate Shortland’s Black Widow fails to spark inspiration, starting the phase four films on a whimper.
Black Widow begins in 1995, revolving around a family in Ohio, where we meet a young Natasha Romanoff (Ever Anderson), her sister-figure Yelena (Violet McGraw) and seemingly their parents Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). However, this is anything but a typical family. Instead, they work as undercover agents, with Shostakov and Vostokoff respectively taking the identities of Red Guardian and Black Widow, and their mission is to steal S.H.I.E.L.D intel. Eventually, the mission is a success, and after an intense escape, Natasha and Yelena are separated to undergo training in the Red Room to become elite assassins. But years pass and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), after being forced to endure the relentless abuse and conformity of the Red Room, decides to bomb her boss Dreykov’s (Ray Winstone) office, apparently killing him and his daughter Antonia (Olga Kurylenko). Natasha finally escapes, defecting to S.H.I.E.L.D and becoming a key member of the Avengers.
But as soon as the events of Captain America: Civil War take place, that’s where Black Widow’s plot truly begins. There is no origin story for Natasha Romanoff and how she indeed came to be a Black Widow. Her standalone film is there to fill the gaps of what she did between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, a poorly planned move to expand upon Natasha’s character. If you remember Avengers: Endgame, Natasha and Cliff Barton (Jeremy Renner) travelled to the planet Vormir to obtain the Soul Stone, one of the infinity stones required to reverse Thanos’s wish of erasing half of the world’s population. But there, Red Skull demanded that either Natasha or Barton sacrifice themselves to obtain the stone. After an intense confrontation, Natasha chose to embrace her fate, falling to her death. If you’re aware of this knowledge, that means there is never any actual danger she experiences in her movie. It kills the tension and drastically removes the emotional stakes, attributed to Marvel’s poor timing and uneven respect towards the character.
All that Black Widow’s plot offers is that Natasha has been branded a fugitive until her past resurfaces as a distraction that allows her to remain preoccupied. She returns to Budapest to reunite with Yelena (Florence Pugh), who’s increasingly aware that the conspiracy they’ve been raised under has been mind-controlling all the other Black Widows and has come across a supply of antidotes that can finally free the assassins. To do so, Natasha and Yelena must reunite with Alexei and Melina to confront Dreykov and sort through their past family baggage that has never been genuine.
Black Widow’s biggest crime is that its writing feels inconsequential. Rarely at any point does the movie suggest something ground-breaking to alter the current course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which means you can easily miss out on Black Widow. But even if we get past its placeholder nature, which never does justice to its central character, it fails to compel as a spy thriller. It struggles to offer interesting material, falling victim to Marvel’s formula, and in its character-driven nature, the emotional beats aren’t satisfying.
Black Widow attempts to reflect on female trauma and abuse and the impacts they leave behind by utilising the characterisations of Natasha and Yelena. Unfortunately, the script opts to focus on the hand-to-hand combat and fight choreography of the action sequences rather than provide complex psychological depths to its themes. Black Widow’s pseudo-exploration of its themes never feel sincere as it is sometimes too devoted to the worldbuilding more than the characters themselves. But even with Natasha taking the lead, it oddly feels like she’s taking the role of a sidekick as Yelena steals the show. Her backstory of being a child assassin sounds far more compelling than Black Widow’s storytelling, but if anything, this allows Pugh to deliver an emotionally resonant, cynical, and damaged performance. Pugh and Johansson contrast their characters’ emotional states as they struggle to traverse through the sisterly bond forced upon them, and it’s here where Black Widow shines and we get a chance to soak in their performances. Their chemistry is remarkable, and while Johansson’s performance as Natasha is full of strength, Pugh is a pure scene-stealer.
Pugh’s performance is a beam of light compared to the other performances, which are mostly game. Weisz delivers a hardened performance who can turn her poorly written material into something watchable, while Harbour overplays the campiness of his role as the Red Guardian. Johansson, Pugh, Weisz and Harbour’s acting come together in the second act, where Black Widow aims to provide insight into the complicated family dynamics and baggage that are never made interesting enough. Yelena’s character material is arguably compelling and heartbreaking, as she forces herself to come to terms that she was never raised in a real family and that her childhood was a lie all along. It’s a shame that the character material is so flat that it’s difficult to remark on; Alexei/Red Guardian acts as an unlikeable slog that contrasts his badass nature in the opening sequence. Melina doesn’t offer much insight into her role as a Black Widow and her surrounding relationships with others. Natasha does not confront her past as scathingly as she should be.
But Black Widow switches gears in the third act, almost losing the family dynamics to focus on a dull and clumsily constructed plot that can make way for familiar action. It leads to vapid revelations and forgettable villains that likely let down their comic book counterparts. Taskmaster is a villain indoctrinated in the horrific practices of the Red Room, perfectly capable of mimicking their enemies’ moves and learning about their fighting style to use it against them. However, Black Widow struggles to make the Taskmaster intimidating due to the familiarity of the fight choreography. But once they are unmasked to highlight their transformation through trauma, the character material never rings true — the third act only weakens through illogical plot holes and unwise character turns.
The expected benefit that Black Widow shares with all the other MCU films is that it sports intensely crafted visuals that show how much work and detail has been made by the special effects teams. The film can finally showcase glimpses of style and entertainment to turn it into popcorn entertainment. Still, it’s all too late and too little, for while Shortland’s direction offers promise, her vision is neutered by a film acting as a corporate product to tick the box that Black Widow’s standalone movie has been completed. When you try to look past the lack of originality and meaningless storytelling, what Black Widow has to offer is a CGI spectacle that we’ve seen hundreds of times. Pay attention to the screen, and the visuals border on being mediocre and cheap, divorced from a sense of reality. It seems sad to think about the millions put into the budget and that what Black Widow has to offer is… this? Its huge sin is that, despite its brief moments of entertainment, it doesn’t fulfil its purpose with both the storytelling and visuals.
Unless you count that post-credit scene intended to set up Hawkeye’s upcoming Disney+ show, Black Widow has nothing going for it. It fails to do justice to Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh’s stellar performances, resorting to spy thriller clichés and shallow character material that Shortland wants to get into but can’t due to Marvel’s intervening formula. While the fight choreography and stunts appear solid, there isn’t enough energy in the action sequences and the editing to fuel the tension. There are only a limited number of times until the gorgeous CGI spectacle transforms into something visually mediocre. Black Widow isn’t just representing a criminally wasted opportunity to venture into the compelling bones of a unique character. It reflects the currently uneven and corporate-driven nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.