Before Black Widow, the longest gap between Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies was a little under two years, and that was when the franchise was first getting off the ground. But with Black Widow delayed three times due to that thing that’s still going on, we’ve been waiting over two years for the next MCU movie—which, honestly, was a nice break from a franchise that’s been churning out at least two movies a year since 2013. Unless, of course, you’ve been following the various MCU TV shows, in which case Black Widow is just the next pump of the endless IV drip that Disney slipped into our brain veins upon birth.
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Black Widow expects you to have never turned that drip off. Figuring out when the story takes place requires a cursory knowledge of MCU chronology, seeing as characters only reference their backgrounds in Avengers timeline speak. Someone mentions that the world isn’t keen on Captain America at the moment, which places Black Widow not too long after Civil War. Natasha is on the run from the United Nations after she and Steve Rogers refused government oversight of The Avengers. Ever the clever one, Natasha hides in the last place you’d expect a libertarian to go: Russia.
But her reasons for pulling a Snowden are complicated. As previous MCU entries have touched on, Natasha was a former spy for the KGB, trained under a secret program called the “Red Room”. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s because the Red Room only got a single mention in the MCU six years ago. Marvel Studios has been notoriously terrible at fleshing Natasha’s story out: despite being one of the first heroes introduced to the franchise, she’s been grievously underused in the 11 years since, oscillating between sex object, token woman, and plot device, depending on what filmmaker is wasting her. Black Widow is meant to be a decade-late course correction. When the film opens on a young Natasha living in Ohio with a “family” of Russian spies, her character finally feels like it’s headed in the right direction—that of a human woman living a human life. And when the family flees after being made, kickstarting a nicely lit nighttime action sequence, it feels like Black Widow might be a renaissance for the MCU.
Then the title sequence kicks in. Its imagery is obscured by the opening credits and usual logo parade, but the content is unmistakable: terrified little girls, screaming and weeping as they’re kidnapped, tortured, sterilized, and brainwashed. Or as much as you can show of that while securing a PG-13 rating, and the rest implied. It’s meant to be a snapshot of the Red Room, the Russian organization that captures girls and raises them into obedient spies called Widows. Swirling these images into the opening titles makes them easy to miss, but if you’re paying attention, it’s a montage of the most legitimately traumatic material the MCU has ever depicted. It’s a surprisingly dark turn for a franchise built on mass appeal. But over the course of Black Widow, it becomes apparent that Marvel Studios is only a tourist of trauma, there to take photos and show them off back home as proof that they’ve been there, understood that. Black Widow is the MCU’s missionary profile picture.
Natasha’s return to Russia happens to coincide with the salvation of fellow Widow Yelena, who was Natasha’s “sister” back in Ohio. After Yelena is sprayed in the face by a magical plot chemical that deprograms her brain, she and Natasha team up to take down the Red Room and distribute that sweet, sweet MacGuffin mist among the rest of the Widows. Their journey reunites them with their “parents”, one of whom is a washed-up Russian counterpart to Captain America, and careens them through a slew of acceptable action scenes. It’s all quite boring, surprisingly: the action too familiar and the script too workmanlike, always taking the quickest route to the next story beat. The family scenes are enjoyably low-key—reminiscent of when Age of Ultron let its characters shoot the breeze—but they’re let down by bland performances from Scarlett Johansson and Rachel Weisz. Johansson seems tired of the gig; Weisz doesn’t seem like she even wants to be there.
Florence Pugh is a joy to have around as Yelena, though, and her performance amusingly incorporates her apparent bemusement at being in a comic book movie. Her dialogue may be clichéd, but she delivers those clichés as if she were the first person to say them. Her chemistry with Johansson lures the best out of the latter’s performance, too. But they’re both betrayed by the movie’s central cowardice: its inability to deal with its own content. Outside of the opening montage, Black Widow makes next to no attempt to examine or even acknowledge the specific ways in which women are exploited—which, as you may remember, is the Red Room’s whole deal. The head of the organization (a sinister but squandered Ray Winstone) refers to women as resources, but even during his “tell the hero all my plans before I defeat them” speech, the only detail we get is that the Widows help him control geopolitical conflict. There’s no mention of how the Widows’ femininity is a boon to that goal, and there never will be. As far as Black Widow is concerned, the plot needed victims, and women make for compelling victims. It goes no further.
Unfortunately for even the most forgiving moviegoers, the movie’s problems don’t end with its subtext. The showdown with the villain is also emblematic of how deplorably structured the screenplay is. Natasha faces a major setback, but it’s immediately resolved by a flashback to a pre-planned solution we hadn’t seen, clearing the way before the tension had time to set in. And then, just minutes later, the same cheap strategy is used again: introduce an insurmountable roadblock, then flashback to the purchase of a crane to move any potential roadblocks, so to say. It’s a masterclass in sucking the excitement out of an exciting concept. That’s the screenplay’s M.O., really—when secondary villain Taskmaster is introduced, we’re told that they can mimic the fighting style of anyone who crosses them, but we barely ever see that happening.
Black Widow’s clearest stance is a not-so-subtle, oh-so-propagandist alignment of the West with choice and “the rest” with coercion. What an ironic position. As Disney’s stranglehold on Hollywood tightens, the choice between summer blockbusters becomes no choice at all—now that we’ve done the spy film, which genre would you like to see Disney make a gutless version of next?