6/10 It’s finally here! After almost 20 years of development, 11 years of the character existing in the background, seven years of that with an infamously mangled backstory, and more than a year of pandemic-related delay, Black Widow finally has her own solo feature, and it’s another Marvel movie. It’s another Phase – man, I don’t even know what phase this is anymore – Marvel movie full of overwritten, over-crazy action sequences, smaller fight scenes that are unwatchable as a stylistic choice filled out by imitation-Joss Whedon dialogue.
Russian assassin Ylena Belova (Florence Pugh) is exposed to a synthetic gas that frees her from the chemical mind-control agent she and other widows are kept in check with. For safekeeping, she sends vials of the gas to Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, who also produces executively), her government-assigned older sister and a defected former widow herself from an earlier version of the program that did not involve chemical mind control, who is currently a fugitive laying low in Norway after the events of Captain America: Civil War. The pair rendezvous in Budapest, where Romanoff thought she’d destroyed the program forever, to mass-produce the gas and finish the job, all while on the run from a small army of other widows.
Just about every recent solo MCU movie has felt “the same, if slightly above average,” and in the same way, Black Widow feels the same, if slightly below average. The polish isn’t as fine, and the cynicism of the whole enterprise is much more transparent than usual. The seams, usually drawn tight, are loose, and it feels like the patchwork piece it is instead of a cohesive whole.
What the MCU really had going for it when it started, and what it’s lost over the years, is the distinctive character of its installments. In the early years, the top-level architects paid careful attention to different genres they could work their characters into and the various film conventions the presence of a comic book superhero could break. These weren’t superhero movies, they were genre pieces with superheroes in them. But over the past several years, the MCU has mostly regressed into making the same movie over and over again – still not superhero movies in the traditional sense of that genre, but a set of repeating points that effectively constitutes its own genre.
The fakeness of the action in these action blockbusters is much closer to the surface in Black Widow. We’ve known for a long time that the MCU’s uniformity is enforced from the top, that the action sequences are drawn out and mostly produced years in advance of filming, but this movie featured frank, public discussions of how interchangeable and disconnected they would be. During their extensive search for a female director, eventually settling on Cate Shortland, it came out that executives told candidate Lucrecia Martel, “Don’t worry about the action scenes, we will take care of that.”
Similarly, when discussing his conception of archvillain Dreykov (Ray Winstone), veteran Marvel screenwriter Eric Pearson talked about coming up with a villain who would feel consequential, but not contradict anything else in the series given the movie’s mid-quel placement, which is a hilarious thing to read after seeing another Marvel movie whose climax is set in a giant hovering aerial base that ought to be plainly visible from miles around.
What was supposed to set Black Widow apart was the demand it fills. The Romanoff character, distinct from her more dubious comic book counterpart, has always been central in discussions about the secondary role of women in superhero media as that media becomes more and more movie-oriented. In the first Avengers movie, four – well, three – of the original teammates were much more equal than the other two, and people noticed that the only woman among them was one of the ones with no superpowers or solo feature. Things got worse in Age of Ultron, when she was given her fourth onscreen romantic partner – sort of, it’s a whole thing – and her backstory was revealed to be anxiety around being forced into a hysterectomy as part of her training. In the film, she describes herself as a monster comparable to the Hulk not because of the countless people she’s killed, as had previously been hinted at, but because she cannot have children.
Calls to get Romanoff her own movie really picked up around this point, both from viewers who were outraged by studio’s inability to come up with a story that wasn’t all about her gender and from the studio that thought this was completely fine, and the end result is predictably weird and dissonant. The big feminist moment comes when Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) suggests Belova’s rudeness is because it’s her time of the month, and Belova explains to him that she doesn’t menstruate after she was forced to receive a hysterectomy – there’s that plot point again. After decades of the MPAA heavily rating against any detailed reference to female anatomy, the fact that someone said “fallopian tubes” in a major Hollywood blockbuster is a huge deal.
At the same time, it comes in a movie that’s just as weirdly sexless as most of the MCU, and most blockbusters in general. There is nothing remotely sexual in either of Romanoff’s “families.” Whenever she’s been paired with other avengers, it’s always awkwardly, sometimes aggressively, sterile, to the point that when she finally displays what we’re told is genuine romantic interest in Bruce Banner, a character who is canonically incapable of arousal, she seems to think that starting a family is the only point of love and sex.
In Black Widow, we are introduced to her government-assigned family – sister Belova, who, like Romanoff, was kidnapped into the KGB for showing a “genetic predisposition” for assassinations, father Shostakov, the USSR’s answer to Captain America who wasn’t used for propaganda at all and was instead assigned for decades of deep-cover work in Ohio, and mother Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a scientist with the widow program who may be the most sexless character in this whole web, appearing to understand things like humor and emotion and free will, but only from an alienated distance. These two explicitly do not have children together, and Vostokoff shows no desire or even fondness toward her government-assigned husband of years, registering his joking advances with only factual acknowledgement.
Black Widow plays with the concept of “family” in a much more meaningful way than contemporary Fast/Furious movies, and this is something good about that genuinely does set it apart. Romanoff’s isolation and alienation make much more emotional sense knowing she was raised in a loveless household by government-assigned parents who had no qualms about giving her and her sister away to a brutally abusive assassination program, as does her emotional drive to start a family knowing that she was ripped away from her biological mother. The movie revolves around the stilted dynamics of this government-assigned family, the sisters who want to be real sisters but can’t trust their professional relationship to also be a personal one, the father who wants to think of himself as protecting children whom he knowingly gave up to be brainwashed and mutilated, and the mother who knows too much about the power they’re all under to love any of them. That’s a very 2021 Thanksgiving dinner dynamic.
In apparent conflict with its sterility, Black Widow also includes more butt shots of its lead character than possibly the entire run of the MCU to this point. Normally this would feel gross, but this isn’t a case of objectification by a lusty producer or director. Johansson is an executive producer here, the driving force behind the film being made who hand-picked her own director and certainly had a say-so in how her – or her double’s – posterior is presented. Mulvey’s “male gaze” isn’t just about presentation of the female body, it’s about who historically has gotten to do the presenting, and to see the closest thing modern Hollywood has to a sex symbol, who has carefully maintained control of her image throughout her career and only allowed herself to be consumed on her own terms, is an encouraging thing.
For all the ways it could have stood out, the real goal of Black Widow is the same as later Phase III MCU movies and the recent Disney+ series we’ve been seeing – to cynically throw a bevy of lower-profile characters at the screen and hope something sticks. With the original actors mostly ditching the franchise – Johansson called her work with the character “complete” in the media for this movie – but the money train chugging harder than ever, Disney has been racing to introduce slews of characters at a time in a frantic search for something audiences will latch on to now that the Infinity Saga is over.
Where the Fast/Furious movies build entire plots out of which actors have stayed or want to leave or are returning because they had nothing better to do, the MCU calmly recast some of its biggest roles and moved on – they had an actual story to tell. Now that’s changing. They’ve started writing big, auspicious sendoffs for old stars as they leave and handing out long-term contracts to newly established actors like Pugh or Brie Larson or TV actors like Simu Liu who they can build up and control for a long time. This has been the practice for a while now, going all the way back to Tom Holland and Chris Hemsworth.
Black Widow again pushes this to a particularly transparent and silly extent by casting Olga Kurylenko as the taskmaster, Dreykov’s enforcer who is obviously played by long-time Captain America stuntman Andy Lister in most scenes. That is the height of this movie’s self-satire, the dramatic reveal that executives had combed the depths of recognizable celebrities to find Kurylenko, best known as a Bond girl from 13 years ago in an installment nobody liked, paid her to utter a single word and show up for burn prosthetics for two days of shooting at most, because this faceless, voiceless grunt who could just as easily have been absent from the final product must also be seeded for spinoff bait.
Black Widow is the first Marvel movie to release since Martin Scorsese said these movies aren’t “cinema” way back in October 2019, setting the entire internet on fire, and that insult hangs over Black Widow like a real spider, because you can’t possibly watch this and not agree with Scorsese completely. The main creative director for what’s supposed to be an action blockbuster had no input on its big action scenes, which were not filmed, but where drawn up in a lab and mostly brought to life by nine-to-five office animators, and what was actually filmed was shattered as a stylistic choice. The point of this movie’s characters isn’t to live and breathe and choose and fuck, but merely to exist for fans to fanaticize about, and who gets the spotlight moving forward will be whichever ones they fanaticize about most as demonstrated by toy sales.
It’s been truly horrible watching this happen, watching these things that used to be special melt into an indistinguishable slurry of alienated, half-hearted productions. This is not the miracle. This isn’t the beloved series of comic book movies, “the most audacious crossover events in history” that long-term fans only ever dreamed of seeing, and this certainly isn’t cinema. Somewhere along the line, it stopped being those things, and I doubt it ever will be again.