While the question of whether doing same day release of films into theaters and onto premium streaming is wise, the choice doesn’t seem to be slowing Marvel Studios’ Black Widow down very much. Disney is crowing numbers that cannot be verified that this film just became one of their biggest solo first film openers, only behind Black Panther and bettering Captain Marvel, but how do we know their premium streaming numbers are accurate?
Just like so many of the stellar reviews I read going into this, I suspect there’s more fluff going on that honest assessments. The bottom line is, Black Widow, much like the equally horrible Birds of Prey, is likely earning most of its favorable reviews because the movie is directed by a chick and everyone is afraid being labelled a Nazi!!! if they give a chick director a bad review. So be sure to read those Rotten Tomatoes reviews with a side-eye knowing that some critics may be grading this movie on a curve, because they know what’s good for them.
Set between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2017), we already know Natasha Romanoff, (Scarlett Johansson), survives the Infinity War then dies in Endgame, so what are we even doing here? Oh, I know: her sister is getting her own franchise or TV show (or both) after this cash grab. And speaking of Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Black Widow’s sister actually turns out to be the film’s strongest asset. In fact, the first 45 minutes of this movie are quite enjoyable, but by the time the climax arrives we realize we’re watching a clear homage to one of James Bond’s silliest exploits — and this comes after bouncing through a schizophrenic sitcom about a dysfunctional family on a road trip.
But the backstory is all about trauma and child abuse, and there’s an especially chilling allusion to the fate of those little girls who were selected for the Red Room but didn’t make it through. The idea at play is that girls are terribly abused as a class, but they can also be tough, feisty, and all-around badass. I wish the screenwriters had put more effort into building a fascinating storyline and characters rather than devising such obvious marketing ploys, but I think the line between writer and marketer becomes quite blurred in this type of production anyway. Black Widow winds up being a half-hearted investigation of global sexism that ultimately serves as little more than a stepping stone to fascinating new characters.
It should go without saying that Johansson is excellent, and her performance is not limited to a single note of low-key toughness. Natasha smiles a lot, in a way that is both breezy and unsettling: we can see she enjoys being Black Widow, whatever the cost. Nothing, however, can disguise the formulaic nature of the character’s emotional journey, in which the Cold War’s aftermath is reduced to a backdrop for a story about one lady trying to reconnect with her feelings.
Captain America: The First Avenger (one of my favorite pictures in the MCU), was emotionally moving because it sincerely attempted to answer a basic question: What does it mean to be good? Sadly there has been no attempt since then to imbue these characters with similar vulnerabilities and ideals. Just look at this scene from Captain Marvel if you don’t believe me. And as the MCU continues ever-plodding forward, and occasionally backwards as this prequel does, viewers must be starting to awaken to the fact that like their comic book counterparts, there are no stakes when these stories are guaranteed to continue indefinitely.
Thankfully, this installment has no strong ties to anything else in the saga and may therefore be skipped, however a post-credits sequence connects it to one of the new MCU TV series I haven’t bothered watching. I mean, seriously, who out there has seen all three new MCU TV shows and all 23 movies? The MCU is beginning to feel like a college curriculum. One could argue that this ongoing, indefinite adventures is the defining feature of superhero comic books, that this is the point. But that dilutes the uniqueness of each film, and comic books constantly recasting the characters when they become stale, or no longer PC.
Things start on a sour note for me when a melancholy cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” played during opening credits in this film while little girls were being locked into cargo containers. It really, REALLY set a cringy tone right of this film from the start. And then, as I said after the first 45 minutes, the film veers wildly from winky meta humor to dreary darkness. I’m not trying to say that tonal differences in movies can’t work, but Black Widow is a textbook example where there isn’t an overall grasp on how to manage tonal shifts and balances.
Those that manage to make it all the way through the movie will get a glimpse of Marvel’s cinematic future at the end of Black Widow’s ever-lengthy, final-credits sequence. Surely, zealous Avengers fans are already up to date on this by now, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick around for a mildly pleasant surprise, even though I admit that the post-credits scene could be interpreted as containing a traditional Hollywood insult directed towards midwestern audiences. *sigh*
That being said, I still think Black Widow has every right to be part of the Marvel movie madness, but overall feels too distant, bland, and severely troubled. If you opt to watch it at home, “Black Widow” will definitely feel more like one of the new Marvel TV offerings and less like what MCU faithful has come to expect from their feature films.