Disney’s Marvel’s Black Widow is the movie you probably think it is before you even enter the theatre. That’s both good and bad. It’s eminently watchable and perfectly enjoyable. But for a marquee character of the MCU to finally get their own solo project, it just doesn’t really live up to the level set by the other main event stars in the franchise.
It’s another capital ‘m’ Marvel movie that goes in the “it’s fine” pile with like Ant-Man, Dr Strangeand Captain Marvel. You know a completely a-ok 3/5 but not something I’ll be thinking “I should watch that again.” I don’t want to say it doesn’t live up to the expectations, because I’m not sure anyone really expected this to hit the level of something like Guardians of the Galaxy or Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
But I really wanted this to be another The Winter Soldier. I was very very ready to see a fun espionage movie in the vein of Jason Bourne or Mission Impossible. I really thought it could be considering the character and what kind of story works best for her and her skillset. So maybe this falls on me tricking myself into thinking the apple pie was blueberry.
Something I found really interesting is that for a movie that takes place between Civil War and Infinity War, the film is super self-contained. There are no surprise cameos. There’s no awkwardly woven in appearances to remind you of the scope of all these movies. It can be watched as a standalone film and the viewer wouldn’t miss out on anything critical to the experience.
The tone early on is quite serious and the film is taking itself and the subject matter seriously. Black Widow is on the run and trying to avoid being thrown in international prison. She’s living an unglamorous life and hoping to fade into a new identity.
It feels like a spy movie.
Unfortunately, it starts to become weightless as the plot progresses. And not just because it gets too big in scale – because it moves away from spy stuff to CGI and quips.
Prequel films tend to lack the same weight of something in the proper flow of the timeline because you know who the character is before the movie, and then also who they are after so there’s only so much room in the middle to work with. But hey, someone had to go for the soul stone and that leaves you only so much space to work with for the story.
The plot is 1 + 2 = 3 and mostly straight forward. There wasn’t as much espionage as you would think from a super spy character in their own film. There’s like one fake out twist. Bad military guy wants macguffin. Our Hero needs to stop/protect/save macguffin. Blow up a giant spaceship along the way.
Even if you don’t want to repeat The Winter Soldier too much, go steal the Mission Impossible writing team and stick Black Widow in one of those films. Tense scenes where characters might take a beating that lasts the rest of the film, a lot of tense down to the second timing for espionage and spy-craft and some “oh jeez how will they get out of this”.
One thing I noticed, and this is me being cynical, is that there are a lot of pre-viz fight scenes that movie transitions into which were clearly drawn up mostly-ish before the script was done. So the action isn’t always in service of the plot, but sometimes the plot is in service of the spectacle and action scenes. That isn’t a crime but it can make the feel “too big” when a smaller, dirtier, tighter fight or scene could have had just as much or more impact.
One of the strengths of the movie is when it slows down to let the actors act and give them the time and space to be actors. The opening of the film is quite good that way. The moments in between action scenes where the family is forced into their family dynamic is quite good. And you have talented actors that can act in this movie. Watch Marriage Story or Stranger Things or any of those British/indie things Florence Pugh has done. Great actors just acting it out. I remember the details of those scenes a lot more than I remember explosion #13 that the characters survive with a little bit of dirt on their cheek.
I don’t know what there is to say about the titular Black Widow. It’s Scarjo. She does well with what’s she is given and can completely handle the weight of being a leading lady in a movie.
David Harbour is great in his limited role. He plays a really believable dad and has great chemistry with everyone around him. He doesn’t quite get as adorable as in Stranger Things but oh well. Rachel Weisz as the slightly colder character of the mom is good too – though I think she gets off the hook a bit lightly for some of the stuff she’s pulled.
The villain is a silly caricature of villainy. I think that’s another reason why the movie feels more fantastical than real as the plot progresses. He’s a Harvey Weinstein inspired bad military man that just has it out to hate women and take advantage of women because he can and that’s why he trained them to be assassins for a comedic reason versus anything practical.
That’s kind of a plot thing that loses a bit of impact and is something kind of infects a lot of female led projects. The need to make a statement that Women Are Capable People Too. Yeah, I know. Smart people know this. Your average audience member knows this. Morons don’t but they’re morons. The Wonder Woman movie did this excellently just a few years ago. Know what movie didn’t because it got comical with it? Ghosbusters 2016.
We’ve had badass females heroines before: Alien released in 1979, The Terminator released in 1984, Buffy was one of the biggest shows in the 90s, Disney has an entire army of strong female animated characters, Hermione saves the day countless times in Harry Potter, Eowyn killed the motherf*cking Witch King, Jennifer Lawrence launched an entire genre of movies with The Hunger Games, Charlize Theron and Uma Thurman and Angelina Jolie have been kicking ass in movies for 20 years. Video games are full of female leads that whip ass. This all came to mind as I was writing.
I’m not saying you don’t celebrate the fact this character has got her moment and her chance now, but when your villain basically says “women are worthless trash” and then it gets tough to take the movie seriously. Especially when that attitude has led to countless and continuing human rights violations that the main characters don’t really seem all that bothered by because it’s time to blow up that spaceship for the next action scene.
I get a story for a female character is different than a male character and its reductionist to say “just write James Bond but now it’s Jane Bond”. But there’s not much in Mission Impossible or The Winter Soldier or the Bourne franchise that you can’t have Black Widow do here. But you have to maintain a tone and atmosphere for that to happen and this movie didn’t.
Part of a serious tone is that a character takes their lumps and has to fight through those lumps and improvise. That’s something that separates John Wick from The Fast and The Furious movies. Your character can’t just find the cheat code to turn off damage – and if they do then you have to explain it. Logan did that excellently and you just need something similar.
It results in the movie feeling less visceral or gritty, or whatever word you want to use, in exchange for it feeling more fantastical. When Captain America is getting the snot beat out of him by evil Bucky and takes a bullet and an explosion or two, he struggles to get that last disc in the space ship thing. This Black Widow is getting hit by explosions and punches and debris and still just is able to keep on running into a new explosion that doesn’t ruin her makeup or hair. It’s all part of the stakes in a movie.
It’s hard to buy into the stakes of “the characters have to get away from the bomb or avalanche or exploding space ship really quickly or else!” Or else what? There are half a dozen things that should have very obviously killed our Black Widow as she’s been established in nine other movies and a few that should have killed the supporting characters. But nope, and they don’t even put on some lazy bandages like a wrestler. They all recover from fights like Vin Diesel.
Like that beating Cap gets at the end of TWS would have left this Black Widow with nothing more than a broken nose that she could just easily pop back into place with no swelling so the visual effects artist or make-up team doesn’t have to do a lot of scenes giving her a jank nose.Oh, and the heavy the villain employs, Taskmaster, is pretty badass but then you realize this super assassin that is a big threat you need to be scared of only manages like one kill the whole film and infinite near misses, to add to the other misses of the movie. I’ve been a bit harsh on the movie but I think it’s just because I wanted so much more. I get frustrated with movies that waste potential more than anything and this movie is a victim of that. Instead of Mission Impossible it went for Big Quippy Action Marvel Movie. I hope some people love it. I don’t want to poopoo anything too hard, but after taking so much time off from “the Marvel formula” over the pandemic, coming back to it does feel… less exciting. Maybe mentally I ended at Endgame a bit. I wouldn’t blame anyone who did, especially when the first film to try and hook you was this one. Maybe the #MarvelFormula has hit critical mass. @Adam_Pyde on Twitter, Adam Reviews Things on Facebook. CanadianAdam on Twitch.
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