Marvel cinematic universe retrospective: Black Widow

Can a movie come too late?

That was the dilemma facing Black Widow, back when it was set for release in 2020. Even then, before the delays due to the world stopping, the movie was seen as possibly having missed its chance for pop culture relevancy. Many, myself included, felt that a Black Widow movie should have been part of the post-Avengers Phase Two, and all these years later there is still no good reason why it wasn’t. Yet when I was watching Black Widow it occured to me that this criticism had a sell-by date. A Black Widow movie now exists, one that fits into the MCU continuity quite well between Civil War and Infinity War. It is now part of the MCU and whether it reads as a missed opportunity to capitalise on a female character’s popularity (which it certainly does) or instead as tribute and finale to said character coming after her story has come to a conclusion. It’s a rare example of the MCU machine failing to predict the future, for once.

I can only speak to my own feelings on the matter, but it has been a little harder to take Black Widow as a movie in its own right. This is mostly due to superhero movie fatigue. While I would never complain about writing these articles, they do mean that much of my thinking time, No-But-Listen-wise, is spent on superheroes and how and whether their stories work. The fact that Black Widow has been on the shelf for a over a year, coming out after the Disney shows that extended the MCU post-Endgame, means that I felt a little burnt out while watching it. Yet, instead of breaking away from superhero consumption, I wanted to go back to the source of my love for these stories in the first place. Since Loki finished, I have burned through the entirety of the Spider-Man and Batman series of the nineties. It was those shows, before the movies that cemented their place in my heart, that gave me joy in the first place. Their characterization, plot, world-building and sense of wonder is still astonishing to me today as it was when I was five years old.

So, I watched Black Widow again, armed with the knowledge and reminder of how this stuff is done right, and I’ve got to say that I think it is a fine movie with some fantastic bits. Let’s get the lazy and predictable Captain Marvel comparison out of the way – Black Widow is a better movie than her compatriots due to the knowledge I had going in. Where Captain Marvel was a movie of self-discovery and aliens, Black Widow has the earned knowledge of a sequel which makes it an immediately more comfortable watch. Other than that, Captain Marvel never crossed my mind. Just like Iron Man doesn’t cross my mind when I watch Guardians, their shared gender doesn’t automatically make them relevant to each other.

What Black Widow reminded me most of was, strangely, the Fast and Furious franchise, but with much better actors. There’s car chases, normal human beings taking a ridiculous amount of damage and keep fighting at the highest level, and everything is about family, family, FAMILY! Unlike the Fast Franchise, though, the strongest part of Black Widow is the family aspect. Most of this comes with surrounding Scarlett Johansson with brilliant actors, as Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, and David Harbour are so charming and so watchable that you forget that Weisz’s character is one of the MCU’s biggest war criminals. Unlike Age of Ultron’s pace-killing aside to Hawkeye’s secret country home, I could happily have spent the entire movie watching this weird spy family have a domestic in the middle of the countryside.

Now to the weak point, which is the action. I understand the urge to have Natasha doing Iron Man and Bond-style action heroics, but having her fall with style through CGI backgrounds misses the point of what she brings to the table action-wise. Instead of going for Bond-like ridiculousness, I would have loved to see a more grounded style of action like Atomic Blonde and John Wick, something that utilizes the skills that differentiate Natasha from the other Avengers. Think Winter Soldier but more ambitious. It’s for this reason that the only fight that worked for me was Natasha against the brain-washed Widows (her fight with Yelena was good but kind of stupid when you think about why they are even fighting in the first place). It’s rough, it’s claustrophobic and it’s even a little scary.

Ticking the Romance Box

Thanks to the miss-step that was Natasha and Bruce there is no romantic love story in site and we are all the better for it. The main tension is between Natasha and Yelena, and that rightly takes centre stage.

The Wasted Villain Corner

Now this is just disgraceful. You’re Marvel, you could have cast anyone to be the sleazy villain in this movie and you picked Ray Winstone who couldn’t keep his accent straight for one full sentence. I know there is a meta-narrative in which he’s a Weinstein-type figure controlling all of these women, but it gets lost by how unwatchable he is. I love Ray, he scares me in those betting adverts, but he was horribly miscast here.

The Moment That It Was Great

I’m trying out a new category to highlight parts of these movies (which are increasingly becoming uniform) that remind us why we watch them in the first place. This moment in Black Widow is between Natasha and Taskmaster, who is revealed to be the daughter of Ray Winstone, whom Natasha believed that she killed. The moment is when the airbase is crumbling and Natasha decides to save this villain because it’s the right thing to do, even if it could cost Natasha’s own life. This is hero shit of the highest order, and it’s so simple and powerful that it will improve your enjoyment of this movie with the knowledge that this is where the plot is going. It’s a grace notes like these that keep Marvel ahead of the pack.

Black Widow is a solid movie with some remarkable scenes and brilliant performances. I just wish that it would have been better than it is – and come earlier than it had. I think that Marvel need to understand that we don’t expect the same things from each character. But the issue here isn’t when it was released; Black Widow’s problem is that it missed what really could have helped it stand out as its own beast. We don’t need giant structures falling from the sky when it comes to Natasha. We want character and we want bruising action that shows us the human as well as the Widow. Also, those Russian prisoners are definitely all dead. The morals in this movie are so weird at times.

If you enjoyed this article and want to see more stuff like it, please check out the rest of our MCU retrospective, and consider supporting us on Ko-Fi!

By Kevin Boyle

(header image via NME)

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