Black Widow Is a Good Film, but It Has Flaws That Need Addressing
To get an in depth analysis of the film as a whole, read Germain Lussier’s review for Black Widow.
Black Widow is at it’s best when it feels smaller.
Before the Red Guardian (played by David Harbour) prison break, Black Widow feels like a spy thriller comparable to The Bourne Identity or Atomic Blonde. The fight scenes are brutal and violent. After not seeing each other for decades, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) viciously fight. The hard-hitting choreography here is some of the best I’ve seen in the MCU and some of the best I’ve seen between two women.
With Black Widow sandwiched between two huge blockbusters, Avengers: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, I hoped that Marvel would take some risk to give fans something more grounded. At least something on par with Captain America: Winter Soldier—a film I consider to be the perfect balance between grounded and spectacle.
It is at the prison break I realized Black Widow was going to be another superhero movie filled with things we’ve seen again and again. Don’t get me wrong, I love a big bang sky threat, but in this film, the spectacle overshadows some of the critical themes Black Widow tries to address with CGI overload. This is what I should have expected from a superhero film, right? Maybe my expectations were too high, but it’s not wrong to want something different from these films, especially the first and last for Natasha Romanoff.
The movie never goes deep enough on how Natasha was and is still affected by what the Red Room did to her and her real family. There are plenty of scenes of Scarlett Johansson just staring off into the distance and flatly delivering one-liners, but nothing memorable from her to latch onto.
What the audience should have seen from Natasha, we get from Yelena. In the scene where Red Guardian, Natasha, Yelena, and Melina (Rachel Weisz) reunite and have dinner, you feel Yelena’s anguish having gone through indoctrination by the Red Room and how real their family felt to her. Natasha is just sitting there.
The Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), is the films weakest component. The character never feels like an imposing threat. From the trailers, I knew Taskmaster was a woman, but the reveal is anti-climatic. If anything, the ferocious Red Room assassins feel more villainous because they seem deadlier, and they are everywhere.
The more I process it, the more I understand Black Widow isn’t so much a send-off for Natasha as it is an introduction for Yelena. The film is more invested in her and her struggle. This makes sense because the character will be in the MCU for the foreseeable future.
In addition, Florence Pugh is excellent and having the time of her life in the role. Johansson and Weisz sleepwalk through their performances until the end. Almost like the actresses can’t wait for it all to be over. Black Widow has remained one of my favorite characters since Iron Man 2, and to see her going out like this is unfortunate.
Despite all these complaints and all the squandered potential, I STILL LIKE BLACK WIDOW! Cate Shortland has a sharp eye for directing action and understands how to shoot a fight scene by using timing and space as leverage so the audience can see everything. Black Widow is mostly entertaining and staunchly dramatic—which I thought was a nice touch.
So let’s talk about it! For those of you that saw the film, leave your thoughts on the movie below!
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Black Widow happened at the only time Marvel was capable of making it
Marvel fans have clamored for a Black Widow movie since the moment Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff first appeared on screen in 2010’s Iron Man 2. I know, because I spent a lot of time covering that pressure, and the various ways in which Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has responded whenever asked about it.
I’ve also spent Black Widow’s COVID-elongated pre-release period shaking my head at how just much more eagerly received this film would have been if Marvel had put it out in 2013 or ’14, on the heels of The Avengers’ billion-dollar success. Before we started talking about MCU fatigue. Before the character’s Endgame death. Before that time Johansson became a Twitter meme for saying she should be allowed to play a tree.
But now that I’ve seen it, I can’t help thinking to myself that Black Widow really couldn’t have come out until now (or, at least, until spring of 2020). The reasons why are still a terrifically punted own-goal for Marvel.
Don’t forget that female superheroes used to be tricky
We live in a flowering of female-led action blockbusters, particularly in the comic book realm. We have not one but two Wonder Woman movies, a Captain Marvel sequel on the way, television shows for Jessica Jones, Supergirl, Stargirl, the Scarlet Witch, and soon Ms. Marvel, Ironheart, and She-Hulk. We might have finally eclipsed that era of the 1990s when, on a single day of reruns you just might catch an episode of Xena, Star Trek: Voyager, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Cleopatra 2525.
It’s almost enough to make you forget how consistently, vocally nervous top executives at Warner Bros. and Marvel were about the idea of a female-led superhero movie for the entire 2010s. The looming shadow of Catwoman and Elektra was apparently so dark as to render the stampeding success of franchises like the Hunger Games, and standalone movies like Gravity or Maleficent, invisible.
In 2010, Warner Bros. announced it was developing a Wonder Woman movie. The same year, Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel) wrote a treatment for a Black Widow movie that never took off (she does not receive credit on the 2021 film). In 2013, no Wonder Woman movie in sight, DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson said that the character was “tricky.” At the same time, Kevin Feige admitted that Marvel Studios had no plans to produce a solo movie for a female superhero. In contrast to the logic, the Jennifer Lawrence-led Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the fifth highest-grossing film of the year.
In 2014, Variety reported that there was a Black Widow film in development, but work on it had been delayed to focus on bringing Captain Marvel to screens first in 2018. Months later, Captain Marvel was in turn delayed so that Marvel could focus on a sequel to Ant-Man. In 2015, Patty Jenkins finally signed on for Wonder Woman, and when it smashed box offices in 2017, Warner Bros. scrambled to renegotiate her initial contract — which had not included any language locking her or Gal Gadot in for a sequel. Almost as if those involved assumed there would not be an audience for one.
That year, Marvel began its first serious search for a director for a Black Widow solo movie. Captain Marvel hit theaters in 2019 and grossed over a billion dollars, and the Hollywood fear of superheroines seemed to subside. Finally, it was Black Widow’s turn.
But here’s the thing about Black Widow
The easiest way to get someone to accept what they think is a large risk is to reduce the number of risks around it. Imagine sculpting a female-lead superhero movie in the most palatable way possible for a nervous film executive; a tiny jar of spandex-clad baby food.
Imagine a movie that restricts itself to a safely proven standard superhero origin story — hero gets powers, discovers how they work, gets a brightly colored costume, overthrows blatantly evil bad guy, saves day with bravery and kindness. The lead actress is at a point in her career where she does not yet have the clout to pick any lead action roles she wants, and doesn’t have the leverage to get paid like it. Preferably, the story is set at least two decades in the past, so that any examples of sexism faced by the main character will not cause the modern men watching to squirm. And the film overall will have the least complicated and most obvious message a Hollywood executive would think of for a female-lead superhero movie: Peace, with a side order of Girl Power.
This is exactly what Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel look like. They’re two of the superheroiest superhero movies out there since the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and packed with Girl Power moments. This isn’t a bad thing, for Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel — both characters were designed from the jump to shoulder the weight of being an overtly feminist superhero, not just a superhero who happens to be a woman.
But Black Widow will never be a rosy Girl Power character — her fist lifted in a We Can Do It! curl — because nobody should ever do what she’s done. Rather than heroism and power fantasy, her character hook is atonement, hard-won agency, and unflappable competence. And she’s atoning for some objectively awful things! Murder, assassination, and a host of [thinking face emoji] other actions for which she feels deep contrition.
This isn’t a bad thing, for Black Widow. It’s not her fault that she wasn’t safe enough to spoon feed to a Hollywood executive. It’s Marvel’s fault, for deciding that the token woman on the Avengers would be a reformed supervillain.
Red in a ledger
I can’t say exactly what Marvel movers and shakers were thinking when they made Black Widow the token girl of the Avengers. Among other things, it’s pretty obvious that Natasha Romanoff is a favorite character archetype of writer-director Joss Whedon; like Buffy, River Tam, or Echo, she is a traumatized girl weaponized by men into a killing machine.
But it’s easy to see what they weren’t thinking: They weren’t thinking about how Black Widow, a character with a dark backstory and no superpowers, was unsuited to the standard superhero origin arc that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had built itself on. They weren’t thinking about the prospect of paying Scarlett Johansson a lead actress’ salary, rather than a supporting one. They weren’t thinking about using their most anticipated movie to introduce another female superhero, which would have widened the array of choices for an established MCU superheroine to develop in her own franchise. They weren’t choosing a character with any consideration for whether or not she was viable to lead a First Superheroine Movie.
Before Black Widow could move forward it needed 2017’s Wonder Woman. A mere four months after it hit screens, Marvel finally recruited a new screenwriter for Black Widow. Wonder Woman had made female-led superhero films look viable, and within a year, Black Widow finally had a director. But Marvel still prioritized the un-introduced Captain Marvel over a character fans had known for nine years. Her story was a standard, energy-blasting superhero origin, and fit the feminist-lite mold that Hollywood is most comfortable in. Now, and only now, could Marvel fit a darkly funny, female-focused spy flick into their superhero universe.
It’s easy to imagine Marvel executives breathing a sigh of relief at Black Widow’s death in Avengers: Endgame. Now they’d have the perfect excuse not to have to negotiate with Scarlett Johansson — 2018 and 2019’s highest-paid actress in Hollywood — over a solo franchise, just the single solo movie already on the release calendar.
Marvel never built Black Widow to be a franchise-bearing character. And thanks to that, she never will be.
Scarlett fever: why Black Widow has sparked a trend for red hair
If you happen to see an unusually large number of women with red hair today, do not be alarmed. We haven’t been invaded by vikings again, nor is there a Nicola from Girls Aloud convention happening in your vicinity. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the sudden outbreak of redheads, and it is that Black Widow was recently released.
According to the website Justmylook, there has been a 163% spike in demand for the colour since the release of Black Widow, presumably because lots of people sat through two hours and 14 minutes of a film about a woman grappling with the psychological torment of knowing she was part of a Soviet military programme that brainwashed, sterilised and murdered hundreds of abandoned girls, only to think: “Ooh, I bet I’d look lovely with her hair.”
In truth, that’s the extent of this news story. There was a film, people saw the film, then they copied a haircut from the film. That’s it. But it’s weird that this never happened with any previous Marvel films, isn’t it? It’s weird nobody sent out a press release telling us that people were so inspired by The Incredible Hulk that sales of ragged purple trousers shot up by 1,000% in the weeks after its release. It’s strange that there wasn’t a noticeable uptick in the number of men with fussy little goatee beards shortly after Iron Man came out. It’s odd that, in the immediate aftermath of Ant-Man, we weren’t deluged with stories about people stripping the shelves of whatever nondescript clothes Paul Rudd happens to wear in that film.
What could possibly be different about Black Widow? It could be that audiences are relieved Natasha Romanoff has nice hair in this film, because it is set before the events of Avengers: Endgame, wherein half of the planet’s hairdressers were snapped into dust by a vengeful bald alien. It could be because we know Romanoff perishes in search of the Soul Stone, and people are adopting her hair as a way of preserving her legacy. Then again, maybe it could be something else.
Scarlett Johansson responds to repeated questions about her appearance in Marvel films
There’s a great compilation video on YouTube in which Scarlett Johansson suffers through question after insulting question posed to her by journalists about Black Widow’s appearance. Her co-stars are asked about stunts and character motivation, and she is asked what food she had to eat to get in shape. How does it feel to be a sex symbol? What are Black Widow’s key fashion elements? Does she wear knickers under her jumpsuit? Perhaps this latest news, that the main thing audiences are taking from Black Widow is her lovely shiny hair, is an extension of that same trend.
Maybe we need to explore this further. Have people tracked down the brand of makeup Johansson wore in the scene where she falls off a roof and bashes her body into an agonising state of disrepair? Have sales of photogenic yet utterly impractical leather jumpsuits shot up as well, along with a corresponding surge in talcum powder? Are more and more women having their necks surgically dislocated so they can pose for photos while simultaneously displaying their bum, boobs and face like Black Widow did in that first Avengers poster?
There’s a chance I’m overthinking this. Then again, there’s a chance I’m really not. Still, regardless of how it shows Hollywood’s endemic sexism, at least we all know that 163% more people have dyed red hair than before Black Widow came out. That’s something, right?