I keep thinking about that amazing scene in 2012’s The Avengers that serves as our first real introduction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow. (Romanoff previously appeared, briefly and undercover, in Iron Man 2. The less said about that, the better.) She initially appears to be a classic damsel in distress, tied to a chair in a dingy warehouse, being harangued by villains… but in fact, she is the one slyly interrogating them, and the “morons” are “giving [her] everything,” we learn as she cheekily takes a phone call from her S.H.I.E.L.D. boss in the middle of her own apparent kidnapping. Her incredible calm and confidence from a place of such seeming physical vulnerability, her utter cerebral supremacy over the bad guys: it is thrilling, and hilarious, and way more badass, way more interesting than her skills as a fighter, prodigious as they are (as would be demonstrated next).
There is, to my enormous disappointment, nothing like this in Black Widow. Romanoff is a fighter again, naturally, but her talents for spycraft, for intellectual and emotional manipulation of people who deserve to be manipulated, are all but absent here. This is a movie long on action — some of it, granted, quite spectacular and like nothing we’ve seen before — but it could be almost anyone engaging in it. There’s nothing unexpected here, in the same funny, fascinating way of that interrogation scene. There’s no humor to speak of; the few attempts at it fall flat. The delicious undercurrent of barely subsumed snark that Scarlett Johansson (Isle of Dogs, Ghost in the Shell) has brought to Romanoff throughout the MCU films is nowhere to be found here. In what is supposed to be her movie, at long last.
Romanoff’s standalone story was already overdue before the coronavirus pandemic delayed its release for more than a year, and now that we have it? It feels superfluous in so many ways, but perhaps most dishearteningly in how it seems less concerned with exploring Romanoff as a character worthy of her own story than it is with setting up her replacement in the MCU. Because, of course, she sacrificed herself for, you know, half of the living universe in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. (This is set in the immediate aftermath of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.) You might have imagined that Black Widow would ensure that it didn’t come across as redundant, and yet…
We don’t necessarily need Romanoff’s origin story, and, indeed, Widow merely sketches some rough background for her, as a woman raised from babyhood in a Russian program to craft professional killers psychologically conditioned to be perfect secret agents. (They’re all female, for some reason that the MCU movies have never touched on, as far as I recall.) Bits and pieces are dropped about how she came to defect to the West and work for S.H.I.E.L.D., the American extragovernmental agency behind superhero team the Avengers. But there’s little we didn’t already know about Romanoff in these movies.
Instead, this is all setup for diving into how the program she was raised in, known as the Red Room, has since gotten even more insidious, controlling its young female soldiers via a mind-control drug. We learn much of this via Yelana Belova (Florence Pugh: Little Women, Midsommar), who was Romanoff’s pretend little sister during the sojourn of their pretend parents, Russian agents Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz: The Mercy, Denial) and Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour: Extraction, Hellboy), in the brief flashback to 1990s America that opens the movie. (The young Natasha and Yelena are played by, respectively, Ever Anderson and Violet McGraw [Doctor Sleep, Ready Player One].)
Look: The cast here is, clearly, to die for, and they are, clearly, committed to giving their all. Pugh has already proven herself, in previous cinematic outings, and here as well, to be a force of nature, stubbornly a movie star in the making in an era that no longer has any use for movie stars. Which… okay? great? Because also clearly, by the end of this movie, Belova will be replacing Romanoff in the Avengers, and I have no problem with that. I love Pugh, have always loved Pugh, and she steals this movie. I have no problem with Harbour — always a delight — having fun with his character’s standing, and subsequent deflation, as a Soviet response to Captain America (“Red Guardian”? Oh, honey). Weisz? Absolute goddess, anywhere, in any movie. And I hope we get to see O-T Fagbenle’s (The Handmaid’s Tale, Non-Stop) private contractor to on-the-run superheroes again.
Still. I suspect Black Widow would have left me feeling very meh a year-plus ago, absent a pandemic paradigm shift. Its feminism is trite, belaboring its metaphor about girls and women being programmed to do things they might not otherwise do. But even when they escape that programming — as Romanoff and Belova have done — they’re still slotted into very narrow notions of the now-clichéd “strong female character.” Worst moment of pandering: the conversation about clothing with pockets. I figure screenwriter Eric Pearson (Godzilla vs. Kong, Thor: Ragnarok) tossed that in after he did a quick Google for “what women want.”
The biggest sin, perhaps, when it comes to the MCU: Black Widow is looking backwards, filling in details that didn’t really need filling in. Now that we’ve seen, with Loki and WandaVision, how narratively adventurous the MCU can be, how side stories can be wildly thrilling, same-old feels very lackluster. (WandaVision’s Jac Schaeffer gets a story credit here, but her touch is muted at best.) Natasha Romanoff deserved so much better.