Black Widow movie review: spy cruft

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Dishearteningly less concerned with giving Natasha Romanoff her own story than with setting up her MCU replacement. Superfluous, backward-looking, its bit of feminism belabored. She deserved better.
I’m “biast” (pro): big MCU fan; desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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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.

Black Widow Scarlett Johansson David Harbour Florence Pugh
When you haven’t seen your dad in years, but also he’s not really your dad but a spy who used you as a prop in his all-American-family disguise.

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.

Black Widow Florence Pugh Scarlett Johansson
Sisters road trip!

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.

Black Widow Florence Pugh Scarlett Johansson
Sisters motorcycle trip!

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.

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bluesun
bluesun
Fri, Jul 09, 2021 8:44pm

He ironman 2 appearance was awesome

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  bluesun
Sat, Jul 10, 2021 9:42am

What was awesome about it?

hammyhamster
hammyhamster
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Jul 11, 2021 7:29am

The fact that the IM2 was much better than Black Widow? That’d be my guess.

Plus, back then, she wasn’t as fake as she is today; “I’m so oppressed as a woman, I only made 15 million for this movie”.

Every actor and actress preaching this virtuous garbage while in an obvious position of privilidge should shut TF up now… which is pretty much every actor and actress today – especially if they work for Disney.

amanohyo
amanohyo
reply to  hammyhamster
Sun, Jul 11, 2021 11:48am

While I agree that IM2 was a bit better than Black Widow overall (which isn’t saying much), Back Widow’s portrayal in IM2 was way definitely more objectifying and shallow than it is in this film. If that’s your thing, fine, but it looks boring and insulting in retrospect.

Black Widow is not a bad movie because it fails to objectify the character in a lazy, “ooh, she’s hot and she fights good too, me want one” IM2 way. Black Widow is a bad movie because it has a terrible plot that tapers off into one of the most underwhelming finales of any MCU film (a flaw that IM2 shares to a slightly lesser degree btw). Most importantly, both films lack a strong action scene that expresses the personalities and “buttons up” the journeys of their main characters.

When it comes to “virtuous garbage” like saying that she’s at a different place in her life now that she’s an older mom, and wants the characters she portrays to be presented more positively, I’d rather have her say that message than garbage of the sort you are spouting. She’s actually measured and diplomatic, and admits that when she was younger, having someone say “I want one” felt like a compliment.

Now I’m no fan of Disney, and a lot of what actors and actresses say on press tours is worthless PR garbage. However, not all of it is, and in this particular case there’s some truth to her message, which is much more nuanced and cautious than your straw woman characterization.

What specific things did you think IM2 did better than Black Widow? How could either of them have been improved?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  hammyhamster
Sun, Jul 11, 2021 3:33pm

You seem great.

That was sarcasm. You’re not gonna like it round here.

hammyhamster
hammyhamster
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Jul 12, 2021 3:14am

I am great and I appreciate you acknowledging that. This definitely seems like a welcoming place; thanks for the warm invite!

amanohyo
amanohyo
Sat, Jul 10, 2021 5:31pm

Such a frustrating movie to watch. The direction is excellent, especially in the first act. Pugh and Harbour have genuinely funny performances, and Weisz nails the few moments she’s given with a great take on the absent minded professor. Unfortunately, the plot and script feel focus grouped to death. Disney, if you want to tell a gritty espionage tale about child trafficking (as the opening suggests this will be), then have the ovaries to follow through on that ambition.

If, on the other mouse glove, you want to sell tickets and make a silly popcorn action tentpole flick with goofy cartoon physics and no stakes, then follow through on that. Establish your main and secondary villains early and develop them with satisfying action scenes that build into something spectacular instead of running out of juice halfway through and ending with a weak, vague gesture toward Disney+. The first act is way too unfocused, but not awful – it’s all downhill after that.

I had no better sense of Natasha at the end of this than I did at the beginning. You mention in your review that there’s no moment like her Avengers interrogation scene – I agree that there’s no moment that reveals her character and skills as effectively, but on a superficial level, without spoiling anything, there is an almost identical scene in the film that feels very stale and derivative because it brings nothing new to the table.

This is a movie that tries to dunk before it learns how to dribble or even walk. It’s important to get the action and character fundamentals down first before complicating things. The fight choreography and editing is weak, even by MCU standards. Red Guardian is wasted – this is a Super Soldier that once went toe to toe with Captain America – you’d never know it from the fights in this film.

The “twist” is neat, if overly telegraphed, but if you tell me fighting Taskmaster is “like fighting a mirror,” then I want to see a final awesome fight scene with Natasha showing those skills off. The finale conflict was meant to portray a feminist ideal of women coming together instead of fighting, which is admirable, but it sells Natasha short. Give her a final badass moment in the sun before saying goodbye – the titular character gets next to nothing in a serious contender for the weakest, most haphazardly edited third act in the entire MCU.

Go in with extremely low expectations, watch it for Pugh and a funny performance from Harbour, and you still might walk out thinking, “how sad to wait so many years for a film less entertaining and interesting than a single episode of Loki or Wandavision.” Theatrical MCU continues to fail its female characters (at least for me – I was underwhelmed by Captain Marvel to a lesser degree). Hopefully, the Hawkeye and Disney+ series will continue their positive streak and do Kate and Jennifer justice. On a positive note, Pugh Black Widow has the potential to be amazing – maybe she’ll eventually get a feature that redeems the character. At this point, I think I’d prefer a Pugh D+ series to be honest.

Bluejay
Bluejay
Sun, Jul 11, 2021 3:44pm

– Spoilers, naturally –

I don’t often come away from a movie with a reaction that’s almost entirely opposite to yours, MaryAnn, but I think this is one of them. I loved it. I think it did justice to Natasha’s character, and particularly how much more like a full person she feels than her previous outings—we’re a long way from her sultry, sexualized introduction in Iron Man 2 and even from the scene you describe in The Avengers, which to me now reads more like the trite “strong female character” you decry in this review. (And, as with Captain Marvel, I appreciate a woman-centered movie that doesn’t automatically center romance or pander AT ALL to the male gaze.)

You and many others seem to feel that Natasha is overshadowed by her supporting cast, but to me it’s those very connections that make her come alive; as my very wise kid said after the movie, our relationships are a huge part of who we are, and to know a person you have to learn about that person’s friends and family. I think the film did this quite satisfyingly for Nat. Instead of the mysterious badass loner, we get someone with a history and a life.

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.

Again, I disagree. The very first moment we see Nat as an adult in the movie, she’s expertly employing misdirection—making Secretary Ross think his team is cornering her in one location when she’s actually far away on a boat to Norway. And the entire third act is basically Natasha employing her great superpower, which is to disguise strength as vulnerability. She disguises herself as Melina to gain access to the Red Room and to Dreykov (echoing the way she disguised herself to confront Robert Redford’s Hydra leader); pretends surprise at the pheromonal block preventing her from harming Dreykov (while knowing all along how to disable it); and manipulates Dreykov into giving away his Evil Plan as well as how to stop it, while he believes her vulnerable and helpless (echoing the way she did this in The Avengers both with the Russian mafia and with Loki, even repeating the punch line she hit Loki with: “Thank you for your cooperation”). It felt just as surprising and satisfying to me in this film as in the previous films. The difference here? She does it with a team, working out key intelligence with Melina before swapping appearances and carrying out the ruse, and looping in Yelena shortly after. This is Nat operating in a network of relationships rather than going it alone, and I found it very refreshing to see.

They’re all female, for some reason that the MCU movies have never touched on, as far as I recall.

I could be wrong, but I think this film touched on it: Dreykov says something about using a resource the entire world takes for granted, which is girls and women. To me it’s a damning statement about how easily he was able to build up his army simply by kidnapping girls—because the world as a whole doesn’t give a damn about girls who disappear (or are given up by families who don’t value them enough to keep them).

There’s no humor to speak of; the few attempts at it fall flat.

Oh, I loved how Yelena pokes fun at Nat’s superhero landing. (And then trying it out herself later.) And David Harbour’s entire performance is a joy to watch.

Worst moment of pandering: the conversation about clothing with pockets. I figure screenwriter Eric Pearson… tossed that in after he did a quick Google for “what women want.”

Disagree again! Maybe I’m biased here, but this really resonated with us because my kid actually has a similar rant about clothing and pockets. She LOVED Yelena’s pocketed vest and kept pointing furiously at the screen and punctuating the points Yelena was making in that conversation. So if the screenwriter had to research “what women want”… maybe he got it right? At least for some? :-)

I do think it’s a shame that this film wasn’t made earlier, before the narrative options for Natasha had been closed off. (And since Marvel has repeatedly proven that its characters’ deaths aren’t necessarily forever, it’s a shame they decided not to try to bring back Nat somehow, though I suppose that’s always an available option for future projects.) But if this is the last we see of Natasha Romanoff, I think it’s a good sendoff. And I’m excited for what Florence Pugh’s Yelena does next (she’s confirmed to make an appearance in the “Hawkeye” show on Disney Plus, which makes sense given the post-credits scene).

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Mon, Jul 12, 2021 10:14am

my kid actually has a similar rant about clothing and pockets

So do I. So does practically every woman I know. That’s why it felt like pandering to me. Maybe if there was an actual plot point that involved Yelena producing something absolutely vital at just the right moment from one of those pockets, that might have have saved it. But it was just a throwaway.

I’m delighted you enjoyed the movie.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Jul 12, 2021 11:48am

That’s why it felt like pandering to me.

I dunno… Isn’t it kinda a good thing that, after decades of pandering only to straight white men, movies are pandering to different demographics for a change? :-)

Maybe if there was an actual plot point that involved Yelena producing something absolutely vital at just the right moment from one of those pockets, that might have have saved it. But it was just a throwaway.

I missed this when I saw it, but after doing some Googling, it turns out that Yelena’s vest is the same one that Natasha wears when she first appears in Infinity War. The conversation about pockets wasn’t just to talk about pockets, but to establish that Yelena really, really liked this vest—because she would then gift it to Nat at the end of the film, so when you rewatch Infinity War it’ll have a little more significance: Nat’s taking a part of her sister with her into battle. It’s a bit of a retcon to make elements of earlier films more emotionally resonant (the same with the whole “Dreykov’s daughter” subplot, which was first mentioned by Loki in his scene with Nat in Avengers). Works for me.

I’m delighted you enjoyed the movie.

Me too! Sorry you didn’t. :-/

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Wed, Jul 14, 2021 1:27pm

Easter eggs and retconning are all good and fine, but if that’s *all* that stuff is doing, I think that’s a problem.

And pandering is pandering! :-)

David_Conner
David_Conner
Mon, Jul 12, 2021 12:07pm

Disappointing movie, and it’s hard to avoid thinking how much better the Disney+ series look by comparison.

On the positive side, the performances and character work are great, but the screenplay is perfunctory. The mind control and instant antidote are much less interesting and convincing than Bucky’s situation as the Winter Soldier, and even the Magical MacGuffin Vials bit was handled better in Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

And, on the pockets thing – show Natasha putting useful stuff in those pockets! Maybe even ordinary stuff she uses in creative ways! Her super power should be that she’s REALLY good at this spy stuff. You want to show her always being two steps ahead of everyone else, having solutions and backup plans at the ready, that sort of thing (like, remember how she had guns hidden all over Avengers Tower just in case?)

CB
CB
Thu, Jul 15, 2021 10:05pm

Funny you mention her Avengers intro, which thinking about now I realize was basically the only major outing for her non-combat super-spy skills, and even then we didn’t actually see her do it. We just had to take it for granted that when she says they’re giving her everything that they are because she manipulated them. And as a scene, it works! But my point is that it establishes this character trait without actually showing how it works or the effect it has on the story.

The only other time I can recall her ever using her spy skills, in particular the manipulating-people-into-giving-up-info-unwittingly skill established in the first scene, is later in the Avengers when she deduces that Loki’s plan involves the Hulk in some way. Which is funny because 1) Loki literally would not shut up about the Hulk from the moment he got on the helicarrier, and 2) that knowledge didn’t actually help them thwart his plan.

Maybe I’m forgetting some other bits, maybe from Winter Soldier. But my point is it seems like they’ve never really known how to actually *use* her spy skills to affect the story. Which is a shame because that’s the only thing she brings to a team where mere top-human-level martial arts prowess is about as useful as a tricycle in a tank battalion.

I’d have assumed this was the movie to fix that.

:/

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  CB
Fri, Jul 16, 2021 12:30pm

that knowledge didn’t actually help them thwart his plan.

To be fair, though, none of the other Avengers’ powers thwarted his plan either. Steve and Tony were too busy sniping at each other, and/or the Mind Stone was turning everyone into jerks. Loki was simply supposed to beat them all at that point in the story.

Maybe I’m forgetting some other bits, maybe from Winter Soldier. But my point is it seems like they’ve never really known how to actually *use* her spy skills to affect the story.

In Winter Soldier, Nat is the go-to computer hacker, retrieving data from the Lemurian Star and later cracking Fury’s USB drive at an Apple Store—which eventually leads to discovering Hydra’s infiltration of SHIELD. She uses misdirection to help her and Steve evade the Hydra agents hunting them—telling Steve to laugh at something she said and even kiss her, pretending to be a couple to deflect the agents’ attention. She also disguises her appearance—very spy-like thing to do—in order to get close to Alexander Pierce.

Some of these skills—including the one you describe from Avengers—are put to effective use in the new film.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  CB
Sun, Jul 18, 2021 3:37pm

my point is that it establishes this character trait without actually showing how it works or the effect it has on the story.

True! Because Natasha has been very much a side character in the Avengers movie. Even this scene ends because she is pulled out in order to help a male Avenger on his journey (she has to go talk to the Hulk/Banner to get him onboard).

I really would have liked for Natasha’s own movie to give more room to the vast range of her skills, talents, and experience.

my point is it seems like they’ve never really known how to actually *use* her spy skills to affect the story

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s because there are too damn few women involved with crafting the MCU stories.

that’s the only thing she brings to a team where mere top-human-level martial arts prowess is about as useful as a tricycle in a tank battalion.

Right? In this light, her spycraft is on the level of a superpower. And she hardly ever gets to use it.