Marvel Monday - Black Widow
If truth be told…I can see why Scarlett sued. Heck, if I were her, after watching the end result of Black Widow, not only would I have sued, I’d have been pissed!
But before we dive deep here, let me just get this out of the way: no, Black Widow does NOT suffer from excessive woke-ness as fanboys would have you believe. Yes, there is some present, but it isn’t a dealbreaker. There’s more to the film than that, thank goodness. That being said, it IS present and it may leave a sour taste. We’ll discuss that more in a bit, but for now, let’s get the synopsis out of the way:
Taking place after the events of Captain America: Civil War and before her swan song in Avengers: Infinity War, Natasha Romanoff’s past finally catches up to her as she learns that not only is the Red Room, the Soviet-era program that trained her, still operational, but it is lead by the sinister Taskmaster. Powered by photographic reflexes able to copy any fighting style, he’s intent on stopping Natasha from uncovering a secret that predates her time with the Avengers or SHIELD and that may succeed where Hydra failed in bringing the world under one true order.
Family proves to be the main theme of this piece as Natasha is forced to rebuild relationships that time and circumstance have torn asunder. Primary among these will be with her “sister”, Yelena Belova as played by Florence Pugh…and Yelena here is gonna determine whether you like the film or you don’t. You see, Black Widow isn’t so much Scarlett Johansson’s farewell tour as it is Pugh’s introductory movie…thus why I made the comment that I did at the beginning of this review. Black Widow should have had a solo movie before Wonder Woman made it to the screen back in 2017. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m always happy when DC one-ups Marvel…hell, it happens way too little. [Mainly because WB/DC doesn’t have any balls. – Ed.] But given her reception upon entering the MCU in Iron Man 2 and the sheer star power Scarlett brings to the role, I obviously don’t know what Fiege and company were thinking…or smoking for that matter. If it was the same old trite “we were waiting for the right story”…well, that’s bullshit because this story…not so great. We’re getting to that. So, instead of Scarlett’s curtain call, what we get here is a passing of the torch sort of movie…and whether it means to or not, I can certainly see where the ‘anti-woke’ fanboys start chirping about this film because with Natasha, her interactions with those with testicles don’t always result with egg on the face of the male, in other words, making her look superior at the guy’s expense. Pugh’s Belova, however, follows in the mold set by Captain Marvel in that she only can be viewed as successful if every poor bastard with nuts is made to suffer. Now, if she consumed the entire movie, I’d be up in arms against this flick the same way I was for the aforementioned Captain Marvel but as I’ve already mentioned, Natasha is there to balance the scales.
Another thing fanboys might be whining about is the gender-swap for Taskmaster. [Spoiler Warning. – Ed.] Meh. I didn’t feel any particular way about it. It fit within the context of the story, so no harm, no foul.
Let’s get to David Harbour’s performance as Red Guardian as it does tie in with the above subject matter somewhat. When he’s portrayed as the family’s “father” in the beginning of the film, he’s shown as pretty capable and dedicated to the Soviet cause…a good agent. When we meet up with him later, his character pivots into what becomes essentially our comic relief character. Now, I feel two ways about this. First off, I think he does a great job with it…being portrayed as a prideful idiot who is only at times aware of his fall. Being holed up in a gulag will likely do that to you. Plus, if I’m being brutally honest, I was hoping his performance here would wash out the bad taste of his turn as Hellboy in that ill-advised film. [Suck it Mignola, we’re team GDT here! – Ed.] And he certainly succeeded. A little more of his background would have been nice, but Marvel’s got plenty of avenues to pursue that should they choose. The problem arises when we get to his interactions with the remainder of the “family”, the two girls (Natasha and Yelena) as well as his “wife” played by Rachel Weisz…who, let’s face it, I was surprised to see in a Marvel film! When interacting with any of these three, it’s very evident that he serves no other purpose than that of buffoon to make the others all look good at his expense. It continues to boggle my mind that here we are, four years after Wonder Woman so successfully was able to empower women while not belittling men…and yet no one else is able to replicate this? More importantly, no one in Marvel…who’s gone out of their way to become the superhero film powerhouse that they are? Absolutely staggering.
I feel bad that it’s only now that I’m talking about Scarlett Johansson’s performance in the film, but at the same time, we’ve seen her in the role quite a bit…so if anything, she’s already a known quality. Her job is just to make sure she doesn’t fumble the ball. And of course she doesn’t. Thankfully, her character remains intact but I can’t help but wonder if that’s more due to her also being an executive producer on the film. So, I mean it really does feel like a slight to her to be so brief, but honestly she does her job, plays her role and does it as well as she has done in all her previous MCU appearances. If you’re coming to see her Black Widow, you won’t be disappointed in her performance. My only gripe, as already stated, is that this really should have been HER film.
Okay, so let’s talk about our new Widow, Florence Pugh. This is a tough one to write. I mean, if I don’t care for the character or how she was written, is it a strike on the actress? Not really, and it would be unfair to judge her or her performance in that way. However, I think one fair comparison is that she neither holds the screen nor has the presence of her predecessor, Ms. Johansson. Scarlett has a way of grabbing your attention and holding it and that doesn’t have to necessarily be her appearance. Take her performance in JoJo Rabbit for example, not skin-tight costume in sight and yet she’s able to maintain a presence. Florence just feels like ‘generic blonde girl type #45’. She’s capable enough to be a side character but if Marvel and Disney’s intention is for her to inherit the role and perhaps any sequels, she doesn’t strike me as someone deserving of the spotlight. To save myself from sounding like one of the grumpier fanboys though, it’s my hope that she eventually grows into it…but she’s just not there yet.
One last casting note as she’s shown up not only here but in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the casting as Julia Louise-Dreyfuss as Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine who in the comics was Nick Fury’s (white guy with a full head of hair with gray streaks on the sides and, yes, an eyepatch) love interest and a high ranking SHIELD official herself. The role she plays here appears to be similar to that of how Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) started off in the MCU, assembling meta-humans for a potential group. While I’m always a big fan of actors stretching into roles that they typically wouldn’t be associated with, something doesn’t quite click here with Louise-Dreyfus in the role. I’m open to admit though that I’m likely judging her against the Val of the comics, timelessly and if we’re being honest unrealistically sleek and sexy. While it would be fair to list her performance more in the ‘watch this space’ category, right now I’m just not sold on her yet either.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about the direction of Cate Southland which, sadly, feels formulaic and utterly unmemorable. But as I’ve said a lot in this review, I can’t help but wonder if this is really her fault. Let’s set up an analogy to show you what I mean: in talking about directing for the Berlanti-verse of DC TV shows, Kevin Smith described it as just showing up, making a few observations and suggestions, then picking up your paycheck. The system is already in place, you just keep the system on track and make a few tweaks here and there…then pass it on to the next director. With this being the 24th film in the MCU, it certainly would be safe to say that there is a ‘house style’ in place. Southland does maintain the house style, which is fine, but the drawback is that she really doesn’t do anything to push the boundaries of that house style. To be clearer, she doesn’t seem to put her stamp or her take on the house style up on the screen. Thus, sadly, having seen none of her prior work, she just ultimately proves to be a good mimic as opposed to providing viewers with an original vision.
As a film that really has no significant ties to Phase 3 that preceded it nor Phase 4 that follows it, Black Widow is a competently made mass-produced entertainment, but falls short of what we’ve come to expect from Marvel movies. It’s certainly not helped by having to follow the Inifinity Saga’s conclusion nor by being a film that we should have gotten at least 4 years ago, if not earlier. As Scarlett Johansson’s farewell to the character, it’s even more disappointing as the focus of the film seems more to introduce a relatively uninteresting character with minimal screen presence and maybe just a little too much “grrl” that seems to only be able to succeed when every man around her is continuously displayed to be an idiot. Even in her own film, it seems neither Scarlett nor Ms. Romanoff herself can catch a break. Add to that the legal dispute (now settled) where Disney hosed Johansson out of a percentage of the box office by going day and date streaming and I’d say the lady has every right to be pissed. All of this feels like it combines to only exacerbate the MCU ennui that I’ve been feeling ever since Spider-Man: Far from Home wrapped up all the loose ends from the Infinity Saga. Ultimately, the film is serviceable. If you’re a Marvel fan and have liked the films up to this point, you’ll probably be fine with it. But if you’ve had your fill of vanilla and are ready to move on to other flavors, be it type of movie or other superheroes, Black Widow, sadly, doesn’t really offer anything but the same old, same old.