A massively costly consolation prize for Scarlett Johansson and a glorified backdoor pilot for Florence Pugh, Black Widow achieves the unthinkable and dethrones Thor: The Dark World as the worst film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That it is being released (dumped, more like) in India on the same day as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and in the aftermath of an ugly public brawl between Disney and Johansson, is a somewhat fitting conclusion to an enterprise that was doomed from the start.
Displaying all the worst tendencies of Marvel movies — a flat visual style, a generic structure and an instantly-forgettable villain — Black Widow isn’t merely uninteresting, it almost goes out of its way to avoid having any sort of personality. Marvel waited too long to give Natasha Romanoff a solo film of her own, and because of this hesitation, robbed her story of all stakes.
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Burdened with the knowledge of exactly how she dies in the future, virtually every second of Black Widow (which is set before the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame) is rendered meaningless. Director Cate Shortland should have, instead, weaponised the audience’s goodwill to her advantage.
In fairness, the film attempts to fill in some of the blanks, but what is curious is which blanks Shortland zeroes in on. So a potentially-engaging story of Cold War intrigue is all but ignored in favour of fictional conflicts that require the audience to, in a way, reinvest in the character. What was the point of a decade’s worth of groundwork if you’re going to make the viewer go through the motions all over again?
We open in a flashback to Natasha’s childhood in Ohio, where her spy ‘parents’ live undercover like the couple from The Americans. After an admittedly well-done escape sequence, the film settles into a plot that borrows heavily from other espionage franchises — Shortland apes the close-combat action of the Jason Bourne series and the large-scale mayhem of the Mission: Impossible films — but never really creates an identity of her own.
And this is incredibly ironic, considering that the dominant thrust of Natasha’s arc in the film hinges on her identity crisis. Having been raised to be a ‘Widow’ by a Russian guy called General Dreykov, Natasha goes on a mission to find emancipation from her troubled past. Along the way, she runs into her estranged ‘sister’ Yelena, played by one of the finest young actors of her generation, Florence Pugh.
How the film is able to reduce someone of her talents to a generic ‘spunky girl’ figure is beyond me, but I cringed at every wry joke Yelena made, and lost my patience at her forced conflict with Natasha. You know they’re going to team up eventually, so why not cut to the chase, resist drawing out the airless tension between them, and show them bond instead?
It’s fashionable these days to disparage Joss Whedon, but regardless of his alleged toxicity as a person, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he’s the only one who really understood this version of Natasha Romanoff. It is frankly shocking to see Yelena make a joke about how the Widows are sterilised — essentially an act of sexual violence — in this film, when the exact same theme was addressed with appropriate gravity by Whedon in Avengers: Age of Ultron. And to have a female director think that this would be funny…
But this is on-brand for a film that routinely flirts with potentially-interesting ideas and royally bungles them up. Chief among them is the villain, Taskmaster. Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is notorious for its subpar antagonists, but this one feels especially forgettable. Not only does Taskmaster embody all the problems that have long plagued Marvel villains, in that they are essentially evil clones of the heroes, but get this, Taskmaster’s super power is to literally mimic others. And don’t even get me started on how the film spoils its biggest surprise in the opening credits.
Also read: Spider-Man Far From Home movie review: A passable postscript to Avengers Endgame, but a marvellous ode to Iron Man
It feels doubly disappointing when you consider the fact the same studio’s Shang-Chi has one of the best villains they’ve ever created. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, of course. I watched Black Widow months ago, before it released internationally and before it was thrown under the Shang-Chi-shaped bus. But Disney did Johansson dirty, of that there is no doubt. To essentially aid in its cannibalisation just comes across like a deliberate move to mess with her again.
It’s a terribly unfortunate conclusion to what should have been a triumphant send-off for the sole female character in the original Avengers lineup. But Pugh is phenomenally talented, so even if the passing of the baton has been clumsy, she’s more than equipped to stage a come-from-behind win.
Director – Cate Shortland
Cast – Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle