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Black Widow, a review

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For those not interested in the all the blather, I recommend Black Widow especially to those who follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A great cast made me believe in the main characters, adding weight to even pedestrian lines. It made the movie immensely watchable. I give it 4 unstoppable machine-like assassins out of 5. I would argue the bombastic action set-pieces detracted from what could have been a very personal movie illuminating Black Widow’s past.

My family and I were able to catch Black Widow this opening weekend. It was at home, which is pretty much the only way that I will ever see a movie on an opening weekend. We’d be seeing this in the theatre if we considered that an option (we’re very careful in regards to the pandemic). In another time, we’d probably have seen it on the third or fourth week, when the initial rush had died down. Even when streaming is still an option, I’d rather put the extra $35 toward a theatre visit.

Black Widow movie poster

Black Widow occurs between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. It follows an “on the run” Natasha Romanoff back to Russia as she seeks to stop the program that created her in the first place. We also glimpse the only family Natasha had before she met Clint Barton and joined the Avengers: a sleeper cell of Soviet agents while she was a child. Natasha learns that the leader of the Red Room project, which turns young girls into mindless assassins, is still alive and operating, and so she sets about to stop him.

This movie has the bones of an espionage thriller, not unlike Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War, so the less said about the various twists and turns the better. In the end, we have three new characters I would like to spend more time with, including Natasha’s sister—likely to be joining the MCU as the new Black Widow—and her father-figure, a hugely flawed but well-meaning Soviet-Captain America known as Red Guardian. Her mother—the brains of the operation—is a hero in her own right, being the one that ultimately is key to Natasha’s fight to stop the Red Room. It helps that all these characters are played by hugely capable actors who effortlessly inhabit their roles and make them likeable even when they are being unlikeable.

That’s what drove the movie for me. I believed in Natasha’s personal investment, in her need to complete her quest. I also believed—even when maybe she did not—in her connection to her fake family.

But for me, this isn’t a 5 out of 5 or even a 4.5 movie, and there are two main reasons for that:

1) because this is a Marvel movie, it needs bombastic action set-pieces where this is a personal story that I think would have worked better if more chances had been taken with the script and less money spent on what was likely intended to be exciting and impressive action—it needed focused and personal physical conflicts to mirror the emotional ones; and

2) until very late in the movie, Black Widow’s performance against opponents suggests that she is not something special—that while she is uber-competent, she is not alone in that and in fact is surpassed by others.

And while I’m giving a lot of space to these below, it’s because I thought there was huge potential for this good movie to be great. My issues are probably very idiosyncratic, but here’s my thinking.

For the first one, I liked the concept of the story and a lot of its execution. It was flawed, and there were a lot of straight-up pedestrian or cliched lines, but overall, I thought the concept was great. The problem was, with a movie this expensive, there is often pressure against innovation. From what was reported, that seemed true of Ant-Man and—from the same parent company but from a different branch of it—Solo. Allowing innovation led to Thor: Ragnarok—one of my personal favourites. I think there was definitely a vision here, but I don’t know whose it was and too often it seems to have been plowed under to meet studio or public expectations.

Part of that was the crazy set-pieces. Each Marvel movie has tried to top the last in awe-inspiring action scenes in impressively huge settings. This movie, though, is not about saving the world (though that seems shoehorned in, trying to globalize a personal conflict, which—again—I think was a mistake). It’s about the main character facing their past, including mistakes they made because they were desperate, and trying to save other people from the same fate. It would have been nice if this was more Ronin and less Moonraker.

But even in these over-the-top action scenes, too often Natasha seems either outmatched or on the same level as her opponents. It supposes a program that had multiple Avengers-level agents. It makes Natasha less special, less worthy of being an Avenger. I want her to be different. There is a point where it’s shown that she’s the best, but never to the degree of Captain America’s elevator scene in Winter Soldier. I wanted that. Taskmaster could be a challenge, something like Captain America fighting the still-controlled Winter Soldier, but I wanted something earlier showing just how bad-ass Black Widow truly is. I kind of got that near the end, but it still wasn’t as satisfying as that elevator scene.

And if the argument is that Black Widow just simply isn’t Captain America, you’re right, she’s not, but she’s an Avenger. It’d be like putting Hawkeye in an archery competition where he only just barely eked out a win. To me, that doesn’t happen. He is simply unparalleled on the planet at his niche. I feel that way about Black Widow. That’s why I believe she belongs on the Avengers.

So, while I really loved spending this time getting to know and understand Natasha and her family, I think this could have been better. I would love to see that focused movie about Black Widow, but this is Marvel, so it’s got to be bombastic. There seems to be a reluctance to again use the formula that led to Thor: Ragnarok, whether that is a general reluctance, a belief that this character doesn’t have Thor’s audience, or because it is a woman’s story.

I’m happy we got Black Widow. I think it could have been better.

You can learn more about Black Widow at Wikipedia or IMDB.


Just breaking out on one tiny nit-pick: I couldn’t understand the story reasons for Natasha to wait for Ross’ arrival at the end of the movie. When we see her next, she’s working with Steve and Sam, so apparently still on the run. This means she must have escaped from Ross, either at the scene or sometime later. Her access to a quinjet is explained, so that wasn’t part of the escape from Ross, so why the need to have her wait? A throw-away line about drawing the hunters away from her family would have worked rather than the “I’ll wait here” thing. It was one of a bunch of small decisions that along with the big problems I already mentioned seemed odd.