Film & TV

Bland Widow

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow. (Marvel Studios)
These days, the Marvel brand stands for prodigious quantity but so-so quality.

Back when Robin Williams was doing Mork & Mindy, his free-association improv riffs so dominated the proceedings that the writers, giving up, would leave blank pages in the script under the header, “Mork does his thing.” I’m pretty sure the Black Widow script had about 30 pages that were blank except for “Meaningless CGI crapola goes here.” There are chases. There are explosions. There are fights. Cars get blown up, flipped over, and thrown down stairs, and people emerge from them with a shrug. There is a helicopter-led prison break scene that is so cluttered and frantic, with so much digital vomit splattered all over everything, that not a single moment of it embeds itself in the consciousness. Something has to be the worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Black Widow is a strong contender, although Avengers: Age of Ultron and Thor: The Dark World are hard to beat.

Bizarrely, instead of being a true origin story, Black Widow (who died in Avengers: Endgame) shuffles itself back into the deck between two of the previous movies, as though we’re supposed to remember exactly what was going on in the story back in 2016. Not that it matters; this entry has no strong ties to anything else in the saga and hence is skippable, although a post-end credits sequence links it to one of the new MCU TV shows I haven’t seen. (It’s a big ask, after 23 movies, to also expect us to have seen every episode of the three new MCU TV shows. Following the MCU is starting to feel like holding down a second job.)

The plot of Black Widow suggests The Americans met Mission: Impossible and had a baby named Moonraker. Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha grew up with her fake little sister in a fake Ohio family that was actually four unrelated Russian sleeper agents assigned to keep tabs on a nearby S.H.I.E.L.D. lab. Mom (Rachel Weisz), Dad (David Harbour) and Natasha’s sister (played as a grownup by Florence Pugh) all speak perfect American English in the early going, but later in the movie they speak with silly Russian accents for no reason I can discern except that the actors thought it would be fun to camp it up a bit.

The film is directed by a woman (Australian Cate Shortland), so as with Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 84, critics will grade it on a curve if they know what’s good for them, and they have excellent reason to fear for their jobs, knowing that everyone is guaranteed to lose their minds if someone accuses them of misogyny. It’s easier to just pretend it’s a good movie; nice little career you’ve got there, humble scribe. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.

As with those other you-go-girl movies, there has to be a contrived feminist sociopolitical hook so Black Widow can be deemed socially relevant, and here it is: The “Widows” are actually girls who have been kidnapped or picked up after being abandoned, then trained to be lethal secret agents programmed by their male master. The message is that girls as a class are cruelly victimized, but they’re also strong, sassy, and altogether kick-ass. I wish screenwriters would work a bit harder at crafting compelling stories and characters than at working up such blatant marketing ploys, but I suppose the line between writer and marketer grows rather blurry in this sort of production.

The Widows, then, are essentially a Fembot army, minus the wit of Austin Powers. Their sinister overlord, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), whom we don’t encounter until too late in the movie, brags that he can activate them on a moment’s notice to engineer chaos. But his foes have access to this sparkly red powder that can free them from mind control. I imagine that, after being freed to realize their full potential as teen girls, the Widows will all go off and volunteer to join a completely different zombie army controlled by another sinister power: TikTok.

The film positions Natasha’s family of undercover Russian agents as its heroes because there’s someone even worse out there, but that creates an Iran–Iraq problem for the audience: Who cares which side wins when both are evil? The only lively element in the film is Pugh’s performance as Yelena, who fights and bickers sororally with big sis Natasha in lots of strained would-be comic scenes. Yelena at least does land the movie’s one funny line when she mocks the trite hero-landing pose that Natasha (and most of the other MCU heroes) execute whenever they want to make a dramatic entrance.

Meanwhile, Harbour eats up lots of screen time trying to provide comic relief as Alexei, whose superhero identity is the Russian version of Captain America, Red Guardian. Languishing in a Russian prison, Red Guardian has grown a belly and can barely squeeze into his old costume. Many scenes try to wring laughs out of his vanity, but the dad-bod jokes all go over like dad jokes. As for Rachel Weisz, in a thanklessly generic role as the sitcom-mom of this crew, she’s way too old to be cramming herself into rubbery black armor. It’s beneath her dignity, or at least I wish it were.

Just as the comedy scenes aren’t funny, the action scenes aren’t thrilling. Natasha never seems as if she’s in any danger. She never seems like she’s having fun, either, thanks to the Blue Steel gaze Johansson keeps affixed to her face. For a superspy, she’s crashingly dull, and all around here there is plenty of dull crashing. So perfunctory are the hectic, scrambling, nonsensical chase scenes staged in random locations (Hey, we’re in Morocco! Now we’re in Norway!) that you may lose track of who is after whom and why. Does it matter? Not really. Just enjoy the boom-boom and the blam-blam, if you can. At least it’s feminist boom-boom and blam-blam! There’s a disguised super-fighter who pops in and out, which leads to a surprise twist that isn’t surprising, and there’s some chatter about a box of vials everyone wants. Judging by how intermittent and casual the references to the vials are, the screenwriters couldn’t be bothered to care about them very much, though, and neither could I.

Nothing’s really been right since Iron Man died, has it? Everything the MCU has given us since Avengers: Endgame has carried a whiff of the sideshow. These days, the Marvel brand stands for prodigious quantity but so-so quality. The series miraculously got us emotionally invested in a broad range of compelling characters, but is now morphing into merely a factory that emits product. Marvel used to make us feel we really couldn’t skip a single episode of the saga. Now that it’s lobbing many hours of decreasingly interesting entertainment at us each month, though, it’s hard to keep up, and there is no longer any particular reason to do so.

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