A solo, and some might say long overdue, outing for the one female who made up part of the original Avengers movie line-up, Black Widow should have been a chance to right some wrongs. Considering how the character has been used in the movies, and her final main sequence in Avengers: Endgame, allowing her to just have the full spotlight and kick ass without being filtered through the male gaze should have been an easy "win" for the film-makers. Yes, I have repeatedly used the words "should have" here.
Set just after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) ends up travelling to yet another foreign city, this time looking to meet up with her sorta-sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh). Yelena has managed to get hold of an antidote to the brainwashing drugs that have allowed a powerful figure named Dreykov (Ray Winstone) to create what essentially amounts to an army of Black Widows. Enlisting the help of the people who acted as their main father and mother figures (Alexei, played by David Harbour, and Melina, played by Rachel Weisz), Natasha and Yelena aim to access a top-secret base and thwart Dreykov's grand plan.
Written by Eric Pearson, no stranger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (having worked on Thor: Ragnarok and some of the enjoyable "one-shots", amongst other projects), and directed by Cate Shortland, who IS a newcomer to this kind of movie, Black Widow feels like a film shaped by far too many people who didn't have to put their name to the main credits. Although the main story is as described above, and there's a decent core exploration of what it means to become a family unit, it's also an obvious and clumsy set-up for Pugh to become a part of the MCU. And any scenes that show a female being controlled by a dangerous man just calls to mind the far superior Jessica Jones show, which debuted over five years ago. This makes Black Widow feel a bit irrelevant when some better writing and direction could have avoided that, because consent/control is a theme that I think will remain depressingly relevant for many years to come.
The other thing working against the movie is the fact that Shortland seems to be directing from a number of notes handed over by men. That's the only reason I can think of for the amount of shots that have the camera sitting low and looking up to focus on the backsides of either Johansson or Pugh.
And then you have the accents. Johansson and Pugh do okay, with the latter struggling more at times. Harbour focuses more on fun than consistency, Weisz tries her best throughout, and Winstone . . . well, Winstone clearly gives up after his earliest scenes, settling on a blend of Russian and Cockney for the rest of his screentime. Aside from the accents, everyone works hard to lift up a script that is beneath them. It's difficult to imagine a superhero movie making effective jokes about the "superhero landing" after Deadpool already did it so well, but they try it here. It falls flat, especially when they then have characters DO the superhero landing without giving them good enough reason to do it. William Hurt makes a welcome return, once again playing Secretary Ross, and Olga Kurylenko fans will be disappointed to find that she's only visible onscreen for about a minute.
There are a couple of good action sequences, but none of them feel close to the quality of some of the superb action set-pieces that we have seen in these movies. That would be absolutely fine if this was a small-scale movie looking to keep things minimal and low-key. It's not. The stakes may seem smaller, in a way, but the big action moments throw far too much around the main characters, whether they are battling multiple enemies in close-range combat, evading a huge tank-like vehicle, using a helicopter to attempt a prison break, or plummeting through the air as they avoid, and use, the debris from a huge explosion.
I've seen people complain about the mishandling of a character named Taskmaster. Not being familiar with this character before this movie, I'd still have to agree. Taskmaster is an impressive foe in the first half of the film, and enjoyably unstoppable, but the third act reveal is surprisingly disappointing, leading to a finale that it's hard to really care about.
There's still a level of polish and professionalism here that makes it easy entertainment, and the music by Lorne Balfe deserves a mention, but this never once felt like an essential big-screen experience. And that's not something you can usually say about any MCU release. I'll end up buying it, the completist in me will demand that I do, but it's not one I will be in a hurry to revisit.
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