Black Widow is 90 minutes of inspired storytelling, charming actors, and a surprisingly clever script. It’s also two hours and 15 minutes long.
We live in the era of zombie IP, when content must persist and no character can ever die, no matter how thematically appropriate or narratively cathartic. Characters aren’t really just characters anymore anyway. They’re brands, assets in a corporate ledger. Who is Black Widow? Before now, mostly she was the least super of the Avengers super team, a leather-clad jiu-jitsu assassin and tertiary hero, arguably the second least interesting of the bunch behind Hawkeye, the bow and arrow man. If the Avengers was simply a movie, or even two or three movies, that would’ve been enough story for Black Widow (In fact, spoiler alert, she already died in Avengers Endgame).
But because The Avengers isn’t just a story, it’s an entire universe of content, Black Widow is more than just a side character. She’s an unmined tributary in a massive revenue stream now encompassing 24 movies. Not to devote an entire standalone movie to her would be like leaving money on the table, a dereliction of an executive’s duty to the shareholders.
The beauty of inspiration, as it normally works, is that one idea builds on another, again and again until the initial spark might not even be that important. A good story outgrows its own elevator pitch. The IP mining model currently employed by the largest movie studios doesn’t really allow for this. “Phases” of a larger universe are planned years in advance, before the screenwriters are even hired, constraining that kind of creativity and mandating that a particular movie exist within specifically-defined parameters. If it outgrows its elevator pitch too well, the creatives will probably be replaced. The creatives are, to some extent, slaves to the pitch men’s promises.
The upside of all that is that Disney can afford the best writers, directors, and actors money can buy. In Black Widow, it shows. With Black Widow (the character)’s story already bookended in previous installments, Marvel has brought in Florence Pugh from Midsommar to play Yelena Belova, Natasha Romanov’s younger sister, in a story about young Russian girls kidnapped from their families and trained as spy assassins.
The film opens in Ohio, where Yelena and Natasha (the latter of whom grows up to be Scarlett Johansson) are living with their parents. The four of them, Yelena, Natasha, Alexander, and Melina (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz), make up a Russian sleeper cell, The Americans-style. This story is the heart of the movie, and in the film’s opening scene, they’re forced to flee in the middle of the night one night in the early ’90s, as “American Pie” plays softly on the stereo of their Ford Explorer.
Back in the “present,” Yelena discovers, through a glowing mist squirted at her by a dying victim, that she’s been brainwashed into assassindom. Most of the movie consists of her trying to get the fam back together to take down General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the shadowy figure who brainwashed her.
The portion of Black Widow that feels like an adult contemporary prestige TV show, a sort The Americans sequel event with a more complex mythology, works shockingly well. The actors are wonderful together and Pugh is the class of the bunch, and not just because she’s the only one of them that can convincingly perform a Russian accent. There’s even a scene in which she makes fun of her older sister for that classic Marvel cliché, the “tripod pose,” which is so well written and performed that it doesn’t feel nauseatingly post-modern. Even if you kind of hate this entire model of self-referential, quippy filmmaking, it’s hard not to acknowledge that Marvel consistently hires writers who are the best at it.
David Harbour plays Alexei Shostakov, aka Red Guardian, a kind of Cold War foil for Captain America with a goofy red suit and “KARL MARX” tattooed on his knuckles. Which is sort of conflating the Soviet period of Russian history with the 90s gangster era of Russian history, which are two different things, but sure, why not. It’s a comic book movie, after all (…sort of). Shostakov has been in prison since the nineties but still dines out on his old war stories, like the time he almost beat up Captain America. When his daughters bust him out of prison he takes perverse pride in their traumatic histories, bellowing “How many people have you killed? Your ledgers must be dripping, just gushing red.”
Harbour doesn’t do the accent as well as Pugh, but his “big garrulous bear” act is pretty perfect. Harbour, Pugh, Johansson, and Weisz have real chemistry, and Black Widow, directed by Aussie indie director Cate Shortland from a script by Eric Pearson, has probably the most effective, actual adult comedy of any Marvel movie up until this point. The movie about this family of ex-spies trying to come to grips with their pasts and figure out where they stand with each other is a great one.
Then about 90-100 minutes into the movie it seems to remember that it’s supposed to be a tributary again and takes the action up to a secret base in the clouds. There, it merges with the Marvel machine and all the geopolitical blah blah blah and becomes something much more boring. An eight-figure CGI extravaganza ensues, and for all that money the most entertaining thing about it is Ray Winstone trying to do Russian gangster and Cockney thug simultaneously.
To ask “why did they have to do this?” about the convoluted and kind of dull finale would be a bit disingenuous. The obvious answer is “because that’s why this movie exists.” The beauty and the sorrow of Marvel movies is that they can be so great before the black SHIELD SUVs show up, but the black SHIELD SUVs always show up.
It can be fun to watch talented creators and artists put their own stamp on the material, but it can never be that deep a stamp. With the right team, these standalone stories can be easy to enjoy, right up until the point when the larger universe asserts priority. “Fun’s over, guys, the teacher’s here.”
There’s probably an essay to be written about the way corporate fads have turned adult storytelling into the kids in this scenario and comic book plots into the unfun vice principal, but I suppose we’ll save that for another time. In conclusion, a land of contrasts, solid B+, forever and ever amen.