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MOVIES: Black Widow - Review

Note: There are (very) minor spoilers in this review but if you want to play it safe, go and watch the film first.

Black Widow, through almost no fault of its own, has undergone a turbulent, frequently delayed release as a result of the current pandemic leading it to come out at a later entry in the current Phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than it should have done, but even if it was released under normal circumstances as a starter to Phase 4 it would have felt like a spare part, spending the first 30 minutes trying to justify its very need for existing as late into the franchise as it has had – hot of the heels of the breakout arrival in Iron Man 2, or somewhere after The Avengers, was when we should have had this film. If anything, we should be talking about Black Widow 3 right now – Scarlett Johansson has the star power to carry a franchise, but here, the film feels laboured rather than something told with passion – it doesn’t represent the best of what this superhero franchise has to offer, and neither does it represent the second best.

Which is the film’s main problem – it’s not bad, either. But that’s just it. It’s not good. It’s mediocre, the most outwardly boring Marvel film since the days of Doctor Strange, if not Thor: The Dark World. Cate Shortland, who I have been informed is better than anything accomplished here (although I’m yet to see the rest of her work), fails to make a rather predictable and one-note storyline about found family and a quest for identity feel fresh, struggling with the demands of a second unit director that injects a sense of blandness to Marvel’s action scenes (Lucrecia Martel turned down the chance to direct the film after being told "Don't worry" about the action scenes) that gives Black Widow a sense of repetitiveness and unimaginative nature that doesn’t really take off. There’s no spark, no life – it just feels dull.

There are moments of promise that suggest there is a better movie in Black Widow somewhere. The opening flashback that shows Natasha’s relationship with her foster sister Yelena in America before their life is turned upside down is the film at its strongest, Shortland takes cues massively from the final episode of FX’s beloved TV series The Americans as we watch Natasha and Yelena flee Ohio in a rampant dash for the airport backed to American Pie, their last sight of American capitalism and the world that they believed that they could call home. It’s in this found family where Black Widow’s biggest strengths lie and that is largely on the burden of the actors – Johansson is terrific of course, but the real standout is Florence Pugh – who steals the scene from right under its lead star. Pugh gives real hope to her characters’ integration into the MCU – and she couldn’t have come at a better time. Action set-pieces early on with the two characters showcase the actors’ chemistry – a Bourne Identity-influenced chase through the streets of Budapest is as entertaining as it sounds.

But after there, things begin to fall apart. Black Widow feels like a committee driven project right down to the horrible CGI that flat out ruins the final act, the action is shoddily cut together and poorly choreographed leading to fight scenes that feel awkward rather than matching the intensity that they should, and as always with the rest of the MCU proper, everytime Black Widow is called into action Johansson’s stunt-double is instantly noticeable.

The villains are largely lacklustre which is a real shame as Marvel has given us great villain after great villain lately, but Ray Winstone is tuning it in playing a standard Ray Winstone stock character and Taskmaster is basically a non-entity, everything with the character being predictable from the first frame to the last – there is no sense of threat here, even the ending eventually boils down to a bog-standard superhero movie final act, you know Natasha is going to survive and go onto Avengers: Endgame, and you know Black Widow can’t do anything big that affects the Marvel Universe as otherwise the Avengers would be called in (just because you joke that Captain America didn’t show up doesn’t justify an in-universe explanation for not having him show up) even though the film takes place, timeline wise, in the middle of Captain America: Civil War, further complicating matters for a timeline-ordered binge of the series.

David Harbour and Rachel Weisz are mostly great. Harbour plays a Soviet-era supersoldier with Captain America-like powers, but is well past his prime. The self-centred man gets to explore some fascinating dynamics with both Natasha and Yelena, and his chemistry with Weisz is good, but both actors deserved better – for such powerhouses it hurts to see them reduced to roles as minor as the ones that they get here. It doesn’t help that the material that they get that explores the trauma of all of the characters past doesn’t quite go into the depth that it needs to truly unlock its potential, it’s brushed aside by a quippy joke (“This would be a cool way to die” is repeated often), and whilst there’s nothing wrong with a good joke (I did like Yelena’s on-the-nose jokes at Natasha’s superhero landing pose, though), that same treatment is applied time and time again to Natasha’s past to the point where it almost robs it of her impact and character agency – and the plot completely takes it away from her. It’s a film too afraid to make any point stand – and as a result, lacks anything to say.

The usually reliable Lorne Balfe (seen also in The Tomorrow War) delivers a bland score and the musical numbers aren’t the most memorable (Guardians of the Galaxy, this soundtrack isn’t). There’s a jaw-droppingly bad cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit that plays over a Man From UNCLE-esque opening credits intro. The shadows of the Cold War lie heavy over the head of Black Widow but the film does nothing interesting with it – what could have been a Mission Impossible movie in the MCU fails to even rival Alias’ most boring episodes (of which there were few) – and the CGI, when employed on Alias looked better – it’s just such a shame to see one of the original Avengers given a slapdash, ham-fisted and ultimately rushed job of a film that amounts to one of the biggest misfires that Marvel have had in a while.

Worst yet, Black Widow spends all its time talking rather than showing. Much of the early act in Budapest references the time that Black Widow defected to SHIELD with the aid of Hawkeye, but it’s not shown on screen – normally it wouldn’t be a problem but when it takes up as much screentime as it does, you’d be forgiven for wishing that Black Widow could have been about that instead as it sounded much more entertaining than what we got, constantly hinting at a better movie than the one than this.

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