July 20, 2021
The latest offering from Disney’s conveyor belt of Marvel superhero films travels back in time, circa 2016, to tell the tale of Natasha Romanoff: the Black Widow.
The first act of the Black Widow movie transports you to the mid-’90s, a post-Soviet era in which spies from the recently crumbled USSR have infiltrated a suburban Ohio neighborhood to spy on Americans.
It is in this quiet Midwest suburb that the film places its ostensible protagonists: a Russian sleeper cell comprising a prepubescent Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) with their nominal foster parents, Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz).
The plot proffers a compelling premise: an all-girls espionage program called “the Red Room,” what might one imagine a Soviet Union rendition of America’s Girl Scouts to be. The underground Soviet initiative abducted young, orphaned girls such as Natasha and Yelena, training them to be assassins. (Spoilers ahead.)
Unfortunately, the film demurs from ever conveying the project’s true tolls on its subjects. Where the Bourne franchisespent ample time showing its eponymous hero’s internal grappling with what the “Treadstone” project did to him, Black Widow lightly glosses over such past traumas from the Red Room as a forced hysterectomy. The script tries brushing it off as a joke, ultimately failing to induce a sense of emotion in the audience.
Moreover, for what was supposed to be a spy-thriller, the film fails to showcase any of Natasha’s or her Red Room comrades’ espionage prowess. Bursting through doors and concrete walls to flaunt her strength, Natasha could easily be interchanged with the Hulk or Thor as its Marvel Cinematic Universe protagonist, with little change to the outcome of the film. Despite her ostensible training, Natasha displays less covert sleuthing in Black Widow than John Candy in Uncle Buck.
It’s as if Disney was so intent on having its female protagonist exude a sense of physical strength that it completely forgot she was intended to be a silent assassin, not some animated sledgehammer.
Everything seems effortless for Natasha. The titular hero glides through adversaries without ever arousing any feeling of danger. Despite her lack of superhuman abilities, she can tear through reams of opponents without breaking a sweat. The only real indication that she’s still human is a scene in which she has to break her own nose because a grown man is unable to punch her hard enough. It’s like watching Bryce Harper play Little League softball.
Natasha’s character wasn’t the only victim of Disney’s filmmaking. Her foster parents, while covert in their Ohio suburb, spoke English fluently as if it were their mother tongue. But later, upon shedding their covers, they jarringly revert to cheesy caricatures of Russian accents and, for no discernible reason, speak with broken grammar.
Actress Olga Kurylenko plays Antonia, a generic bad guy with physical strength to match Natasha, the film’s good guy. Though it’s never explained in the film, Antonia is the Marvel comic book antagonist “Taskmaster.” The throwaway villain doesn’t have a single line in the script and feels like a haphazardly drafted addendum to balance out the physical strength on the antagonists’ end.
What’s most disappointing about Black Widow is that Marvel knows how to make a proper spy-thriller. In 2014, it had one of the best films in the MCU saga: Captain America: Winter Soldier. But where Winter Soldier felt like a cohesive, purposeful film, Black Widow comes across as an aimless string of ideas stitched together to assuage fans.
Black Widow doesn’t offer anything new to the genre; it recycles old tropes and relies entirely on the Marvel brand for buoyancy. It’s like the outcome of feeding an algorithm the dozens of previous MCU movies and asking it to generate a new one.
If Disney wanted to lend credence to Martin Scorsese’s 2019 comments in which he said Marvel films are closer in content to visual amusement parks than to veritable art, this just may be the film to do it.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner