Paws in the air, the real reason why I delayed reviewing this movie was that I honestly can’t remember a review I’ve had less appetite to write.
I re-watched Black Widow for this review only a few days ago, and yet whenever I try to remember anything about it I get the mental equivalent of this:
And it’s not like it’s a bad movie! It’s not like it’s an anything movie frankly. It’s just…a movie. It’s a glass of cinematic water. Absolutely flavourless. It’s…I what am I even talking about again?
Oh right. Sorry, I keep forgetting.
My point is, I can write about good movies and I can write about bad movies but bland, perfectly acceptable movies are my kryptonite and I literally cannot remember a film that left me so utterly emotionally unmoved, in either a positive or negative sense, as this. So I probably am not going to break any word count records for this review. Hey, maybe a brief comics history of the titles character will help pad this thrill ride out? Worked before.
So like pretty much every interesting female superhero created during the Golden or early Silver ages, Natalia Alianovna “Natasha” Romanova was introduced as a villain. She first appeared in 1964 in the pages of Tales of Suspense as a Soviet spy tasked with bringing down Tony Stark, embodying his two greatest weaknesses: beautiful women and Communism. In her early days she was less an ass-kicking super-spy and more a seductress, using her wiles to get any man she wanted to carry out her sinister schemes. And with a whole pantheon of super powered beings to choose from she used this power to ensnare…um…Hawkeye?
By the end of the sixties she’d defected to America and become a superhero and proceeded to spend the next fifty years bouncing around the Marvel Universe. Never an A-tier character, she nonetheless maintained a fairly high profile and you could usually count on her being in someone’s book. Natasha as a character is something of a renaissance woman. She’s an Avenger. She’s a SHIELD agent. She’s Daredevil’s ex-girlfriend. She’s a superhero. She’s a morally dubious black ops assassin. She’s friends with Spider-man, Wolverine, Hercules…basically she’s the Kevin Bacon of the Marvel universe. If a given hero doesn’t know her, they know someone who knows her. And then something strange happened. In 2012, The Avengers was released and Black Widow, by dint of various factors like Marvel not owning the movie rights to some of their own most high profile female characters (like Sue Storm and regular Storm), won the position of Token Female Avenger almost by default. And suddenly, Black Widow was the most high profile female superhero in the world complete with lunchboxes, action figures (fucking eventually) and kids’ Halloween costumes. And…that’s kinda weird, right? That’s like if the most famous male superhero in the world was Punisher instead of Superman. Weird though it was, it didn’t last long. While there was a clamour for a Black Widow movie almost as soon as she appeared in Iron Man 2, work couldn’t begin until Ike Perlmutter was prized from Marvel’s hide with a set of tweezers. And by then, well, the moment had passed. It’s not 2010 anymore. We have had female superhero movies. We have had BIG female superhero movies. We have had superhero movies with female directors. Black Widow’s biggest claim to historical significance is that it is the first ever mainstream, big-budget Hollywood summer movie with Jewish women as its star and producer, director, and supporting actress and frankly that feels a bit strained (which is in no way intended to dismiss the oppression of three-person creative teams of Jewish women in the film industry and the incredibly specific hurdles they have had to overcome). And, as a trailblazer myself (what with being the first Greek-Cypriot Irish bisexual science fiction author), I think that’s great! It’s great that simply being a female led superhero movie is not enough any more to be considered a big deal. It’s great that the movie wasn’t burdened with the same expectations that Wonder Woman faced with being the first female superhero movie…
…whose existence decent God-fearing people will acknowledge. It’s good that it has a reason to exist other than being THE FEMALE SUPERHERO MOVIE.
Okay so we flashback to 1995 where little Natasha Romanoff is living in Ohio with her parents Alexei and Melina and her little sister Yelena. While they seem to be a nice normal all-American family, they are actually a group of Russian agents planted in the US which already raises a couple of questions for me. Firstly, we run into the problem of the Black Widow being closely identified with the Soviet Union. See, this is the problem with closely linking a character with a real world nation, because you never know when that nation might suddenly fall apart like a rusty Lada.
So already we have the problem of why Yeltsin’s government is planting sleeper agents in America. I mean this was the nineties baby! The Cold War was over, the Russians and the US were teaming up to fight Doctor Evil and Tim Curry had retreated to the one place untainted by capitalism.
Second, you might think that Natasha and Yelena are Alexei and Melina’s biological children. You know, they moved to the US as undercover agents and got a little too “into character”. But no, the kids are also spies. Why? Why have pre-pubescent agents? Are they going to start fomenting dissent and funnelling weapons into the US school system (talk about an exercise in redundancy)? I get that having children makes it seem less likely that they’re spies, but it makes it seem less likely because bringing children along on a hugely sensitive and dangerous years long, deep cover operation is an insanely risky thing to do and no sane person would do it.
Anyway, one night the children are told to pack their things because they have to get out of dodge. The family drive to a remote airstrip and have to make a harrowing getaway in a damaged Cessna which they fly all the way to Cuba, presumably fuelled by rainbows and happy thoughts.
They land in Cuba and Natasha and there they meet General Dreykov who’s played by Ray Winstone. Winstone is such an archetypical Lahndan Gangster type that I think this may be the first time I’ve ever seen him playing someone who wasn’t from the East End. Then again, what is Russia, if not the world’s East End? Anyway, Dreykov orders the girls to be taken away from their “parents” and over the opening titles we see their training in the Red Room, all set to a cover of Smells Like Teenage Spirit that I hate myself for loving as much as I do.
Anyway, it’s 2016 again (in the movie IN THE MOVIE CALM DOWN) and Natasha is hiding out in Norway after violating the Sokovia Accords. She receives a package which was apparently left for her in one of her former safehouses but ignores it to go into town to get some supplies. On the way she’s attacked by a mysterious masked figure in black who seems to have mastered the fighting styles of Captain America, Black Panther, Hawkeye and Winter Soldier. So this is Taskmaster.
Now, as I mentioned in the intro, this movie is remarkable only in the complete lack of strong emotions it evokes in me. With one exception. I will NEVER forgive them for what they did to Taskmaster. Watching this movie made me realise that Taskmaster is actually my favourite Marvel villain period, and you know what they did? They fucking DEADPOOLED him.
No, no, no. Not that one.
So if you don’t know Taskmaster (and to be fair, he’s a pretty obscure villain), he’s a wise-cracking mercenary who fights superheroes. Kinda like Deadpool, only less try-hard.
And there are so many reasons why I love this character. His power is cool, being able to flawlessly mimic any fighting style he sees. But more than that I love his whole attitude. Why does he wear a skull mask? Do his powers or motif have anything to do with skulls? No, he just thinks skulls are cool, fuck you. He’s not a cackling, maniacal supervillain, he’s just a working stiff trying to get by. He never kills the wives or girlfriends of his foes because he thinks that’s gross and also why would you do the one thing that will make a superhero actually kill you? One time he held a team of teenage superheroes prisoner and let them watch TV and order fast food as long as they kept their cells clean. He’s like the nicest, most wholesome scumbag in the whole Marvel universe. He’s a great character, and reducing him to just another generic, mute, unstoppable assassin is just such a goddamned waste. Also, I find it doubly hilarious that of all the villains to sic on Black Widow they chose Taskmaster because in the comics, Taskie is absolutely fricking terrified of Black Widow. Seriously, here’s a panel where Taskmaster has been told that Black Widow thinks he murdered someone she cares about.
Anyway, credit where credit’s due, most of the fight scenes in this movie are top notch, real nasty, bone-crunching affairs and this one sets the tone. During the fight Natasha barely escapes and decides to check the package she received. She finds several strange glowing vials and an old photograph of her and her “sister” Yelena.
She travels to Budapest and meets Yelena, who tells her that the vials contain an antidote to the chemical conditioning that Dreykov uses to to control the Widows. This is news to Natasha, because she believed that the Red Room was gone and that Dreykov is dead, because she killed him. Indeed, killing Dreykov was her qualification to get into SHIELD which means that she technically lied on her resume. Yelena was hoping that Natasha would give this info to the Avengers but Natasha tells her that they’ve broken up and are now working on their solo albums. Suddenly, a squad of Widows arrives and the two sisters have to fight their way through them and escape.
They two sisters go on the run, catch up, bicker, bond and eventually decide to take out Dreykov and the Red Room themselves. Unfortunately Yelena doesn’t no where the Red Room is so they have to bust their “father” Alexei out of the remote Sibernian prison where he’s being held.
We’re re-introduced to Alexei as a tattooed bear of a man arm-wrestling Russian convicts and bragging about battling Captain America in the eighties. Now, as those of you with advanced degrees in history might already be away, Steve Rogers was still chillin’ like a villain in the Arctic during that decade so what gives? I actually thought that that the movie was dropping a tantalising hint of other Captains America serving before Steve’s return (maybe William Burnside or Isiah Bradley?) but apparently no, Alexei is just delusional and thinks that he fought Captain America when he actually didn’t. Which in a way is more interesting, but in another, more real way, is not.
Anyway, the girls bust Dad out of jail in a sequence involving a helicopter, bazookas and a massive avalanche that any James Bond movie could be proud of.
Alexei is delighted to see his daughters but doesn’t know where the Red Room is. Instead he directs them to Melina, who’s now working as Dreykov’s chief scientist on a farm. At a tense family dinner, Melina reveals that their original mission in Ohio in the nineties was to steal secrets from a HYDRA base that led to the creation of Dreykov’s mind control programme. She agrees to help the girls infiltrate the Red Room and calls Dreykov who sends his widows in to take them prisoner.
They’re brought to the Red Room, and learn that the super secret place that no one could find is actually a massive flying doom fortress. Because, as we all know, the sky is the best place to hide something you don’t want to be seen.
Natasha is brought before Dreykov who reveals that Taskmaster is actually his daughter Antonio, who Natasha had always believed to have been killed in her attempted assassination of Dreykov (a nice call back to Loki’s dialogue about “Dreykov’s Daughter” in Avengers). Natasha is unable to attack Dreykov because he has something called a “pheromone lock” installed in ever Widow to stop that very thing so Natasha “severs the nerve” by breaking her own nose.
I’m actually embarassed that I know so little about biology that I had to use google to make sure that was bullshit. It is!
So while Alexei battles Taskmaster, Melina shuts down the engines and Yelena uses the vials to free all the other Widows from Dreykov’s control. As the Red Room crashes down, our heroes escape and Dreykov is blown to pieces when Yelena hits his helicopter with a bazooka.
After a final battle with Taskmaster, Natasha manages to use the vial to break her conditioning. She gives Yelena the remaining antidote and a list of the locations of every Widow worldwide and tells her to get on that.
And the movie ends with Natasha setting out to rescue her fellow Avengers from their undersea prison
As if so often the case, it took Ms Mouse to point out to me what’s wrong with this film. This is a movie with a load of very talented people doing perfectly acceptable work with absolutely zero heart. There are plenty of superhero movies that are less technically proficient, that have clunkier scripts or shoddier plotting. That are shaggier and messier. But I prefer those movies because they also have a sense of joy and consequence. Black Widow is perfectly, utterly acceptable. It just feels like no one working on it was shooting for higher.
Fine. It’s fine. It’s fine! It’s fine…
Our Heroic Hero: 15/25
Scarlett Johannson gave my favourite performance as Natasha in Endgame, but if I’m brutally honest I haven’t been this unengaged with the character since Iron Man 2. It’s…fine, but she honestly seems a little bored.
Our Nefarious Villain: 11/25
I know there are some who claim that Dreykov “solves Marvel’s villain problem” (what is this, 2013?) but honestly for me he’s a lethal mix of one-dimensional and under-played. Just dull.
Our Plucky Sidekicks: 20/25
Probably the one element of the film that’s better than “fine” is Florence Pugh as Yelena, getting all the best lines and all the most emotional scenes, to the point where you kinda wonder why Natasha is even in this film.
Yelena visits Nat’s grave and is approached by the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who offers her a chance to go after the man who killed her sister: Hawkeye.
And the audience went…
Yes. Disney DID just make this entire movie to force you to watch Hawkeye. You got played, suckas.
Are there X-Men yet?
Nary a one.
FINAL SCORE: 61%
NEXT UPDATE: 04 December 2021
NEXT TIME: We travel to the Great White North, where they use dogs as little horses: