A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from my local cinema which opened with the sentence: “Just what did Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff get up to between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War?” and my response was “Who cares?”. That whole saga is well and truly over and Romanoff’s sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame means we all know her fate, so how can we get hyped about a prequel when all fans really want is Phase Four to commence, and hopefully an R-rated Blade starring Mahershala Ali? Do we want or need a backstory to one of the lesser Avengers? Imagine if they made a Hawkeye origin film! Who the bloody-hell would care?
Opening with one of those slowed-down, shite cover-versions of a classic song (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) Black Widow is very haphazard in tone. Beginning in 1995 in Ohio with a Russian “sleeper cell” disguised as an American family, this portion of the film gave me hope, hope that what followed would be something original. Like a better Little Nikita, this initial set-up was not only cast brilliantly with the younger actors looking very much like their adult counterparts, but the look and feel was like nothing else Marvel has made. I was looking forward to a low-key drama-action-thriller but alas that didn’t happen. Instead, we very quickly move toward caricatured villainy and overblown action, and the end result is part crap buddy road movie, part crappy espionage thriller, and part crappier action film.
The plot which involves girls being groomed/trained as assassins has been covered in almost every Luc Besson film, and unfortunately, Black Widow isn’t a patch on La Femme Nikita or for that matter, Anna. In terms of spy comedies (which this flick also wishes it was) this doesn’t come close to True Lies. So what do we end up with? Well because of the lack of any familiar or regular Marvel characters, not to mention a distinct lack of franchise-atmosphere, we have the feeling of an inferior sequel (or prequel as is the case here). Very similar to Bill & Ted 3, Bad Boys 3, or Terminator 3 onward, this is the noticeably stark and empty-looking movie that feels unconnected to the originals. With the amateur acting from all of the bad “Widows” and a concept that feels unimportant when compared to, let’s say, aliens from outer space, Black Widow definitely feels at home on Disney+ rather than in the cinema. Given that this is a prequel, the audience feels no peril for the lead character because we know Romanoff is present in the later films and what eventually befalls her.
The screenplay by Eric Pearson (co-writer of Godzilla Vs. Kong and uncredited rewriter for a whole host of MCU films) is a typical American-made film about Russians (or foreigners). Black Widow has an offensively-skewed perspective about the opposition; only the Germans (Hydra) are responsible for mind control (chemical subjugation) whereas the Americans (S.H.I.E.L.D.) don’t really use it. The Russians (The Red Room) on the other hand, utilise technology (that they stole) for pure evil, kidnapping children, wiping their minds, and performing hysterectomies on them… typical Commies! History shows however, that the United States, Canada, and Britain and probably every other “super-power”, has dabbled in mind control and forced sterilisation. In any case, this serious topic isn’t treated as an important or consequential matter.
Whilst on the topic of writing, there’s a few rip-off elements including a Demolition Man-esque “programmed not to kill the antagonist” and there’s a Mac And Me-style family whistle call. The script also jokes or mocks Natasha Romanoff’s landing pose (that I’m certain started with Wesley Snipes’ Blade) but this once again, is a change of pace with nothing else in the entire picture feeling similarly “meta”. Then there’s the fact that Olga Kurylenko is older than Scarlett Johansson, which makes the side-plot about the assassination of the baddie’s young daughter at the hands of an adult Romanoff nonsensical or outright impossible, but hey, this clearly isn’t a spy/assassin classic such as Leon or the first three Bourne movies.
Directed by Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome) Black Widow isn’t directed well either. All of the aforementioned governmental abuse isn’t handled with any kind of weight. More importantly for a comic book/superhero movie, the action isn’t framed correctly so you look at the potentially impressive set-pieces such as a bike/car chase and mid-air fighting as meh.
The cast are generally decent actors but because of the mediocre writing and directing, they can’t elevate something which is inherently average. I’m not really a fan of the Black Widow character, but there’s a couple of scenes where Scarlett Johansson’s usual po-faced, scrunched-up Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow expression, is replaced with some emotional variance. David Harbour seems like a likeable bloke, and as Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian, he’s assigned to be the comic relief but again, because the script isn’t great, his character begins to get a little irritating. Rachel Weisz is good enough as Melina Vostokoff but because the tone here is less Whistleblower and more Chain Reaction, that’s the kind of performance you get from her. Violet McGraw and Ever Anderson (the young Yelena and Natasha respectively) are so cute and likeable that they needed a bit more time on screen in my opinion, but unfortunately they’re forgotten about after the opening titles. On the other end of the acting scale is Ray Winstone as Dreykov, the head of the “Red Room” (the floating, Russian counterpart to the Helicarrier which imprisons and trains the Widow assassins). Winstone is utterly appalling in this movie. His caricatured bad-guy feels stale and cliched and his accent is all over the place, like this film’s locations.
Thankfully, we have Florence Pugh, who plays Yelena Belova with so much warmth and soul that you feel for her familial situation (which is similar to the Gamora/Nebula or Star-Lord/Yondu subplot in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – add it to all the things Eric Pearson probably watched). As an audience member you feel everything Yelena feels and you’re with her all the way. If Belova was played by any other actor or was removed altogether, you’d realise how mediocre this film really is.
Aside from Pugh, Black Widow is distinctly average but with its score of 83% on Rotten Tomatoes (at the time of writing this) this rating-situation feels like Wonder Woman 1984 all over again; an over-inflated score to get tickets sold which will slowly decline as the sane reviews trickle in.
Similar to the overrated Fighting With My Family and the overrated Midsommar, Florence Pugh is once again better than the overrated film she’s in. Pugh manages to be the drama and the comedy, the source of all the laughs and every tear, and since everyone else comes across as ordinary or forgettable, this has to be because of her talent (she even manages to make the Mac And Me whistle imitation feel moving). I can see why you’d want to give Florence her own Black Widow spin-off but I’d rather she put her skills to better use. A post-credit, post-Avengers: Endgame sequence which features Florence Pugh, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and a reference to the least-liked Avenger, means this could potentially happen but hopefully not in the way suggested by this scene. If y’all at Marvel Studios absolutely have to make a stand-alone Yelena Belova movie, at least read the filmic room: nobody on god’s CGI-d earth wants Hawkeye’s dull-arse in anything from now on.
The Widow is Dead.