Black Widow: Explosive Tedium

Superman can’t be harmed because he has been written with the power of invulnerability. Other comic book characters have the need for this ability without the canonical excuse for it. They have to survive to the next issue, even if they’re mortal, so writers have to get clever. The reader has to believe in their vulnerability while also buying their survival – this is why 90% of comic book characters have the primary traits of escape artists. A movie like Black Widow, founded at heart on a character’s emotional and physical vulnerability, is narratively underprivileged before it begins by being a blockbuster that its studio insists will only be a viable investment if it challenges the limits of believability. They seem to want every character to be Superman without writing them a reason to be. For this film, this creates a conflict within the audience between the mortality-defying set-pieces required of its studio’s idea of this genre and the dramatic ambitions that it chooses to have in spite of them. There’s an impression of effort in this film in trying to make the drama stand out in its series, but it’s sabotaged by the imbecilic excess of its action. In the film intended to make Natasha her most evident and relatable, she has lost the right to pretend to be mortal.

Black Widow begins strong with a family broken by their mission, which leads to opening credits that play off visual exposition like stock footage in a monster movie. It’s the film’s most investing sequence. Then for about 20 minutes, Scarlett Johansson reminds us why she can sue Disney for damages and remain in their payroll – she’s sparkling in this role. A particular turn of her lip or a clever squint is all it takes to turn a decent line into a genuine heartbreaker. But this means that the film’s best moments are front-loaded. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Natasha sitting at her laptop, eating cereal, mouthing a line from Moonraker for about 2.5 seconds at the beginning of the film, was the most enjoyable bit of the whole thing for me. It was a blip of relatability, a second where this invincible spy heroine was in her shorts, being a human being. The chasm of difference between that and where the film ends up, with her spinning in a sky clouded with shrapnel, bouncing off sheer glass surfaces, mid-stab, in no need of a parachute to drop from the upper atmosphere to the ground, is emblematic of the film’s entire tug-of-war with itself. It’s a movie where explosions don’t hurt anyone – they just “push” them a bit.

Black Widow has no business being a $200 million movie. That money never stops being a burden to it since the dramatic scenes are most necessary to speed through, being the cheapest, to make room for the action that justifies the investment. The result is a film that feels both overlong and rushed. It’s not 134 minutes that should have been reduced to 100 – it’s 134 minutes that feels like it should be stretched to season 1 of a TV show.

The film has such slap-dash pacing that it’s a testament to the director, Cate Shortland, whose Berlin Syndrome was small but compelling, that it holds together as well as it does. There’s just enough downtime to recollect the characters’ natures before the next showdown. It’s in these scenes that the film exists as the best version of itself – shopping for canned goods, drinking at the restaurant, eating dinner with the family, sitting in the bedroom and just talking. Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, and David Harbour, in the absence of being challenged by these roles, relax into them long enough to make the audience comfortable. There’s a talent excess pooling up at the borders of this film, most notably in the thoroughly wasted Ray Winstone as the mogul-villain and Rachel Weisz, who theoretically has a main part but floats through it with the casual noncommitment of a cameo. But everyone has at least one moment where it’s pertinent that they are as good as they would be all the time in another movie.

It's when the movie starts dropping mics that it becomes eye-rolling. The first major set-piece isn’t a crime, as Natasha and Yelena (Pugh) motor around Europe, with neither actress probably on-set for more than a couple shots of it. It’s a reasonable impression of the industry standards like the Bond and Mission Impossible films. But it’s also a façade hiding a much more cluttered structure. It’s assembled, not to create an exciting climax with derring-do, the threat of death, the advancement of dramatic intent, or anything emotionally tangible, but to hide the construction of still bigger, still more defiant, still less plausible scenes to come. It’s a time-killer. A prison escape in the snowy Russian wastes defies logic to the point that it defeats its own premise – it's too jarring to be exciting. The final exchange, in which several humans sky-dive through spinning clouds of shrapnel and sparks, looking casually put-out even as they skate down flying exploding walls against a sky hemorrhaging glass, is on a level of inconsistency compared to the film’s intended message that it borders on bait. It’s like the film is daring the audience to be fine with something it only funded in the first place to impress them, while baiting them to go against the intent, knowing how many people cover their backs when anyone asks for stylistic accountability from a superhero film. No one bankrolling this film seems to have believed that it would matter if it was sensible or even finished (if they did, they had no say in it).

If the sequence is meant as a call-back to the sky-diving battle that opens Moonraker, it’s a mistimed reference. Moonraker is a sass-munching movie, with no greater ambitions than being a knock-off Star Wars gummy snack powered by smiling and jiggling. The film has always been considered bloated, implausible, ridiculous, even with a tone that openly enjoys the accusation. Yet, Black Widow is even longer, even less plausible, and has the tone of a comeuppance for the cruelty that plagues an unfair world, throwing in sex trafficking, gender politics, and more in a drive-thru way while still having the glammed-up senselessness of Moonraker, bloated by a bigger bankroll than the villain of that film used to build diamond-powered satellites. To say that the final exchange with the bad guy in Black Widow is implausible would only cover one of its several successive logic cramps. The means by which he’s baited into giving up a flash drive before his spaceship explodes and his sexy slave warriors beat his brains out would not fly in Barbarella.

What shocked me more than anything, more than the diabolically unfinished visual effects or implausible action (Yelena’s final sacrifice atop an exploding tower is the film’s biggest laugh, being its biggest attempt at emotional catharsis) is that a movie like this is now so un-fun. Black Widow has the basic script content of something like Battle Beyond the Stars or Starcrash but the length of a serious epic and the tone of a reprimand. The way the film scrunches its face up at the kinds of people it doesn’t like, the way it trashes the legacy of villains like Task Master for no real narrative goal other than the shock value of the trashing, and the means by which it gets from A to B throughout are on that Italian Star Wars rip-off level, the kind that MST3K made a living riffing to death. But it’s serious, expensive, and debated. You’re not just expected to like Black Widow but to forgive it.

I don’t know what input Shortland had on the film outside of the decent dramatic scenes. I’m assuming that those scenes were most of her job since these movies often now go into pre-production before screenplays and directors have been finalized – she may not have even been on-set for a lot of this stuff. If true, the action scenes couldn't be cut or changed once she got there, no matter how unnecessary – they’d already been bought and paid for. They’re already halfway down the assembly line in some workshop before the director even sees them. The way she was recruited into a position that feels more like damage control than creative ambition is disheartening because there are blips of good filmmaking in this movie on her part (the way she harnesses Harbour’s sloppy nobility, or contains Weisz’s glinty surety inside of a joke, or keeps Johansson’s micro emotions in the frame). But they’re capers enrobed in 29 pounds of preprocessed Spam. I wish I was more surprised, but the outcome is practically pre-ordained by the process. Of James Bond, the villain of Moonraker, named Hugo Drax, said he "appears with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season." Due to directors being equally over-empowered by funding and undernourished by creative restrictions, the MCU release schedule is becoming such a season.

Somewhere in there, Johansson’s default sympathetic sensuality makes the character seem worth it, disguised by blockbuster posturing (which Yelena makes short work of mocking in one of those scenes of downtime). And in the disguise somewhere is a reluctant need for her dad, this homegrown communist mirror reflection of Captain America, a guy with a funny temper and a serious need for a good room-trashing. Maybe she sees her dad in the Incredible Hulk, and too much of the monster of her upbringing in herself. There’s something there that could have been drawn out to make this entire film series more interesting using this standalone puzzle piece, but it's never more interesting than her performance alone, in any of these movies. Instead, it’s something much more numerical and ready-made. The bits of humane charm aren't the subject they should be. They’re just the respite from the rest of it.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Disney/Marvel Studios

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