20 July 2021

First Impressions: Black Widow

Yes! The streak is finally over! After 18 months of not seeing a film in theater (not counting various Vin Diesel drive-in adventures) I made it back to see Black Widow (2021). Yeah, of course, a Marvel movie sent me back to the theaters. Whatever, bow to your corporate overlords. But this is has gotten a lot of heat from reviews, because it's the trendy thing to do to trash Marvel these days. I enjoyed this quite a bit, it wasn't wholly without problems, but I would like to SPOIL everything for you and dive into this theatrical experience.

First of all, I think this film is deserving for Black Widow, who has been a supporting Avengers character for the better part of 11 years now, first appearing in Iron Man 2 (2010) which seems so long ago. She predates Captain America and Thor, folks. I never really thought the character was all that compelling, to be honest. She's just kid of...there. With some guns. Is she the heart of the team? Or the most cold and ruthless? There is always a weird line to walk that never really develops her beyond a sexpot. There is a lot of clamouring for her to get her turn in the spotlight because she has been a prominent female character since nearly the beginning, but through all that I wish she actually WAS a good character.

Seriously, she's introduced as an explicit sex object for Tony Stark. I'm not sure if we ever truly got past that. Whedon tried in Age of Ultron, but crap and a half, that whole "I'm a monster for not being able to have babies" landed terribly and looking back critically on Whedon's treatment of women (yeah, after he had crafted the illusion of inclusivity around himself), it all feels more weird and awkward.

Irregardless, this all to say that Black Widow deserved not only her own starring role, but a chance to be an actual character and human being. They sort of do this. I mean...the character is dead in the mainline continuity (yaaaay for girls dying so that sinful men may atone for their past deeds. Jeez we need to move past all these tropes), so this awkwardly sets her story in the aftermath of CIVIL WAR (2016). Listen, I didn't hate this - they needed a time when she was alive, and as a spy fugitive, Black Widow works best when she's on the run. Introducing her cast of side characters works well with this, too, since it's a moment where she can't call on the Avengers for help.

We never really got proper CIVIL WAR catharsis. The biggest aftermath was that Captain America had a beard during Infinity War (2018). It is nice to see some ramifications, and to be honest, I'd love to see more stories out this era. The Thanos movies in particular always felt like we were dropped into this story and forced to piece together what had happened, it is cool to actually see some of this stuff. It's obviously five years too late, but in all reality, all the Marvel movies will gel and slush together in the big Disney+ pot for all eternity so release order doesn't even matter any more.

The basic plot is that since BW is off on her own, she tries to reconnect with her estranged sister, Yelena Belova, who leads to her estranged father, who leads to her estranged mother. It's a good challenge for Widow. As even her name implies, she doesn't have family by nature, and centering her around her makeshift Russian Spy family is a good challenge for the character.

The opening is straight Americans and although I don't know why young Black Widow had blue hair (not like she is a punk or into wacky hair dye as an adult), it largely works. There are legit thrills here, and we also get the first of MANY impossible feats, this time David Harbour escaping Ohio on the wing of a plane. I thought the Nirvana cover during the credits was a little hackneyed, I don't know why, just didn't seem to fit, especially after such a good opening scene. But in a small time it does a great job of establishing the family unit, undercutting it as fradulent, and then demonstrating the betrayal that formed Black Widow's character as an untrusting superagent.

But...is she? She seems to trust Nick Fury and Steve Rogers pretty quick. I wouldn't have wanted to see the movie where she is an evil agent that learns to be good because that's happened plenty of times (this film already felt pretty Bourne), and we generally don't need more origin stories. This film worked pretty well with nice slices of an origin while also advancing the character on her modern adventures (we surely don't need an origin with her...eighth movie). However, that concept still isn't totally developed. Did she betray the Red Room just because...she wanted to? Surely there was a struggle there. Of course it seems like she made the choice to destroy what she believed was kidnapping and torturing young women, but it takes a lot to fight against one's country as well as psychological brainwashing. There is a lot of fodder there that's skipped over.

As I said, though, I'm happy with the movie we got. That is mostly because as I mentioned, Black Widow isn't really that interesting of a character. You know who is, though?! EVERY OTHER CHARACTER IN THIS MOVIE. Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova steals the show, and as an up-and-coming actress for years now, mostly known as being super-sad in Midsommar (2019), really stretches out here. Rumour has it that she's taking up the Widow mantle, either in film or Disney+, and I will take her over Scar Jo instantly. Her character actually has feelings and depth, and propulsive action. We get to know her and she's effortlessly charismatic.

David Harbour comes in as the Red Guardian who is perfect as this lazy boasting Russian super-soldier who also belies a lot of depth and nuance. There is a little bit of a stretch that takes him from perfect competent 90s dad to bearded-up, tattooed-up Gulag prisoner, but he's still an engaging presence. Finally, Rachel Weisz, who is totally only 14 years older than Scar Jo, is great as the cold and calculating mother Black Widow. Watching her, I actually thought she'd be an excellent early-2000s iteration of the character. Which is weird to say, because she could have definitely been cast in 2010, right? She effortlessly walks through this role and although her motivations aren't actually developed, she does a great job.

Finally there's Ray Winstone as Harvey Weinstein, who takes in lost young girls and brainwashes them into becoming assassins. The metaphor for sex slavery isn't too subtle, but that's not a bad thing. We need a sledgehammer these days. Is it weird I liked him better as the most Russian stereotype ever, with big glasses and a tracksuit in the 90s flashback?

Finally, Olga Kurylenko plays Taskmaster, Harvey Weinstein's daughter whose face got all burnt to shit by Black Widow when she was trying to kill him. There is legit trauma and regret here, that was tough to develop when they're all just fighting each other. And her brain is a computer, now, right? The red mist couldn't have just deprogrammed her, right? She needs some good Wakanda juice like the Winter Soldier got to undo her brain fuckery.

And let's get into this, because first of all, the Taskmaster is a shit character. He's got cool abilities and should be incredibly deadly, but in the comics he always gets punked out despite everything he can do. Tony Masters kind of sucks. There's a good concept in there, though. He works better as a mercenary for hire, and the technological angle rather than the metahuman angle is fine (the MCU, for all its weirdness, does at times seem reticent to just give people fun powers for no reason like real comic books. Good luck bringing in the X-Men!). Making her the burnt face daughter isn't an awful twist, but whenever you take away a character's agency, that character becomes a lot less cool. I like the idea of a daughter rightly inspired by hatred of BW relentlessly hunting her down rather than brain control. Brain control is always a cheap soap opera out that removes actual growth and catharsis.

There also just isn't enough done with the character. Sure, she has Cap's shield powers, Hawkeye's Bow powers, and Black Panther's claw powers, but kind of gets owned by fatass Red Guardian (though the fight cops out when she's locked in a prison cell instead). The film tends to tease these cool ideas rather than follow through. There WAS a cool, brief moment where she does the Black Panther triple kick. But the movie doesn't have room to develop her as an antagonist worth cheering for.

She does continually blow up Black Widow. This movie is a little egregious with characters walking away unscathed from ridiculous explosions. It's pretty much Futurama-level. There's even a helicopter crash that they just walk away from. Listen, there is a certain license when it comes to any movie, but this film did a hard job of actually stretching my suspension of disbelief.

Okay, I did actually like this movie. It works, it's one of Marvel's Top Third tier, all the fridge logic doesn't totally hold up, but it has a lot of charm and a really great cast that charms its way into our hearts. The fight sequences might be the best that's ever been in a Marvel movie, surpassing The Winter Soldier (2014). I said it. The choreography is up there.

It's also relatively quip-less. There are jokes, but to say that Marvel is the first action franchise to invent jokes is ignoring quite a bit of movie history. There are less pop culture references and sardonic replies, and it all just fits the world quite a bit better. Most of the jokes are at the eponymous title character's expense. Needless to say, going from a brainwashed Russian sleeper agent to a world-reknowned Avenger is a big leap, and one that took away a lot of Natasha's street cred among fellow dirty assassins.

The girl-power stuff is ham-fisted but also relevant and makes this possibly the most political Marvel film yet. It has a coherent message and demonstrates it well, without resorting to de facto liberal praise that avoids positive judgment solely because you'd be shunned to suggest otherwise. I'm an ally, I swear.

This is a solid return to theaters for any movie, and Marvel has done a good job once again. It is a surprisingly grounded work for a company that has The Eternals (2021), and then apparently non-stop Multi-verse nonsense on the horizon. Hoorah!

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