After a prologue with a deceptively peaceful small-town idyll giving way to a chase/escape sequence, Black Widow descends into a nightmarish opening credits sequence implying rather than fully depicting the horrors of the Black Widow program and the Red Room. The Soviet program involves abducting, brainwashing, and torturing young girls, subjecting them to grueling training to turn them into ruthless, elite black-ops agents, and ultimately sterilizing them via hysterectomy in a grisly “graduation.” For every girl that makes it, far more wash out of the program, fatally so.
The enormity of this engine of depravity dwarfs the Treadstone project that produced Jason Bourne and his fellow assassins — a comparison invited by the visual style of early action scenes, which suggest the Bourne franchise until the inevitable build-up to climactic Marvel epic destruction. This raises a knotty moral question: If it took a full-on case of amnesia to put Bourne on the path to redemption, how do you redeem a Black Widow? The question is sharpened when we discover that — unlike the pre-amnesia Bourne, whose final assassination mission was thwarted by the unexpected presence of the target’s children — Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) was willing not only to kill a target’s young daughter along with him, but to use the girl to get to the father.
It gets worse. Targeting a child wasn’t the brainwashed act of a mind-controlled Widow robotically carrying out orders. The op was the last stage of Natasha’s defection to S.H.I.E.L.D.: an op planned and executed with the aid of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, who was supposed to kill her but recruited her instead. The op was a bomb attack against the Red Room mastermind, General Dreykov, a betrayal intended to liberate Natasha and perhaps also prove her bona fides to her new employers. “Dreykov’s daughter was collateral damage,” Natasha tries to explain. “I needed her to lead me to Dreykov … I needed her to be sure.”
“And yet here you are, not so sure,” another character scoffs. Natasha having been killed off in Avengers: Endgame, Black Widow is set a few years back, between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. So this is post-Avengers/Winter Soldier/Ultron/Civil War Natasha, still rationalizing deliberately targeting a child in an assassination op in cooperation with S.H.I.E.L.D. Are we meant to identify with or root for her because she’s “not so sure”?in
It would be one thing if Black Widow, directed by Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, faced up to the horror of Natasha’s past with real moral seriousness — if the film and its heroine were haunted, Bourne style, by the heinous things she did, by the people whose lives she destroyed. But this is a Marvel movie — written by Thor: Ragnarok screenwriter Eric Pearson, what’s more — so instead of moral seriousness we get quips and jokes.
The prologue’s small-town idyll, set in 1995 Ohio, focuses on a seemingly happy family — father, mother, and two girls — who are actually Soviet sleeper agents, even if the younger girl doesn’t know it yet. The dad is Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), a Soviet super-soldier called Red Guardian. The mom is a Black Widow named Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). The older daughter is Natasha, and the younger will grow up to be Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, the MCU’s next Black Widow. So when Natasha and Yelena bust Red Guardian out of prison, it’s almost like a family reunion (Mom will join the party later). “You both have killed so many people,” Alexei exults, embracing them both. “Your ledgers must be dripping, just gushing red. I couldn’t be more proud of you!” This winking allusion (by the screenwriter, not the character) to Natasha’s line in The Avengers about having “red in her ledger” is followed by Yelena muttering that Alexei smells bad. That’s the level of the movie’s moral seriousness.
Yelena has a zinger in which she tells Natasha that while they’re both trained killers, “I’m not the one that’s on the cover of a magazine. I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero.” That line might carry some heft, if the movie’s interest in Natasha’s celebrity went beyond that line — and if Yelena hadn’t just been razzing Natasha over her photogenic trademark three-point landing. I wonder if Yelena will remember this when she’s the one on magazine covers.
In Spider-Man: Far from Home, the late Tony Stark bequeathed to Peter Parker a technological MacGuffin called EDITH, short for “Even Dead I’m The Hero.” It wouldn’t make as punchy an acrostic, but Black Widow could be subtitled Even Dead in My Long-Delayed Solo Movie I’m Upstaged by My Costar(s). There’s an irony here. Robert Downey Jr., the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first and brightest star, was a tough act to follow — and Tom Holland’s wide-eyed young Spider-Man wasn’t the first heir apparent. As far back as Avengers: Age of Ultron, Don Cheadle’s Jim Rhodes, aka War Machine, was positioned as the next Iron Man. A dozen films later, though, not only has Rhodey never really emerged from the late Tony Stark’s shadow, he’s never been given a dramatic arc or a back story sufficient to establish him as a compelling character in his own right.
The same could be said of Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson, the Falcon, probably always destined, following the comics, to take up Captain America’s shield at some point, as he finally did at the end of Avengers: Endgame. Maybe the small-screen Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, unseen by me, helps to develop Wilson’s character — but, if you stick to big-screen fare, the next Captain America isn’t much more fleshed out than the other armored Avenger. As massively successful and efficient as it’s been in many ways, in other words, the MCU hasn’t done a great job at establishing the next-generation successors to its first-string heroes.
It’s a melancholy landmark, then, that Black Widow actually functions better as an introduction to the new Black Widow, Pugh’s Yelena Belova, than it does as the long-deferred solo outing for Johansson’s pioneering MCU heroine. Like Wolverine in his first solo movie, the title character seems to have lost much of her wit; instead, it’s Yelena who gets the zingers. MCU producer Kevin Feige has been talking about a Black Widow movie for over a decade. Despite this, MCU movies maintained a non-negotiable ratio of at least four male heroes for every heroine until Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Then came the second Ant-Man movie, with second billing for the Wasp, and, finally, after 20 male-led movies, Captain Marvel. Now Black Widow is finally here — and, instead of developing Natasha’s character or illuminating her transition from ruthless assassin to universe-saving Avenger, it’s more interested in her replacement.
The plot. Where to begin? It turns out that Dreykov survived Natasha’s assassination attempt — as did his daughter, albeit barely — and the Red Room is operating full steam, churning out Black Widows who are far more in Dreykov’s thrall than Natasha and other earlier Widows ever were, thanks to better mind control through chemistry. There’s an antidote, of course, and Yelena, who like Nat has been freed from Dreykov’s control, joins forces with her now-famous fake sibling and eventually their fake parents to bring Dreykov down once and for all.
Very little of this makes any kind of sense. Yelena sends the antidote through the mail without explanation to Natasha, who almost throws it away without a second look. Somehow, though, Dreykov’s top agent, a masked enforcer saddled with the silly comic-book name “Taskmaster,” knows Natasha has it before Natasha does, and almost kills her to try to get it back. How did Natasha, an elite Black Widow, implode a five-story building with eyes on at least one of her targets, yet fail to kill them? How did Dreykov survive without a scratch? Moving on!
Because no one in the MCU can have political convictions (even Captain America never expresses a patriotic sentiment, because how would that play in China?), Red Guardian’s imprisonment has no significance regarding his character or motivations, except insofar as he’s mad about having been imprisoned. Melina’s motivations make even less sense — but when she and Alexei start waxing nostalgic about their fake wedding and flirting to the discomfort of their fake daughters, it becomes clear that Black Widow is going to ride the faux-family comedy train to the end. Sure, their “parents” used them when they were little girls as a cover to steal military secrets from S.H.I.E.L.D., and neither of them regrets a thing. Sure, “Mom” is a scientist who actually invented Dreykov’s chemical mind-control technology. But at the end of the day, family is family, right?
One of Yelena’s zingers is a semi-graphic description of the hysterectomy process all Black Widows go through, the deadpan joke being that her language makes Red Guardian uncomfortable. Almost completely lacking in Black Widow is any sense of outrage over the grotesque violations of human rights and human dignity at the root of the whole premise of the film. The filmmakers ape something of the style of the Bourne trilogy, but they miss its heart.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.