Die another Day: A [spoiler] review of Marvel’s Black Widow

Black Widow review: Marvel meets spy thriller - The Verge
Image by The Verge (It’s not the end of Natasha’s story but you can see it from here.)

Author’s Note: Despite declaring this a spoiler review for Black Widow, I don’t feel I need to describe the synopsis of a film that most people will likely watch anyway or read up on. From now on, I might give off my mid-review summaries of plot to properties that are either new like Invincible’s first season or are likely more niche, though doesn’t necessarily denote a lack of popularity like Netflix’s Castlevania.

The last film I remember seeing in theaters was back in 2019: Sam Mendes’ 1917, a brilliantly constructed and exhausting 2-shot WW1 movie that was anything but the worst choice for me to temporarily end my theater experience on.

At the same time, returning to the theater for the long belated first film for Marvel’s fourth phase reminded me of what I was not missing. Too many ads, patronizing self promotions for the theater-going experience and a general whiff of desperation that still lingers in the air and almost makes you feel a little sorry for what might still be a dying method of watching movies.

Of course, the box office success of this film’s opening, a more than welcome $80 million that follows a trend of new successes with F9 and A Quiet Place part II suggests that maybe that existential anxiety is less well-founded than say, what we should definitely fear from climate change nowadays.

I couldn’t help but reflect on that troubling topic while watching Natasha Romanoff’s send off movie in spite of this supposedly being a time and place to forget such things for a couple of hours. Of course, I have a medically diagnosed and medicated anxiety disorder, but that the particular theater me and my family went to near the Greeley Mall( another institution with well founded fears of extinction) had poor air conditioning made it easier for my mind to pick up on certain stressors. No matter what can be said of the state of the world for better or for ill in 2021: It must be said that the heat is on in one form or another.

It wasn’t so distracting that I couldn’t enjoy the 24th film entry for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is very difficult for me to rank the MCU’s offerings on a best to worst scale. I can easily tell you the entries that are on the lower scale( Iron Man 2, Incredible Hulk, Avengers: Age of Ultron, maybe Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel) but it is often harder to rank what is the best for me in this ongoing saga that has changed Hollywood for both the best and worst.

The James Bond series is much the same in my experience. I can tell you the movies I dislike the least with confidence( Die another Day, Spectre, Quantum of Solace, Diamonds are Forever) but to rank my favorites or those in the middle is nearly impossible. Like the MCU, there are the few that don’t work or don’t work well enough and then there’s all the rest of that goodness, so long as you ignore or compartmentalize the problematic nature of OO7 as a character( which I just gotta).

Considering the number entry of this particular MCU title, it feels oddly fitting to be the most upfront about copying from James Bond’s 25-26 numbered filmography. There have been MCU films that aped a spy thriller feel with much success, namely the Captain America sequels and the Disneyplus series, Falcon and Winter Soldier. Yet, I didn’t feel Bond so much as Bourne or more cerebral thrillers like the acknowledged Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men or Enemy of the State. Less about how impressive the main protagonist is of those cat and mouse dramas but about how absolutely stressful it is to be in direct or indirect conflict with America’s deep state.

Black Widow has shades of those “Spy” movies for the MCU, makes sense considering Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow’s been part of two of them. But it is again, the most about reflecting the go-to example of the “Secret Agent” genre, OO7 himself. There is a cute reference to Moonraker, the dumbest Bond film that is also the most enjoyable in spite of being dumb. That’s the one where he goes to space, well before Dom Toretto’s F&F family succeeded in doing so just recently.

It’s not just a reference, it’s a surprising number of plot elements and visual cues that still somehow find themselves conforming pretty comfortably into what is one of the darker and more violent entries in the MCU. There’s a plot device involving “pheromones” that for me recalls two things: Moonraker’s baritone Bond villain Hugo Drax wanting to use a pheromone in a plant to wipe out the population of Earth so he can replace it with his Aryanesque super people. The plot device here isn’t a 1:1, it’s actually the inverse in purpose to a genocidal plant. There’s also this movie’s villain’s secret lair: a floating fortress hidden in the air which is shaped surprisingly close to Drax’s space station in Moonraker.

The film ends with a death defying descent in the air which involves a fight over parachutes much like the incredible cold open for Moonraker where James Bond is thrown off an airplane and wrestles both the evil pilot and iconic henchmen Jaws for a means of landing safely. Speaking of Jaws, the main henchmen of Black Widow may or may not have something of a redemption arc in store like Richard Kiel’s Jaws.

There is a surprising amount of respect for one of the more love it or hate it entries in 007’s career. That I happen to love Moonraker goes a long way in making me also like Black Widow more as a film as well. The film is still a victim of something Kevin Feige, director Cate Shortland or Scarlett Johannsen couldn’t have prepared for nor helped: being delayed a full year longer than anticipated. All thanks to a virus that is still around and can still mess your life up or end it if you aren’t vaccinated.

Due to the arrivals of Disneyplus shows like WandaVision, Falcon and Winter Soldier and Loki, audiences are getting a feel for what to expect and what may become the driving force of the saga that follows Thanos and the Infinity Stones. Rampant speculation, often to absurd lengths in regards to Marvel’s very own devil Mephisto, is in vogue.

Despite it being for the most part not the intention of Black Widow to give you more of a view into the “big picture” of what is coming next, save obviously, for one emotional and alarming post credits scene, audiences are conditioned to want that and some have said that can come at the detriment of enjoying what is there in the present. Perhaps the relatively muted audience reception to Black Widow is a consequence of that. Few if anyone is saying Natasha’s one and only solo movie is bad, but it doesn’t give them enough of that itch for what comes next.

It’s an interquel set inbetween the events of Captain America Civil War and Avengers Infinity War. One last major film set before Thanos’ snap and Bruce Banner’s snap back changed everything. I imagine it can be jarring for some of the viewership to be thrust back to before Thano’s big moment on stage or its aftermath, especially with those three aforementioned Disneyplus shows in mind.

Of course, Marvel were transparent in their intentions of what Black Widow as a movie was supposed to be: giving Scarlett Johannsen something that fellow Avengers Downey Jr, Evans, Hemsworth, and sort of-not really Ruffalo had received: their character’s own movie. The only other remaining OG Avenger, Renner’s Hawkeye, will have to make do with a Disneyplus series. Thankfully for him, it is shaping up to be a consequential series at least, if this film’s final moments are any indication.

If you view Black Widow as what it is trying to be rather than what you were conditioned to want it to be, it’s another solid mid-tier effort that is trying to fill in some gaps in the MCU’s history that aren’t exactly needed but feel welcome all the same. Almost all of these regard Natasha Romanoff and her dark past, naturally.

Black Widow does a successful job of finally giving us more insight into who Natasha is as a person psychologically and what made her into a remarkable assassin/international woman of mystery. It somewhat subtly implies that she might actually be superhuman. Natasha survives some injuries and falls that would at the least incapacitate her, as well as her wayward sister Yelena (Florence Pugh). But not unlike Cap’s super soldier serum, which is given a Russian brand with David Harbour’s gloriously hammy Red Guardian, the Black Widows as a program were given something a little extra beyond “psychological conditioning”.

There’s a certain moment in the first Avengers movie where in the final battle in New York, Natasha manages to grab on to a speeding Chitauri vessel in midflight without it breaking her arms and sending her plummeting to her death. Finally, 9 years after that contrivance of a moment, it seems it really wasn’t so contrived. So yeah, Clint Barton/Hawkeye might’ve been the only “normal” Avenger after all. Of course, his upcoming show might also reveal he has some “skills” that aren’t solely the result of training.

What Black Widow accomplishes best in this respect is making all the moments we’ve spent with Natasha have a new context which can make returning to those moments more enriching. This would be especially notable with her story arc in Infinity War and Endgame. Her somewhat controversial or disliked heroic sacrifice in the latter movie will now feel quite different after watching her solo outing. Whether or not it is wholly better now is for enquiring minds greater than mine.

This could’ve been a combination of fatigue on my part and the lack of A/C in the theater, but Black Widow’s pacing felt somehow both fine and sluggish at the same time. It’s not a case of predestination getting in the way with regards to Natasha as her spy family consisting of “sister” Yelena, “father” Alexei the Red Guardian and “mother” Melina had their own unknown fates to mine for drama. It was the feeling that while there was no scene too many or one scene too long, it still felt kind of long.

I couldn’t tell you if the feeling was strictly from external factors or if there was something off in the pacing, but as much as it held my attention, Black Widow could feel a little too sluggish for a generally action-heavy spy drama. It’s anything but a deal-breaker of course, but it’s safe to say the next time I peruse this film, it will be on Disneyplus and possibly not all at once.

While Black Widow manages to do well enough in regards to its own set of characters and their complicated The Americans-like narrative, I have been growing weary of some of the tenets of a Marvel action sequence even if the execution isn’t really all that bad. It could be that some of the technical aspects are starting to tire me. Namely, I am growing tired of how MCU films and to be honest much modern blockbuster films seem to have a lack of desire to push for actually good CGI.

While waiting for the film to start through the long litany of ads, one of them was Dwayne Johnson’s Jungle Cruise, which is based off the ride from Disney’s Adventureland( if it worked for Pirates of the Caribbean that one and a half times, then why not?). While I find Johnson’s brand of acting ever charming with its self assured bravado with a lack of irony, the film he is part of is chock full of utterly unconvincing CGI, which much like a theme park ride, just not the one this film is based on, feels like it’s trying to be a ride full of thrills meant to pop out at you, while still feeling very hollow.

For all the crap that is packed on screen, The upcoming Jungle Cruise movie feels both expensive and cheap simultaneously and it is not helped that the set up and execution of what Johnson and Emily Blunt’s wild adventure will be seems even empty and bereft of any apparent cleverness or wit.

Black Widow by comparison is much, much more grounded in reality of course. Plenty of moments, action or otherwise are filmed on something that was real. After all, a notable motorcycle turned car chase through the streets and alleys of Budapest was indeed filmed in Budapest or in other urban locations that can replicate the look of Hungary’s capitol. The compelling and lore expanding story at the heart of it all also does much to forgive when certain moments feel a little more fake than they should.

Of course, some CGI shots, especially involving crashing and flipping vehicles did stand out for their obvious lack of actually being what they are supposed to be. After awhile, it starts to wear on me that I’m seeing a level of quality lesser from a company like Marvel/Disney, which is flooded with money nowadays. I get it, the MCU is producing multiple films a year now, having gone from 1 to 2 a year to three now four. There’s also the resources being partitioned to the Disneyplus series, which have production values that are for the most part commendably higher than most.

There are obviously effect shots regarding sequences that are either far too risky to do for real or too outlandish/ impossible to recreate in real life. The best computer effect shot regards an impressive avalanche as Natasha and Yelena try to extract Alexei from a Siberian prison. The avalanche is brilliantly shot and framed, though the surrounding CG regarding collapsing buildings and the helicopter Natasha and Yelena are flying looks less impressive.

Then there’s the flying villain’s lair where when nothing is happening looks quite incredible in detail. Then, when shit inevitably goes down in a fiery finale meant to reflect the fates of most bond villain lairs, you can find minor forgiveness that the sometime unconvincing CG is representing something that as of yet can’t be reproduced from reality.

This is a minor problem that builds as more and more MCU material comes out but it’s a problem that I don’t know if there is any solution for or if it’s even one with long term consequences. It could have been my mindset at the time or maybe it’s me looking to seem more even-handed so as not to feel as if I give this property too much of a pass over long term loyalty. I was rather critical and even disappointed with WandaVision, almost entirely for its final hours than the overall product mind you and I’m also more open to hearing good faith critique of Falcon and Winter Soldier than I was originally. I’m waiting nervously to see if Loki will end on a more solid note than its two predecessors.

Black Widow, for what it’s worth ends on a note that feels like thorough wrap up for an era over material you might’ve been curious about but weren’t chomping at the bit to have resolution over. Barring the post-credits scene that gives you that teasing for the future you are Pavlovian trained for, it ends on a note both tying up Natasha’s own internal story while clearing up a path leading in to her part to play in Infinity War.

I appreciated it and will as mentioned earlier now have a new lens to observe many past moments in the MCU from now on. It might seem backwards for the first phase 4 feature film of the MCU to be an experience looking back rather than forward but if you felt that Natasha’s last moments and tribute in Avengers Endgame was too slight, well maybe this is the film for you.

It was enough for me. And hey, we only have three more movies and three more shows including Loki to enlighten us further on what comes next to tie it all together. Again.

Originally posted 2021-07-11 23:28:46.

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