Black Widow (2021; Cate Shortland)
By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing in wide release and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access.
MCU Filler Material
In a tightly structured movie, the characters and the story become inseparable, with one element informing and supporting the other. Think of story and character as the two tracks of a railroad. As long as they run parallel to each other, the train moves forward with purpose. Split the rails, and the train itself doesn’t split; it just loses purpose and derails, killing hundreds.
Classic Hollywood filmmakers excelled at efficiently fusing story and character, almost to a fault. However, contemporary franchise tentpoles like Cate Shortland’s MCU filler material Black Widow must fulfill many obligations. Compelling, self-contained stories and coherent character arcs apparently sit low on the pole. At heart, Black Widow is a simple hybrid of a revenge movie and a family bonding adventure, only needlessly bloated to 133 minutes. Take out all the mindless bickering, pointless fight scenes, cutesy-poo Avengers references and tie-ins to future Disney+ TV series, and you’re left with maybe 75 to 80 minutes of actual movie, even considering that the screenplay writes itself into a corner by the end of act one.
Russian defector Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) died in the last Avengers movie (although considering the walloping she takes here, there’s no reason that a simple plunge to the bottom of an alien canyon should have killed her), but Black Widow takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with the Avengers at odds and Natasha in hiding.
A message from a fellow fugitive of the sinister “Black Widow program” reunites Natasha with her fake former “family,” undercover Russian agents now scattered to the winds. They team up to take down the rotten system, even though it seems like pseudo-mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) was contentedly enslaving baby girls for the rotten system up until the moment Natasha arrived at her doorstep. Of course, nonsensical heel turns happen when character and story run on divergent tracks. The film also suffers from tonal whiplash, sandwiching a sex trafficking allegory with references to forced hysterectomies between wink-wink Captain America jokes and obligatory CGI mayhem.