Following over a decade of releasing the most block-busting of franchise blockbusters, Marvel Studios blew up its world. Thanos, the arch-nemesis to Marvel’s foremost team the Avengers, which the studio had been setting up for years, eliminated half of the known universe with a snap. In the next film, the Marvel universe righted itself once again, re-establishing the diegetic status quo, save for a few notable casualties — among them, Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
After the overblown spectacle of this two-part finale — the second of which became the highest grossing film of all time — it seemed an impossible task for the studio to put the genie back in the bottle and do a small-scale (relatively speaking) movie. It seemed (to me, at least) all the more impossible for that small-scale film to be a solo venture for a deceased character. This franchise was designed using intertextual building blocks that constantly hint at the future and push the stakes to be bigger and more elaborate. For it to take a breather after its biggest and most elaborate film yet and present a film almost entirely cutoff from that escalating story world is something of a surprise.
After 2021, Marvel probably won’t make another “small” film which does not connect substantially to future films — those smaller projects are now going to Disney+ — but they should. And Black Widow is exhibit A to that case.
Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Romanoff is being pursued by the covert defense agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and the U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). She escapes to Norway, where she is sent a case of vials containing a red serum. Her estranged sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), wishes to use the serum to save numerous women from the chemically-induced brainwashing she herself was subjected to, by the man (Ray Winstone) which had previously psychologically brainwashed Romanoff in a similar fashion.
After an uneasy reunion, Romanoff and Belova make a plan to infiltrate the Red Room, the facility where women are subject to this mind control and made into super soldiers, and kill the man behind it.
Before any of this, though, there is a prelude introducing Black Widow’s childhood as part of a Russian sleeper cell embedded in Ohio. It is worthy of note, because it is both one of the best opening sequences in a Marvel movie, as well as the least Marvel-esque in its execution. Its mood, its aesthetic, even the opening credits which follow, all feel like something completely different for Marvel — a welcome departure from the long-running formula.
This prologue also introduces us to the approach director Cate Shortland is taking with this film. Like Captain America: Winter Soldier and Black Panther before it, Black Widow has a substantial dose of James Bond in its bones (the film even takes a crack at one of the worst in the Bond franchise). Espionage is infused into the story. The megalomaniac villain has aspirations of literally controlling minds and amassing an army of sleeper cell soldiers. And the action has Daniel Craig-era Bond written all over it. One sequence reminded me explicitly of a chase scene in Quantum of Solace (a good Bond movie, despite what some say).
But Black Widow feels inspired by many modern action franchises: Bourne, Mission: Impossible, even John Wick in flashes. As the film progresses, the action set pieces grow bigger and more bombastic — which is to say, more like a Marvel movie (to their detriment, I think). The set pieces in the first half, though, are dynamic and consistently engaging.
There is a certain repetition to the delivery of story beats throughout the film which works to hinder the excitement some. Most action scenes will be jump-started by a sudden explosion, a loud burst of noise which interrupts a character mid-sentence. This comes off as a deliberate screenwriting mechanism as to not allow any exposition scene from bogging down the film’s pacing. The downside is that these dialogue scenes are what give this superhero action human stakes. Despite there being more screentime dedicated to character development than in some other Marvel movies, the jerkiness of the transitions do more to throw off the pacing than keep the momentum going.
On the whole, though, Black Widow is a welcome change of pace for Marvel. While the massive movies Infinity War and Endgame have their merit—I find them impressive in scope alone—they contain little time to breathe. Marvel, in its complete dominance of the global box office, has all the time in the world to develop to its next Thanos. In the meanwhile, I can try to enjoy the smallness.
Black Widow: B
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