A Film Review -The Black Widow

Interesting that Marvel/Disney goes out of its way to tell potential ticket buyers on the internet that the Black Widow is “A film about Natasha Romanoff in her quests between the films Civil War and Infinity War.” You could have fooled me.

One of the lesser Marvel characters, Scarlett Johansson, has appeared (by my count) eight previous times as the Widow since 2010, the thirty-six-year-old making her ninth appearance in this opus which should firmly establish the star worldwide as a major part of the Marvel pantheon. The Black Widow as a motion picture is calculating and, actually, the filmmakers do to the audience what the master villain (and he’s perfect) Dreykov (played by Ray Winstone) is doing to the women he kidnaps. Mind manipulation and control.

Marvel comics reinvented Black Widow in April of 1964, just about when this writer started buying the Marvel product, and whether the Widow’s crazed Dreykov went on his mad spree of world domination first, or if it happened to be Ian Fleming’s Blofeld in the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (part of the Bond/Blofeld trilogy, written in April of 1963 (I’ll put my money on Bond,) both stories were custom made for the #METOO movement over half a century later. Women controlled by men are turning the tables on the oppressors! Dreykov’s kidnapping and abuse of women in Black Widow echo the accusations made against Harvey Weinstein and others. Men of power controlling subordinate female kind. The subliminal message, if it exists, or the feel of it muddies the waters. Muddies them as much as the over-action with things exploding and two sisters acting like Joan Collins and Linda Evans slugging it out in the Dynasty swimming pool. Only this time with knives and stabbing weapons to paraphrase Arnie in the Terminator.

Punching, car demolitions, planes, and citadels collapsing, crumbling, and making for some dizzy, dizzy viewing – borrowing heavily from the Mission Impossible series, is the height of redundancy. The Black Widow is one film where Marvel is counting on its vast following to gobble it up for some summer fun without following the elastic plot in dire need of a scorecard.

While Bond’s magnificent 1969 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service toyed with the audience and had more cat and mouse restraint under director Peter R. Hunt’s supervision, Cate Shortland’s rough and tumble approach to The Black Widow seems guided by unseen hands. For a film promoting women, Cate Shortland seems like a prop rather than a director, and one assumes that the powers that be at Marvel/Disney wanted to follow D.C.’s lead after the success of the first Wonder Woman. Female director, female star, Wonder Woman in a land of ladies, The Black Widow a manufactured artifact the result of women kidnapped on a grand scale. Films designed to get boyfriends to bring their girlfriends to science fiction comic book movies.
007 1969 vs. The Black Widow 2021

Peter R. Hunt had edited previous Bond films. He was the perfect supervisor for this legendary Bond entry, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, though it was his first outing as a director. He kept the storyline clean (and close to the Fleming novel) while – at times – Cate Shortland’s The Black Widow has everything but the kitchen sink, trying to be all things to all people. The most interesting thing for this critic, though, is the plot following the 1969 Bond film so closely… and how the villain saves the film from mediocrity. It’s just too bad that Marvel didn’t sit Shortland down to watch the Bond film a hundred times or more. Wikipedia gives information on the 007 classic: “Bond learns Blofeld has been curing a group of young British and Irish women of their livestock and food allergies. In truth, Blofeld and his aide, Irma Bunt, have been brainwashing them into carrying biological warfare agents back to Britain and Ireland to destroy the agricultural economy, upon which post-World War II Britain depends.”

In Black Widow, villain Dreykov is far more driven and ruthless than the seemingly kindly Count that Telly Savalas played in (as stated) one of the all-time best Bond films, George Lazenby’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). That Savalas, as Blofeld, blows away Bond’s wife (Avenger actress Diana Rigg) at the end of the film exposes Blofeld as the murderer that he is. The goal, of course, exactly like Dreykov in this Black Widow: world domination. Director Cate Shortland’s muddled beginning almost sends the film off the cliff.

As a critic stated about Batman vs. Superman, it was like putting your head inside a beehive. Well, I won’t be that lethal/brutal on Marvel’s newest entry to its film legacy, not so much with The Black Widow’s first 45 minutes, which – at worst – are convoluted. BUT!, with multiple superb villains, it pulls itself from out of the rubble and becomes a decent and fun motion picture about halfway through to its conclusion. You can see the dysfunction in the May 2020 trailer from fourteen months ago. Yes, it is beautifully, splendidly filmed, but other than the location of Norway why go to Budapest and Morocco when the scenes in those countries could’ve been generated almost anywhere? The July 2021 trailer fares somewhat better but is still inundated with visual cacophony.

Why the botched intro? Again blame director Cate Shortland. Her resume was thinner than Patty Jenkins (director of Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984). Though the COVID pandemic hit the Wonder Woman sequel, it would be hard to match the spectacular 822.3 million Wikipedia claims the first WW made on a budget of 120-150m. Wonder Woman 1984 cost 200m while The Black Widow’s Wikipedia estimated expenses at 150-200m. Marvel rarely misfires however we are living in a brave new COVID weary world. Will people want to go to IMAX to beat the heat and see this slam-bang feature? Will the pandemic impact the 150-200m estimated gamble?

This critic’s perspective is that people are aching to get back to the theaters. The Revere (Massachusetts) Cinema complex is shut down…which is a shocker, and masks are still requested even if people have been vaccinated. All of this, of course, must have been thought out in board meetings and test marketing. The Marvel product has a massive following and what The Black Widow offers is a convergence of so many films (beyond the 007 mentioned above) that it is dizzying. Cars chasing cars (take The Matrix and Terminator 1, 2 or 3,) Star Trek’s The Cloud Minders from 1969, even Johansson’s wonderful 2014 Lucy film, which made a huge fortune on a small budget, seems to be a guide for Johansson’s Widow in this release.

If Rocky and Bullwinkle were human, they would be the parents of Natasha Romanoff (the real Black Widow) in this science fiction chick flick. Obviously, Marvel paid notice to Wonder Woman resurrecting the sideways Warner Brothers / DC wilting universe and, in what is out of character for producer Kevin Feige (p.g.a.) is how the film sometimes veers off course…sometimes smacking into D.C./Warner Brothers flaws.

What brings it back on course is how The Black Widow channels Ant-Man and the Wasp. The dysfunctional family tries to figure out if it is a family or every man and woman for him and herself. At the end of the day, it is something to do during a summer desperate to escape the grasp of a worldwide pandemic.

Special mention goes to the brilliant performance of Rachel Weisz, looking so different than her mastermind schemer in Runaway Jury lo those many years ago. That Weisz is the wife of Daniel Craig, who updated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is pure irony.