This film fails to utilise a rare opportunity to add depth and detail to Scarlett Johansson’s character
Marvel has been guilty of under-developing Natasha Romanoff’s character. She waltzes in with cool assassin moves, poses like Catwoman—an idea that’s enjoyably mocked in Black Widow— and constantly hints about a dark past (“remember Budapest?”) that we have never known more of. And before we could, she suffered a grisly fate in Avengers: Endgame. Black Widow needed to be the film that would give us closure about this character, that would fill up the big void of Natasha’s backstory and underscore the tragedy and triumph of Natasha’s sacrifice in Endgame. The film occupies even more importance when we realise that Scarlett Johansson’s public spat with Marvel, regarding her remuneration, could well cause this to be her last film as Natasha Romanoff.
Director: Cate Shortland
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Olga KurylenkoADVERTISING
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
The film begins interestingly enough, as it introduces us to the family dynamics of Natasha, who seems an odd fit in a family of four that includes her parents, Alexei (David Harbour), Melina (Rachel Weisz), and sister Yelena (Florence Pugh). But this is just a smokescreen, both the family and the film’s seeming focus on it, as it can’t seem to resist the urge to move from one generic action set-piece to another. More distractions come in the form of a generic Bond villain, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), and his puppet assassin, Antonia (Olga Kurylenko). The latter, particularly, should have been so much more, given her horrific past, but it’s a reflection of this film’s superficiality that this character never amounts to anything more than the autobot she looks like.
It’s really during its more contained moments—like that dinner conversation among Natasha’s damaged family—that you see a bit of heart. It’s in such a scene that you get a glimpse of the differences between Natasha and Yelena (an impressive Florence Pugh). But really, the big question we sought an answer to in this film was, what caused Natasha to transform from being a cold assassin capable of harming a child into a selfless woman capable of great sacrifice? As Melina puts it, “How did you keep your heart?” Natasha’s disappointing answer—and in a way, this is an indictment of the film itself—is a one-liner so generic that it seems an insult to the depth of her pain and the magnitude of her sacrifice.
Black Widow, for lack of inventive set-pieces (compare it to Shang Chi, for instance, and you will see the difference), should have at least had the patience to linger on Natasha and Yelena. It’s keener to make an impression with its, again, rather superficial, all too literal interpretation of women enslavement. What you see in this sensitive angle is the eagerness to affect you with statistics. “Check out all these women!” the film says. “Check out how they are all across the world! Check out the massive scale of this operation!” For lack of any real investigation into the lives of these women, for lack of any real interest in humanising them, they come through as numbers, not as real, affected women.
Though Avengers: Endgame was a magnificent film, it’s hard not to notice that while Ironman’s sacrifice, rightly, got plenty of attention, you couldn’t quite say the same for Natasha Romanoff, whose death was no less important. Black Widow, the film, has enough tools at its disposal to create an emotionally rich experience: a sibling relationship, the metaphor of women enslavement, a dysfunctional family, and at its centre, a woman who just won’t let trauma get the better of her… and yet, the film feels calculated and cold.
In well-written superhero films, humour doesn’t distract from the main story, but in Black Widow, while David Harbour is great, the writing often feels indulgent in its often-distracting attempts at humour, which has the effect of taking away from the tragedy at the centre of this film. In one scene, Yelena and Natasha touch upon the topic of children, but it feels like a cursory line designed to evoke sympathy, not as a genuine attempt to get into the psyches of these women.
The male filmmakers who had Natasha Romanoff at their disposal, often made her wear tight clothes and pose in theatrical ways before she engaged in fighting. What many of them seemed not to realise was that Natasha, even without all the emphasis on her looks, was already cool for managing to have a kind heart despite her whole life trying to make her otherwise. She deserved at least some of the—even if not the same—respect that Tony Stark got for his sacrifice. Black Widow should have been the film to provide her with a warm send-off, but like the cursory flowers placed at her grave at the end before a character gets busy with a forced exchange, the film feels like it’s simply going through the motions. Natasha Romanoff deserved better.
This review was written for Cinema Express, and was originally uploaded here.