source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

With Avengers: Endgame complete and most of the original superheroes put out to pasture, it seemed the MCU was ready to switch things up going into Phase 4. Some of the changes were poised to address criticisms that had built up: that their idea of a superhero was monolithic (look at the diverse people they have lined up for suits), that producing power overwhelmed directorial imprints (they signed on several of the best indie filmmakers around), that their year-around release schedule was pushing the industry to overvalue make-it-or-break-it blockbuster filmmaking (okay, they have no interest in changing this one). What we couldn’t have anticipated from peeking at the Phase 4 lineup was that they would contend with a criticism that, if the average moviegoer starts agreeing with, could actually loosen their carefully constructed stranglehold on pop culture: that the movies were becoming lazily repetitive.

Black Widow utilizes the apparent send-off of the beloved titular character and lynchpin of the series to shake things up with a turn towards true darkness, not through the kind of widespread death the series has treated as dramatic fodder time and again but through a look at cultural subjugation without deflecting jokes (like in Captain Marvel) and without coming from a position of power (like in Black Panther). It’s a seemingly bold move until you remember that’s exactly the path Logan already tested, and sadly, the MCU isn’t about to be as bold or as appropriately violent as that film proved you can be.

Going back to the fragmented period between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, we pick up Natasha Romanoff (we all know what Scarlett Johanson brings to the role by now) as a woman on the run after fighting against the regulations that split up the gang in Civil War. We find out her time was spent dealing with even older traumas, specifically ones stemming from her upbringing in an abusive spy program. She thought she had brought it down years ago, but when a pseudo-sister (Florence Pugh, gamely doing the best she can with the material) shows up and informs her things have only gotten worse, the two seek out the first family they ever knew to take down the program once and for all.

The spies are very pointedly all women, and in unveiling not just a brutal training program but actual mind control by the man at the very top, the movie takes on a thematic chilliness only matched in universe by Black Panther. Director Cate Shortland seemed to realize Black Widow would have to replicate the way that movie was frank and uncomfortable about the real world battles it danced around if it was to feel worthy of such topics, and to she and her entire team’s credit, she steers the movie away from much of the humor and lightness that has characterized the MCU up to this point.

What the movie doesn’t succeed at, though, is having much to say once it’s struck its troubling course. Shortland gives us lackluster, misjudged style instead of true emotion, the suggested violence going on between average human beings (remember, Natasha and her fellow spies have no powers) requires the camera to dodge any real blow and the editors to cut away from the rampant bloodshed in order to keep family-friendly ratings. 

But this is not a failure of matching theme to what’s appropriate for your audience. After all, the MCU has covered a mass death event, so it can handle looking at the systemic subjugation of women through the violent language of superheroes. The failure comes in not treating the subject with the pain it deserves, of not letting you feel the blows, even if they must be limited to metaphorical ones. 

There’s only one rattling moment when the violence and the meaning connect, a flinch from a threatened strike that is small but weighted, communicating the kind of deeply rooted abuse that makes your blood run cold. That’s what the movie has chosen as its topic, though, and it should‘ve found more ways to inspire such discomfort.

Still, the shift shows that Kevin Feige and those running things at Marvel Studios are finally willing to try something different, and that’s the only way the series will stave off its inevitable stagnation. That Black Widow doesn’t find the right way to tell one of its most serious stories to date is frustrating, especially considering it comes off as a mere tepid misfire. That’s more of a waste than a failed shot at greatness would’ve been, what with the eyes of the pop culture world upon them and the chance to truly say something within their grasp.

Release: available in theaters in the US on July 9th, 2021, for international release dates click here
Director: Cate Shortland
Writers: Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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