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Defector At The Movies

All It Takes To Make A Half-Decent Marvel Movie Is For The Main Character To Be Dead

Image via Marvel Studios

"The world has only one surplus of a naturally occurring resource, and that resource is girls." 

Ray Winstone’s heavy in Black Widow, who secretes pheromones that prevent people from physically attacking him, who slips into and out of his Russian accent like he’s trying to hold onto one of those jelly tube toys you used to find at mall kiosks, says this in the third act, and the movie lets that bizarre line sit in the air before dashing off to the next round of explosions. It’s great because his speech, like the speeches of all MCU villains, doesn’t really matter. You can just enjoy the fact that it made the final cut, which goes a long way towards describing Black Widow. A movie that, in the ruthlessly profitable and master-planned ecosystem of Disney, almost serves no function. It stands alone (as much as any of these movies can), a piece of the overarching superstructure that fits awkwardly into the bland tradition of the Avengers franchise because it actually has texture and a measure of style. 

This franchise has conditioned its audience to expect certain elements: unwieldy scale, quippy humor that often feels focus-tested, moral arcs that are so obvious they could glow in the dark, the CGI body double flying through the CGI explosion of the mostly CGI finale. It tricks rabid fans into defending shitty material and slathers its corporate brand of diversity over everything, all in the name of improving lives through the power of storytelling. These days you can mark the passage of time not by seasons, but by which parts of each new MCU Phase are being released. This is how the gravity of Disney works. 

I gave up intellectualizing the pros and cons of this behemoth a while ago. The discourses are predictable, the inevitability of more content is existentially terrifying. More than anything, I want to not feel dumb for investing in characters, rendered by a company that is only growing larger and more omnipresent by the day, who should be much cooler than they ever appear to be onscreen. But audiences must acquiesce if they’re to gratefully receive their gruel. Anyway. 

The architects of Marvel have, for now, eschewed the consequences of death for rinse-and-repeat resurrection. Natasha Romanov is dead and that’s information we’re by turns expected to remember, or forget, depending on what Black Widow is asking of us. 

Taking place after Captain America: Civil War, the film follows Natasha on a journey back to her retconned roots. Scarlett Johansson and Marvel Imagineer Kevin Feige have repeatedly stated that this movie isn’t an origin story, but another facet of the MCU’s Pavlovian conditioning is knowing that there will be, at some point, a character-defining flashback. This happens early, in the movie’s first sequence, which plays out like Marvel’s version of The Americans. Teenaged Natasha, her fake little sister Yelena (whose adult counterpart is played by Florence Pugh), fake mom Melina (a lightly youthanized Rachel Weisz), and fake dad Alexei (a warm and welcome David Harbour) are posing as a normal Midwestern family when the time comes for them to flee the country and return to the bosom of the USSR. Alexei is really Russia’s only (public) supersoldier, the Red Guardian, and Melina is one of the architects of the infamous Red Room, where girls like Natasha and Yelena are brainwashed and trained to become unfeeling murderers. 

Director Cate Shortland, one in a growing line of indie filmmakers plucked by Marvel’s Phantom Hand to helm a movie with a nine-figure budget, does more with this opening than it seems should be allowed under the auspices of the MCU. Part of this may lie with the fact that, because this is a stand-alone spinoff for a dead character, Shortland is able to construct a more layered and propulsive prologue than any entry into a franchise that has to bridge narrative gaps between films. That layering makes for a disorienting experience. It’s rare to see a Marvel movie where the color-grading isn’t a muddled mess, where there is some semblance of place and texture, where the momentum of physical action as dictated by body language can communicate something more complex than shitty dialogue. Of course, these moments become exponentially more rare as the film goes on. But I also can't remember the last time I watched a superhero movie where the scenes of dialogue were more interesting than the circus of chaos that denotes the “action.” 

All of this makes Black Widow odd and frustrating. By MCU standards, it’s good and that goodness feels cheap in light of the character’s fate. It feels even more odd because the stakes of the MCU are both world-ending, on a danger level, and life-preserving on the character level. Natasha has come some way since Iron Man 2, where her introduction is marked by Tony Stark lustily quipping, “I want one.” Why is she the one who dies and not Jeremy Renner, I mean, Hawkeye? But Marvel has never been good at writing women, least of all those who, canonically, aren’t that interested in romance. To be fair, up until recently, Marvel hasn’t been very good at hiring women, either. Shortland joins Jac Schaeffer, a writer on Black Widow and head writer on WandaVision, Kate Herron, director of the Loki series, and Chloe Zhao, director of the upcoming Eternals movie, to form a cadre of artists whose place in the MCU feels like an insurance policy against accusations of lacking diversity.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, Shortland had a low bar to clear. Joss Whedon tried to add what he thought was nuance to Natasha in Avengers: Age of Ultron. For him, that amounted to giving her an inferiority complex about not being able to bear children to the Hulk, a detail swiftly brushed away in later installments. But even the Russos, who have received so much acclaim for safely landing Phase Three of the franchise, imbued Natasha with a sense of fatalism, as if she were an expendable member of the team who was too terrible, too morally compromised, to live. 

In a way, with each appearance over the last decade-plus, Johansson has contended with performing an entirely new character. By turns sexualized, numb to emotion, emotionally unstable, calm under pressure, cracking under pressure, irredeemably violent, impulsive, and loyal, Natasha represents a nut Marvel has never been able to crack. Maybe it’s because Natasha is also, crucially, a murderer, one of the few Marvel characters whose very presence onscreen would seem to go against Disney’s four-quadrant mandate. Theoretically, this should have made her even more interesting, but most of the time it amounted to many mentions of past violence, while everything shown was bloodless. And so even when she redeemed herself, the weight of the past also took on the didactic weight of the corporation she appeared under. 

That (following her unceremonious death in Avengers: Endgame) Black Widow receives a promising vehicle of her own, where she is able to escape objectification and lazy writing, has been deemed an apt sendoff to some. Here, it feels like a missed opportunity. Pugh, Weisz, and Harbour amount to some of the most refreshing characters Marvel has introduced so far, seasoned actors who look like they’re having fun and not going through the motions for a paycheck. 

There is the feeling that elements of the Bourne movies, Killing Eve, and Mission: Impossible have all been run through a blender. There’s the Disney staple of emotionally consequential dead parents. But, in the case of Black Widow, the cons fall away more often than not. Shortland carves out one of the best-made movies in the MCU so far. Don’t think too hard about what that means, or how this affects the careers of other talented directors hoping to make successful original movies going forward, or the fact that Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s end credits cameo sees her calling Jeremy Renner a “cutie.” Take what you can get. 

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