Marvel’s long-awaited ‘Black Widow’ is intense, entertaining

At last, “Black Widow,” the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has come to theaters and streaming. People either love it or hate it, based on reviews and social media comments I’ve seen so far.

With Black Widow, we seem to have reached a weird place in the franchise: There seems to be a higher expectation for this movie than for previous Marvel films. I want to say it’s because its release was delayed so long, or because of the events of “Endgame,” because we are expecting a changing of the guard. Unfortunately, I suspect most of the criticism lies with the gender of its superhero. Some people are trashing on it – perhaps without even realizing it – simply because the main character is a woman.

Granted, it has some silly and unrealistic moments, but what Marvel film doesn’t? Even “Guardians of the Galaxy” (which is perfect in almost every way!) has a few ridiculous, over-the-top characters (hello Ronan the Accuser) that are too cartoony even for a comic book movie.

Even though “Captain Marvel” (and “Wonder Woman”) have proven that female superhero movies can be successful, there still seems to be a higher bar. Maybe because I am a woman, I loved “Black Widow” and didn’t expect the plot to surpass that of other Marvel entries in order for it to be deemed acceptable. Was it perfect? No. But it was entertaining, intense, unpredictable, funny, and moving.

(The remainder of this post contains SPOILERS! Continue reading at your own risk!)

One social media comment I read said the movie sucked because of the “Scooby Doo” masks, a criticism which doesn’t really make sense to me, considering that the mask tech used in “Black Widow” was used in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and I don’t recall anyone throwing that baby out with the bathwater.

Anyway.

The film begins with a seemingly happy (and seemingly American) family: a mom and dad and their young daughters, one of which is the title character. We quickly find that all is not as it seems. The parents are Russian spies and the children aren’t theirs – they belong to the “Red Room,” Soviet villain Dreykov’s training ground for his “widows” – young girls who are brainwashed and trained to be assassins.

A nightmarish montage of images of traumatized little girls, interspersed with cartoons and news clippings, is accompanied by a slow cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” We already know that Natasha has been sterilized, and we’ve seen flashbacks of her upbringing, so we can imagine what is happening to these children, which somehow makes it creepier than if they’d shown us.

The film then jumps around a bit from past to present – well, not present, but a time after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” and also takes us all over the world. It’s a bit jarring and difficult to keep up at first, but the story hits its stride after taking us on a chase that lasts only a little bit too long (but it’s a spy movie so I’ll allow it), and we get to see the connection between the two “sisters,” now grown and kicking butt.

One of the funniest scenes is when Yelena makes fun of Natasha’s poses – the sexy superhero landing and hair flip we’ve all seen many times. Florence Pugh is a talented actress, and is great in this role. The movie only gets better when Russian spy dad Alexei, aka Red Guardian, comes back into the picture. The casting for the role of Alexei is one of those choices that can make or break a character, and luckily for us, fan fave David Harbour from “Stranger Things” was perfect. And of course, award-winning actress Rachel Weisz is always wonderful.

Like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the witty dialogue and the theme of family are the film’s strong suits and are more meaningful than any stunts and special effects, and make up for the somewhat absurd plot: Good guys fight henchmen (or henchwomen) for a substance (or in the case of “Guardians,” an Infinity stone), in attempt to render madman villain powerless.

These movies are at their best when they are packing an emotional punch. Yelena telling her long-ago “family” how she feels about them was heart-wrenching, and I teared up when she and Alexei sang “American Pie,” a favorite song from her childhood (even if a bit heavy-handed in its symbolism).

One of the relationships in the film, between Natasha and her “fixer” Rick Mason, failed to launch. Mason’s portrayer, O-T Fagbenle, explained in an interview that there was originally a more intimate scene between them, in which, he says, “Scarlett and I lay down in bed together. We had quite an intimate conversation, but they cut it from the movie.”

He doesn’t say why it was cut, and it could be any number of reasons, but I think they were worried it would tarnish Natasha’s reputation. I can’t imagine they were trying to keep it kid-friendly, considering some of the other scenes. (It is rated PG-13.)

To be fair, the MCU isn’t exactly bursting with romance. There are very few kisses in the entire franchise. But almost every male character has had a girlfriend or wife. I know Natasha can’t have kids, but she could still have a man, if she wanted one, and if the writers would let her have one. Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, didn’t get a love interest either.

I think when the director is a woman, there’s an attempt to make the female superhero less of a sex symbol, less objectified, which is great; she’s a strong independent woman who doesn’t need a man? Or was it more “we don’t want her in bed with a man because that makes her seem slutty”?

Wanda and Vision are allowed to kiss – they are MARRIED. Also he is a robot.

I guess it’s OK for a woman superhero to have a boyfriend if he’s not really a boy but actually a robot. (If your boyfriend is a Hulk, it’s probably not going to work out.)

It’s possible director Cate Shortland cut the scene simply because she didn’t want a love story competing with the main plot and I can respect that, even if (or especially if?) the main plot involves treating women like objects.

I’m not sure why I’m hung up on this cut scene. Maybe because it would have been nice for Natasha to have something of her own. As much as I love (and honestly, prefer) Flo and am excited to see her continue Black Widow’s legacy going forward, Natasha seems almost relegated to a supporting player in her own movie.

Although she was never my favorite Avenger (probably because she hasn’t gotten an interesting story until now), I still felt it wasn’t fair for her to be the one sacrificed in “Endgame” since the implication was that since Clint was married and had kids and she didn’t, his life was somehow more valuable than hers. I also feel it wasn’t fair that it took this long for her to get her own movie, when most of the other original Avengers have each had three. But it’s here now, so I won’t belabor that point.

The film fits nicely into the MCU, sandwiched between the wars, Civil and Infinity. Fans will enjoy finding the Easter eggs. One of the more meaningful ones is Yelena’s vest that she gives to Natasha. It is this vest we see her wearing in “Infinity War.” Marvel is really great with this sort of attention to continuity and detail; it shows they are always looking ahead, which bodes well for the future of the MCU. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

Photos: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

2020-04-22 00.25.02

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