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Consumed With Hate: Black Widow

🕷️ I Cry When Angels Deserve To Die...

The Crime: Black Widow
The Guilty Party: Ike Perlmutter
Overview: The MCU awkwardly shoe-horns in a too-little/too-late solo film for the only woman among their original six Avengers.

Why I Hate It...

Not every Avenger needs a solo movie. Some characters (Hawkeye and Hulk come readily to mind) work well as foils and utility players, but when you put the spotlight on them, is there really enough there to carry a movie? A TV show, sure--Hawkeye on Disney+ was actually quite good--but a movie is a different type of compressed storytelling. It has to grab you immediately and go, rather than simmering for three episodes building up character narratives, and not every character has that in them. Now, granted, there was definitely an audience for a Black Widow movie right after The Avengers. For one, there's female representation. But even beyond that, the character is a spy and intrigue stories are compelling, plus they're something that wasn't really there in the superhero genre. Indeed, that's why she figures so prominently in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, because that one is a straight-up political thriller. But, at the same time, she's un-powered, she doesn't have a noteworthy nemesis, and she works really well as someone doing things in the background. So, even though there was an audience for a solo film, and even though Scarlett Johansson easily has the on-screen charisma to carry one, you can understand why the higher-ups at Marvel might reason that her character was better used in a prominent supporting role.

That's not why she didn't get a movie until 2021, though. The reason is because Ike Perlmutter was kind of a piece of shit.

Perlmutter was a VP and head of product development at Marvel up until 2015 and he is responsible for some decisions that are absolutely baffling in hindsight and only kinda-sorta make sense if you look at them in a take-no-prisoners bottom-line kind of way. And also disregard basic ethics and what-not. For example, why did Marvel shunt the X-Men off to the side in comics and throw all of its weight behind the Inhumans instead, including tying them into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Because Fox had the film rights to the X-Men and Perlmutter didn't want to give them any new characters or storylines to adapt. Why did Col. Rhodes get re-cast in Iron Man 2? Because Terrence Howard wanted more money and Perlmutter said no, allegedly telling colleagues that all black people look the same anyway. Why did Wonder Woman get a solo movie before any female Marvel character despite the MCU being the biggest game in town? Because the Elektra movie from 2005 tanked, so Perlmutter concluded that there was no audience for female-led superhero films. And he was proven dead wrong when Captain Marvel finally came out in 2019 to the tune of over a billion dollars in revenues. So why did it take an additional two years for a Black Widow movie? Because Perlmutter was so committed to this notion that female superheroes couldn't make money that it was stipulated in Johansson's contract that she could not be the lead. In order to make Black Widow, Marvel had to run her contract out first.

Like I said, a real piece of work.

So by the time we finally got that movie, the window for it was kind of closed. The character was already dead, the MCU Phase 4 release calendar was a jumbled mess because of COVID, and with the Infinity Saga all wrapped up, there weren't any ongoing plots to tap into--they were instead focusing on introducing new characters. So the movie we got was very much a compromise. A prequel set during the coda at the end of Captain America: Civil War, it exists mostly to set up Florence Pugh'a Yelena as a Black Widow replacement and David Harbour as Red Guardian for the upcoming Thunderbolts movie. And... it's not great.

There are things that work. The overarching theme of family is heavy-handed, but it does feel genuine and ties in with the plot and its resolution. Johansson and Pugh have decent chemistry, and Yelena is an interesting character. The first few scenes that are just about Natalia going into hiding are pretty compelling and a decent showcase for the character's strengths. But we eventually get bogged down in prequel baggage, with a plot drawn from obscure references to Nat's past that comprised one or two lines of dialogue from The Avengers: Dreykov's daughter; Budapest; she's got red in her ledger. Hell, Red Guardian has a whole spiel about how his daughter's ledgers are dripping with red that is just naked fan service and doesn't sound like anything that would be uttered by a human.

Speaking of segues, here are lots of problems with the film, and Red Guardian is as good a place to start as any. While Harbour is clearly having all the fun playing him, he has no reason to be in the movie. He does nothing to move the plot forward. He is an interesting presence during the prologue, a fetch quest in Act II, and then just burdensome comic relief from the mid-point on. He gets one moment with Yelena that touches on character and theme, but he's mostly just taking up space. Rachel Weisz's Melina, by contrast, has lots of agency and does quite a bit to move the story along, but she's kind of a nothing character. She's introduced as sympathetic yet somewhat villainous when she shows up in Act II. She then betrays the good guys but it turns out it was all a fake-out and she had a face-turn off camera. It's not very satisfying. And all of this is feeding into a third act that just doesn't work from a basic plot mechanics standpoint. It's supposed to be a heist, but instead of a clever rug-pull, you feel like the movie was just lying to you for fifteen minutes. Then the final battle hinges on Nat hitting herself in the face precisely enough that she loses her sense of smell and suffers no other ill effects. And... no... there is nothing plausible about that. They keep referring to it as "severing the connection" and it's an obvious plot contrivance meant to symbolically link to Dreykov as a surrogate demagogic father-figure. I can see what they're trying to do, but at the end of the day using "your sense of smell" as a stand-in for "the patriarchy" will never not feel silly.

So while it's not a terrible movie, I lament what could have been. You can easily imagine a version of the Hydra-takes-over-the-world B-plot from Winter Soldier being the A-plot in a Black Widow solo outing. Or if you wanted to keep all of that under the Captain America umbrella, you could do a Nat and Clint caper flick dealing with the fallout of the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. But I guess we'll never know, and all because of one racist, sexist old dirtbag.

Next week, we continue our month of Marvel disappointments with Ben Affleck's turn as Daredevil...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.