Thursday, June 20, 2024

‘Black Widow’ Weaves a Complex Emotional Web

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Longtime readers may know by now that I am not the world’s biggest MCU fan. I have liked many, but in recent years I have grown tired, or possibly exasperated, is a better word, at the lack of aesthetic and tendencies to be more of a big-screen television event than any kind of actual cinema. Then along comes Black Widow, and I find myself enjoying it as much as some of my favorite Marvel films.

If Cate Shortland’s foray into superheroes is any indication of Marvel’s newest phase, then I must confess I am deeply into this. Not since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a Marvel film had this much emotional complexity. Predictably, Black Widow deals with trauma and abuse but does so both in the text and the subtext. Still, I can’t help remembering the time I saw someone say they loved an MCU film because it dealt with trauma and loss only to have a person reply, “They’re all about trauma and loss.”

To some extent, this is true. But those other films are flawed or failed to handle those themes with any kind of care or frankness. Black Widow is a comic book movie that makes no bones about the atrocities these characters have either committed or have had committed against them. The script by Eric Pearson has its shares of mind-control drugs, superhuman strength, and secret floating headquarters above the sky. But much like the Russo’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, Shortland and her team find a way to ground it in reality.

Usually, I would roll my eyes. I’m tired of filmmakers trying to tell us stories about fantastical beings by stripping away all the magic and wonder just to make them more “believable.” Movies are not documentaries, and comic book movies are more fitting for the boundless visual wonder of cinematic magic than most. But here Shortland makes the right call; of all the Avengers, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has always been the most human, especially when paired with her less charismatic counterpart Hawk-Eye (Jeremy Renner).

The events of Black Widow occur shortly after Captain America: Civil War, but if you haven’t seen that one in a while, or at all, don’t worry. Like most MCU films, the movie does the work of telling you everything you need to know. Though some fans may bristle as while there is fan service in the film, it is nestled snugly inside a complex emotional story told, for the most part, with a visual competency.

The long and short of it is Agent Romanoff discovers her baby sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) has sent her a package. After being attacked on a bridge, she tracks her sister down to find the Red Room, which she thought she had destroyed, is still operational but more robust than ever, and led by the sinister General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Thus begins Natasha’s journey to get the old band back together.

Only here, the old band is a group of people who pretended to be her family when she was a young girl for three years in Ohio. Yelena is not actually her little sister, just another agent like Natasha, who was taken at a young age and molded into one of the most successful “child assassins.” Their “mother” Melina (Rachel Weisz) is a much-favored scientist of Dreyykov’s while their father Alexei (David Harbour), whiles away his time in a Siberian prison. Alexei is no mere agent; however, he is one of Russia’s first super soldiers, the Red Guardian.

But what I enjoyed most about Black Widow was how it took its time. Johansson doesn’t even show up until the thirty-minute mark. Up until then, we see scenes of the “happy” family in Ohio and Natsha and Yelina as children as they are uprooted and torn away from all they know to head back to Russia. The opening title sequence alone is some of the best edited scenes I’ve seen in the MCU in quite a long while.

Editing is something that superhero films have struggled within and out of the MCU, but which here, thanks to Leigh Folsom Boyd and Matthew Schmidt, seems to have entered the realm of basic montage storytelling. It seems weird to harp on such a minor thing but understand that despite the popularity, the MCU films have often been some of the more shoddily edited dull affairs with the clumsiest visual language playing in your local theater. 

Black Widow plays like a film and tackles subject matters that would be considered too dark in the past. Even the jokes, which we have come to expect from Marvel Studios, for better or worse, possess a much sharper and blacker edge. Unlike Guardians Vol. 2, the jokes don’t come from people saying mean things as compliments or references. Instead, Pearson’s script leans into the horror that comes from what has happened to these people.

After rescuing Alexei from his prison, he tries to thank Natasha and Yelena, but both give him the cold shoulder. He let Dreykov take them after they escaped America, and while not their birth father, he was for three years, and the betrayal cuts deep. Alexei tries to joke his way into their good graces by asking Yelena if it is her time of the month.

Her reply is dark but comical. She tells Alexei that she doesn’t have “a time of the month.” Yelena, much like Natasha, was forced to have a hysterectomy. She goes into detail about how they took it out of him, and it makes Alexei squirm. It’s not comedy, so much as survivors making dark comedic observations about their trauma.

Or when Natasha and Yelena stop off at a drugstore, the two try and catch each other upon their lives. Natasha makes a joke, but Yelena replies with a reminder of Natasha’s past. A past that includes an act that I’m astonished the studio heads let slide into the film, and even better, it becomes a part of Natasha’s redemption later on.

Shortland treats the relationships in Black Widow with complexity and care. These are not the standard type of frat-boy relationships we see in some Marvel movies, those aimed at immature twenty-somethings where people give each other a hard time because they secretly “love” each other. Instead, they are open wounds that have never been appropriately dressed, and the characters spend much of the movie either trying to make amends or figure out the best way to heal them.

I try very hard to stay away from reviews and news about films before I see a movie. It helps me go in fresh so I can give the movie a fair shake. But with Marvel movies, news, trivia, and backstage gossip, is like background radiation. Some of this, despite my efforts, trickles in.

One bit of news stuck out to me. Both Pugh and Harbour have come forward and said that in certain scenes they added bits of dialogue or helped pitch ideas to help their characters get to the emotional moment the script called for but had not laid the groundwork for the actor to get there. By itself, this is basic filmmaking but for a Marvel film, a massive budget blockbuster in which often actors are denied even the basic information of what is on the opposite side of the screen, this is refreshing.

Shortland has the humility to listen to her actors and help them do what is necessary to get the best out of them. This helps their performance, yes, but it also makes for a richer more profoundly effective movie. It transforms a quarter note as written into a sustained whole note which stays with you long after the film is over. In other words, it’s good drama and better yet-good directing.

Amid all this genuine drama stands General Dreykov. The villains of the MCU are often either bland or secretly good, but they’ve gone down the wrong path. Sometimes, you get a Thanos who has his villainy overwhelmed by his charm thanks to the actor’s charisma and talent. But Winstone’s Dreykov is a true villain.

There is no sympathy for the devil. This is a bad guy. Oh, he’s not bad just to be bad, mind you, oh no. Dreykov is a very real human being. To call him a misogynist, a rapist, or a dictatorial murderer, seems almost trivial. He is all of those things and more. But there is a sliminess to him, an aura of a specific type of film producer or politician, that makes him one of the more easily despised villains in the MCU. He is also the most uncomfortable and most disturbing.

Winstone doesn’t bluster. He is much too good of an actor for that. His Dreykov saunters and revels. Of course, he loses his temper, but it is almost always like a child, scared and petulant. But in Winstone’s hands, it is not only believable but in such a way that we find ourselves rooting for his demise.

There is no shortage of good actors in the MCU, but Black Widow rises to the top if only for Florence Pugh alone. Pugh, who damn near stole a movie away from a murderer’s row of actors in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, does so again here. Pugh has one of those beautiful, expressive faces, the kind perfect for silent movies. 

One of the great things about Black Widow is its silence. The way it allows Pugh to play off her co-stars and allows for the uneven and fragile bond between Natasha and Yelena to form. Pugh’s Yelena walks the fine line between being a highly trained assassin and an immature brat. She accidentally causes an avalanche at one point and finds herself quite proud of what she’s done.

Harbour could have been the weakest link; Alexei is a broader character than the rest, easily the loudest thing in the entire movie. But underneath that scraggly unkempt beard, we can sense more than just a desire to kill and cause chaos. One of the pleasures of Black Widow is that it understands different kinds of abuse and trauma. Alexei is a bullish bastard, but at times we see him struggle to try and express his feelings.

If there is a weak link, it is, astonishingly, Rachel Weisz. Weisz is one of two actors, along with Rachel McAdams, who is so good we often find ourselves unable to see them act. Weisz is by no means terrible, but it does feel, at times, as if she is there merely to provide tech support. Don’t get me wrong, she is still Rachel Weisz, and she does a tremendous job, particularly in a scene between her and Johansson as they discuss what happened to Natasha’s birth mother; in these moments, she is superb.

The thing about Black Widow is how the characters seem haunted but not broken. Something that Johansson has embodied in her Natasha for over a decade. Johansson has long been, hands down, the most exciting thing about any MCU film she has been in but is only now getting her own movie. A startling fact when you stop to consider that Johansson has been starring in films longer than the MCU has been around. 

Black Widow is meant to be a send-off for Natasha. A sort of studio peace offering silently acknowledging that it is odd that a studio that has Scarlett Johansson on the payroll has never once given the actor her own film. To say that Johansson is good as Natasha is beyond obvious.

Yet, I think it’s fair to say I’ve never seen her have as much fun as Natasha as she seems to have here. Perhaps it’s because, unlike previous attempts to give the actor something to tear into, the script imagines the Russian agent as something other than a breeding sow. Natasha is allowed to be the one thing that separates her from the rest of the Avengers: human.

But Shortland and Pearson also allow Natasha something she’s never been allowed in the other films: happiness. The best moments of Black Widow are not the explosions, though they are fun, or the fight scenes, likewise also fantastic, but the many many many scenes in which the characters talk. Black Widow is one of the few superhero movies that lives in the quiet moments.

It comes alive and blossoms for brief moments; whether it be painful, heartbreaking, or touching, it is more interested in people connecting than any kind of obsessive fan service. As a result, Black Widow is a poignant movie in a way that almost no other MCU film has been.

Much of this is due to Gabriel Beristain’s camera work. Beristain has given us a superhero film that doesn’t look as if it had pig feces smeared on the lens. As a cinematographer, he has worked with the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Derek Jarman, and David Mamet while having worked on other Marvel films as well. He understands how to frame a scene to showcase the actors acting and reacting while also composing a frame to express the scene’s emotion.

Oh sure, other Marvel movies have looked good, but those have only been in the confines of other Marvel movies. Black Widow is the first to look, feel, and move like a movie you might see from another studio. However, there are a few exceptions, especially toward the end, where the studio’s mythical cheapness is on full display. It might bother some and yank them out of the moment, as it did me, but only momentarily.

Beristain bathes Black Widow with a warmth that contrasts the film’s pitch-black undertones. Combined with Boyd and Schmidt’s editing, the movie has a pace and a rhythm to it lacking in other MCU films. Unfortunately, the action sequences in these movies are often more visual noise, narrative beats required by both the genre and the studios, and lack any heft.

Shortland works with the others to give us action scenes that feel at times visceral. If it’s all done by CGI, then it is superb CGI; if it’s done with practical effects, then there were a few times where I was concerned for the stuntman or actor involved because it looked like it hurt. But, computer-generated or not, the point is the action felt less like a narrative requirement and more like a thrilling spectacle that leaves us a little dizzy from the excitement-a true rarity in these films.

Underneath it, all is Lorne Balfe’s score. Balfe predictably uses Russian choral-orchestral, but it is effective, and they never use it to exhaustion. The score is subtle and gorgeous because it hangs in the background, providing a foundation for the emotions to stand on. 

Black Widow is a typical MCU film while being unlike most of the others that have come before it. Shortland pulls off the hat trick of making a studio film with the gall to embrace the darkness of its characters. If this is the future of Marvel, then I am officially intrigued.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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