By Gordon Meyer
Let me start by saying up front how much I really like the Marvel movies. Yes, some more than others, but honestly, I have to really tip my hat at how well crafted they are as a matter of storytelling, not to mention the way Executive Producer Kevin Feige has overseen the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) where stories and characters interact and intertwine from movie to movie. It’s brilliant.
It was this up front admiration that I went to see the latest MCU installment, “Black Widow” in an honest to goodness movie theatre recently. I have to say it was a mixed bag, not up to the standards I’ve come to expect from Marvel. I’m not saying it was bad. In fact, there’s a lot to enjoy in BW. But the rest of the MCU is so good, especially the “Iron Man” trilogy, “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel,” that BW doesn’t quite meet that standard.
Let’s start with what I liked about it. At its core, BW feels like a gender reversed James Bond movie, with Scarlett Johansson absolutely kicking ass in the title role as Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow. She is every bit as tough, intelligent, and resourceful as Bond at his best. And the supervillain she’s up against, Russian superspy Dreykov, (Ray Winstone) is every bit as much of a baddie as Blofeld in the Bond movies. More on that later.
I also liked the fact that this was, in part, an origin story, Of course from her participation in mast MCU movies, especially the “Avengers” series, we already know what a powerful and capable fighter Romanov is. But this movie gives us insight into who she is as a person, beginning with he childhood as one of two fake daughters of a pair of deep cover Russian spies living in Ohio and how she is jarringly and violently swooped out of this idyllic existence and torn from her “parents” and separated from her “younger sister” so that she can begin intense training and indoctrination as part of an army of “Widows” – female undercover super soldiers under Dreykov’s control. One other thing. Her “sister” is also put through a separate, but parallel training regimen.
The main story takes place after the events of “Captain America – Civil War.” The Avengers themselves have disbanded and are now hunted as outlaws because of the massive destruction they caused in their last MCU adventure and Romanov has just evaded capture by US Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross ((William Hurt) and is now secretly living in Norway. After being separated for most of their lives, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Natasha’s “sister” sends a mysterious package to her in Norway (no real explanation as to how she managed to find her after all these years) containing a bunch of vials filled with a liquid that neutralizes the chemical Dreykov has been using all these years to control his global army of Widows.
Natasha takes the vials with her to Budapest where she reunites with Yelena, who had been a fully controlled Widow herself until a broken vial liberated her from Dreykov’s control, and the two of them embark on a seemingly impossible mission to find and kill Dreykov, who Natasha mistakenly thought she had already killed. In pursuit of that objective, the two women break their adoptive father Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), aka “Red Guardian,” out of prison because they believe Alexei would know where Dreykov would be hiding. He doesn’t. But he guides the women to Melina Voskoff (Rachel Weisz), their fake mother, who is also the scientist who created the mind control chemical to begin with. And, at that point, the story goes into all sorts of twists and turns, some plot points clever and others frankly puzzling because it feels like vital information is missing.
As is the case in the better Bond (and MCU movies), the face to face conflict with Dreykov and his army of Widows has all sorts of twists and turns and destruction before the good guys triumph. And, of course, there’s a post-credits teaser sequence at the end hinting at an upcoming MCU adventure.
Australian director Cate Shortland, in only her fourth feature does an admirable job of staging everything and the action sequences are definitely up to the standards of other MCU movies as well as the Bond franchise that this story more closely resembles. But the screenplay, credited to Eric Pearson, with story credit going to Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson, often felt like there were crucial pieces missing, which made either made elements confusing or just didn’t make sense.
One of the reasons the MCU franchise has been so successful over the past 10+ years is the masterful way these movies blended action, spectacle, humor and humanity in their stories. And the stories themselves have been compelling and clear, even with the necessary plot twists incorporated to keep things interesting and to prevent predictability. There’s also often a mythological element to stories involving heroes with superhuman powers which appeals to audiences on a primal basis.
In hindsight, as good an actress as Scarlett Johansson is (and she is VERY good), I just couldn’t find myself as emotionally invested in her and her quest the way I have been with other Marvel heroes. Part of the genius of the late Stan Lee, who co-created some of Marvel’s most iconic characters, was to imbue them with a real world humanity, including flaws, which made them more relatable. The way Natasha Romanov was written and directed in this movie, I just didn’t feel it.
“Black Widow” is the latest movie to simultaneously debut theatrically and on the Disney + streaming service for an additional $30 surcharge. According to box office reports, the domestic opening weekend theatrical box office was over $80 million, while Disney also pocketed $60 million from subscribers choosing to take advantage of their “Premiere Access” $30 offer. But theatrical box office then dropped by over 60% the following week, which exhibitors blame on streaming.
I disagree with that assessment. The fact that opening weekend was as strong as it was, even though we’re still in a pandemic, tells me that interest was high in seeing BW on the big screen. In the past, strong long term box office for any tentpole movie, especially MCU movies, comes from people who enjoyed the theatrical presentation so much they went back to see those movies multiple times. If my own reaction to the movie and how appealing Black Widow is as the central character in this movie is any indication as to how other audience members responded, I would say that the reason for that large a box office drop between weeks 1 and 2 has more to do with the quality of the movie itself than whether or not audiences have the option of streaming it at home for $30 day and date with its theatrical release.
Disney has not shared any data about streaming revenue other than opening weekend, so we don’t know how many fans ponied up their $30 to see BW at home in weeks 2 and beyond. But I suspect the streaming revenues for those later weeks may reflect a similar drop as theatrical box office. They’re repeating this pattern with the July 30 release of “Jungle Cruise.” The trailer makes that movie look appealing. If that movie gets rave reviews, it will be interesting to see how well this new release model works, especially in the second week and beyond. Stay tuned!