It is a shame that the Black Widow film is unworthy of its heroine.
The makers of the film, director Cate Shortland and writer Eric Pearson, seem determined to evade as many problems as possible when telling this story.
Why do Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson and her one-time sister Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh, fight when they meet for the first time in 30 years? How do they still know and recognise each other? Why should they be trusting and helping one another? No satisfactory answer is given.
“I tried to be something more than a trained killer” Natasha tells Yelena. “You’re fooling yourself,” Yelena says. “We are both still trained killers…I’m just not the one little girls call their hero”. There is clearly baggage between them. Johansson and Pugh carry it in their eyes. You can hear it in the sharp edge they give the dialogue, like flick-knives ready to be driven into someone’s heart. Yet Johansson and Pugh are not given the chance to pick away at these scars, to draw out the bad blood, and chip away down to the fractured bone. It is a sad waste of their talents and a problem that could generate so much conflict and action. But Shortland and Pearson don’t seem to want too much conflict. Therefore, they don’t produce too much action, at least not much that is interesting.
More problems Natasha and Yelena encounter in their mission, to destroy the Red Room that turned them into assassins as children, are glossed over. Where is the Red Room? How does its mastermind, Dreykov played by Ray Winstone, keep it hidden? Why should their surrogate father Alexei, played by David Harbour, help them? Why is he in prison? How does he know where to find their surrogate mother Melina, played by Rachel Weisz? Why should she help them? Why should the 3-years they spent masquerading as an American family be anything more than just another mission to these two long-term and at times enthusiastic Russian agents? Where is the Red Room? Such questions and obstacles could generate explosions, but instead they are treated in a way that generates as much interest as a cork popping.
The film’s fault is encapsulated in the single moment when Dreykov drops his ring that holds the key to his master computer for Natasha to pick up. He just drops it. He’s masterminded a web of master assassins, that he controls all from his computer, that Natasha must now gain access to, and he just drops the key. How easy can you make it for the hero to defeat the villain?
Problems are what make a story interesting. Seeing someone go to hell, and then fight their way out, with their bare hands, is what makes a film worth seeing. The conquest of obstacles is also what makes a hero. It is what has made Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow such a compelling character. From when she was first introduced in Iron Man 2, to her final scene in Avengers: Endgame, Natasha has been a conqueror of problems. She has single-handedly defeated an entire squad of security guards, tricked bad guys into telling her their entire plans, and fought her way through alien and robot armies. Johansson summons all the relentless and unstoppable courage of the character. She brings it to everything. To how she walks in confident strides, which always make you think she’s the woman in charge, her hard stare when facing down a villain, and the sharp accuracy of her speech, like a shot from the master assassin she is playing.
Amongst all the evasiveness of the plot, there is one moment during Black Widow when we do get to see Natasha conquer the seemingly unconquerable. When she confronts Dreykov, Natasha is powerless, due to a pheromone preventing her from harming him. As long as she can smell him, she can’t hurt him. Taunting Dreykov’s cowardice, Natashas raises herself up, towering above the squat little villain, and smashes her face against his desk. “What are you doing?” he screams. “Severing the nerve” she says, smiling through the blood and the sound of bone cracking still ringing in our ears. She breaks her nose. She can’t smell Dreykov anymore, so she can hurt him. This is the Natasha Romanoff I have come to love, portrayed with the same beautiful strength from Scarlet Johansson who has become one of my favourite actresses. What you see is a woman who would cut off her own arm to do what she knows is right. A true hero.
It is disappointing that Black Widow is the last the world will see of Johansson’s version of the character. You would not lose much by not seeing it. It might actually better if you don’t. It might be better if you preserve your memory of a great heroine, embodied by a great actress, as she was at her finest. It might be better if you keep your last memory of Johansson’s Black Widow as when, in Avengers: Endgame, she dangled from an alien cliff face, ready to throw herself to her own death to save the universe. “Whatever it takes” she declared resolutely. That was Natasha it a nutshell. She did whatever it took, and thanks to Johansson, she did it well.