Black Widow Script Doctor
I had complicated feels about the latest Marvel movie.
I spent a lot of time on tumblr yelling about how there ought to be a Black Widow movie. I shouted about how the character had an established fan base who wanted to see her in a starring role. I screamed about how Scarlet Johansson was a proven box office draw. I bemoaned about how studio executives were stuck in outdated beliefs about how female superhero movies didn’t work.
However, that was years ago. I’ve skipped about 10 Marvel movies since then.
I didn’t stop seeing them because Black Widow wasn’t made, I stopped because the whole cinematic universe Schick was wearing thin for me. At first it seemed cool that one movie would reference another. But it increasingly seemed like each movie was spending too much time setting up the next movie at the cost of telling its own story. A breaking point for me was Guardian’s of the Galaxy. This was a story happening far from Earth, it should have been a largely standalone story. Yet it wound up a confusing brightly colored mess largely because it was carrying water for the eventual Infinity War movie.
Still, when Black Widow finally came out, I knew I needed to see it. I thought it was going to be a prequel that I’d be able to follow without having seen the last several movies and I was half right. It happens right after the Civil War movie, which I’d only ever seen trailers for.
The opening sequence of Black Widow shows Natasha (the eventual titular Black Widow) as a child while her family is trying to flee from capture. It’s a tense and thrilling sequence. So much so that it’s easy to forget that this is not actually a family running from a repressive regime, this is a cell of Russian spies trying to escape with stolen information. We’re invested in their fate because the movie spends a few minutes establishing their humanity. The audience winds up rooting for characters we ought to hate--that’s really good story telling.
Skip ahead 21 years and the movie follows up with more fun action sequences, a car chase through Budapest, a prison break complicated by an avalanche. A clip of the James Bond movie Moonraker seems to be an acknowledgment that Black Widow works better as a spy than a straight superhero extravaganza.
The whole thing goes off the rails in the third act though. So much of it seems cribbed from Captain America: The Winter Solider. There’s this huge evil organization that no one even knows about even though they’re operating this huge flying airship. There’s the reveal that the top henchman is actually a wounded innocent from the hero’s past under the spell of powerful brainwashing. Also, was Taskmaster's identity supposed to be a twist? Cause that was really obvious.
Oh and there’s Dreykov. A character so cartoonishly villainous I’m surprised he doesn’t tie Natasha to the railroad tracks while twirling his mustache. This character relies on the myth that human trafficking networks are so powerful that hundreds of girls can be snatched up without much notice. In the end there almost isn’t a real conflict because Dreykov is so overtly evil it is clear that he must be stopped at any cost.
The action of the third act is bad. I know a prison wasn’t really destroyed by an avalanche in the second act but that’s something that could have happened. In the third act giant airship sections explode and break away in just the right order. Characters repeatedly reveal that “Actually, I’m two steps ahead of you” like a freaking heist movie.
So here’s how I think the film should have gone. Skip the sequence of Natasha’s sister Yelena snapping out of her brainwashing. Instead in the sequence where Taskmaster attacks Natasha on a bridge--that’s now Yelena attacking Natasha. The two of them fight until they realize that they were “sisters.”
Most of the second act plays out the same. Taskmaster and goons attack the two of them in Budapest. They bust out their “dad” thinking he will have answers. He directs them to their “mom.” They get captured by Taskmaster.
Now separated from her surrogate family, Natasha finds out the identity of Taskmaster: a CIA agent. A decorated war veteran. An all American hero. And Taskmaster wants to know why Natasha was palling around with Russian spies. Meanwhile her family is being taken for enhanced interrogation. Because they were not innocents who were brainwashed. They were killers fighting for a cause they saw as just. Now you have a conflict. Now Natasha has to make difficult choices.
Black Widow has made hundreds of millions of dollars, but the expectations for Marvel movies is so high that this was still something of a disappointment. Theater owners have been quick to blame Disney’s decision to simultaneously release the movie on streaming. It might be more complicated than that though. For one thing the movie had two prior release dates that were then canceled, causing confusion. With the surging Delta variant, people maybe less willing to go to theaters than studios would hope.
There’s also the problem with the actual cinematic universe too though. I didn’t realize until the post credit sequence that in the Marvel-verse, Natasha was already dead. There’s a real chance this dampened enthusiasm for her movie.
With the huge success of the Marvel movies, it’s easy to forget that they were starting with their B-list characters. A-list characters from the comics--Spiderman, X-Men, Fantastic Four--were all already owned by other studios. Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel moving into their C-list characters. With the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings they appear to be moving on to their D-list characters. Will the cinematic universe model hold, or will audiences get sick of having to do homework before seeing a movie? It’s hard to say.
One more minor quibble about Black Widow. It does the prequel sin of giving a backstory to something no one was asking about. Was anyone wondering: How did Natasha get that vest? What’s the deal with the vest? Why does it have so many pockets?!?!
Thanks for reading dad. Below is a scene from the movie you missed while you were in the bathroom.
Get info about the comic book movie you should not miss here.