We had just gotten done recording our episode of the Cinematic Doctrine podcast for Black Widow and it was a lot. Like, a lot. From Daniel finally getting back to the theater (and having a miserable time, which makes for a great opening to the episode!), to the movie being kind of bland compared to the likes of WandaVision, Loki, and even The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it’s almost like Black Widow has more to offer in its metatextual value (like, I mean as a movie, not it’s very small subtext) than the movie itself.
The movie is fine. But, it’s clear Feige is ready to move into the more weird and risky concepts the MCU can offer, and it’s also clear that Black Widow was intended to release months ago because it feels more like a Phase Two / Phase Three movie than what Phase Four has offered so far. I think there was a lot of fear that the more bizarre content the MCU can provide in the likes of WandaVision and Loki were going to be a potential risk. That they would push the boundary of what general audiences were willing to put up with. That WandaVision’s eclectic setting and intense melodrama was going to be too much. That Loki’s contemplative existentialism amidst self-reflection would be too heady for fans who just want to watch big tough people punch other big tough people. Let’s be real here: from Iron Man to Endgame, the MCU has seldom been risky. There was reasonable doubt that producing abstract narratives in a dangerously plain franchise would begin to prune audiences.
And yet, after fans of the MCU have settled into Phase Four, starting with WandaVision’s first two episodes – two episodes that were divisive upon their release, yet have already been recontextualized for their brilliance (and I loved from the start) – and then continuing on with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s clear geo-political subtext, all the way into Loki’s aforementioned existentialism, it’s now Black Widow that disrupts what we’ve come to expect after over 15+ hours of Phase Four content. Rather than continue the combination of mature theming and pervasive creativity, Black Widow returns to people punching each other and cloud-cities falling from the sky with little rhyme or reason to it.
Like I said, the movie is fine, which… I guess it’s fine that the movie is just fine, but I really do want the MCU to offer more than what it’s offered since I was in Middle School.
And, for a moment, that’s what I thought was going to happen. I thought we were going to get something a bit more mature what-with that wildly bizarre and tonally confusing title-sequence. A title sequence where children are essentially trafficked is not what I was expecting minutes after seeing the Marvel introduction logo, and I’m not even saying I liked that, either. But, like, hey maybe that tone would continue through the movie. A dark and gritty tone about a woman born to be a killer on the wrong side of history who reforms to change the world despite herself.
But then it didn’t.
So then I sort of expected that Black Widow might introduce something that alters how we engage with Natasha Romanoff retroactively, like some sort of unique defining trait or a wildly original characteristic that makes rewatching the past Marvel films totally different. And, in some ways, Black Widow makes Natasha into a more complicated and more gray character than ever (thanks to a particular backstory plot-point that comes out of left field), which seems to be what Phase Four likes playing with. WandaVision makes Wanda into even more of a morally gray character, and Loki as a character has always been interesting because he’s a morally gray and sympathetic villain. But, we also know that Natasha isn’t going to be in Phase Four in any capacity, which I really hope it remains that way so that the MCU can have legitimate consequences, since it often feels like this world doesn’t). So, at the end of the day, Black Widow has to try and offer us an interesting espionage flick.
But then it doesn’t.
It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, but I just want more. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for especially after the likes of these D+ mini-series. And it stinks to think that Black Widow, a movie we’ve all kinda pined for since we want more than white-dude protagonist #46 being in the lead, turned out to be sorta mehh.
I worry that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings turns out similar to Black Widow, that Shang-Chi is sorta bland and characterless, dangerously safe, and that all actors and writers and directors who are now contractually obligated to make a Marvel movie are getting the shaft compared to those who are contractually obligated to make an MCU mini-series on D+. Like, you can practically see people going, “Finally, Marvel is showing more representation on the big-screen!” but it’s already too late because everyone’s moved on to the little screen at home. And how can anyone compete with a comfy couch, pausing when you need a potty break, and volume control when the audio gets wonky (looking at you, Christopher Nolan). Oh, and did I mention it costs significantly less than driving to the theater, the movie ticket itself, the popcorn and drinks, and the risk that you’ll be in a theater where people talk all the time (tune into our podcast episode to hear Daniel’s experience. It’s great!).
So, like, yeah, Black Widow interests me. But, like I said, it’s mostly for what it offers in terms of metatextual discussion and not what the film is actually about. Because, really, it’s not about anything. It clearly plays with some imagery such as making its villain comically Weinstein-esque which is fun and campy (perhaps overly-so considering it’s subject matter and parody), and I absolutely adore Florence Pugh like everyone else and am very excited to see in her in more Marvel movies, but even Black Widow’s own existence within the MCU is strangely distant and alone. It has little implications for the future other than being an origin story for characters who will actually be in Phase Four, less than it is about Natasha Romanoff. It’s unfortunately ironic that, even in her own film, Natasha is almost second-in-importance to the new characters her film introduces.
And speaking of those new characters, what a shame to cast David Harbour and only use him for comedic relief. An amazing actor like that, why reduce him to nothing but comedy? I get that having two actors tear every scene apart with their presence would be tough, and Flo Pugh is out there making every scene matter, but come on, let David Harbour actually be more than just a big dumb oaf! Ridiculous!
At the very least, it’s nice to see that movie theaters are booming again, and I hope this helps rejuvenate confidence in seeing things in the big screen. Get vaccinated, stay smart, be respectful, and have fun.
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Melvin Benson is the Founder, Editor-In-Chief, and Lead Host of Cinematic Doctrine. He’s written fiction and nonfiction for over a decade with short stories featured on the Creepypasta Wiki and Wattpad. His novelette Ethereal Temptation, a teen drama with a tinge of magical-realism, can be read for free here. His hope is to see King Jesus glorified as far as the east is from the west!