Black Widow

Black Widow ★½

MCU Ranked

How the fuck do you make a Black Widow film and not include a single action sequence that is remotely decent in it?

Cate Shortland is a damn talented filmmaker (LORE in particular is exceptional and criminally underseen), and there is very, very little, if any at all, of her to be found in the MCU’s latest offering, which might make for the best case as to why it’s so baffling that Marvel even hires directors for these films to begin with since Thor: The Dark World (the MCU films by the Russo Brothers at least have their own trademark of utter blandness). Furthermore, Black Widow is yet another unfortunate case of Marvel hiring an indie filmmaker with their own personal and/or unique sensibilities, only to strip the filmmaker of said sensibilities, thus making you question why Marvel even hired them in the first place instead of having the film be directed by executives.

I could spend the majority of this writeup pointing out the flaws of Black Widow (e.g., the one-dimensional characters that exist to regurgitate exposition, the horrendous action sequences — some of the worst in the MCU (maybe the worst in the entire franchise since Captain America: The Winter Soldier), which says a lot honestly — that reek entirely of second-unit, that hideous wet concrete/muddy color grading (save for occasional moments of decent color grading, but it’s not nearly enough), the abhorrent editing, CGI, and ADR, that this prioritizes being a Disney+ commercial over simply telling a story, that cringeworthy, self-deprecating humor…), but I won’t, because the problems with this film are also applicable to most of the MCU and it feels very redundant critiquing these films at this stage. Rather, I’d prefer to spend this writeup talking about the bigger picture at hand.

It is legitimately depressing to see so many indie filmmakers who either have proven themselves to be genuine talents and/or have shown they have potential be swallowed up by the Marvel machine and then have their voices be stifled by the higher powers, then potentially be locked into the Marvel machine for future installments, thus not allowing these filmmakers to artistically develop. Marvel sees (indie) filmmakers as mere hired guns they bring on purely for their clout to win points with the indie community, to be seen as a studio with artistic credibility who champions art and artists and indie filmmakers and up & coming talents with potential…and then, with the exception of James Gunn, they don’t actually give them much space to be creative. Why would you even hire the magnificent filmmaking duo behind films such as HALF NELSON and SUGAR — both of which are very anti-establishment — if you’re going to force them to work with the U.S. military and not allow them to shoot on film like they had with all of their features prior? Why would you even hire the director of Creed and Fruitvale Station if you won’t let him have any say in the action sequences and are co-opting the film you hired him for as CIA propaganda? Why would you even hire the director of THE RIDER and Songs My Brothers Taught Me if you’re going to make her fight to shoot on location? Why would you even hire Edgar Wright in the first place only to give him the boot because he wanted to get a little weird with Ant-Man? I’ve seen people claim that Marvel gives directors very limited creative control because “they have to maintain continuity,” and I don’t buy that argument whatsoever. In prestige television, they have to maintain continuity, but that doesn’t stop directors from being able to make unique directorial choices (on a relative note, Loki, ironically and to my absolute shock, has so far been far more idiosyncratic and cinematic in its production quality than nearly any film in this franchise). They actually give out Emmys for that sort of thing!

And theoretically, it really is awesome to see women, POC, and marginalized/underrepresented voices finally be given opportunities to make large budget franchise films! But is Marvel really doing this because they champion diversity and representation, or is Marvel doing this because they want to receive praise from the mainstream while not actually allowing these directors to have much influence, if any influence at all, on how these films are made? It’s cynical, disingenuous, and performative as fuck.

“But don’t you see? Filmmakers doing MCU films is Good, Actually! It gives them clout that allows them to get funding for whatever passion projects going forward!”

I’ve heard this argument a million times, and it’s absolute fucking bullshit. CAPTAIN MARVEL — which had a solid critical reception and made over $1 billion at the box office — released over two years ago, and there’s still no word on a new feature from Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, who had already proven with HALF NELSON, SUGAR, and MISSISSIPPI GRIND that they’re genuinely gifted filmmakers. The last feature Ryan Coogler directed was Black Panther back in 2018, and his next feature is…a sequel to that film (producing doesn’t count!). James Gunn hasn’t directed a single non-Marvel/DC feature since Super back in 2010. Peyton Reed gave us the delightful and idiosyncratic DOWN WITH LOVE back in 2003, yet he might have to spend the rest of his career making Marvel movies he has very little-zero creative control over (with some television episodes in between). Jon Watts — who, granted, has already proven himself to be an unapologetic studio hack — hasn’t directed a single non-MCU feature since Cop Car back in 2015. And these are just five examples. I’m sure there are more I can’t think of, and there’ll likely be more cases in the future, sadly.

This does, however, leave us with two exceptions of filmmakers who did follow up their MCU joints with passion projects: Shane Black and Taika Waititi. In the case of the latter, while I’m of the belief he already wasn’t much more than a mediocre Sundance filmmaker prior to THOR: RAGNAROK (though I do think Hunt for the Wilderpeople is pretty good), his pre-MCU output was much better than whatever the fuck JOJO RABBIT was; talk about selling out. As for the former, he was onto something with The Nice Guys, but then The Predator (which wasn’t entirely his fault) happened, and now he’s stuck in director jail…so no, I do not buy the nonsensical argument that filmmakers signing onto MCU projects is “good for their careers.”

Ever since the beginning of Phase 3, Marvel’s director hirings have typically been as diverse, interesting, and/or unique as ever, and yet, with maybe a few or so exceptions, the films themselves couldn’t be more homogenous. And the thing is that Marvel will continue to do this shit because it’s fucking working for them. They continue to be showered with praise and make tons of money while giving audiences the bare minimum and fucking over artists in the process. Shang-Chi looks far more like second-unit footage that mixes elements of Black Panther and Ant-Man than something made by the director of Short Term 12 (and I’m not even a fan of Destin Cretton ffs!), Eternals barely looks like a Chloé Zhao film (and looks to be ugly as shit to boot), Spider-Man: No Way Home sounds like it’ll be a shallow, pandering disaster that cheaply uses nostalgia as bait…it never fucking ends. Even worse is how MCU fans feel the need to defend a fucking corporation from anyone who dares to criticize it, its output, and/or its practices. Just look no further than the sheer outrage of this fandom directed towards Martin Scorsese over him simply stating his own personal opinions on these films (and he’s right!), or the fact that IGN recently took a writer off of writing reviews for Loki simply because fans got outraged over him writing a mixed review. Truly deranged.

And it’s worth noting that Shortland is technically a perfect fit for a character like Natasha Romanoff. The bleak, dour tone of Shortland’s indies (which is somewhat felt during the first 10 minutes of this; unsurprisingly the best section of the film as a result), along with her ability to handle morally ambiguous characters, is exactly what that character needed, but of course, Marvel doesn’t have much trust in the filmmakers they hire. (Part of the problem, though, is that it’s also just an incredibly poor screenplay, one that apparently was only written in a mere eleven days. It was recently revealed that Nicole Holofcener was brought on as a script doctor last minute, and even she couldn’t save it.) Granted, Shortland does manage to get solid performances out of her cast (Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Rachel Weisz in particular are all very good in this), but it’s overall yet another generic MCU installment. I’d even argue that Lorne Balfe’s score is a perfect analogy for the film as a whole: there are glimpses of something potentially interesting, but it’s mostly just more of the same old bullshit. Same with the color grading: occasionally decent, but mostly inexcusable. And that third act…woof. Just a bunch of empty and ugly noise.

But hey, feel free to take my rant and write it off as mere bullshit. After all, I’m just a guy who loves cinema and is very worried about the future of it, because dominating the industry isn’t enough for Disney, apparently. They have to go ahead and kill indie filmmaking, too.

Watch LORE and BERLIN SYNDROME instead.

EDIT: After speaking to fellow mutuals I greatly respect about this, it caused me to realize that there's a bit more Shortland in this than I initially thought, notably when she attempts to tackle indoctrination, which was explored in her previous work. It simultaneously made me more appreciative of the more character-focused/dialogue-driven scenes (even despite the rough scripting) in retrospect, while also causing me to hate the second-unit bullshit that gets in Shortland's way of creating a tangible thoroughline even more than I already did. Anyway, I wish Kevin Feige would stop being a cynical piece of shit and instead actually allow interesting filmmakers to do interesting things with these.

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