By Manik Sharma Sep. 04, 2021
Superhero films are underpinned by obvious tropes. But in its first female led outing, Black Widow could have been Marvel’s opportunity to come of age with the rest of the world. Instead, it choses to retreat to formula and with it to an unremarkable film.
Superhero films aren’t places you’d go looking for societal nuance but in a handful of recent projects like Watchmen, The Boys and even Disney’s own Falcon and Winter Soldier, there seems an ever so slight shift to the templated version of the superhero film. In that context, Marvel’s delayed yet much talked about Black Widow should have been an ecstatic repartee to doubters and fanboys who believe the make-believe world of comic books isn’t the place for moral debates or elements that reflect the world’s uncomfortable realities. To which effect even superhero films that are set in the past, are in a way futuristic. Which is why Black Widow’s tepid portrayal of misogyny and its preference for immortalising and thus robbing characters of their humanity belittles the construct of film based and made out of struggle.
The films events take place after Captain America: Civil War. Johansson’s character, Black Widow, is in exile and where she is contacted by her estranged sister Yelena, a terrific Florence Pugh. Yelena has just rescued herself and a handful of others from the mind-controlling hell of ‘Red Room’ a Russian led (of course) mission that militarises the world’s women and uses them as assassins. To pile on the indignity these women are called Widows, for they are lobotomised and have had their uterus’ removed. Both Johansson and Pugh team up with their pretend parents – Rachel Weisz and the hilarious David Harbour. The four, were once a Russian spy family living incognito in the American heartland. The awkward family chemistry, punctuated by Harbour’s comic timing is one of the strengths of this otherwise formulaic film.
Black Widow’s tone and its premise is tailor-made for a more intimate telling of the life of spies, the complexity of identity and the rudimentary nature of intel, all underlined by the specificities of gender.
Black Widow follows the predictable template of inventing new characters and yet staying true to the timeline of events in the larger Marvel universe. One of the biggest problems of imagining a creative universe so vast is to make it seem plausible that each of these ‘heroes’ also spend time fighting supervillains individually when they could all just send each other a text or do a little video chat and solve for a common problem in minutes. It’s a issue becoming increasingly hard to ignore with each Marvel production that wants to pretend it is happening in a vacuum. The other problem is the superhero template itself. Black Widow’s tone and its premise is tailor-made for a more intimate telling of the life of spies, the complexity of identity and the rudimentary nature of intel, all underlined by the specificities of gender. And yet Black Widow goes all ballistic to prove that the women can kick just as much behind as men in spandex suits. Nuance isn’t even a variable here, let alone the constant.
In the Red Room’s inherently misogynist world-view there is ample room and opportunity to explore themes that perhaps only a Black Widow film could have. And yet the end result is masculinist, an action video masquerading as a feminist film, not because it has feminist ideas but because it needs to be told around women. Also, Black Widow immortalises the protagonist to the point of gimmickry. There are at least 15 scenes where Johansson’s character should be reduced to pulp or simply die, but for some reason, the filmmakers seem confident that the trade-off with rationality is as arguable as the film’s existence. Romanoff is no alien and neither has she been injected with hero-making serum, which makes each bruise that doesn’t show up on her body all the more meaningful. But then again, what even is the point of these films anymore – other than the obvious one, money?
A lot of art history is defined not necessarily by the product, but by the processes it adopts or abandons. In this case, it seems, the studio wanted to abandon the promise of a good film.
Since Black Widow released a couple of months ago in the US, Johansson has sued Marvel for releasing the film on OTT. It’s a telling step for a studio that wants to put up the brave front of exploring race and gender in a genre that is beginning to lose, at least, its creative sheen. The film, you could argue, didn’t really deserve a theatrical release but so much for robbing the first female superhero in modern cinema culture from that rare moment of exultation. A lot of art history is defined not necessarily by the product, but by the processes it adopts or abandons. In this case, it seems, the studio wanted to abandon the promise of a good film.
It’s hard to argue against the existence of Black Widow itself. The comic relief is still likeable, Pugh is delightfully snarly and there are signs of what could have been had the creators looked beyond the superhero manual. Unfortunately, every art-form that attempts to become mass, submits to the regimental nature of the system that is eventual. The Marvel system inducts heroes, sees them through thick and thin with a couple of scratches and close shave with despair but when immortality is practically guaranteed, it is hard to buy into the risks and losses, whatever the context. Black Widow, unfortunately, is the film that will have to be improved upon for Marvel to make the kind of statement it assumes it made by merely commissioning it.