So, bye-bye, Miss American Pie / Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry / And them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye / Singin’, “This’ll be the day that I die / This’ll be the day that I die”Don McLean, “American Pie”
Is Don McLean’s “American Pie” the song that defines the initial story arc of the fourth phase within the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Does its anthemic resonance in Black Widow signal, at least, that the film is backward-facing and nostalgic, slouching against the enormous pressure of the finality of the last phase’s final clause and the distance in time between the latest Marvel movies? Yes, the levee has run dry, and yes, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has died. It’s just a nice song shared with her father. It’s just a song that happens that’s vaguely about what’s happening on the screen in a movie full of things that just happen on the screen. It is not worth worrying about. It means just about as much as when Think Up Anger’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” plays after it, in a fumbling newsreel catch-up of a young Black Widow’s early development intermixed with sociopolitical events. Plausibly, it does not mean anything. Plausibly Black Widow does not mean anything. It’s just a film that happens. It’s not worth worrying about. But indeed, movies are back: “with the lights out, it’s less dangerous / here we are now, entertain us.”
The outcome is deterministic — and worse, the film is programmatic — every event feels predetermined not only by our awareness of the character’s fate, but also the gliding, low friction direction. The film is “directed” by Cate Shortland, a talented Australian director who showed a sense for tension in 2017’s Berlin Syndrome. More accurately, it has been directed by an algorithm. The actionable moments ring hollow with the same audience tested, CGI-bloated content we have seen before. We watch in a daze as action occurs without context, unanchored to the themes and spirit of the film. The film also has “jokes”. They are not funny or amusing anymore. The biggest budget movies textually read like sitcoms now and it’s a great shame both to comedy and action movies with genuine laughs in them. And yet, there are moments where Shortland shows up. Her direction of the women of the film, especially when the women are together, feels different from the lensing of previous Marvel outcomes. It is surely a league ahead of 2019’s Captain Marvel. Which begs the most important takeaway: wouldn’t it have been so much better if Scarlett Johansson’s’s first starring film preceded her death and Captain Marvel were more appropriately shifted into a Phase Four plot mechanism that launched a new idea of the Avengers? That feels like the most obvious missed opportunity, for both characters, in hindsight.
The critical problem is that I like everyone in the movie and like them together and yet still do not like the movie. Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh are magnificent performers. They are naturals on screen and doubly interesting together. There are good moments in Black Widow when it relaxes into the right pace and just allows the sisterly characters the space and confidence to create something. They even have a moderately good fight scene. When they’re together, it explains why this film exists. It’s a damn shame the rest of the film is in such a rush. It does not trust any other moment or character to sit inside their feelings. It does not have the patience to naturalistically build action toward a climax, to connect these things thematically, or just to let us hang out with the strong characters it could have developed. While we also get amusing turns by Rachel Weisz and David Harbour, their roles hardly amount to anything, although again, both are good to see anywhere.
Plotted between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Black Widow feels like an in-between of those two styles of Marvel film. Scarlet Johansson has always come across as able and ready to perform in-series but the writing has never done her one favor. Marvel has reached an inflection point: where they might either grow their series in provocative new directions or struggle under the massive weight of previous films box offices and whether those numbers can even be achieved in the current climate. They are also developing multiple television shows. Several have come out since their last films. Those are generating all of the conversational interest, occupying the spaces that Black Widow is not. There will be nothing to talk about after Black Widow. Nothing in it that once again captures the zeitgeist of the international stage. Marvel is moving forward, it’s just not happening here anymore. We can go back to the movies now. We can also stay home and watch equally or more involving productions on television. The viewing priority has shifted and Black Widow, if it does nothing else, is a clear marker of the necessary change in viewing habits. These movies have always been big television shows at heart. Now they’re just willing to admit it. Black Widow would have benefited from that structure. It required whole episodes of Scarlet Johansson and Florence Pugh just hanging out or fighting or doing literally anything else. What we got feels like an admission: the grand plan for MCU only extended as far as their last big movie.