Culture

Film

‘Black Widow’ and an endless future of adequate spectacle

By Adam Rivett
On Marvel, Disney and the dismal state of the modern blockbuster

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow. Image courtesy of Marvel

Cinemas hobbled along for a while there: first shuttered by the pandemic, then with little to offer viewers beyond studio fare more abandoned than released, and unable to coax forth a housebound populace so conditioned by streaming that a trip to the cinema seemed purest inconvenience. The lobbies grew ghostly, the trailers for future releases now promises unfulfilled. The title of the new Bond film, No Time to Die, gained an accidental irony. Walking past a poster for the film, forever “coming soon”, the stoicism on Daniel Craig’s beautiful, rugged face now scanned as mild annoyance, like a passenger waiting for a train infinitely delayed. All those blockbusters and their overwhelming advertising campaigns had to cool their jets for a year or so, but with the release of Marvel’s Black Widow – the latest in a potentially endless series of interconnected superhero narrative building blocks – the movies, arguably, are back.   

Except they’re not really movies anymore. It’s always been a moneymaking business that occasionally tripped and landed on Art, but the pretence has now wholly fallen away, possibly for good. If the preferred corporate term for the daily distractions clogging up the world’s innumerable streaming platforms is “content”, then what studios let loose into cinemas these days is, politely termed, “product”. The standalone feature is shunned – what you want is a sequel, a remake, a reboot, some firmly established bit of IP that can be given a new lick of paint. This is not an unheard of phenomenon in the film industry, but never in its more than 100 years of history has so little space been left over for anything other than the coldly calculated commercial feature. And when it comes to identifying the fingerprints of this modern tendency, all hands are gloved white. Whether it’s Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, The Simpsons, or a live-action remake of a beloved cartoon, it all comes pumping fresh from the same enormous Duff Brewery funnel: Disney. No longer satisfied with repackaging its own history for future generations, the multinational is now in an acquisitional mood, scooping up catalogues and characters in a bid to become the only game in town. The goal seems to be total control of pop culture – making every new release its property, and every show now available to stream on Disney+. 

When it comes to the multiplex, what are your options? If superheroes aren’t your speed, there’s always Cruella, still in theatres, a bafflingly popular live-action prequel to a cartoon from the early 1960s (or, alternately, a live-action remake of said property from the mid ’90s). Ever wondered how the lady who wanted to steal and kill all those dogs got her start? Wonder no longer. Otherwise, you could see the optimistically titled Space Jam: A New Legacy, a sequel/reboot/reimaging of another piece of fondly recalled ’90s nostalgia notable primarily for the acting of Michael Jordan, a sexy animated rabbit, and a chart-topping ballad from a man currently incarcerated on charges including human trafficking and child pornography. Given such noble origins it’s curious what a new legacy might look like, but judging by the trailer alone it’s a uniquely terrible one. The star this time around is the one and only LeBron James, an athlete of awe-inspiring grace and power, who in the trailer stands around like a man spending his free time mugging in front a green screen while someone describes all of the witty computer-animated events that will occur around him once the computer boffins are given the raw footage. One such event includes Porky Pig in a rap battle, watched on by an armada of recently purloined pop-culture figures, now entirely owned and controlled by Disney. 

Not only is there no escape from the present, but the future is already clearly marked out. Before each session of Black Widow a hybrid trailer/stockholder’s presentation is played, foreshadowing what’s to come. After some highlights from the company’s past decade of commercial domination tied together with voice-over from departed Marvel architect Stan Lee (the usual falderol about family and the importance of stories) we arrive at the money shot: a series of title cards, cut faster as the trailer reaches its climax, for 10 new Marvel films, most with a release date already decided upon, in an almost admirable sense of post-COVID optimism. The natural excitement that any trailer can generate – even slop can look tasty with enough skilful editing – is replaced by something close to dread: Don’t Forget, You’re Here Forever

But that’s tomorrow’s blockbuster; for now, it’s Black Widow. Like most of the studio’s efforts, it’s slickly produced and passably engaging, if utterly generic. After a short prelude set in the mid ’90s that fills in some missing details of the protagonist’s childhood, we drop into a narrative that will be familiar to viewers of Captain America: Civil War and other films in the MCU (that’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, for the few still ignorant of said acronym). Awareness of past films is expected – indeed, it’s a sign of a confident studio that a silly Ludlumesque phrase like “the Sokovia Accords” can be dropped into an early scene without explanation, just like any other humdrum phrase, a combination of words that will be instantly comprehensible to fans and utter gibberish to anyone else. In short, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, otherwise known as Natasha Romanoff, is on the run, having followed Captain America’s lead and continued her superhero work in defiance of government orders. The Avengers, however, don’t have much of a role to play in this film, beyond the occasional namecheck. Instead, thanks to the miracle of backstory and expository dialogue, the film’s concerns remain personal and non-team affiliated: Natasha’s reconciliation with her sister (also an international assassin) and her estranged family. Focused on a character whose role in previous films often demanded little more than being a sexy spy or a quippy love interest, Black Widow is committed to fleshing out Natasha and, most crucially, bringing her story to a close. 

Johansson’s performance, perhaps burdened with turning a supporting character into a centrepiece, feels dour and plays against her natural strengths. Florence Pugh – so good in Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation of Little Women and Park Chan-wook’s TV miniseries adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl – fares better as her sister Yelena, despite an occasionally wobbly accent and being saddled with Marvel’s unique brand of obvious humour. The studio’s habit of bringing in major talent for minor roles once again pays off, however, as Rachel Weisz and David Harbour redeem thinly drawn parental sketches and imbue the film with some, however fleeting, adult presence. (Harbour’s broad comic goofiness is a particularly welcome relief.)

The film feels heavily indebted to the Bourne franchise on numerous fronts. Black Widow’s central narrative drive concerning Natasha’s search for “who she really is” mimics Jason Bourne’s endless search for a forgotten or erased past. Likewise, many of the film’s early action scenes borrow liberally from the rooftop chases and Steadicam-heavy fight scenes of the same franchise, but unlike the propulsive action there, here the careful balance between stunt doubles and well-rehearsed stars can’t be masked by frenetic editing, resulting in often disjointed action scenes that drain the film’s momentum. Of course, as the story progresses the smaller-scale action is replaced by the usual explosions and gravity-defying gestures, in accordance with third-act superhero law. 

It’s this spectacle – so overwhelming, but so often numbing – that, beyond brand recognition, is the perpetual drawcard. The cinema can be shockingly intimate, can lure us into imagined relationships with utter strangers; it can also show us destruction and chaos on a grand yet safe scale. Yet too often in recent blockbusters – and particularly in the Marvel movies, which have pushed out the other genre films in the marketplace – the action is carelessly handled: sloppily edited, poorly staged and so reliant on CGI that the necessary connection between the real and the imagined, the possible and impossible, becomes hopelessly lost. Whatever the individual qualities of some of the MCU films, when it comes time for the action, the house style always wins. Attaching authorial imprint to billion-dollar franchise filmmaking is dangerously naive, but it’s hard not to look at the sort of directors Marvel hires for these projects and wonder why they – studio and director alike – bother.

There’s another piece to be written about the shrinking space afforded filmmakers who want to work for the studio system while retaining some artistic control, but to see Cate Shortland, best known for her debut Somersault and other small-scale historical dramas or subtle indie dramas, suddenly thrown the keys to a project this large and unwieldy and, most crucially, so wholly outside her skill set, makes no sense whatsoever. Every director makes a deal with the devil when negotiating with the major studios, but don’t the studios in turn want someone who can stage a fight scene, frame and cut a car chase with clarity, or rig a building to blow up while keeping some semblance of coherency? Maybe not. Just look at the directors behind the past half-dozen Marvel films before Black Widow, and their entirely inappropriate CVs of middling indie comedies, TV hackwork and generic romcoms. And now here comes Chloé Zhao, fresh off a Best Director Oscar for Nomadland, with the forthcoming Eternals right on its heels, exploring the heretofore unconsidered Oscar-to-Marvel pipeline. 

A few weeks ago, I rewatched Terminator 2: Judgement Day in a new 4K remaster, a film dismissed in its own day as little more than a special-effects showcase for a mindless action-movie crowd but now a beloved classic of the genre. It might seem unfair to denigrate the middling contemporary effort by comparing it with a time-tested masterpiece, but the contrast between the past and our present moment was striking. It wasn’t the strong performances and clearly defined characters that impressed, or the film’s deft mixture of humour and action (which felt carefully delineated, unlike so many superhero films now that routinely undercut danger with perfunctory zingers, lest anyone get too tense). What really stood out was the grace and rigor of its action: its considered placement of actors in the frame, and how multiple planes of action were carefully organised. If a truck chased a bike, and another bike was chasing that truck, every shot was arranged to help you understand where each vehicle was in relation to the others, all three often found in the same dynamic yet comprehensible frame. The film’s computer effects – in their infancy in 1991, but still dazzling in 2021 – were used with restraint. It came down to a simple belief in one’s eyes – you could tell that was a person, a car, an explosion. This film about time-travelling robots fighting for the survival of humanity looked real, and was made with incredible care and attention to detail. The whole thing didn’t feel like haphazardly shot chaos with a big “CGI does the rest” Post-it note stuck on top.

Cinema is a form that’s either dying or in the process of an overwhelming transformation, but while it exists in this manifestation, however crass, commercial and monocultural, can the few blockbusters that make it into the slowly emptying multiplexes be made with something like a dedication to craft? Can the weekly destruction and salvation of the world be organised with a higher degree of professionalism? It seems a small question to pose to billionaires who are making bank either way. 

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow. Image courtesy of Marvel

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