Imagine you’re in the mood for a delicious burger. You pull into a fast-food drive-thru and order your reliable number from the menu. Except instead of typical clamshell grill fare, the restaurant hands you a perfectly seasoned patty, cooked to perfection by a gourmet chef and served with a bun hand-selected to complement its vegetables. Your taste buds are delighted but absolutely confused.
This is the story of “Black Widow” and its nonconforming choices. While other blockbusters are increasing in the bombastic standard that loosely qualifies as style, this film is quietly the most well-crafted Marvel movie to date. Its beauty lies within its choices that run so counter to what you’d expect. I found myself pumping my fist in the theater, not out of awe for the flashy hero moments in front of the camera, but out of reverence for the people behind it.
That’s because this movie is about more than Natasha Romanoff, brilliantly played by Scarlett Johansson. This movie is about a “family” she is a part of. When Black Widow discovers that the man who tore them apart still lives, she must reunite them to fight him and his best goon, Taskmaster. Florence Pugh’s Yelena plays the role of her sister. The two women suffer from the ill parenting of Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) and direct resentment towards them and each other. The real conflict springs from the interactions between these four rather than the villain’s evil plot.
There are three or four full-length action scenes in this movie. That’s it. However, the rare action in this movie is representative of the movie’s specificity. Task Master almost acts as a representation of Marvel itself. Note the fighting techniques that evoke specific iconography from different Avengers. It would have been simple enough to give the fighter a shield and call them Captain America, but instead, they move like Chris Evans does, even while wielding a knife. It doesn’t seem like an accident that Natasha’s past haunts her in this character’s form.
“Black Widow” has more shared DNA with a family Oscar drama than a globe-trotting spy thriller. While other superhero movies have characters glide from one explosion to the next, this film is at its best during the in-between moments. The quiet fogging of glass tells us more about someone’s headspace than another witty one-liner might do. But when they do give a silly comment about the action, you find it adds more to their character than what’s on the surface.
The characters’ dialogue springs from their trauma and experiences instead of some action figure personality. Like real people, the stinging family lashes out for attention, affection, and understanding. It is very specific and yet feels like a mirror. “Black Widow” shows us something new we haven’t yet seen before in the Marvel Universe; these characters have deeply realistic multi-layered relationships with one another that go beyond the witty chemistry our favorite Avengers or Guardians possess.
For example, at one point Pugh’s Yelena yells to Harbour’s Guardian about her shared past with Natasha. She is trying to get him to help her do something about it and turns to Natasha for aid. “You got out, aren’t you going to say anything?” On its surface, the line seems only to ask why Johansson’s character isn’t backing her up. But the subtext reveals more than that; Yelena resents Natasha for not rescuing her from the situation, just as she is not defending her now. It’s a moment that rings true for all of those with siblings, yet it’s very specific to this situation.
From its flashback opening, you know this movie will be different in its specificity. Within only a few minutes, these scenes go from lame origin story to terrifying and heart-wrenching moments. You don’t care about Black Widow as the superheroic action star for a second; you care about Natasha and her sister, and how their lives are changing. Much of this quick establishment is effective because of the seriousness with which the movie treats its subject matter. In “Black Widow,” trauma, even PG-13 trauma, is real. It is not some vaguely referenced icing on a muscley Chris. The camera appropriately carries that weight and reminds you of this harsh reality.
The cinematography instantly has intentionality to it that only disappears for a couple of action shots in the fight sequences. Unlike the coverage-heavy shooting that Kevin Feige’s house is built on, director Cate Shortland has a vision for each scene. She chooses shots with length in mind, rather than hoping to throw them together in the editing room. You may also get almost tired of how often she racks focus to emphasize an emotion. Uneven lighting choices during action scenes create contrast and enhance conflicts.
Additionally, a lot of the best parts of the movie are people sitting in rooms discussing trauma. That’s partly because Shortland knows how to shoot intimacy without becoming either bland or sappy. Contrasting the skippable exposition dumps of blockbuster viewer’s bane, many of these scenes are long and incredibly slow. The characters’ interactions have arcs and change direction, containing individual moments and beats. It seems odd that would be so revolutionary in a franchise of over twenty films, but the Avengers aren’t known for their subtlety.
Perhaps those who aren’t celebrating “Black Widow” were expecting the blockbuster that would bring us back to theaters and introduce a new phase of Marvelous mayhem. Instead, we are treated to an auteur’s intimate vision of a traumatized group of people. I can understand the need for a fast-food cheeseburger. But that model is not necessarily infinitely sustainable in an oversaturated market. In order to stand out, you have to create moments of true craft.
Of course, I’m not advocating for every Marvel movie going forward to be a quiet drama. Instead, I hope the refreshing nuance of “Black Widow” means that we’ll have many more fine chefs in the kitchen creating many kinds of elegant cuisine going forward.