Movies

Black Widow Is a Step Back for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Is the biggest brand in movies better off on the small screen?

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For more than a decade now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has ruled the box office and the big screen with a core promise: Always, always, there will be more.

The franchise's serialized, spinoff-propelled storytelling was the cinematic equivalent of a perpetual motion machine for both viewers and the studio behind it. Individual movies would come and go, but if one was not so great, well, just wait a few months. Each one was pitched as its own mega-movie event. But if it didn't deliver, well, there's always another—and another and another and another, wash, rinse, repeat.

Until 2020, that is, when the pandemic shut down both theatrical exhibitions and most TV and movie production, resulting in the first Marvel-less year in over a decade. Instead of Black Widow, Eternals, and a straight-to-streaming series or two, viewers primed to show up for two or three billion-dollar big-screen events every year got a whole lot of nothing.

And when the MCU did return, it did so on the small screen, with Disney+ series WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and, over the last several weeks, a limited series devoted to reforming the franchise's charming trickster quasi-villain, Loki.

Each of these series expanded on the franchise's promise—offering longer, more plot- and character-driven pieces that enlarged and enlivened the Marvel formula even if they did not fully depart from it. The results were not entirely successful: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier got bogged down by clumsy attempts at pseudo-political relevance, and WandaVision was perhaps a little too enamored with its formal cleverness. But WandaVision also offered a striking merge of dislocated superhero psychology with TV-comedy history, and Loki has thrown its loveable villain-hero into a deliriously haywire multiversal blender that's part Rick and Morty, part Doctor Who, part Jack Kirby-esque cosmic fantasia. It's not without flaw, but it's invigorating and artful and overflowing with amusing ideas; it might be the single best product the MCU has ever produced.

On the small screen, then, the MCU has adapted and thrived, in part because its comic book–style storytelling has always felt more than a little like TV on the big screen. The streaming series rollout this year has felt, in some ways, like the franchise finally finding its natural home.

As of this weekend, though, the franchise is back in theaters, this time with Black Widow, the long-delayed solo film for one of the MCU's most prominent supporting characters. The movie gives Scarlett Johansson's Russian superagent Natasha Romanoff a much-deserved individual showcase, and per the Marvel movie formula, there are on-the-regular laughs and heartwarming personal moments interspersed with the sort of epic action set pieces only $200 million studio budgets can buy.

Black Widow is bigger and louder in almost every way than the streaming series that the MCU has subsisted on recently—and yet somehow it feels diminished, even inessential. Yes, the action scenes are more elaborately staged and the effects work is noticeably a cut above even the best that Disney+ has to offer. Director Cate Shortland has put together a Hollywood spectacle that looks more distinctive and more textured, and has more coherently staged action, than many of the film's bland-and-samey MCU predecessors.

But the story takes the character backward—something of a necessity given that (spoilers for a 2-year-old film to follow) Romanoff died in 2019's Avengers: Endgame. As a result, the stakes for her first solo outing are relatively low: Even more than usual, we know she'll live through whatever the film throws at her, and then die years later—or years earlier, depending on what order you watch the movies—on a starry cosmic cliff as part of a quest to defeat a Giant Purple Bad Guy with a glove full of costume jewelry MacGuffins.

And that, in turn, means the movie needs to deliver something else, something more meaningful—or at least a little more human, the kind of character-driven drama that the streaming series have, by necessity, typically managed better than their big-screen counterparts. But while the movie's found-family storyline tries to ground Black Widow's experience in something more relatable, it feels rushed and formulaic, like a Reader's Digest version of something richer and more patiently paced.

Black Widow, in other words, is not much better than a rote look back at a character with no likely future. Sure, there's an obvious successor waiting in the wings in the form of Florence Pugh's Yelena Belova, but a long-overdue film titled Black Widow needs, above all, to service the title character. Instead, it offers little more than a fleshing out of a backstory we already more or less knew.

The MCU has always borrowed from the tropes of television, and its movies have always, in some sense, just been episodes and installments in some grand, big-screen series. But now that the franchise has spread out on streaming, it's less clear what role the big tentpole films play. Black Widow was only delayed by a little more than a year; it was supposed to arrive before the first Disney+ series debuted. But it already feels like a relic from another age, when the masses went to the movies, and Marvel owned the multiplex. It's a nostalgic reminiscence, back to when times were great and Marvel movies ruled the world.

Indeed, if anything, in the context of the streaming series, Black Widow makes a case that the franchise's natural home is on streaming, and that Marvel might be better off fully embracing the serial-TV model it has always implicitly mimicked. A feature film inherently promises not just a beginning but also a middle and an end, a finish or completion of some sort. But Marvel's real strength is in keeping the story going, like a comic book or a soap opera, letting viewers live and grow up with the characters along the way.

The MCU has been Hollywood's biggest franchise for long enough that it's unlikely to give up the glory—which is to say the outsized box office returns—of the silver screen. But there's more reason than ever to think the small screen is where it's really meant to be.

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54 responses to “Black Widow Is a Step Back for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

  1. These comic book movies are dumb as hell. Can we get some libertarian articles around here?

    1. Sometimes a movie is just a movie.

      I’ve never understood how movies about elites fighting to be dictators have anything to do with individualism. Star Wars was just different mutant elites fighting to be dictators.

      People have conflated nerds/geeks with libertarians.

      1. Come to think of it … time for a new conspiracy theory. I wonder if that is why Trump pissed off so many Reason writers: he was just following through on both Star Wars and the X universe in being some kind of mutant and misunderstood politician fighting among the elites for control. Seriously, most Reason writers never did understand Trump’s appeal at simply not being a normal politician, exhibiting the same kind of bigotry that is the core hatred in the X-mutant universe. Wasn’t it Suderman who kept ranting about Trump long after the 2020 election? Fits right in — jealous of a real-life mutant who didn’t fit the script?

        1. What bigotry did Trump ever practice?

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        2. How again was Trump a bigot, because he said Mexico was sending their worst, “murderers, rapists, and I’m sure some are good people.” Or was it the very fine people on both sides bs, “not the neo nazis, I condemn them totally” he said. Or maybe waving his arms and mocking a reporter which he’s done a thousand times, but this time he was doing it to a cripple. You’ve been lied to my friend. Turn off cnn and msnbc, they a propagandists for the democrat party.

      2. One wonders why…

  2. Wait, Hollywood is still making movies?

    1. Yes. I hear they’re popular in Beijing.

      1. I hope so, that is now their target audience. We’re the afterthought market.

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  3. Formulaic plots bad dialogue and expensive as hell, yeah that’s a ticket to success.

    1. I think the greatest action movie should have no dialogue. Just tell the story through a 90-minute sequence of Michael Bay style explosions.

      1. I’d far rather watch a 80s Hong Kong action flick with no subtitles than any of the unmitigated dog shit Hollywood has pumped out in the last 25 years.

        1. I would absolutely watch a couple of Shaw Bros. flicks without subtitles before watching this.

      2. So the movie shoot em up

    2. It worked for Nancy Pelosi.

  4. It’s not without flaw, but it’s invigorating and artful and overflowing with amusing ideas; it might be the single best product the MCU has ever produced.

    I’d have to argue that Marvel’s appeal for me is their willingness to really be out there: attempting to create far out (for mainstream) artwork and storylines, like where they were going with the Dr. Strange movie, and even the last Thor movie. The Guardians OTG movies had great cutting edge effects in them (incredible iridescence in the second one on the big screen). The technology exits to make some really mind blowing visuals, and there’s an endless source of awesome far out cosmic level plots out there in Marvel’s long history of comics.

    Seems like this one is just another pot boiler. Who needs another martial arts + gadgets superhero movie? Although Johansson is smoking hot in her Black Widow outfit.

    1. . . . even the last Thor movie.

      The first half of that movie was great – calls back to the golden age of genre cinema (the 1980’s) when you got all sorts of one-off films – the last half was ‘oh, more of this boring ‘punch each other in the sky shit again’.

      Even fucking WandaVision ends up with a flying punch-fight with a skybeam in the background.

      1. Flying punch-fights with skybeams are fine in themselves, but the difficulty with WandaVision is (SPOILERS) that it can’t face up to the fact that Wanda has become a bad guy – a genuine evil witch slaver. What it needed was a sky-fight with Vision once he woke up to what she was doing.

        1. She’s not evil, just hopelessly damaged and desperate. Massive PTSD and abandonment issues coalescing in a massively powerful individual.

          1. Which means she cannot be held responsible for her actions?

            1. I suppose you could argue that she wasn’t mentally competent enough to have guilty intent; It was a case of somebody going crazy who had reality manipulation powers.

              But you either fall into the “can be held responsible for her actions” bin, or the “too dangerous to be walking around free” bin, pick one. I gather they didn’t pick one…

          2. By that standard no villain is “Evil,” which I agree with wholeheartedly. The best storytelling understands that the villain isn’t truly evil for evil’s sake, but rather a person that is just broken and doing toxic stuff as a result of their flawed thinking and bad choices.

            What Wandavision struggles with, is that Wanda is most definitely a villian (and even the main villain) that is doing quite horrific stuff to innocent people, and instead paints the people trying to stop her as villains for not understanding her pain and anguish as she literally tortures and abuses a thousand people.

  5. I have a hard time getting interested in two hour movies anymore. I know the following seems absurd–because a month of a streaming service today costs less than a single movie ticket did before the pandemic. But I feel like I’m getting ripped off if I shell out $10 for a month of a streaming service–just so I can watch one movie.

    It feels like I’m buying a game on my computer to play the single player campaign and it only lasts for two hours. I might rather watch six seasons of Battlestar Galactica for free with commercials on Peacock than pay $10 to watch a two hour movie on Disney. I’m a cheap bastard when it comes to stuff like this. If it’s only two hours long, I’d probably have more excitement on the freeway with my motorcycle.

    1. You and me both. I also have a hair trigger on the remote. I’ve so far managed to not pay much of anything using family member accounts to basically get everything but most of time I end up watching YouTube videos. I will say though that I love Hollywood and movies in general. That Loki series on Disney is really good in my opinion so far through 5 episodes.

    2. I kind of feel the same way – and like Strazzle, I have a hair trigger on the remote.

      I have . . . Amazon Prime. Because I have Amazon Prime. And while its got some decent stuff on it, there’s just a lot of shit I click out of. I’m finding more engaging content on Youtube.

      Sidenote: Coming 2 America? I got through 20 minutes. Was . . . not good. Which is sad because Coming To America is an amazing movie on its own and might be Murphy’s best film ever.

  6. It’s really hard to do a backstory movie. “Solo” had the same problem. We know he’s not going to end up with the girl or die. The tension just falls flat.

    I’ll probably see this regardless, because I really like the MCU movies (for the most part, anyway) but it really would have been a lot better to give Widow a movie of her own set before the events of Endgame and definitely *delivered* before Endgame.

    Oh well.

    1. Solo fails not because you know how its going to end but because it was just a shitty movie all the way through.

      I just don’t understand. Its completely possible for me to enjoy a standalone adventure with a character that takes place before ‘the main events’ of an earlier released movie. That Solo may or may not *stay* with any potential love interest – well, its one slice of a continuing story. The guy has a *life*.

      1. Sorry, I may not have been sufficiently clear. I didn’t mean to imply that I think that it’s impossible to make a movie like that, or that those concerns were the only problem that “Solo” had. But because, as you said, “Solo” was crap start to finish, including the writing, it certainly fell into that trap hard.

    2. Solo flopped because there isn’t anyone in Hollywood like Harrison Ford anymore.

      1. That, and doing a “backstory” on Han and Chewy is completely unnecessary. Half the fun those characters are the opaque, one-off lines and scenes that actually enrich their arcs by alluding to their past and who they are involved with outside the main story. The Greedo scene in Star Wars provided more character development for Han in 5 minutes than the entire Solo movie did in two hours.

        There’s a stupid, autistic pretense in pop culture right now that there has to be a detailed backstory on long-established characters, mainly because the industry is so creatively bankrupt due to the cultural illiteracy and degeneracy of its members, that it can’t come up with anything on their own. These are people that have gone through the intellectual meat-grinder of post-modern academia, and everything has to be shown through some dumb deconstructionist lens. That’s why you get drek like Solo, and Todd Phillips can’t even make a movie about a mentally ill urbanite descending into total madness without the studios wanting him to do it as a capeshit film.

        1. The problem with the Solo movie is that at the end of the day it wasn’t about Han and Chewie screwing around doing fun or dangerous shit, it was about all the other people and politics in the movie. Which nobody gave a shit about.

      2. Nah, the real problem with Solo is that the shoehorned in every reference to Solo’s backstory into an adventure that lasted a couple days.

        So Han Solo went from being an admired character with a long and interesting backstory that is constantly hinted at, to being that annoying guy that had one really good football game and talks about nothing else for the rest of his life. It destroyed the whole mythos of the character.

    3. Solo failed because by the time it came out, Star Wars had alienated precisely the fans who might have had nostalgia for a Solo origin story, and had given new fans no reason to have any interest in the origin story of some pitiful grandpa loser.

  7. “It feels like I’m buying a game on my computer to play the single player campaign and it only lasts for two hours.”

    On the flip side, this is why I have no problem paying for a lot of video games. When a movie (with snacks) costs me $30 for two hours entertainment, $50 for a game that lasts 4 – 6 hours seems reasonable, even if I ultimately stop playing after a week or two.

    I am in the same boat though. During the lock down, I built a home theater good enough that I see very little reason to go to the theaters. Sure, we might go for IMAX 3D, as an 80″ screen still isn’t THAT big, but that is something we might do once or twice a year. My kids maybe go out to the theater twice that amount, but with direct-to-streaming releases, they have been more likely to just have a sleep over at our house.

  8. Why is Reason reviewing children’s movies?

  9. Is the biggest brand in movies better off on the small screen?

    Given the quality of WandaVision, Falcon, and Loki? No.

    As a result, the stakes for her first solo outing are relatively low:

    I don’t understand this as a criticism. You can read a story from, say, WW2, and thoroughly enjoy it, be invested in the characters, even though you know how it turns out for everyone.

    Do you really watch these sorts of movies and think ‘yeah, they’re gonna kill the protagonist halfway through’? Even without the Endgame movie coming first – you knew going in she was going to live through the whole damned thing.

  10. The Black Widow movie is what it is because Disney fucked up. They fucked up the Captain Marvel movie so bad, we’re still feeling it. The powers that be wanted Captain Marvel to be the first female Avenger. There’s even a quip in the movie about how she’s the first Avenger. It’s a terrible bullshit retconn and lots of the fans called them out on it. Namely, that not only is Capt. Marvel not the first Avenger but Black Widow is/was the first female Avenger. The Black Widow movie is Disney’s shitty attempt to close the barn door after all the horses got out.

    1. And the barn was reduced to ashes.

      “Hey, I found the latch!”

      “Quick, get the horses in here and close the door!”

  11. Did anyone get a chance to check out Invincible on Amazon Prime?

    Stuck to the comic & was violent as all get out. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

    Really hope there is a season two.

    1. I did and it was interesting, at least to this non-reader of the comic. I haven’t finished the season yet. A lot of loose ends still to tie up with only two more episodes for me to watch.

      Separately I find The Venture Brothers generally did a good job lampooning all manner of cartoon and comics genre. And there’s the Vindicators episode of Rick and Morty as that show’s take on the MCU.

  12. But Marvel’s real strength is in keeping the story going…

    Not if the aforementioned Captain Falcmerica and the Winter Soldier are any indication. Those showrunners and their writers can’t sustain good storytelling when given the space for filler ideas and threads.

  13. Season 1 of Daredevil on Netflix was the best thing MCU has done.

  14. I just bought tickets. A great excuse to go back to the big screen, even if Peter is disappointed

  15. “…and yet somehow it feels diminished, even inessential.”

    Because it’s 8 years too late and the character is already dead. It’s not expanding the MCU, it’s just coloring in a few old pages.

  16. Black Widow is one of the best but most underrated Avengers in the MCU. She’s pretty enthusiastic and full of Energy . Hope to see something better than Falcon and the Winter Soldier

  17. A funny moment in the universe:

    Villain: Mister….?
    Hero: Doctor.
    Villain: Mister Doctor.
    Hero: It’s Strange.
    Villain: Maybe. Who am I to judge?

  18. Meh. I’ll start watching those movies when they get Gal Godot and Scarlet Johansen naked. For now they’re nothing more than computer graphics demos.

    -jcr

  19. Loki is the best thing they’ve done in a while.

  20. The public’s general disinterest in the one year pandemic induced pause in Marvel films pretty confirms that these movies are a equivalent of Valentine’s day or a traveling carnival. It’s something that comes every year and the masses observe them out of ritual or social custom.

    If Marvel went heavy on streaming, their hold on popular culture will start to dwindle. Releasing movies on theaters will condition consumers to think that the product is must see now event in a limited window. If it’s posted on the internet on release, it stays there forever, and for people, anything on the internet is associated as forever and even free.

    And bad movies become even worse on tv, which can’t provide a sense of scale. I watched some of the Paranormal movies and they make no sense on TV. Special effects are visibly less convincing on TV because the imperfections become more noticeable.

    I’m not going to watch Disney milk every ounce of their property. What will be their new movie, an origin story for Gaston? Well that could be interesting, I suppose.

  21. Falcon, Wanda, Natasha. All second or third tier Marvel characters.

    Captain America gone. Iron Man gone. Hulk no longer Hulk Smash, now another super genius. Odin gone. Asgard gone. (Yeah, yeah, Asgard is a people, but now they’re not the rulers of the Nine Realms, they’ve vagabonds on Earth).

    Thor and Loki still around, but separated, and with no Realm for Loki to fight for. Thor is just an intergalactic vagabond w/o purpose, after being humiliated as Fat Thor.

    No compelling characters or stories on the horizon, and it shows in their latest ouput.

    Everything is a joke, or “pushing boundaries”. Much like Star Wars, it’s a franchise run by people who obviously hate the characters, the stories, the genre, and especially the fans.

    End Game ran on momentum from decades of Marvel Comics and a decade of Marvel Movies. I thought it was pretty meh, but I watched to see the end of the arc.

    I feel little motivation to watch another. Much like Star Wars. Maybe the Dr. Strange ones?

    They really need The Eternals to capture imaginations and provide an overarching Narrative for the Universe, but I don’t see it happening.

  22. It’s really hard to do a backstory movie. “Solo” had the same problem. We know he’s not going to end up with the girl or die. The tension just falls flat. watched it again today on https://cinemahd.to

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