Spoiler: there are no spiders in Black Widow


Last week, I watched this incredibly stupid, badly acted, big budget piece of crap called F9. It’s currently a bit of a joke on the internet, with memes featuring Vin Diesel saying “family” all the time. It’s appropriate — the movie was noise, and occasionally Diesel would occasionally piously say “Family” as if it was sufficient justification for driving cars in outer space. Hated it.

So this week, I saw Black Widow, which, strangely enough, actually is about family. The story starts with a “fake” family of Russian spies hiding in the United States — the father, Alexei, the mother, Melina (the smart one, a scientist), and two daughters, Natasha and Yelena, adopted as part of their cover — while Melina steals American (that is, Hydra) mind control secrets. The family is torn apart at the beginning of the movie when their cover is blown, and they all have to frantically flee to Cuba, where they are separated. Alexei gets thrown into a Russian prison for life, Melina is buried away in a secret lab run by the chief villain, Dreykov, and the two girls are taken away to something called the Red Room, a secret and brutal training room for ninja super-assassins who are all mind-controlled by Dreykov. Natasha later breaks free and defects to the US, joining the Avengers and appearing in a number of big budget superhero movies, the American dream.

That’s the setup. That’s the foundation for the whole plot. From that point on, it’s more James Bond than classic superhero movie: Dreykov has planted his mind-controlled female assassins all over the world, controlling them from his base, the Red Room, and Natasha, the Black Widow, must smash his nefarious plans and free all of his mind-slaves. Along the way, she’s going to find the scattered, disaffected members of her family, and together they will learn to live, laugh, and love as a true family, while blowing the shit out of everything.

I joke, but the movie works best if you view it as a family drama between the four principle actors (who actually can act! And do a good job with the story) surrounded by explosions and fights and an improbable giant flying super-villain fortress. All the interesting moving parts of the plot are wary conflict between two sisters, Natasha and Yelena, the uncovering of the hidden deep affection their spy-scientist mom had for them, and how they rescue their bumbling, blustering dad, who turns out to be Russia’s version of Captain America. That all works. I enjoyed watching those four interact.

I guess the super-spy/super-hero parts of the plot also worked. At least, there were many spectacular action set-pieces, and there was a spectacularly violent conclusion, and there were many fast-paced fight scenes with lithe beautiful women kicking butt. If that had been all there was, though, I would have left the theater feeling “meh”, instead of carrying away a residue of affection for Natasha, Yelena, Melina, and Alexei. That’s what made the film.

Okay, criticisms:

  • Waaaay too many moving parts. The plot is complicated, and it flits all over the world, from Ohio to Hungary to Morocco to a mysterious location above Siberia. It’s de rigueur for a James Bond movie, but here it just felt like they had so much money they could treat the principal cast to filming in exotic locations.
  • As is also common in these kinds of movies, the world-threatening villain is unimpressive. He only exists for the two hours of this one movie, so why invest in developing him? He’s bad, he has a super-weapon, that’s all you need to know.

  • The accents. Yuck. At the beginning, the family speak clear, unaccented American English. In Russia, they all talk to each other with heavy Russian accents. Stop it. It’s especially annoying because they’re setting up Yelena to be the new Black Widow in future films, and you know she’ll be talking without the accent in the next movie.

  • The one significant male lead, Alexei, is comic relief. He’s fat and barely fits into his supersuit, he keeps saying the wrong things, he’s a bit vain and talks too much, he’s Homer Simpson in a fancy red costume. The actor, David Harbour, brings a little more depth to him, but I suspect his character will go nowhere in future films. He’s also a bit of a crude Russian stereotype.

  • There is an unspoken premise throughout. Why women? Why nothing but women? Say something about it! The villain has a world-spanning network of female assassins under his control, he puts cadres of women assassins through a vicious training regimen that, they say at one point, only one women in 20 survives. Give a reason (“women can blend in better,” “women are more agile than men”, anything, no matter how bogus), or I’m just going to assume some weird awful exploitive psycho-sexual sadism that the story lacks the courage to confront.

  • The big problem: in spite of the promising title, there is not one spider shown in the entire movie. Not one. Not a single leg waving in the corner of the screen, not one non-speaking walk-on role, no little cameo anywhere. They apparently forgot what the movie is really about, Latrodectus.

Comments

  1. euclide says

    There is an unspoken premise throughout. Why women? Why nothing but women?

    Because we leave in a patriarchy and the best way to spy on and control the men “in charge” is a network of trophy wives, mistresses, executive assistants and maids which are in practice invisible and have access to everything

  2. The Science Pundit says

    If you want Scarlett Johansson and spiders, you need to go back to one of her early films.

  3. Mario Romero says

    Like other works of fiction: pure fan service. Like those anime with 15 year old school girls or boys driving giant mecha and fighting kaiju. But it’s fun to watch :)

  4. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin points out the reason there are only female assassins is because they are spiders in disguise, and ate all the males. Which helps to dispose of the evidence. Which may be why Vin Diesel only ever mutters “home” — what they are trying to say is “Home, home, it’s at home! It’s at home!! Spiders!!!! Fangs!!!!! The antlers, the legs, the claws, at home!!!!1!! Eeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!”

  5. birgerjohansson says

    blf @ 4
    I am glad to hear villains with GM technology have finally managed to overcome the size limit imposed by bok lungs. Now we can look forward to spider shape-shifters everywhere.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    ….and spiders in disguise will be way cooler than Dragon Ball Z villains like Android 16 and 17.
    With the obvious exception for Perfect Cell- he was part arthropod.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    Alexei gets thrown into a Russian prison for life…

    I got lost in paragraph two. They are Russian spies. They spy on America. They flee to Cuba, a Russian ally. Why would Russia throw him in a prison?

  8. says

    For the same reason suspicious Russians imprisoned their fellow citizens who had been prisoners of war in WWII. They were tainted with capitalist ideas.

  9. Rich Woods says

    This film has been a long time coming but I think it was well worth the wait. The dialogue and interaction between the four leads, and their acting, was all spot on.

    I think Dreykov did give an explanation for why he chose to train and control women. This is a paraphrase from a memory 24 hours old so don’t hold me to every word. “I use the one resource which the world has in abundance. Baby girls. No-one misses them.” I wonder how well that will be received when the film is released in China?

  10. Owlmirror says

    I’m just going to assume some weird awful exploitive psycho-sexual sadism that the story lacks the courage to confront.

    Or in other words, OH JOHN RINGO NO.

  11. Owlmirror says

    Although, speaking of F9, I recently saw this tweet thread, which has some interesting points:

    https://twitter.com/GailSimone/status/1406636350942576643

    I had a very powerful Hollywood insider say that the success of the Fast and Furious franchise had a bigger effect on movie casts getting diversified than ‘all the social media complaints combined.’

    Interesting.

    This happened. If he was being hyperbolic, I don’t know.

    But even if it’s just a commonly held belief at the top levels, it’s interesting to consider.

    And some replies to the thread gave more detail about that diversity:

    1) Few franchises pass the Bechdel test as easily and continuously as that one.

    2) Really? I thought it’d be a total sausage fest. Can you enlighten me?

    3) main female characters are given the same types of roles in the show as the main male characters are – diversity in action, plus, the bechdel test is about when two women talk, it’s always about the men. That doesn’t happen.

    [The last one looks a bit confused. What I think the writer meant is that even if there are two women in the film who have lines, very often when they talk, they only talk about men (and usually, presumably the male lead(s)). But in the F&F franchise, there are scenes where two women do indeed talk about something other than the men]

    Also, further down:

    4) I intend to write a lengthy argument some day about the way this franchise, as absurd as it has become, has feminist undertones. I love it. They’ve placed women onscreen and behind the wheel from the very beginning.

    5) Am I right that Michelle Rodriguez threatened to walk in the first film when they wanted a love triangle and it didn’t fit her character at all?

    6) She’s threatened to leave at least a couple of times over the writing of female characters! (They could do better, of course, but they’re miles ahead of a lot of other franchises)

    (I’ve never personally seen an F&F film, but I am interested in how Zeitgeists change)

  12. jrkrideau says

    They are Russian spies. They spy on America. They flee to Cuba

    People in the USA do not require logic? Cuba is evil . QED

  13. says

    Okay, look PZ, I respect your opinions but in this case I do not have to rely upon it, for I, too, have seen the Black Widow after waiting lo these many years for the film.

    And in this case you missed the two most important aspects of this movie: hysterectomies and pockets. Great Galloping Gurdy, this film was so full of casual feminism that it put me in mind of Fried Green Tomatoes and Thelma & Louise, mashed up, thrown in a blender, then artfully arranged on a plate and garnished with portions of The Incredibles 2.

    You’re right about the accents, of course, but damn this movie was so fine, apart from those accents.

    So.

    Fine.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    If they want a Russian stereotype, they tend to use a small number of actors, like Peter Stormare. So kudos for originality.
    F & F is misusing Vin Diesels talent for looking menacing and evil. Using him as a good guy is a waste of resources. It is like having Mads Mikkelsen play Santa Claus instead of Hannibal Lecter (I am referring to the TV series).
    .
    Fast and Furious / Wicked City crossover with human/spider demons, set in Japan ? In this narrative universe Vin Diesel would be a half-demon, with the same powers as the spider shape-shifters. Blade meets Eight-Legged Freaks. With fast cars.

  15. Silentbob says

    (nerdiness)

    In the MCU we’re introduced to the Red Room in Agent Carter in it’s 1930s Soviet incarnation. It’s a program to train young girls to be ruthless assassins. It’s explained in the series that the reason they train girls is that given the sexism of the time (and still today of course) women are the perfect assassins – no one will expect them, and even if they do they will underestimate them and think they are easily subdued, when in fact they’re extremely deadly.

    I get PZ’s point is that’s not explained in the movie, I think they just assume a certain familiarity with Marvel lore.

    (/nerdiness)

    @ 13 Crip Dyke

    Yes, I also liked how they called out Black Widow’s “posing” – i.e. her being used as eye candy in previous films. Yelena is disgusted, “Why do you that thing? The posing, with the hair flick? You look ridiculous. Like you’re always expecting people to be looking at you”.
    :-)

  16. Silentbob says

    Oh also, on behalf of all English speakers who are not American can I just say…

    unaccented American English

    Lol.

    (I get it. You mean they weren’t putting on accents. But guys. You totally have accents.)

  17. Silentbob says

    … In fact (sorry to be pedantic) I just looked it up and Rachel Weisz is English. So your “unaccented American English” was totally a fake accent.

  18. says

    I assume the accents are movie shorthand for ‘speaking russian but we don’t want the audience to have to read too many subtitles’. One of those tricks of moviemaking that are more about theatre than making sense.

  19. chrislawson says

    I’d just like to add that Scarlett Johanssen pushed Marvel to hire Cate Shortland as director based on her CV of low budget Australian movies about young women learning to navigate the crises of early adulthood. I haven’t seen Black Widow yet, but this immediately gives it a big, big tick of approval. There are many criticisms that can be levelled at the MCU, but I am astonished by their willingness to let talented but not-A-grade directors helm their marquee films — Cate Shortland brings a grounded feminist perspective, Taika Waitita was allowed to build Thor: Ragnorak on a brazenly anti-colonial foundation, James Gunn brought his indie-with-comic-edge sensibility to Guardians of the Galaxy.

    Compare and contrast to the DCEU movies that repeatedly return to hack box-office directors like Zack Snyder, Todd Phillips, and David Ayer, and even when they hire someone with a bit of directorial vision — or their chosen hacks have a decent idea for once — they completely undermine efforts to bring that vision to screen.

    Not that the MCU is perfect. They should have let Edgar Wright finish his Ant-man movie instead of stabbing him in the back (although, to be fair, I haven’t seen the footage that Wright shot, it might have been terrible — but given his filmography I find it hard to believe it would have been worse than the anodyne Ant-man movies we got).

  20. John Morales says

    I did wait.

    “principle actors” → ‘principal actors’

    (Stands out like a sore thumb to me)

  21. Rich Woods says

    @silentbob #17:

    I just looked it up and Rachel Weisz is English.

    And so are Florence Pugh and Ray Winstone. And probably quite a few others with speaking roles who I didn’t readily recognise, given that most of the interiors were shot at Pinewood.

  22. devnll says

    @chrislawson #19:

    Can I totally agree with you, while still expecting that the motivation probably had more to do with getting directors who were cheaper than JJ Abrams, because the movies were going to sell themselves anyways?

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