Black Widow could do with taking itself and its characters a little more seriously.
Humor has become a recognizable part of the Marvel Studios formula. Jokes and one-liners are part of the company’s house style. Comedian Seth Rogen has mused that films like Ant-Man and Thor: Ragnarok have changed the rules for studio comedies, pointing out, “There are $200 million comedies out there, and so that’s something, as a comedic filmmaker, to be aware of. That is the benchmark that people expect!”
Comedy has been a part of the shared DNA of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) dating back to the earliest film in the franchise. Iron Man was written and directed by Jon Favreau, who emerged from the Chicago improvisational comedy scene. Favreau credits his time on the circuit with teaching him skills invaluable to his subsequent career, “Learning improv, I learned about storytelling, writing, editing, directing, and acting.” It even helped him on later projects like The Jungle Book.
When he was making Iron Man, Favreau made a conscious decision to structure the film to encourage playfulness, stating, “As we filmed it, I made sure that I left a lot of room for improvisation and spontaneity.” Actor Jeff Bridges has likened working on Iron Man to “making a $200 million student film.” It helped that actor Robert Downey Jr. was a gifted improvisational performer, even improvising the film’s iconic closing scene.
Many of the best films in the MCU skillfully integrate that comedy into their storytelling. Iron Man 3 blends a sardonic sense of humor with an irreverent premise to great effect. Guardians of the Galaxy employed a juvenile sense of humor as an expression of its characters’ arrested development. Thor: Ragnarok hid a barbed critique of imperialism and colonialism behind a disarming improvisational comedy.
It’s notable that most of these more successful comedies were the work of creators with strong and distinctive voices. Jon Favreau, Shane Black, and James Gunn all served as both writers and directors on their films. Taika Waititi largely ignored the original script written for Thor: Ragnarok, explaining, “I had a list of things I thought might be good in the scene, but didn’t try to put it in the script because I knew it’d have to go through five different people to be approved.”
The best jokes in the MCU serve as characterization, telling the audience something about the characters while also landing a punchline. In The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, a lot of the jokes around Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) are rooted in anchoring the character as a man out of time, from his insistence that Thor is not a god because “there’s only one God … and (Steve’s) pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that” through to his chastising of his teammates for their “language.”
However, the franchise’s sense of humor can become a crutch when employed with less skill and purpose. Eric Pearson, the writer described as the company’s “go-to script doctor,” argues jokes are the easiest way to endear characters to an audience, remarking that “they can do something really cool, or they can make you laugh.” As a result, the humor in MCU films can sometimes be broad and indiscriminate.
To pick an example from Avengers: Infinity War, two characters make the same joke about Dr. Strange looking like a party entertainer within 10 minutes. Iron Man (Downey Jr.) reacts to the character’s appearance in costume in Central Park by asking, “You giving out tickets or something?” Moments later, the Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor) muses, “You must be popular with children.” The Ebony Maw is an invading alien; why does he care about children’s entertainment?
These gags are designed to put the audience at ease by pointing out how goofy and silly these superhero stories really are. They assure the audience that the movie is in on the joke. Because both Iron Man and the Ebony Maw have pointed out how silly Dr. Strange looks, Infinity War insulates itself from any criticism that it is taking itself too seriously or is too self-important. It beat the audience to the punchline.
There is a danger to this approach. At its worst, it actively undermines any dramatic stakes by communicating that the characters don’t actually care about what is happening — so why should the audience? Captain America: Civil War finds the Avengers at odds following a disastrous intervention in Lagos that resulted in at least 11 civilian casualties. The Wakandan King T’Chaka (John Kani) is murdered while giving a speech to the United Nations. This should be a big deal.
As the Avengers demolish a conveniently empty Leipzig/Halle Airport, in a battle that sees James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) receiving a spinal injury that leaves him unable to walk unaided, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) trade banter about how little any of this actually matters to them. “We’re still friends, right?” she asks. “Depends on how hard you hit me,” he replies. Nothing means anything. Why should the audience care about any of this?
Black Widow brushes up against this problem repeatedly. Although Black Widow is the first solo movie based around the character, The Avengers and Age of Ultron established Natasha Romanoff as both a deadpan snarker and tragic figure. In The Avengers, Natasha confessed that she had done terrible things and was haunted by “the red in (her) ledger.” In Age of Ultron, Natasha revealed that she had been forcibly sterilized during the training that turned her into a world-class assassin.
Black Widow grapples with the character’s history. Early in the film, it is revealed that Natasha made a conscious choice to kill a child to escape from the Red Room. She also abandoned her surrogate sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), leaving her behind and never looking back. Natasha discovers that the Red Room is still active, with the sinister Dreykov (Ray Winstone) taking young women and turning them into killing machines with no moral or bodily autonomy.
This is heavy stuff. Black Widow was released as women in the United States are still fighting for control of their own reproductive systems and reports of authorities conducting unauthorized hysterectomies on women in their care. Black Widow is occasionally unflinching in its portrayal of such brutality against women. The climax finds Dreykov beating Natasha in a sequence that evokes domestic abuse, even watching her flinch as he raises the back of his hand.
However, Black Widow falls back too casually into easy jokes. The film arguably spends as much time setting up and paying off a joke about Natasha’s tendency to indulge in “superhero landings” as it does wrestling with the moral weight of what is happening. Cate Shortland’s directorial choices evoke dramas like The Americans or Munich, with the film’s espionage plot drawing from The Bourne Identity, but Black Widow is constantly punctuated by jokes that could easily come from Moonraker.
Black Widow even goes out of its way to reduce existing character drama to wry punchlines. Natasha’s “red” ledger and her forced sterilization are turned into jokes at the expense of her bumbling surrogate father Alexei, played by David Harbour in a performance inspired by Ricky Gervais’ work in The Office. Alexei pridefully boasts about how his daughters’ “ledgers must be dripping, just gushing red” and gets grossed out when Yelena discusses the removal of her uterus.
These are solid jokes on their own terms. The gag involving Alexei’s discomfort with discussing basic female biology is arguably part of the recent wave of feminist humor challenging the double standard about how male and female sexuality is discussed. Revealingly, the joke began in Pearson’s script as a joke about Yelena’s period, and Shortland considered cutting it before deciding to reclaim it. However, the gags work against the most interesting and compelling parts of Black Widow.
Like many Marvel Studios films, Black Widow seems to exist in a constant state of fear that the audience might think that it is taking itself too seriously and that it isn’t in on the joke. However, this is a rare superhero film that is surprisingly candid about the ways in which society can treat women as “trash” to be exploited and discarded. Perhaps some things are worth taking seriously.