At this point, 24 movies in and counting, expecting the Marvel Cinematic Universe to change something about its house style is like shaking a fist up at a thunderstorm and telling it to quiet the heck down. There are no radical changes coming to the MCU’s aesthetic, not as long as the millions are still pouring in and audiences still show up in droves, pandemic or not. So when I say something like “the action in the MCU, for all intents and purposes the biggest action/adventure franchise in the world, is often bland, weightless, and smoothed out to within an inch of its life,” it’s not because of an expectation for something different, but to highlight how frustrating it is whenever the MCU hints that it could, occasionally, produce action sequences distinguishable from each other. Case in point: Director Cate Shortland‘s Black Widow, the more-than-solid standalone film for Scarlett Johanssen‘s super-spy Avenger Natasha Romanoff, which features some of the hardest-hitting action in the MCU’s decade-plus history. This mostly means fight scenes that look like they take place on this Earth and not one of those zero-G airplanes tourists use to float around like astronauts. Black Widow easily clears the bar, but why is the bar so low in the first place?
In fairness, it’s been clear for a while that “creating action for the MCU” is a more complex idea than Director Signs On to Make Movie. (This is true of pretty much any major franchise.) Marvel action often comes pre-assembled. Having to stick to plot points that won’t play out until years down the line makes the writing process especially tricky, yeah, but it also means the set-pieces need to be carefully planned beat-for-beat, lest a ripple cause problems for a movie set to debut in 2028. For that reason, the MCU prefers to hire directors who can juggle, filmmakers adept at threading various tones and emotional throughlines through a single scene. What the studio most conspicuously doesn’t hire is action directors, starting with Jon Favreau hot off of Christmas comedy Elf, through handing the keys to Asgard over to Taika Waititi, all the way up to Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao blowing away executives with natural sunlight. The directors bring a name and a vibe, while much of the action is handled on the day by second unit teams. Argentinian writer/director Lucrecia Martel famously passed up an offer to direct Black Widow after the studio told her “don’t worry about the action scenes.” Marvel directors craft an emotional journey*, and that’s where these movies find their individual flavors, while the primary goal of the in-between action is to look, sound, and in all other ways feel like an MCU Action Scene.
This is why a film like Ryan Coogler‘s Black Panther, an emotionally-charged epic that still packs a wallop character-wise, can end on a pixel-barf fight scene that looks like it’s playing out on a Sega Genesis. These scenes aren’t interested in impressing on a technical level, they’re interested in “moments.” You want the image of heroes charging at each other in Civil War, not the sense anyone’s in any actual danger; you want Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) epic arrival to Wakanda in Infinity War, not the hammer blows he lands to have any weight; you want to be so swept by Alan Silvestri‘s “Portals” and the excitement of the moment it scores that you don’t even notice the color palette of that final Endgame battle can most accurately be described as “dishwater.” This is also the same reason the MCU’s most technically impressive action sequences—not its “best scenes” or “most memorable moments”—are all small. That’s where character arcs collide with the stunt work. You think of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) struggling to overcome the much-larger M’Baku (Winston Duke) in Black Panther. You remember Winter Soldier, when Captain America (Chris Evans) leaves an elevator packed with unconscious Hydra agents. And, finally, you round back to Black Widow.
Black Widow does, eventually, devolve into a very familiar digital-stuff-falls-from-the-sky third act, which is fine. Natasha skydives through a crashing helicopter just to grab a parachute. That, objectively, rules. But overall, it’s the exact type of MCU-branded set-piece that completely washes over you, its otherwordly amount of weightless CGI leaving no lasting impact. The film’s most memorable action scene comes much earlier, in a Budapest apartment. Trying to track down the elusive Red Room, Natasha reunites with her estranged sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), and before getting on the same page the two siblings proceed to beat the absolute shit out of each other. There’s a Bourne-esque handheld quality to the camera work, situating the viewer in the middle of a maelstrom made of hands and feet. There’s also a wonderful improvisation to the choreography, Natasha and Yelena adapting to their surrounding in new ways with each second, which brings to mind the controlled chaos aesthetic of John Wick and Atomic Blonde, but it’s also a subtle way of putting the two character’s training on-screen without saying a word. I’ve been harping on the word “weightless” throughout this piece, but there’s really no way to understate how much it means to see wood and glass fly in this scene; to watch Natasha careen off a doorframe; to hear muscle-on-muscle contact. (Shoutout to Johannsenn and Pugh’s doubles, Heidi Moneymaker and Michaela McAllister, and to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for still not recognizing stunt work.) What’s more, suddenly the movie has a distinct feel to it. This scene, specifically, feels like it’s fulfilling the promise of a Black Widow movie—the most ground-level Avenger, more spy than superhero—and not MCU Entry #24, offering a glimpse at an MCU where the title character guides the movie’s personality and not the other way around.
It’s especially fascinating next to another of Black Widow‘s most memorable fight scenes, and an earlier showdown on a bridge between Natasha and the masked assassin named Taskmasker. Again, the choreography (credited to MCU regular James Young) is incredibly fluid and, for the most part, kept in-camera. (A miracle in modern franchise action.) Again, the close-up intimacy of the violence allows for an equal amount of character-building; you don’t need to know Taskmaster’s “deal” to quickly realize Natasha is fighting a mirror, the camera catching each impossibly blocked blow thrown by a woman used to landing every hit. It’s a great scene, one choreographed and captured with a real unique buzz to it, all the way up to the required Marvel Flip. You know the Marvel Flip when you see it. It’s the moment a fight scene starts to feel a bit too cool and someone has to flip in a way that defies physics; the puppet string gets cut and somebody’s gotta’ defy gravity. It’s more conspicuous in a fight like this, where it feels unnecessary, where it feels like someone in charge of the house style got nervous that two deeply talented stunt performers were hitting each other for a little too long and scaring the kids. (The same kids who, assumedly, will lose their minds over a joke about forced hysterectomies).
That, really, is what it means to say Black Widow has some of the MCU’s best action. It’s true. It does. But only in the moments it doesn’t feel like MCU action at all.
*Which isn’t to minimize the contributions of Marvel directors at all, Shortland very much included. With all the external pressures weighing down on these movies, it’s a miracle any of them ever work—Black Widow is very enjoyable!—and that goes double whenever a filmmaker is able to inject any modicum of their personality into it.
The upcoming major motion picture promises audiences “perfectly executed shots to the dingdong.”
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