Review by Nadine Dalton-West, T @andiekarenina, nadinedaltonwest.com
It’s been a high-stakes few months over at Marvel Towers. Big cinema releases have been hammered by the pandemic. Long-form TV shows have, somewhat counter-intuitively, become disposable eyeball-filler for a world that has spent far too long on the couch. It’s hard to make a seismic television event when your beautiful fantasy epic is binged and forgotten somewhere between Queen’s Gambit and Prodigal Son, consigned to “watched it at some point during lockdown” oblivion. It’s hard to get people’s attention when their attention spans are broken.
When you serve up the dry biscuit of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as an hors-oeuvre, it’s even harder.
So both TV show Loki and movie Black Widow had rather a lot on their to-do lists: re-enthuse a jaded fanbase, convince people there’s life beyond the Infinity Stones, re-assert the very purpose of the MCU. And – as we will see – it’s worth remembering that the actual purpose of these stories is just that: to tell us stories. Stories which make us care, stories which give us some of that wonder we got when we were children, and our comics came out weekly, and we craved that “but what will happen to these people?” moment like a good narcotic. For me, Black Widow succeeded on these fundamental terms; Loki failed. This is why. Spoilers abound herein – don’t read on unless you’ve seen both Loki and Black Widow!
Now Loki has some good qualities. Aesthetically, it’s a triumph: the TVA’s Soviet-spliced-with-Mad-Men styling is gorgeous; the cartoon clock called Miss Minutes is deliciously sinister; the brutalist concrete set looks like an endless nightmare where you’re trapped in The Barbican and can’t find the lifts. Tom Hiddleston does his best with the material, and his best is decent, although I’d like to put in a personal request to the producers to let the guy wash his hair: I’m not sure the god of mischief would be any the less compelling if the poor lad was allowed a bottle of Head & Shoulders once in a while. Owen Wilson is fine. There is, it’s true, an alligator.
…And I’m out. Seriously, that’s it. This entire series screams “wasted opportunity” from start to finish. Firstly, the timey-wimey stuff is so crass and poorly handled that you realise there is zero jeopardy. No one dies: everyone comes back. Every fight therefore ends with someone being vapourised but then lo, here they come again, because timey-wimey and multiverses, yeah? Ditto the time doors: wanna crank up the suspense by stranding our protagonists on a doomed planet where – as they tell us about seventeen times – NO ONE GETS OFF THE DOOMED PLANET? We literally sit there waiting, as do the protagonists, for someone to open the time doors just behind them, just in time. Infinite multiverses and timelines? Ok, so tell me why I should care. This specifically ISN’T our Loki (it’s a 2012 Loki who jumps out of the MCU main timeline), and neither are any of the other Lokis, literally none of whom is any good whatsoever. There is a whole episode which looks about to revel in the playfulness of having a hundred different possible Lokis and then pours it all down the drain for a running gag about a reptile and Richard E. Grant in a costume only fractionally more silly than everyone else’s. The Timekeepers are so obviously not real to anyone who has seen any tv show or film ever in their lives that the so-called reveal is thunderingly dull (and is one of several moments where the writers of Snowpiercer might fancy calling their lawyers.)
The One who Remains? Fundamental storytelling rule 101: why on earth should we care? We haven’t met him. We haven’t even had him foreshadowed. He’s a Crapus-ex-Machina. And he’s also an example of how appallingly this series treats its Black characters: they are evil or disposable, with paper-thin development, there to simply throw the focus back onto a tedious white couple who have less chemistry than a rock and a slightly different rock.
Now when we examine Black Widow, we can actually see a few key similarities. Both works are “dead end” narratives: they don’t advance the MCU’s storytelling. (Falcon and Winter Soldier and Wandavision, on the other hand, are entry-points into key new developments for Captain America and Doctor Strange respectively – they are connecting narratives for what comes next.) Loki and Black Widow are not: they are backtracks which tell discrete stories in little cul-de-sacs within the main narrative. Black Widow fills in a set of Natasha Romanov backstory beats, but still leads to the same graveside, just as Loki takes a possibility from one moment where Loki grabs the Tesseract and follows that sidebar, a sidebar which stands alone. In this sense, both works have a bit of “but what are they FOR?” syndrome about them.
Where Black Widow works is this: its humble purpose is in telling us a human story (and maybe Loki got it right all along in that being burdened with “glorious” purpose is a curse, not a blessing.) We care about this family. From the opening scene which is as exciting and suspenseful as any Marvel pre-credits sequence I’ve seen, we are positioned alongside two children who want simple things – their “parents”, their favourite song, to watch lightning bugs – and who are dragged apart by a harrowing series of events. When that family is thrown back together more than 20 years later, they have to figure out what they really mean to each other. This then develops one of the entire MCU’s key and recurring themes: found family. From the Avengers to the Guardians, this is how comics actually hook their nerds – we are all oddballs who eventually find people who are our tribe, and those people are not normally our biological family. This concept has universal resonance, underpins so much of MCU storytelling, evokes real emotion, is tender and poignant and is whatever Loki and Sylvie’s strange onanistic relationship is not.
Furthermore, when Black Widow throws you a big bad, Taskmaster, the character is seeded, developed, absolutely terrifying as a fighting machine, and a genuine threat to our protagonists. All of this, from the start, alongside THIS big reveal being foreshadowed and earned, and indeed genuinely necessary for Natasha’s redemption arc. And there’s more: the chase scene through Budapest is as huge and crash-bang as any action sequence Marvel has served us, the Moonraker nods are clever and really well-followed through in the climax, and the banter is funny. Red Guardian’s big speech pomposity is repeatedly punctured by those around him; Yelena points out that real superheroes probably don’t take ibuprofen; Johannsen’s “stick your butt out” landings are thoroughly mocked.
Fundamentally, though, Black Widow makes you genuinely worry about a collapsed pig called Alexei. Loki just puts antlers on an alligator and points at it, over and over, shouting “look at the alligator”, with ever diminishing returns.