Black Widow, 2021.
Directed by Cate Shortland
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O.T. Fagbenle, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw.
Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow, confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.
New addition to the MCU Yelena Belova (one of the most must-see rising stars today Florence Pugh) asks her estranged nonbiological sister Natasha Romanoff (the eponymous Black Widow reprised, presumably for one final time, by Scarlett Johansson in this interquel set sometime after Captain America: Civil War) what her story is. It’s a pretty good question for Natasha and repeats throughout the mind when watching Black Widow. The answer is something that director Cate Shortland (previously having directed the underappreciated psychological thriller Berlin Syndrome) and the writing team of Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson, and Eric Pearson (the former two only have story concept credits with the latter solely responsible for the screenplay) never quite figure out. However, the journey is packed with exciting set pieces transferring the balletic fighting style and spy head games the titular superhero is known for inside larger scale sequences of endangerment and destruction.
Before getting to those fireworks display of special effects, Black Widow flashes back to Ohio 1995, where child-aged Natasha and Yelena (Ever Anderson and Violet McGraw) are living some form of the American dream surrounded by baseball and a choice classic tune, all while looking out for one another and learning about bioluminescent insects from their mother Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). The idyllic peace family life is shortly upended once David Harbour’s Alexei Shostakov returns home from work, visibly shaken, explaining to Melina that it’s time to grab their top-secret information and go on the run.
Following some theatrics involving one character using a sniper rifle while lying down on the wing of a plane as it’s taking off (the action here may strain believability but is nonetheless usually a creative sight to behold), the situation isn’t so much resolved, although this group of four living under the guise of a family for unknown reasons is now separated. This leads into the opening credits (a rarity for MCU movies but fitting given the espionage narrative) montage, offering a haunting glimpse at Natasha’s Russian assassination training (among so many other mentally and emotionally abused young girls) set to a gloomy cover of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. It’s a compelling segment from a storytelling standpoint, as the prologue sets the stage for a psychological horror show diving into the exploits of the nefarious Dreykov (Ray Winstone).
From there, Black Widow jumps to when the Avengers were broken up, settling into a standard MCU entry prioritizing spectacle and budget over riveting character work. There is also frustration that, once this family reconnects, the script is more interested in coming dangerously close to resembling a family sitcom with its focus on humor. Alexei (who also goes by the moniker Red Guardian, which is Russia’s version of Captain America) is a walking joke that’s selfish albeit slowly but surely acknowledging his shortcomings and making things right to the best of his abilities (a running joke is that he always gets cut off or isn’t heard while trying to speak from the heart). David Harbour rolls with the punches succeeding at making this pathetic character seeking redemption funny. However, there is a sense that the comedy’s true purpose is not necessarily to distract from the bleak and depressing plot points of indoctrination, mind control, and whatever else goes on in the undisclosed “Red Room” programming women to do nothing but kill from a young age, but to shy away from it.
Marvel will never make an R-rated movie diving into the traumas of that upbringing, but the fact that the film sets itself up to be something deeper and more substantial only to switch gears into something more tried-and-true is a bummer bait and switch. To the film’s credit, there’s a scene where Natasha and Yelena mention having their reproductive organs removed, but even that comes in the form of a joke. It’s a horrific thing to do to a woman, but the insistence on addressing such things through humor gets old and doesn’t satisfy.
Part of that is also because it’s only the middle stretch of Black Widow committed to comedy through family dysfunction. Yelena is actually on a mission to obtain and spread an antidote for mind control, Natasha is being hunted by the emotionless and merciless Taskmasker (their identity is sure to enrage the Internet, but fuck them, it’s a great reveal in context with a serviceable payoff), and Dreykov behaves despicably with no respect for women, seemingly not even batting an eye at the murder of his own daughter.
Aside from finally giving Natasha her own movie (which still feels about seven years too late even watching it, not offering much new context besides a light touch message on family), the other bright spot is Florence Pugh. She plays Yelena with a quirky sense of humor and strange punctuation at the end of her lines that make her sound like she’s Tommy Wiseau’s long-lost Russian cousin (I say this as a lovely thing). Not only do her jokes land, but she also has the most dramatically engaging scenes firmly believing that, while an orchestrated façade, this is a real family. Of course, she also has a handful of stylistic fight scenes and is more than a suitable replacement for Scarlett Johansson in the role from now on.
It should also be a given that Black Widow contains several noteworthy action sequences (including some fun psychological head games during the third act and an exhilarating freefall fight final battle) that, accounting for the movie also being funny despite reservations about that tone, make this worth seeing, but only if you’re already into the Marvel brand, which also probably means you’re going to see it regardless. It’s an entertaining sendoff for Natasha sprinkling on teases of what’s to come for the future, too late or not. And after an entire year of no Marvel movies on the big screen, it’s difficult not to recommend this as worthy escapist popcorn fun. But that’s it. Maybe one day Marvel will dare to go through with a dark and visceral treatment that a story like this is begging for, but it’s also easy to have a good time watching Florence Pugh mock Scarlett Johansson’s fighting poses while whipping all kinds of ass and cracking jokes. Consider it an enjoyable mess.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com