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Black Widow (2021)

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DIRECTOR: Cate Shortland

CAST: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone, Olga Kurylenko, William Hurt

REVIEW:

Black Widow, the movie to finally give the long-running MCU character her own posthumous solo movie, arrives at an awkward time, skipping back to sandwich itself into the time period between Captain America: Civil War and The Avengers: Infinity War and attempt to give more depth and backstory to a character who’s already dead. If timing is everything, Black Widow has missed the boat and feels like it should have come out several years ago, but setting the awkwardness of its release date aside, it’s an enjoyable enough stand-alone adventure, although it’s more successful in giving an often underdeveloped supporting Avenger a deeper backstory than it is in its generic narrative that feels like it borrows a page—or several pages—from other movies in the spy thriller genre.

After a prologue in 1995 Ohio, we jump ahead to the time period between Captain America: Civil War and The Avengers: Infinity War. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a fugitive from justice for violating the Sokovia Accords and gone off the grid, gets dragged back into the action by her long-lost adoptive sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), who’s escaped from the Red Room program brainwashing girls into being trained assassins and updates Natasha that the supposedly defunct program is still operating under the auspices of the man Natasha thought she assassinated long ago, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). In order to find the Red Room and dismantle the program once and for all, Natasha and Yelena are forced into an uneasy reunion with the “family unit” they lived with in childhood as deep undercover Russian spies in America, the “Red Guardian” Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America, who’s now fallen way out of shape and has to be busted out of prison, and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), who ran the Red Room training program and might know the way in. But General Dreykov has his own secret weapon in his corner: Taskmaster, a mysterious masked super-soldier who can mimic the fighting style of any opponent.

Much as some have derided its attempt to bring more character development and backstory to a character after her death as “too little, too late”, this is where Black Widow is most successful. The prologue showing Natasha, Yelena, Alexei, and Melina living 24/7 deep undercover as a seemingly picture-perfect American family—and then having to make a narrow getaway when their cover is blown—is intriguing and compelling, and some of the later scenes involving Natasha and Yelena’s awkward reunions with their fake “parents” is effective and even affecting, especially when Natasha’s blunt dismissal of their undercover family relationship leads Yelena to tearfully protest that it was real to her, and that the others represented the only family she’s ever known. This “family” dynamic is also the source of low-key comic relief, as the four principals—Johansson, Pugh, Harbour, and Weisz—trade banter, snark, and deadpan one-liners with ease. While the semi-fatuous Alexei is fairly simple and straightforward, Melina is interestingly ambiguous; we’re not sure how much inner conflict her cool demeanor is covering, and the script uses this to its advantage in an effective bait-and-switch twist.

The biggest problem with Black Widow is that its narrative feels half-baked and derivative. The genre switch to a spy thriller is welcome, but the execution is uneven and middling. While Ray Winstone is suitably nasty, limited screentime and poor development leave General Dreykov easily among the most throwaway and unimpressive villains the MCU has yet produced. He’s a muddled, second-rate generic dastardly megalomaniac who feels like a lower-tier Bond villain (also, Winstone can’t keep the British out of his “Russian” accent, a problem his fellow British co-stars Florence Pugh and Rachel Weisz don’t have). Likewise, his mysterious masked henchman Taskmaster feels like he (?) is onhand to supply a few fight scenes and comes across like a Winter Soldier knock-off, right down to a true identity surprise twist that’s easy to see coming. The need to awkwardly sandwich this into an untold story that already happened in the time period between Civil War and Infinity War keeps Black Widow a fairly small-scale adventure (so as not to contradict anything previously established with any far-reaching ramifications, and leaving it believable that none of this attracted any of the other Avengers’ attention), even when we get to a fiery airborne climax involving over-the-top stunts and characters fighting in freefall, that recalls a less compelling knock-off of the climax of The Winter Soldier. In spite of the ostensibly global scale of the evil scheme onhand, the stakes feel low, not least because we’ve already seen how Natasha’s fate unfolds. In addition to aspects of the mind control plot point and Taskmaster being derivative of The Winter Soldier, and also aping second-rate James Bond, there are also strong echoes of Red Sparrow, although its hard R rating allowed that movie to have an edge that Black Widow lacks, and the opening premise recalls the television series The Americans. Black Widow is considerably more effective in its unconventional family unit aspect than in its generic paint-by-numbers plot.

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One of the primary pleasures of Black Widow (at least for fans of the title character) is giving fans a chance to spend one last MCU movie with Scarlett Johansson (who also produced), in a role she’s played since 2010’s Iron Man 2, and the fleshing out of her backstory and reveal of her long-lost pseudo-family gives us a chance to see Natasha as a little “more” than just the ass-kicking redhead. The newcomers are welcome additions to the MCU, with Florence Pugh’s Yelena representing an obvious potential passing of the torch (she and Johansson get a nicely knock-down drag-out catfight early on to establish Yelena’s bad-ass credentials; quite the switch from Amy March in 2019’s Little Women). A semi-fatuous David Harbour and a more inscrutable Rachel Weisz are Natasha’s “parents”. Of the other supporting players, Ray Winstone is underused and unimpressive as the throwaway villain, while O-T Fagbenle, as a black market contact of Natasha’s who hooks her up with some supplies, feels superfluous but the movie at least avoids the cliche of shoehorning any semi-romantic connection. Apart from Natasha, the only other veteran MCU face is William Hurt, briefly reprising his role as Thaddeus Ross. Despite frequent name drops, the other Avengers stay offscreen. The movie didn’t necessarily “need” a cameo—although many viewers will likely be left waiting in vain for one—but the absence of one feels like a bit of a let-down; this is a movie that could have used a drop-in by Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Evans (or even Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye) to feel a little “bigger”.

Overall, Black Widow does some interesting things with its title character’s backstory but its generic and derivative paint-by-numbers plot that feels small even in big action setpieces leaves this wallowing in lower-tier MCU entries. Its primary appeal comes from allowing fans to spend a little more time with a popular deceased character, but its awkward placement in the MCU chronology sometimes leaves it feeling like a mediocre cash grab.

* * 1/2

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