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Black Widow (2021)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/06/21 23:39:05

"Widow’s Pique"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Of all the characters who have been a part of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the one that I have long wanted to see given a solo film of their own (not counting Howard the Duck, who admittedly had his shot but could use another) is Natasha Romanoff, the one-time Russian assassin turned Avenger. Yes, I will admit that part of this is because I am a big fan of Scarlet Johansson and, as “Lucy” definitively proved, the idea of watching her kick ass for a couple of hours has an undeniable appeal to it. Beyond that, that particular character—one of the few who possess neither superpowers nor elaborate gadgetry to help them defeat the various bad guys—is one that has too often gotten lost in the shuffle in films that have been jam-packed with other superheroes fighting for screen time and a solo venture might be just the thing to flesh her and her intriguing backstory out further. And yet, despite the obvious popularity of the character and countless rumors that one was on the horizon, Marvel seemed oddly reluctant to put one in motion.

Now, after having killed off Black Widow during a still-controversial development in “Avengers: Endgame,” Marvel has finally decided to give the character the solo venture that people have been waiting on for years with a story that recounts a heretofore unmentioned adventure that she undertook during the period between the events of “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” While I guess that this is preferable to contriving some kind of twist in which Natasha did not really die, it is a move that inevitably weakens the dramatic tension in ways that it wouldn’t have if they had just made the damn thing between those two films in the first place. This doesn’t necessarily ruin “Black Widow”—I would certainly take it over all of the official “Avengers” films in a heartbeat—but it does help to keep it from being the superior entertainment that it clearly could have been.

The film opens in 1995 as the young Natasha (Ever Anderson) is living in Ohio as part of an ersatz family unit of undercover Russian spies consisting of Alexi Shostakov, a.k.a. super-soldier Red Guardian (David Harbour), brilliant scientist Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and younger “sister” Yelena (Violet McGraw). When the mission ends abruptly, the “family” is broken up and both Natasha and Yelena are forced into the Red Room, a brutal training program, complete with brainwashing and forced hysterectomies, designed to transform young girls into deadly assassins known as Widows to be put to use throughout the world. After this prologue, the film jumps forward to the post “Civil War” period with Natasha (now played by Johansson) on the run from the authorities for giving assistance to Steve Rogers for reasons that you are probably better equipped to explain than I. While trying to lay low, she come into possession of a package sent to her by Yelena (Florence Pugh) that occasions a return to Russia and a tense reunion with the sister that she hasn’t seen in years and who is still angry at her for escaping the Red Room program without coming back for her.

As it turns out, Yelena has recently managed to extricate herself from the Red Room program as well and the package that she sent contains an antidote to the brainwashing used to control the soldiers. The two decide to go after the organization that treated them so brutally in order to bring it down for good and to set the current Widows free from their enslavement. To accomplish this task, they realize that they will have to reunite with their former “parents” to help them find the top-secret location for the Red Room facilities. Alexi, it turns out, has been languishing in prison for years, recounting stories of his Red Guardian days to fellow inmates who would presumably rather endure a stint in solitary confinement while Melina is living on an isolated farm and conducting intriguing experiments on pigs, including one who could give Arnold Ziffel a run for his money. Naturally, the reunion is a bit fraught—even fake families can have deep and long-lasting hurts—and as they prepare to get revenge on those whose have taken so much from them, Natasha and Yelena have to confront both their respective ongoing traumas as well as the possibility that their faux parents may well betray them once again.

The narrative thread in the screenplay by Eric Pearson, who previously worked on the scripts for two of the more engaging MCU projects, “Thor: Ragnarok” and the “Agent Carter” series, as well as “Godzilla vs. Kong,” is simple and straightforward enough, I suppose (I came away with it with fewer questions brought on by my comic book ignorance than usual), but it is presented in a somewhat lumpy manner in which the storyline pretty much grinds to a halt every few minutes for another elaborate-but-undistinguished action sequence in which the stunt teams and CGI crews can strut their stuff. As has been their wont in recent years, Marvel has entrusted one of their epics to a director that one might not immediately consider to put in charge of an effects-filled behemoth—in this case, Cate Shortland, whose previous efforts have included the comparatively small dramas “Somersault,” “Lore” and “Berlin Syndrome.” Although her work in staging the action beats is competent enough, they lack any of the distinct personality and flavor that filmmakers like Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler brought, respectively, to “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther”—you watch them and you might even enjoy them on some basic fundamental level but they don’t give you anything that you haven’t seen before and you will be hard-pressed to remember most of them (save for the increasingly ridiculous climax, about which I will say nothing) the day after watching them.

Oddly enough, it is during the scenes in between those action set pieces that “Black Widow” manages to find its groove. You would be hard-pressed to come up with a quartet of actors who are both as engaging and talented as Johansson, Pugh, Weisz and Harbor and if it takes a project that eventually requires them all to don goofy outfits and beat the crap out of oddly dressed hordes of bad guys, the scenes in which they are allowed to relax, bounce of off each other and present a genuine human element of the kind not often seen in blockbuster behemoths are ultimately worth it. Finally given more breathing room and the chance to be front and center for once, Johansson finds both the pathos and the unexpected humor in the character that at last shows her to be more than a jumpsuit support system and makes you wish that the other MCU films had taken more advantage of her talents during her seven previous turns as the character. As good as she is, though, the film is stolen by Florence Pugh, an actress who seems as if she is capable of doing pretty much anything at this point. As Yelena, she gets a lot of laughs but she is also able to convey the dark side of her character and what she has endured in ways that are deeper and more meaningful than one might normally expect to find.

Although “Black Widow” may not be as great as one might have hoped that it would be—it probably says a lot about the largely unmemorable chief bad guy portrayed by Ray Winstone that I have drawn a complete blank on the character’s name—and its weird placement in the MCU timeline (not to mention the extended pandemic-related delay from its original release date last year) has the unfortunate effect of making it feel at times like an afterthought. However, when it does work, which is whenever the central characters are allowed to stop fighting and start interacting with each other, those moments are entertaining enough to allow you to let the stuff that doesn’t quite work slide. And if this does turn out to be Johansson’s farewell to the role that helped make her one of the most popular actresses in the world, it is a film that does ultimately honor both her and the character. Besides, some of the sting of her departure from the franchise is eased by the fact that it appears that Florence Pugh may become a MCU regular herself. If that is the case, here is hoping that Marvel is smart enough to give her a solo outing as well, preferably sooner than later.

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