Black Widow directed by Cate Shortland
Black Widow is an almost always entertaining and often exciting film, though it has its issues. And while they’re the kind of problems that you have to think about a little, making it easy to glide by them amidst the witty banter and multiple explosions, they do lead to a sense that the movie missed some opportunities and thus prevent it from staking its place in the top tier of Marvel films (some minor spoilers to come).
The movie opens two decades ago with an absolutely great first scene that shifts from classic suburban domestic bliss to violence and terror, setting up all the plot points to follow. Natasha, having already been trained in the Red Room, is part of a Soviet sleeper cell family (think The Americans) with her “father” Alexei (aka The Red Guardian, Russia’s more boastful and less intelligent/eloquent version of Captain America), her brilliant if amoral scientist “mother” Melina, and her young sister Yelena, the only one who doesn’t know the whole family is an artificial creation. After a harrowing action scene that has them fleeing the country, the “family” is no more, with Yelena and Natasha forcibly separated (with no complaint from their “dad”) and headed toward the Red Room.
Fast-forward to post-Captain America: Civil War time with Yelena having just escaped the chemically-induced mind control of the Red Room, which Natasha thought she had destroyed, just as she was sure she’d killed its creator Dreykov (thus following the first rule of these sorts of stories: no body equals no death). Yelena sends the highly limited supply of antidote to Natasha in hopes she’ll simply hand it over to Tony Stark who will in usual genius industrialist superhero fashion recreate it, mass produce it, and then free the other Widows. (Something that isn’t going to happen given the current state of the Avengers and Natasha’s own fugitive status.) Instead, the two women team up to try and find/take down the Red Room, which requires tracking down their “parents” as well.
The four main actors (Scarlett Johansson as Natasha, Florence Pugh as Yelena, David Harbour as Alexei, and Rachel Weisz as Melina) are, across the board, wonderfully cast in their roles. Pugh is an absolute effervescent delight as Yelena: funny, sarcastic, impudent, sometimes naïve and always mocking as any younger sister should be, though also able to plumb the darker depths of her story. Harbour is equally entertaining in an oafish, unaware braggart sort of way, a big dumb bear of a man who is a legend in his own mind (just as his “rivalry” with Captain America only exists in one of their heads). Weisz has a less flashy, less overtly entertaining role, but plays her character’s quieter expressions/quirks perfectly.
As for Johansson, she has always played Natasha in powerfully restrained fashion, conveying so much with a glance, a half-gesture, a wry smile, and she does the same here, allowing her to hold focus despite the more bombastic characters surrounding her (not to mention all the things blowing up and going whoosh in the background). Beyond the individually stellar portrayals, the highpoint of the movie is the relationship between Natasha and Yelena — the two have a compelling chemistry, so much so that I’d happily take a TV series starring the two of them.
The action scenes are another strength, even if we’ve seen their ilk multiple times by now and — as usual for me — I could go with a little less time spent on chase/fight scenes (more on that later). That said, they’re consistently exciting, well-choreographed, and easy to follow, with no issues with muddy logistics. On a basic level, the film looks great. And it’s kind of nice to see a slew of fight scenes involving women without the writers/director waving a big “hey, look what we’re doing” sign.
Finally, there’s a lot of humor in Black Widow, with a number of laugh out loud lines (one dinner table scene in particular had us having to back up as we’d missed some lines due to laughing so much).
As for the problems. One lesser issue, and one that isn’t unique to this film, is that it does feel a bit derivative by now of other similar movies, in particular the Jason Bourne movies. Here we have a character who was trained/conditioned into being a super assassin who returns to the site of their conditioning to confront the man who conditioned them, interrupted now and then by urban car chases and one-on-one highly choreographed fight scenes involving mundane items as weapons. I actually thought one of the fight scenes and one of the chase scenes erred in physically mirroring the Bourne movies a bit too much, making it almost impossible to not think of the earlier series. It didn’t help that Dreykov reminded me incredibly strongly of Albert Hirsch (played by Albert Finney).
Another problem that rankles a bit more has to do with Natasha’s “Budapest” problem, referenced in earlier films. I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers, but will just note the resolution felt like a cop out to me. Other minor but noticeable flaws involved the muddiness of the mind control backstory, a very clumsy “secondary” form of control, an unusually cavalier attitude toward casualties (which seems to belie a major plot thread), and the Taskmaster storyline, though I won’t go into detail on that to again avoid spoilers.
But by far the biggest issue I had, and the one that really mars the film for me, is the unbelievably quick resolution between the four members of the “family.” Yelena was lied to her entire young life, then abandoned to a life of physical (permanently so) and mental torture and then enslavement through literal mind control. Her “parents” were willing partners (and more) in this and even Natasha, despite having the power of the Avengers and the US and world governments behind her (at least until the events of the Civil War film) left her to the life knowing what it entailed; abandonments the film, let alone the characters, never truly deal with. And that, to me, is a major missed opportunity, not just for a far richer, more poignant story but also an opportunity for these great actors to really lean into their characters. It’s also a particularly glaring and sad missed opportunity for this protagonist. The Black Widow has always been presented as a loner, as someone at a remove who opens up slowly and warily (save for Clint Barton), as someone who sees the Avengers as the family she never had. How much more powerful to see her find her “fake” family, deal with all the emotional baggage they all must have, and then choose to make that a real family anyway?
As I said at the start, it’s easy (or the most part) to ignore these issues as Black Widow unfolds, thanks to the funny repartee and big action scenes, and that unbelievable turn by the two “parents” takes place close enough to the climax that it’s quickly overshadowed by things going boom, but after the credits (and a wonderful post-credits scene), it stops being so easy to not think about them. In fact, I’d say the more you consider the film, the larger the problems loom. It remains an enjoyable Marvel movie, way better than Iron Man 2, the worst of the bunch, and on a surface level it holds its own against many of the others, but it doesn’t have the power or the staying power of the best of Marvel.