- Movie Rating -

Black Widow (2021)

| July 13, 2021

Watching Marvel’s pandemic-delayed Black Widow, it’s hard get away from the feeling that it seems to be slightly out of date – by, say, five years.  I don’t mean that to sound harsh, this movie is slightly better than I had expected but given real-world events, the current chronology of the Marvel Universe, and justified complaints from fans that Natasha Romanoff was being denied a stand-alone film because studio execs thought no one would pay good money for a superhero movie starring a woman, there are a lot of overriding negatives at work here.

The thing that grabs you first is the placement of this film.  It largely takes place soon after Captain America: Civil War so it does somewhat feel out of place, especially since the series seems to be in a state of re-inventing itself with “WandaVision,” “Falcon and Winter Soldier” and “Loki”; and let us not forget the Infinity War duology in which Natasha herself ended up – SPOILER ALERT – dead as a hammer.  Her impending doom rides over this film like a dark cloud.

Yet, as much as the series has moved forward since Civil War, the fact that the series seems to have moved past this story doesn’t diminish its impact.  It is an action movie by and large, but those massive set pieces (save for a corker of a third act) aren’t nearly as interesting as the central drama.

Natasha’s story opens with an effective preamble that feels like Spielberg nostalgia.  Young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and her kid sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) are having the summer of the American dream – rural Ohio, 1995 with their straight-arrow parents, father Alexei (David Harbor) and mother Melina (Rachel Weisz).  It’s all backyard games, skinned knees and fireflies until Dad comes home in a state of panic and breathlessly tells the family that they have to leave and never come back.  Mom and Dad’s accents change from happy American to hard-lined Russian and the girls suddenly discover a specific set of skills that they never knew that they had.

If you’ve been following the MCU up to this point, then it is not exactly a spoiler to reveal that the family is a specifically bonded Russian sleeper cell.  After their escape, the story shoots forward to the present where Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) has long-since gone rogue and at this point is still reeling from the events of Civil War.  As if that drama wasn’t enough, the sudden appearance of a weird assassin in a metal mask and the re-emergence of the adult Yelena (played by the invaluable Florence Pugh) as a tightly-controlled hired gun herself.  Seems that Yelena is part of a massive cadre of black widows, women who are turned into robot-like assassins.  How to break the control?  That will mean going after a cold-blooded control freak named Dreykov played by Ray Winstone.

What happens, I didn’t expect.  Of course, this turn of events puts the girls in league with their parents and in the midst of a lot of fighting and explosions.  The action scenes are pretty standard – a little kicking to the face goes a long way.  But what was remarkable is how well-written the domestic drama plays out.  No, they are not a natural family, but their union has made them a family and we feel their union despite the fact that they have been joined for nefarious purposes.

The parents are interesting.  David Harbour is a wonderful actor, never better than here as a gorilla bruiser who longs for his glory days as The Red Guardian, and Oscar-winner Rachael Weisz gives a lot of zip to the roll of the brainy matriarch with love in the heart and science on the brain.  Everyone is, of course, at odds with each other, but the best union is between Natasha and Yelena and their tense relationship.  I was surprised how much time and attention is given to the rest of the cast.  Walking in, I more or less expected that Johannsson’s notoriety would force the filmmakers to keep her center-stage, altering camera angles and close-ups to focus on her.  But director Cate Shortland knows that this is a family saga – one that doesn’t focus on the star but on the characters.  That’s a refreshing twist and a very generous use of all of her actors.

I liked all of the performances, but I must make special mention of Florence Pugh.  I’ve seen her in Midsommer and Little Women and I’m starting to find a special quality in her.  She has the ability to stay in the moment even in the midst of total chaos and during the dialogue scenes you can see her listening rather than waiting for her line.  You’d be surprised how often even the best actors forget that, and it’s especially hard to do in scenes loaded with CG.

So, the film works best as a drama then as an action film. The action scenes by this point are kind of standard but I must admit a great admiration for the third act.  Of course, it is all fights, chases and shoot-outs leading to secrets revealed followed by a lot of apocalyptic tower-tumbling.  But it’s an exciting well-choreographed aerial sequence that really does lurch your stomach (and which has obviously been orchestrated for the 3D format (did I mention that the movie feels five years out of date?).  But Shortland has made a film that tries to be more than just noise and color; her film is deeper than most films of this series.  Yes, it has tone problems, and the narrative structure often seems off the rails, but I appreciated the effort, the performances, the family drama.  It’s more than I had expected and was worth the wait.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2021) View IMDB Filed in: Action