Three stars. Rated PG-13. 134 minutes.
“Black Widow” the movie is much like Black Widow the character.
As played by Scarlett Johansson, the Marvel superhero is a steely, acrobatic assassin who employs psychology as much as violence in her covert missions. Despite years of brainwashing at the hands of Russian intelligence, she retains a heart and soul — chipped though they may be.
“Black Widow” the movie, executive produced by Johansson and held more than a year by the pandemic, gives Disney a chance to stretch the character across a more intimate frame, exploring and revising the Marvel Cinematic Universe with yet another symbolic family and yet another world-threatening villain.
Unlike other Marvel films, there’s a fleet, 007- and “Bourne”-quality tone throughout. Fights and chases sprawl across the twisted geography of international cities (some filmed on location), but also a remote, snowy prison and flying fortress. The vestigial Cold War intrigue and sexy, form-fitting outfits spring from a hallowed cinematic tradition.
The narrative begins in Ohio in 1995 (and as someone who spent the first half of his life in the Buckeye State, I appreciated the spot-on visual details). A young Natasha Romanoff (our Widow) and her little sister play in the Midwestern dusk, idyllic in its atmospheric warmth, before mom (Rachel Weisz) shows up to collect them for dinner.
Predictably traumatic events soon follow, as Romanoff’s “parents” (played by Weisz and David Harbour, of “Stranger Things”) whisk Romanoff and her younger sister away from their home without warning and onto a plane. The credits that follow are worth mentioning only because they’re arguably the worst in MCU history, saddled with a clichéd, breathy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and flashing blurry, triggering images of young girls in human trafficking-like environments. Who approved this CBS-procedural joke of an intro?
As with its other real-world commentary, the scene-setting feels tacked on, but it’s at least trying. Cut to some years later in New York City, when Romanoff is about to assassinate a Russian bad guy. The explaining-by-way-of-flashbacks ultimately leads her to new foes such as Taskmaster, this movie’s shiny yet inscrutable villain, but also the other Widows.
In this “present,” Romanoff is hiding out just after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” and just before “Avengers: Infinity War” (don’t worry if you haven’t seen them). With her surrogate family scattered, and clues leading back to her ad-hoc spy family, she meets up with little sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) in Budapest. Reversals and red herrings abound before Belova joins Romanoff in her quest for the Red Room, a secretive training center where big baddie Dreykov (a creepy Ray Winstone) lives.
Director Cate Shortand steers intimidating set pieces and nose-to-nose drama with surety while sprinkling spare, nervy dialogue across the necessary emotional beats. The leads aren’t given much to do as they dance on invisible wires and fire blanks from prop handguns, although the intensely likable Pugh proves herself a magnetic, convincing action hero.
As usual, most details beyond the inky, brooding first act would be considered spoilers — especially to the faithful millions who lap up each new, $200 million drip-drop from Disney’s MCU pipeline. And as we know, this is a prequel for the character, following the fateful events of “Avengers: Endgame.” In fact, “Black Widow” is the first official film in Phase Four of the MCU, although it’s only the second MCU entry to feature a female lead, following roughly 20 feature-length exercises in corporate branding led by straight white dudes.
Yes, some of them were good and yes, one of them was even “Black Panther.”
But unlike the rushed, less-satisfying “Captain Marvel,” Shortand’s “Black Widow” isn’t overly concerned with proclaiming its feminist themes — though they’re certainly there. It’s more about shattering glass, bones and the legacy of evil men with fists and metal. Low-angle shots and gorgeous backdrops help mask tasteful CGI, with Johansson’s lived-in character grounding it all.
The film skates by with PG-13 rating, despite its wincingly meaty punches and frequent gun deaths, but it’s still worth seeing on the big screen with kids who love the MCU. Little girls, in particular, deserve the same chance to be forever imprinted with these kick-butt, female-led images as any boy.
Who should we idolize, and why? What does a “normal” family or childhood look like? And where the hell are the rest of the world’s superheroes? “Black Widow,” the character and the movie, handles all of these thorny questions with spirit and style. Its bottom-line spectacle seldom strays from the Marvel path, but still manages to explore some invigorating new ground.
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