“Three’s a trend,” as the saying goes, and with the success of Black Widow, after Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, it looks like the jinx on female superhero movies (Supergirl, Elektra, Catwoman) can finally be declared broken.
It was about time that Black Widow got her own standalone movie in any case, the character having been a bit neglected by the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one Avengers film after another, to the point where it was looking like there was a sexism/patriarchy thing going on.
Smartly heading that sort of criticism off at the pass, that’s the plot too, pretty much, with Black Widow swinging into action to neutralise a drug that turns feisty women into docile automata, a dastardly cocktail dreamt up by Russian mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone), boss of the same Red Room where Black Widow years before learned her tricks.
The action takes place while the Avengers are on one of their periodic “breaks” – between the Civil War and Infinity War movies in terms of timeline – allowing Natasha Romanofff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to track down her wayward sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), before the pair of them team up to locate Russians Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), the agents who raised Natasha and Yelena and who they’d assumed were their parents… but weren’t.
In keeping with Marvel’s “female directors for female superheroes” rule, Cate Shortland takes the helm. She knows a thing or two about female-centred drama, having directed Lore (starring Saskia Rosendahl), Berlin Syndrome (Teresa Palmer) and Somersault (Abbie Cornish). If you’ve seen any of those decidely non-superhero, non-CGI movies, you’ll know that Shortland is no action director but even so she gets things off to an urgent start with a frantic chase opener. Between her, and with Marvel old hand Gabriel Beristain as her DP and the gigantic Marvel technical team behind her, the frequent action sequences are solid enough. That said, notably the biggest dramatic payloads in this film are emotional rather than physical and the best action sequence of the lot – on the Budapest underground – is rooted in actual footage rather than CG trickery.
After the slick opener demonstrating how well oiled that Marvel machine is, the action cuts back to the present day and then proceeds knowingly along the lines of a James Bond movie (look out for a clip of Moonraker on a TV at one point). This means action with quippy interludes to allow everyone to catch their breath. The first one gives Pugh and Johansson a chance to display their funny man/straight man double-act skills as the two sisters get re-acquainted and Yelena rips the piss out of her older sister for one thing or another, like Natasha’s love of the superhero landing pose and the fact that Black Widow is not one of the “big ones” of the Avengers, unlike, as Yelena puts it, “the god from space”.
True, Black Widow doesn’t really have a superpower, just super skills, unless hotness is a superpower.
Later, the second quippy interlude allows the “family” to get re-acquainted, before everyone heads into a showdown with despicable villain Dreykov, the world’s first Cockney Russian. So, a bit origin story, a bit family drama, some fun, some action, all very much standard Marvel fare all in all.
If it sounds rote it never feels it, and that’s probably down to the Yelena/Natasha relationship, with the fierce Florence Pugh particularly well cast as the fearless and caustic little sister. Rachel Weisz is slightly underused as the superspy mother, David Harbour, Russian accent wandering as badly as Winstone’s, is largely a comic character, the big tough superannuated Iron Curtain superhero Red Guardian, who can just about get back into his old costume if he sucks his gut in.
It’s nice to see the Cold War back firmly centre stage as an arena where big dramas can be played out, just as it was in Moonraker’s day, though in Black Widow’s eventual showdown with Dreykov there’s also a critique of the shadowy megarich oligarchs who aim to control the world through fair means or foul. Insert your own Bezos/Gates/Koch narrative here.
Black Widow isn’t alone among superheroes in having family issues (Superman, Spider Man, Tony Stark), but it does look like nervousness on Marvel’s part that Scarlett Johansson’s first “solo” outing for the MCU sees her bolstered by mum, dad and little sis. But then if you’re a widow you’re already defined by a relationship to another person. Next time out, Black Widow’s Dead Husband?
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© Steve Morrissey 2021