Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow (Photo: Marvel & Disney)

BLACK WIDOW
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Cate Shortland
STARS Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh

Is a spoiler warning really required for a motion picture that resides in the number two spot on the top moneymakers list both nationally (under Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and internationally (under Avatar)?

Fine.

[SPOILER] Black Widow dies in Avengers: Endgame. [END SPOILER]

If there was a clear low point in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, it was the death of Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow. As superbly played by Scarlett Johansson, Natasha was the most complex and, in many ways, most mature of all MCU characters. Who was it who found her loyalties divided between the combating superhero factions in Captain America: Civil War? Who was it who was constantly forced to swat down horrific past memories? Who was it who, post-Snap, continued to tirelessly toil at Avengers HQ in an effort to keep what was left of the team together? Her death was unfortunate and even insulting, particularly when one considers that she died alone (save for a sluggish Hawkeye) in a ditch while Tony Stark / Iron Man died bathed in glory on the battleground, soon to be mourned by countless friends and sent off in a star-studded wake.

Between 2008 and 2019, while almost every other superhero was receiving his own motion picture (plus sequels), Black Widow was basically Dirty Dancing’s Baby: She was put in the corner, only with no Patrick Swayze to rescue her. There were always whispered rumors of her own movie, but those were never fulfilled … until now, that is. Black Widow appears on the scene after its protagonist has already been killed off in the MCU, giving the film an air of too little, too late. Basically, it’s Marvel’s middle finger directed at all of the characters’ fans.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff (Photo: Marvel & Disney)

Nevertheless, as its own entity, as a work removed from the politics of the studio and the overreach of the Avengers’ MCU entries, Black Widow is a largely satisfying movie, with director Cate Shortland and the trio of writers wisely allowing the superhero shenanigans to often take a back seat to the espionage components. In some ways, this feels like a good version of the 2018 Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Red Sparrow (reviewed here), as it’s far more intriguing and far less rapey.

Although it largely unfolds right after the events seen in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Black Widow opens even further back, showing Russian spies Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) posing as a happily married American couple, with small girls Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova to complete the illusion. After they’re forced to flee the U.S., their superior, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), soon separates the quartet, sending the children to be trained to become elite assassins known as “Black Widows.” And lest any of these Widows develop a conscience, they’re all held under the spell of a chemical that commands total fealty to Dreykov.

As adults, Natasha managed to break free from the Russkies long ago while Yelena (Florence Pugh) comes into contact with a serum that counteracts the mind-control chemical. Yelena wants to free the other Black Widows while Natasha wants to kill Dreykov; to accomplish these tasks, they’ll need the help of their ersatz Mom and Dad. So they soon find themselves back in the U.S.S.R., busting Alexei out of prison and initiating a family reunion with Melina.

Scarlett Johansson, David Harbour and Florence Pugh in Black Widow (Photo: Marvel & Disney)

Black Widow contains the sort of outlandish — and, yes, exciting — action sequences found in all MCU product, but the focus of the film isn’t fisticuffs as much as it’s family. In fact, there’s so much talk of family that one half-expects Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto to wander into the frame to offer his two cents on the subject. Yet whereas Dom’s speeches in the Fast / Furious franchise wholly embrace the notion of family, the interludes here are more thorny: Natasha understands that hers was a fake childhood that deserves nothing but contempt, but Yelena, while acknowledging the duplicity involved, nevertheless cherishes her memories of that period when she lived happily with a mother, a father, and a big sister.

The strained relationship between the pseudo-siblings provides the film with many of its best moments, due in no small part to the actresses involved. Johansson, as noted, has always been tremendous in this part, and it’s nice to see the character hold center stage rather than operate as one component of the Avengers ensemble. Pugh, who had a tremendous 2019 (lead roles in Midsommar and Fighting with My Family, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Little Women), is likewise formidable, and she will hopefully be allowed to further develop the character of Yelena in future MCU projects (the mid-credits teaser promises that she will be back).

Barring another Avengers Origins: Black Widow entry, this will be the final time that we’ll see Johansson in her patented superheroine garb. The movie provides for a decent sendoff, but given Marvel’s stellar reputation for mapping out every nanosecond of every MCU effort, there’s nevertheless the unshakable feeling that someone botched the timing on this one.

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