Movies

Review: Black Widow

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh lead Marvel into a new age.

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You knew it would come to this. After a decade of patiently enduring her female fate—waiting around to be granted her own standalone movie while one male Avenger after another got his (Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Iron Man, Iron Man, even Ant-Man, for God's sake)—Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff finally gets the call. But it's too late—in the Avengers timeline, Natasha is dead. And it wasn't much of a death, either: In the 2019 Avengers: Endgame she fell from a cliff and got one farewell shot as a corpse before the story moved right along.

Endgame was the last hurrah for the original Avengers, but of course no one at Marvel/Disney was ever about to let this cash geyser stop gushing. So a narrative cheat had been devised: The next movie would be set in 2016, a year in which Natasha was still alive. As you'll surely recall, that was the year of Captain America: Civil War, in which the Cap and Tony Stark/Iron Man had a big falling out and Natasha disappeared.

Now—in 2016, that is—we find Natasha on the run in Europe (the movie globe-trots expensively from Norway and Hungary to Morocco and England and beyond). She has to cool her heels for a bit, though, while the story flashes us back to 1995 Ohio to meet two little girls—preteen Natasha and her younger sister Yelena—who are living happily with their immigrant parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz). Then disaster strikes, in the form of a S.H.I.E.L.D. snatch team. It turns out the parents aren't really parents and the sisters aren't really sisters, either—they're all part of a sleeper cell of KGB spies (even though in the real-world, Russia had disbanded the KGB in 1991). Alexei—once a Soviet superhero called Red Guardian—is tossed into prison; Melina is consigned to a hog farm (long story); and Natasha and Yelena are shipped off to the Red Room, a most unpleasant spy-training school dedicated to turning young girls into deadly assassins, or "black widows."

As you might now guess, Black Widow, directed by Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, is not a standard-issue Avengers offering. It's actually about Natasha reuniting her sundered family: breaking Dad out of prison, liberating Mom from the pig place, and trying to track down Yelena. Which is to say, the movie has quite a bit of heart, and even a few quiet moments (although they don't last long). It also gives Johansson more room than usual to demonstrate her under-heralded skill as an actor—something previously on view in such films as Marriage Story, Jojo Rabbit, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She can light up a scene with a well-timed glance and a melancholy smile, and her subtle technique is fascinating to watch.

The movie's central figure, though, is the exceptional Florence Pugh (Midsommar), who plays Natasha's semi-sister Yelena with a Russian accent as thick as a gob of sour cream—and makes it work. Yelena is full of wisecracking spunk (the scene in which she ribs Natasha about her hair-flipping battle pose is all the funnier for being so casually offhand), and we quickly realize that she's on hand to take up the Avengers torch from Natasha and inaugurate a new phase of the franchise. Pugh, with her non-glam looks and no-nonsense presence, is an excellent choice for this assignment.

Despite its embrace of family and feelings, Black Widow is very much an action movie—or, more specifically, a slam-bang international spy film. With its cobbled Euro courtyards and hell-bent car-chase scenes, it strongly resembles a Bourne movie, and its mile-high Red Room headquarters is an echo of the Alpine Blofeld lair in the long-ago Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Some of the film's action choreography will surely become iconic, like the scene in which we see Natasha leaping off a prison catwalk to grab onto a cable dangling from an escape helicopter choppering by overhead. (Sure it's mostly CGI, but it's really well-done CGI.) There's also an effectively menacing villain dogging the two women's footsteps as they track down some sort of mind-control stuff (long story number two), a hooded, metal-faced figure called Taskmaster.

There are a few things in the movie that don't work, of course. Ray Winstone, cast as the Red Room master Dreykov, is too matey an actor to be very unnerving—especially when he gets some of the script's lamest dialogue (going all woke with "The only natural resource the world has too much of [is] girls" and addressing a group of his assassins who've found a new victim with, "Make her suffer!"). And the movie's inevitable collapse into a blizzard of digital clutter at the end is even more dispiriting now, in this supposedly new Marvel age, than it was before.

But Johansson and Pugh are a top-drawer team, and Pugh, continuing on her own, promises to be a freshening influence on the 13-year-old Marvel superhero universe, and a good reason to stay tuned.

NEXT: School Choice Is the Answer to Education Disputes

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  1. In addition to her excellent performances in non-action movies, Florence Pugh also starred as a mixed-martial artist in “Fighting with My Family.” She can definitely do this.

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    2. Uh, not mixed-martial arts. Pro Wrestling. But yes, she was great in that.

  2. This review seems to imply much more excitement for this movie than I feel toward it

    Releasing this backdated movie makes no sense given the lead’s fate in End Game. That I only know Pugh from the utter mess that is Misommer doesn’t help especially when it seems this is likely just a vehicle to introduce her into the MCU.

    1. Releasing this backdated movie makes no sense given the lead’s fate in End Game.

      Yeah, it would have worked out fine for its original release date, but at this point, does anyone really give a shit? Especially with the lead asserting in the press now that the character was little more than a ‘male gayyyzzz” piece of eye candy with no real complexity, despite several MCU films’ worth of material to the contrary.

      1. Critical Drinker does an excellent synopsis here, “Defeminizing the female character”

        He makes an excellent argument as to why sexuality is part of the female super hero (and part of the male hero– but for slightly different reasons).

    2. I still don’t get this thinking.

  3. Half this review is all-in on identity politics (why if not to find some sort of appeal). I think I’ll be skipping this and the rest of Disney’s Marvl offerings as the protagonist here is dead, the MSheU is a hot mess of garbage characters an the writers/director fully embracing identity politics messaging won’t make any of their movies bearable unless you’re one of their marxist blackshirts (brownshirts?).

    1. Female leads in action movies causing you political distress? Grow the fuck up.

      1. No, bad, tokenized female leads causes people political distress. It’s transparently obvious, disrespectful to the female lead, and makes for bad art.

        1. So we can never have a Black Widow movie because it’s disrespectful to Scarlett Johanssen? Wut? Maybe I watched a different MCU than you, but I never got the sense that Black Widow was ever a token.

          I do, however, note a huge pushback against females in other than token roles. Female James Bond? So many forums figuratively melted down over that. Female Ghostbusters? Sure, the movie sucked but people weren’t raging over the suckiness they were raging over female leads. I saw the rage over Captain Marvel as well. Mediocre movie, but not mediocre enough for the rage it attracted. Face it, some males out there are really threatened by the idea of a strong female lead. The masculine toxicity infected the host.

          1. Yes, the fanboys really hated Ripley, Sarah Connor, Lara Croft, Xena, Buffy, The Bride, Wonder Woman…

            Let’s stop blaming non-existent misogyny for the failure of terrible movies.

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      2. No you dumb fucking cunt, female leads aren’t the problem. The propagandizing in place of story is the problem, the disdain for the audience is the problem, the destruction of a decade of actual character development to market a lie is a problem. But you apparently don’t see any of that because your a leftist fuckwit.

  4. inevitable collapse into a blizzard of digital clutter

    But enough about the U.S. financial system.

  5. Russians are good when in control of the leftie MCU.

  6. After a decade of patiently enduring her female fate—waiting around to be granted her own standalone movie while one male Avenger after another got his

    Not you too Loder. You’re also forgetting Captain Marvel. *She* got a standalone movie without ever appearing in the series beforehand. None of the *men* ever got that!

    Then disaster strikes, in the form of a S.H.I.E.L.D. snatch team. It turns out the parents aren’t really parents and the sisters aren’t really sisters, either—they’re all part of a sleeper cell of KGB spies (even though in the real-world, Russia had disbanded the KGB in 1991). Alexei—once a Soviet superhero called Red Guardian—is tossed into prison; Melina is consigned to a hog farm (long story); and Natasha and Yelena are shipped off to the Red Room, a most unpleasant spy-training school dedicated to turning young girls into deadly assassins, or “black widows.”

    So you’re saying *SHIELD* snatched them up and forced them into training? That Black Widow is an *American* project – not Soviet like she is in the comics?

    1. I think Loder skipped a beat on that one. Spoiler alert from the first few minutes of the movie, they aren’t caught by the SHIELD team.

    2. You’re also forgetting Captain Marvel. *She* got a standalone movie without ever appearing in the series beforehand. None of the *men* ever got that!

      Hmm? Sure they did. Their first team-up appearance came after their first MCU standalone film for most of the characters that ever had a standalone MCU feature film (see Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange). The list of characters that were first introduced to the MCU in another film and then got a standalone MCU feature film is pretty short: Black Panther, Spider-Man, and now Black Widow. And Spider-Man was of course an oddity because of the Sony licensing deal.

  7. > Then disaster strikes, in the form of a S.H.I.E.L.D. snatch team. … and Natasha and Yelena are shipped off to the Red Room

    Wait? Wat? The Black Widows was a SHIELD program?!?!?! WTF?!??! The whole thing about Black Widow was she was a Soviet agent. Not some Ohioan child of sleepers. And why do sleepers all have Russian accents?

    I suspect some laziness on the part of the writers.

    1. Marvel doesn’t care about the source material.

      1. Why should they? They retcon every franchise every six months or so, just like DC. But certain things stay the same. Like Iron Man having a suit and Black Widow being ex-KGB/Soviet/Russian super agent.

    2. I can confirm that Loder misspoke about how they end up in the Red Room. It was definitely the Russians in the movie.

  8. Captain America was dead at some point, wasn’t he?

    Didn’t he come back?

    Or is that a different universe?

  9. There were seven (Ant Man, Black Panther, Captain America, Dr Strange, Ironman, Spider-Man, Thor) male superhero stand alone movies to the one (very lame) female Marvel movie Captain Marvel.
    This is Scarlett Johanasson’s project (as executive producer) and worth the wait. As the superhero movie series has become a dull predictable slog of rehashed ideas to promote profits before art or creativity, this moves the genre forward, much like the Daniel Craig series of James Bond. Rather than the usual fare, this is a real movie, very enjoyable and entertaining. Would but Disney be able to continue some of this down the road, rather than the tripe we have seen of late.

    1. You think the Daniel Craig Bond’s moved the genre forward?

      Because the only good one was Casino Royalle and the rest are . . . mediocre and mostly do the same stuff the others did but worse. They’re the worst parts of the Moore series without its levity.

      And the reviews of Black Widow all say its just a bunch of loosely connected action sequences held together by a mostly non-nonsensical series of poorly written coincidences. And it falls into the ‘whaman power!’ trap.

      Which is . . . too bad. All three leads are good actresses in their own right. They could have done well in a serious Bourne-esque action-thriller.

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  11. Too many holes in the plot…was just a rip off earlier marvel movies…waste of a good cast. The problem is wokes taking over a franchise that was and is for 12-30 year old males…period end of story…

    Why appropriate what that demographic wants to push an agenda? Make your own woke movies..

    Bad..bad..bad

  12. Would note that when the Soviet Union went away, all Russia did was rename the KGB the FSB. The buildings and the guys in them stayed the same.

  13. Lets not forget possibly the stupidest woman power thing in BW. They make Taskmaster a woman despite that during the whole movie its obviously a man in the suit.

  14. Just saw it in a movie theater this past weekend and loved it. See it on the big screen!

  15. Yeah very good movie. Saw it in the movie theater and it was awesome!

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