Black Widow

Posted: July 19, 2021 in Film reviews
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Directed by Cate Shortland. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz and Ray Winstone.

So it’s been almost eighteen months since I’ve been to the cinema, and frankly I’m not sure when I’ll feel comfortable going (Bond, only Bond) but that shouldn’t mean I shut up shop when it comes to my film reviews, right? I’ve been neglecting my blog and that stops right now. Not that I’m going to review every film I see on the small screen, but maybe the odd one, certainly those new films I would definitely have seen on the big screen, and where better to start than with Marvel’s latest.

It’s 1995 and Natasha Romanoff seems like any other American girl living in Ohio, except she isn’t American, she’s Russian, as is her sister Yelena and her parents Alexi (Harbour) and Melina (Weisz). They’ve been spying on the west, but SHIELD is onto them so the makeshift family escape, just in time. Back in friendly territory Natasha and Yelena are handed over to the tender mercies of General Dreykov (Winstone) who enrols them in the Red Room, where he trains them to be ruthless assassins. Black Widows.

Flash forward to 2016 and Natasha (all grown up and now Scarlett Johansson) is on the run following the events of Captain America: Civil War. She wants to disappear but when mail is redirected from her safehouse in Budapest she’s targeted by Taskmaster, Dreykov’s latest weapon, a man capable of mimicking the fighting style of anyone he fights (spoiler, he’s not played by Greg Davies).

After her run in with Taskmaster Natasha heads to Bucharest where she crosses paths with Yelena (all grown up and now Florence Pugh) who explains that the Widows are no longer conditioned by training to obey, now they’re forced to obey by a mind controlling chemical. Yelena escaped and now she wants to free the rest of the Widows. With a chance to exact revenge on Dreykov as well as freeing the Widows, Natasha agrees to assist. They’ll need some unconventional help though, which means twenty years after they were last together, it’s time to pull a very dysfunctional family back together.

So, let’s cut to the chase, I bloody loved this, and the fact that I didn’t see it on a big screen didn’t dent my enjoyment in the slightest, though who knows, maybe I’d have loved it even more if I had gone to the cinema rather than watching on the TV?

And yes I get the complaints some have made that it is, to some extent, a redress of Captain America: The Winter soldier (Taskmaster is a riff on Bucky, the finale takes place on a crashing helicarrier type craft, and there is another similarity but that would be a spoiler) but this didn’t dent my enjoyment in the slightest.

This is a slightly more grounded spy thriller, and when I say grounded that’s in the loosest possible way, because this is still Marvel. It also fills in some of the gaps in Natasha’s story; we finally see the Red Room; we get to understand Bucharest and we meet Dreykov.

Johansson is, obviously, superb and it is a shame that this is likely the last time we’ll see her in the role. In an ideal world we’d have had a Black Widow film five or six years ago, and then we might have been able to squeeze in a second. Never say never, and they may tempt her back some day, but if this is the last we see of Natasha then it’s a good swansong for the character. Johansson gets to do more than just kick arse though, there’s a lot of humour in this film, as well as righteous anger, and it’s a more thoughtful performance than you might expect.

It says something about Scarlett that she allows multiple scenes to be stolen right out from under her by Pugh, Weisz and Harbour. A less generous actor might have insisted the film was all about her, and Johansson must have had a lot of creative control here, but part of what’s great about it is that it’s an ensemble.

This is the third film I’ve seen Pugh in, and the third great performance I’ve seen her give, and they’ve all been very different (Little Women, Midsommer and now Black Widow). she convinces in the fights, has great comic timing and bounces off Johansson like they really were sister, a spiky yet affectionate double act, and you have to love the running joke about Natasha’s power pose which was, so I hear, something Pugh herself came up with. If Pugh winds up the next Black Widow, then I think Marvel have made a very canny choice.

As the somewhat buffoonish Alexei, David Harbour is wonderful. An aging, out of shape super soldier (he’s the Red Guardian, the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America) he’s a man obsessed with the fact that he never got to fight Cap, even though he regales people with a lot of tall tales about how he did. Again I’ve seen complaints that the character is too much of a joke, and harks back to Thor’s midlife crisis in Endgame, but frankly I think people need to lighten up. Marvel is full to the brim of ripped, heroic male characters, the odd loveable idiot isn’t going to bring down the house of M. What matters is that Alexei is a joy whenever he’s on screen. He’s funny and he bounces well off all three of the women in his ‘family’.

As the mom Rachel Weisz possibly has the least to get her teeth into, but her presence is important to the family dynamic, she’s integral to the plot and she convinces as nerdy scientist and a lethal Widow herself.

The weak link cast wise is probably Winstone, but much as people have derided his performance, I thought he was good, he bought a creepiness to Dreykov that was needed, but yeah his accent was more London than Lubyanka.

This is only the fourth film that Cate Shortland has directed, and its clearly the biggest in terms of budget, but again Marvel score with a relatively unknown director. You wouldn’t think this was her first big budget blockbuster.

The only slip is the matter of a section that seems to be missing near the end, but Shortland has said this was intentional. I guess they could have done a bit more with Taskmaster as well given his unique fighting style.

Script wise the film goes to some darker places, darker than you might expect, and there’s a prevailing sense of the horrors perpetrated on women by men in power, primarily Dreykov. As the old man says near the end, he works with the most plentiful resource in the world, young girls, and it’s easy to read the Widows as a metaphor for trafficked sex slaves. Women forced to do terrible work and treated as little more than chattel. Suffice to say when the tables are turned on Dreykov I let out a little cheer.

An exciting, well-paced action film that manages to be light and funny one minute, yet pack an emotional punch the next. The cast are great, the set pieces awesome and the direction assured. I just wish this wasn’t the last time I’d see Scarlett Johansson kick arse as Natasha Romanoff.  

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