Black Widow

***

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Black Widow
"It is entertaining."

Finally, Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow gets her standalone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man started it, Captain America expanded it, the Hulk that isn't Bana or Norton had a "trilogy" that started in Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Loki (Lokii?) got their own show, and here, delayed, Natasha Romanoff.

At this stage navigating the MCU less resembles the apocrypha of their parent comic books but software packages. To get the benefit of Black Widow you ought to have seen the Captain America films (Winter Soldier, Civil War), and by extension Avengers: Age Of Ultron (as frequently recommended to Wandavision viewers). It will be helpful to have seen others, but after-credit sequences may generate conflicts if you've not updated as far as Endgame and may clash with The Falcon & The Winter Soldier.

This isn't Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, it's not woven through. This despite an opening prologue, also reprise for William Hurt in a role that's been involved with all three modern Hulks. It fits in a very definite gap in the timeline, but unfortunately without the neatness of Rogue One. Indeed, this is a Solo effort - it tidies away without consequence, which is a shame.

Director Cate Shortland is no stranger to complicated situations for female protagonists - Berlin Syndrome, Lore, Somersault all explore territories it would have been interesting to see Black Widow navigate. There are sexual politics, a confrontation with the big bad is a Hawaiian shirt away from catharsis, a discussion between father and daughters includes a well deserved slap and then a discomfiting barrel being rescraped.

Johanssen and near enough every other woman in the film are catsuited and variously accoutred, anything approaching body shaming is saved for David Harbour's Alexei. Nods are given to Harbour's other period piece, "we're both upside-down" isn't the strangest thing said as a reference. Possibly digitally de-aged, as well as clean-shaven for the sequence in 1995, his later appearance includes him struggling with the Red Guardian suit. It's an ostensibly comic note in a film that struggles at times with tone, but also with stakes.

Three credited writers: Eric Pearson, who did episodes of the (superior) Agent Carter as well as Thor: Ragnarok and Godzilla Vs. Kong; Jac Schaeffer who was one of four credited for The Hustle, the 'not remake' of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, before she went on to pen the (superior) Wandavision; and Ned Benson, who did the Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby trilogy. Several impacts on story: outcome known, for protagonist at least; villain's impact minimised in the shadows of Infinity War and otherwise; what we'll call the Solo problem, compounded by this not so much being an origin story as a "meanwhile...".

It is entertaining. The action sequences are actually pretty clear, there's good senses of space and a lot of use of verticality, both of camera, movement, and cast. There are a couple of moments that seem to have been intended to give Johansson her 'John Wick' moment, including a medically suspect bit of fight preparation. There's also good chemistry between the core cast - 'younger sister' Yelena (Florence Pugh), 'father' Alexei (David Harbour), 'mother' Melina (Rachel Weisz) work well together through the processes of separation and reunification.

There are, as is often the case in the MCU, pretty profound spiritual and moral implications to the plot, glossed over in service of the continuing juggernaut. Well, not juggernaut, that's a different continuity, as are references to Crimson Dynamos and the like. The motivating element of the plot shares a weird number of details with Upstream Color. The 'organisation divided against itself' is a not uncommon theme, especially within the MCU, but the Red Room is pretty singular. A sequence of training Widows (nomenclature never explained) is reminiscent of the Gun Kata of Equilibrium. Other shots of them in action recall Mission Impossible's fondness for abseiling. There's also a disappointing lack of Skrulls, or the Dora Milaje, and while O-T Fagbenie impresses as Mason the fixer, it might have been nice to see a character from Agents of Shield or similar.

There are bits borrowed from various places. Beyond Bond and Budapest banter there's an object whose return mimics a moment in Indiana Jones apparently inaccurately titled Last Crusade. A thrilling escape sequence ends on an airfield with what appears to be one twelfth of Cuba's Mig-23s, in palm beaches that are more reminiscent of the Florida Keys of True Lies. There are moments reminiscent of La Femme Nikita but Black Widow might be one of the first films to have been ripped off in advance. Red Sparrow isn't the same but it's almost exactly not different. It seems inevitable that this, the 24th (I think) MCU film would reference others, but it cribs from far more than its own kin.

I found myself trying to map the family to The Wizard Of Oz at one point, between trying to determine if Audi and Marvel had fallen out or if BMW more closely aligned to Black Widow than they had Iron Man. The maudlin cover version of Smells Like Teen Spirit over the opening was a weird touch, but years of practise have inured me to bad guy supply having a surfeit of wood panelling for any number of improbable locations. There's a prison that would probably have been enough to hang a film like Lockout or Fortress or No Escape from. As it stands there's a lot of hanging around, even what looks suspiciously like a Wolverine-leap.

There's a recurring joke about pockets, and ultimately that's what Black Widow is. It's where a character was put between films, and while it's well made, even fitting, its constraints mean that it's easy to pass by while it gathers dust and fluff. Having established that at least Moonraker exists in media in the MCU, one sequence seems to borrow less from it than Point Break. While surfing through the Marvel Story Parliament's diktats can't be easy, Black Widow is sufficiently concerned with its footing that it doesn't have much time to show off and so doesn't make much of a splash.

Reviewed on: 16 Jul 2021
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Natasha Romanoff confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises.

Director: Cate Shortland

Writer: Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone

Year: 2021

Runtime: 134 minutes

Country: US

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