Saturday 10 July 2021

Film Review: Black Widow

Scarlett Johansson squeezes into the skintight catsuit of reformed Russian agent Natasha Romanoff one last time in Cate Shortland's much-delayed, Black Widow.

On the run from the authorities and lying low in a remote safehouse, former Avenger Natasha (Johansson) confronts her shadowy past when she receives a mysterious package from fellow widow, Yelena (Florence Pugh). 

Their quest skips from Norway to a remote Russian prison via Budapest, in a breakneck game of cat and mouse that sees the pair pursued by a masked figure called Taskmaster, who is after the precious contents of Yelena's package. Along the way, the women reunite with retired Soviet superhero Red Guardian (David Harbour, putting on a comical Russian accent) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), a scientist and another former widow. 

It should come as no surprise that Black Widow is centred around more grounded action than some of its Marvel universe counterparts; with no godlike superpowers to speak of, Natasha and Yelena operate covertly and can call upon finessed martial arts skills when necessary. It's crunchy, boots-on-the-ground action with acrobatic choreography, Bourne-like camerawork and a Bond-like plot that culminates in a monologuing villain aboard a sky-bound base. A motorcycle chase through the streets of Budapest is a particular highlight; another sequence sees the two girls team up to stage a prison breakout in snowy Siberia. 

This of course is a Marvel joint, and all the hallmarks are here: frequent action that shies away from blood, characters who chatter and quip while trading blows, and pantomime villains for our heroes to do battle with. Bringing the funny this time is Harbour, as the jaded and past-his-prime Red Guardian. Frequently the butt of the joke, Harbour understands the assignment and applies himself to the role admirably.

Natasha and Yelena make for an entertaining double act too – there's lots of charm and chatter between the two. Pugh is a hoot as the hot-headed and quick-witted Yelena, so much so that she steals the limelight from Johansson in her own film. It doesn't take a genius to see that Marvel is setting her up for future missions later down the track.

Fans of the franchise won't be surprised to find that Black Widow is all about Natasha making amends for past misdeeds; as she's cited in the past, she has 'red in her ledger' that she would quite like to wipe clean, now that she's working for the goodies. 

In this her one and probably only solo film, Natasha comes face-to-face with the skeletons in her closest, which makes for a neat and thematically satisfying story for a character who has been somewhat underserved by the series thus far.

Aside from some mentions of Wakanda and the Sokovia Accords in the first act, Black Widow is largely bereft of connective tissue to the wider universe. You don't have to be a learned Marvel scholar to dip into this fairly self-contained, standalone adventure, making it accessible for casual fans who recognise Captain America and Iron Man – but don't know their Modoks from their Mieks.

The issue with Black Widow is not in the film itself, but its timing in the broader Marvel chronology – after the one-two punch of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, Natasha's story appeared to be done and dusted – with the latter affording her a dramatic exit that capped off an eight-film arc.

Shortland's solo film winds back the clock, and picks up Natasha's story after the events of Captain America: Civil War and before the events of Avengers: Infinity War – which begs the question, why now? Why not tell this exact story four years ago, right after the release of Civil War?

That's the thing about the Marvel universe. The story is always moving forward, each chapter advancing the overarching plot. Even films set in the past, like an extended flashback such as Captain Marvel, contribute to this, because of where the overarching plot was at the time of its release.

Black Widow is the oddity in this regard; by dipping into an already deceased character's past, it can't advance their story or move the broader narrative forward, save for the customary post-credits scene. 

Having said that, I did enjoy Black Widow quite a bit. It ranks somewhere in the middle of the Marvel universe spectrum, neither as good as the best (Winter Soldier, Black Panther) or as bad as the worst (Captain Marvel, Thor). It's just a shame that some may see this flashback as little more than a footnote.

The Verdict: 7.5/10

A small-scale spy thriller that, like its lead character, is ruthlessly efficient in achieving its aims. Black Widow is a fitting send-off for a character who has never been the centre of attention, but played a key supporting role in the success of Marvel's core cast. 

Black Widow is in theatres across Australia and streaming on Disney+.

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