A film review by Craig J. Koban July 19, 2019

BLACK WIDOW jj
   

2019, PG-13, 135 mins.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow  /  Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova / Crimson Widow  /  David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov / Red Guardian  /  Rachel Weisz as Melina Vostokoff / Iron Maiden  /  O.T. Fagbenle as Mason  /  William Hurt as Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt' Ross  /  Ray Winstone as Dreykov / The Handler

Directed by Cate Shortland  / Written by Eric Pearson .
 

 

 

There's a single scene in BLACK WIDOW - the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first of its fourth phase of films - that unfortunately sums up everything that's frustratingly wrong with it. 

During it a family member (so to speak, more on that in a bit) relays to her sort-of father (again, more on that in a bit) about how a particularly brutal part of her time as a brainwashed agent involved having her reproductive organs removed, rendering her completely incapable of ever having children in her life.  This is an undeniably horrific admission on her part and would be enough to indefinitely traumatize any woman.  But because BLACK WIDOW exists in the greater MCU, the character delivers such shocking information in a light hearted and quippy fashion.  

This might be the only film in history to use a case of a forced hysterectomy to elicit a cheap laugh. 

The inexcusably too late for its own good BLACK WIDOW is a film that wages war within itself.  It's indeed most welcoming in terms of granting us another on a very short list of female driven solo MCU efforts (of the two dozen of them, many male characters have already had multiple solo installments, so the fact that it has taken this long for Natasha Romanoff to get her own film after debuting in 2010's IRON MAN 2 a decade ago is telling, to say the least).  That, and Scarlett Johansson is in top form again as this complex character and is flanked by some solid supporting performers giving some level of new flavor to the proceedings.  Regretably, though, BLACK WIDOW is so reticent in embracing the inherent and aforementioned darkness of the this hero's origins and the underlining universe that she occupies.  Instead of daring to be a decidedly different type of MCU venture, BLACK WIDOW devolves into embracing increasingly stale MCU troupes, and the whimsical handling of the material is really counterproductive here.  This is a film about (checks notes) child abandonment and endangerment, the brainwashing of women, the removal of reproductive rights of said women, the macabre underbelly of the spy game, and so forth...and itís played with the frivolity of a SPIDER-MAN solo film.  That's unendingly disappointing. 

BLACK WIDOW has an utterly sensationally realized opening sequence that hints at a far better and more intriguing film to come than what we're not eventually given.  We're whisked back to 1995 Ohio and are introduced to young teenage Natasha (played in adult form by Johansson) and her little sister in Yelena (played in adult form by Florence Pugh) living what appears to be normal and happy lives in an tight knit American family with their mother Melina (a de-aged Rachel Weisz) and father Alexei (David Harbour, also de-aged).  Something is not right, though, as soon as dear ol' dad gets home for supper, and within minutes the entire family is grabbing what belongings they can and immediately flee their home.  It appears that Alexei and Melina are no ordinary parents, but are rather Russian spies that have stolen S.H.E.I.L.D. intel.  After making it to a makeshift airport and engaging in multiple fire fights with their pursuers, the family daringly escapes via a small plane and journeys to Cuba.  When they arrive the real horror show for these poor girls begins, as mother and father relinquish their daughters to General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who takes them under his wing to begin their soul crushing training to become top secret operatives, all but robbing them of their individuality, freedom, and childhoods. 

 

 

I mean...wow.  Heavy stuff for an intro, to be sure. 

Flashforward a few decades and we hook back up with the post-CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR Natasha, who's now on the run from the government, as is many of her fellow Avengers (safe to say that if you've never seen any of the MCU films then wading through the mythology here may prove next to impossible).  While trying to stay off the grid and hidden, Natasha receives a secret package from her estranged sister in Yelena, who has discovered a secret cure for herself and other fellow black widows to release themselves from the forced mental subjugation of their handlers.  The package contains, yup, vials of the cure that Yelena hopes will be in safe hands with Natasha.  Unfortunately, they soon realize that they might be in hopelessly over their heads with Dreykov hot on their heels, so they decide to seek out the assistance of their former fake parents, with Melina long been in hiding away from Yelena and Natasha, whereas Alexei "The Red Guardian" needs to be sprung from a Russian prison.  Now, why these two women would ever want to reunite with the very people that destroyed their upbringings is something the screenplay never really explains or even properly acknowledges. 

BLACK WIDOW does a fairly decent job of establishing the villainous presence of Dreykov early on (we witness in the film's nifty opening credit montage - set to a low key cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" - just how demoralizing the raising of Natasha and Yelena was under this madman, who trained them to be obedient and mind controlled super agents).  Dreykov's Red Room program stole young girls away from their homes and families for the purposes of churning them out to be state sanctioned assassins, which is pretty haunting as far as MCU story arcs go.  In many ways, the emotional epicenter of BLACK WIDOW revolves around the renewed faux family dynamic between Natasha and her baby step sibling, and the two of them have multiple crosses to bare for the wrongs they both did under the Red Room program while both having to face their troubled pasts with Alexei and Melina, who were once the only form of family they knew.  Johansson and Pugh are quite wonderful together here as two lost souls that awkwardly cling together based on a shared past of pure misery.  Even though their sisterhood is a phony one, they bond like real sisters, mostly because they have no other options.  Pugh in particular is BLACK WIDOW's ace up its sleeve, who plays her battle hardened Yelena with a no nonsense toughness and bravery alongside a tender vulnerability that she tries to keep bottled up inside. 

Other characters, regrettably, fare worse in BLACK WIDOW, such as Weisz' enigmatic Melina, who appears so little in the film that she simply fails to leave much of a tangible footprint in the proceedings.  Coming off better is Harbour as the pudgy Ruskie Captain America wanna-be in Alexei, who's best days are long since behind him as a super solider serum induced spy (that, and he has a hard time zipping up his costume's pants over his girth).  It has been said that the heroes in most action/super hero films are only as good as their villains, and BLACK WIDOW serves up a lackluster one in the form of Dreykov, who's played with commendable masochistic menace by Winstone, but this antagonist on the page is nothing more than a second tier Bond baddie set on world domination (oh, and he's also able to completely control his army of female assassins because of a special pheromone he gives off that makes it impossible for any of his spy slaves to harm him...not kidding).  He's assisted by a Terminator-like henchperson dubbed Taskmaster, whose able to mimic any attacker's moves.  To say that the final reveal of the real identity of this unstoppable killing machine is a letdown of IRON MAN 3 Mandarin levels would be an understatement.  When it comes to introduced villains, BLACK WINDOW might be the weakest of the MCU. 

And, as I alluded to at the beginning of this review, why is BLACK WIDOW so hopelessly overwhelmed with tonally incongruent gags?  This film had such rich potential to be a fully absorbing espionage thriller on the level of, say, a RED SPARROW that went well against the the sanitized MCU blueprint.  The possibilities of having a more grounded, edgier, and dramatically deeper tale that delves into the titular character's nightmare inducing history are kind of endless.  This is what makes BLACK WIDOW a maddening what-if watch at times.  That, and it builds towards yet another MCU-ified climax on pure autopilot, one involving a lot of VFX, a lot of action and explosions, and a lot of mayhem that seems to take away from the very type of insular espionage tale that I think it secretly wants to be.  One truly damning trait that sticks out like a sore thumb is that it becomes truly hard to really care about Natasha, her surrogate family, or their fates here, mostly because the film is a victim of its own release timing.  COVID releasing rescheduling notwithstanding (it was supposed to hit cinemas last summer), bringing out this long wanted and awaited solo BLACK WIDOW entry so long after her heroic death in AVENGERS: ENDGAME has rendered the stakes here all but null and void.  Plus, Natasha also seems absurdly and sometimes hilariously impervious to death throughout the story despite being the victim of multiple vehicle crashes, multiple beatings, and multiple injuries that would have killed other AVENGERS with powers mightier than her.   

Let me be clear: We need more genre films like this that are female led and directed by women (inexplicably, BLACK WIDOW is the first MCU film helmed by a lone woman, in its case the very competent Cate Shortland).  Considering how quickly the DC Extended Universe has ushered in their iconic squad of female stars in their own films (like the first two WONDER WOMAN pictures and the terribly underrated BIRDS OF PREY from last year, a hard R-rated status quo bucking endeavor that Disney would never dare to attempt), the MCU solo films have been a sausage fest for too long.  Seeing Johansson finally being given her due with her own outing after 23 MCU films over 13 years is rewarding.  But that's just the problem: Natasha Romanoff is such a fascinating character with her own mini-series deep backstory and mythos that how we had to wait this long for her own showcase film is flabbergasting.  Coming out after her fateful send-off years ago in an AVENGERS sequel makes BLACK WIDOW seem like a dramatically empty and somewhat cynical corporate cash grab.  It creates creative problems in the sense that instead of intrepidly looking forward to expand upon this hero into the future, the makers here are forced to look back to give her a send-off picture that, more or less, never has any substantial weight to it.  It's clear that BLACK WIDOW was never intended to come out this late (pandemic be damned), but just think about the effectiveness of having it come out post CIVIL WAR and pre ENDGAME.  

Natasha Romanoff - and her legion of fans - deserved a finer swan song than this, and after the letdown of the mostly forgettable CAPTAIN MARVEL and now BLACK WIDOW it has become clear that the MCU has some course correcting to do in order to do justice to their female heroes, especially when compared to the competition.  And better late than never here doesn't lead to a better film. 

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