Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Black Widow

In 1995, two Russian undercover agents in Ohio steal military secrets from SHIELD and escape to Cuba. The agents' two adopted children, Natasha and Yelena, are taken to the Red Room to train as Black Widows, elite agents. Twenty-one years later, Natasha and Yelena meet again when they discover that their former boss is trying to eliminate them. They have to reunite their family to take on an old enemy.

Black Widow is a bit of an oddball movie. It feels like a bit of an apologetic afterthought, Disney and Marvel giving Scarlett Johansson her own movie after a solid decade of playing great support to Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers in general. However, the movie also feels a little undercooked in terms of ideas and characterisation, whilst overcooked in terms of effects.

The film picks up after Captain America: Civil War and seems to be trying to achieve the same kind of grounded realism as the prior instalment in that sub-series, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This makes sense, as Natasha/Black Widow is one of the least-overpowered heroes in the franchise, being solely reliant on her wits, intelligence and firearms skills. These are formidable, but the movie keeps putting her in slightly ridiculous situations where she's fighting off supersoldiers or running through exploding buildings. Things that would feel perfectly acceptable in a higher-powered Avengers movie feel off here, like Marvel are wasting one of their best assets who works best when the stakes and scope are a bit more focused and less grandiose.

The film is not helped by one of the weakest villains in the franchise: Ray Winstone is a phenomenal actor, capable of comedy and dramatic intensity, but is wasted here with poor writing and motivations, and forcing him to speak with a truly terrible accent. Most of the other actors do better, although you do wonder why there's barely any Russian actors in a film where most of the cast is Russian or from the former Soviet bloc. Rachel Weisz and David Harbour both provide solid support, but it's Florence Pugh who emerges as the movie's MVP with a terrific performance, melding comedy, pathos and tragedy, with a great handling of action. If Pugh has been positioned to inherit Scarlett Johansson's mantle, the film does a pretty good job of that handover.

In other areas the film is only adequate, with a few good action setpieces (Black Widow versus Taskmaster on the bridge), some decent ones (the prison breakout) and some pretty awful ones, drowned in iffy CGI (the grand finale). It's good to see what Natasha and Clint finally did in Budapest, even if it's let down a little by Jeremy Renner not appearing on-screen, and the ending does absolve Natasha of a lot of the guilt she's been carrying around for the whole franchise. I can see why they wanted to do that to the character ahead of her fate in Endgame, but it does sand off the rough, morally ambiguous edges to one of the MCU's most (hitherto) morally compromised and interesting figures.

Black Widow (***) is sold but a little uninspired. It feels a bit too late in the day, and does not service Scarlett Johansson as well as she deserves. However, if the film is not great, it's also not offensively awful and emerges as worth watching for Florence Pugh's scene-and-movie-stealing performance. The film is available via Disney+ worldwide now.

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