Film Review: The Surprisingly Unengaging “Black Widow”

black widow 2021 movie poster one sheetRussian assassin Natasha Romanoff has always seemed like a minor character in the pantheon of Marvel Cinematic Universe characters and no wonder; she’s competing with gods and other mythic characters. A left-over Cold War cliché of a character, she was trained by the Soviets to be a beautiful killer, ready to dispatch anyone at a moment’s notice. You’ve seen her type time and again in Le Carré novels, the TV series The Americans, and more. In The Avengers world, however, Natasha (as played by Scarlett Johansson) brought a much needed sensitivity to a room full of raging testosterone. As a result, she became a fan favorite.

This new film Black Widow is her backstory, and it tells a somewhat confusing tale of some aspects of her childhood. It turns out that Natasha is one of a group of “Widows”, beautiful female assassins all trained by the evil Russian oligarch Dreykov (Ray Winstone).

The closest memories she has of a family were when she spent three of her teen years (portrayed by Ever Anderson) as part of a Russian sleeper agent family in Ohio. She was part of the cover for “Dad” Alexei (David Harbour) and “Mom” Melina (Rachel Weisz). Natasha’s closest connection was with her little “sister” Yelena (Violet McGraw). Dad has a secret, however, one that isn’t really explained until about halfway through the movie, an “ahhh, now I get it” moment.

Zoom forward 21 years: Most of the film actually takes place just after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Natasha is on the run, living in isolated places throughout Eastern Europe while trying to avoid being arrested for violating the “Sokovia Accords”. She learns about the nefarious Dreykov’s latest evil plans, along with his team of “Widows”. These young women aren’t just brainwashed like she was, however, they’re chemically programmed and can be controlled remotely. Fortunately, Natasha’s long-lost “sister” Yelena (played as an adult by Florence Pugh) has intel on the situation and is looking to find Natasha so they can team up and bring Dreykov down.

Of course, they need a slightly bigger team and since Natasha can’t just call SHIELD or her Avengers pals, she tracks down “Dad” Alexei (who is also Red Guardian, as it happens) and breaks him out of a maximum security prison in some Gulag or other. They then track down and find “Mom” and the gang’s all present, ready to take on Dr. Evil, err, I mean, Dreykov.

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Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), from “Black Widow”

I like Black Widow as a character, find her backstory interesting, and generally enjoy the heck out of modern Marvel movies, but having this film take place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Endgame meant that there was never any tension. Hint: She appears in Avengers: Endgame so cannot die in this film. Marvel is also brilliant at the superhero concept, as demonstrated across dozens of films, but the mashup of superhero and classic Cold War spy thriller didn’t really work.

There’s also something positively Weinsteinian about old man Dreykov being able to control the minds of his cadre of beautiful young female assassins, but that was never addressed. Based on her activism in earlier films, Natasha should have been raging, and doubly so when she realized that she wasn’t the only person in her “family” that he manipulated. Perhaps the topic was just too sensitive for neophyte film director Cate Shortland or it ended up on the cutting room floor at Disney?

Instead, we get a film that’s surprisingly similar to F9, the latest Fast & Furious movie: In an attempt to add a meaningful backstory to an appealing, but fundamentally one-dimensional character, the film leaves us shrugging our shoulders and waiting for the expository moment to wrap up so we can get back to the action. Since there is a lot of narrative confusion in the first part of Black Widow, it might well be a film that works better the second time it’s viewed too.

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Yelena (Pugh) and Natasha (Johansson) from “Black Widow”

Still, when compared to 2019’s Captain Marvel, Black Widow lacks a truly mythic tale and engaging storyline. Natasha’s childhood journey has been told so many times in other films, like 2015’s Red Sparrow (with Jennifer Lawrence as the beautiful brainwashed killer), that I kept waiting for something new and original. At least Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) in Captain Marvel had an exciting transition from regular person to superhero, complete with introspection and evil characters left and right.

Marvel fans will probably enjoy Black Widow, and it is nice to see more female characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Black Widow just doesn’t seem like it needed to be released, particularly as it comes two years after Avengers: Endgame. Thumbs up for hardcore Marvel fans, and a “wait for it to show up on cable” for everyone else.

Dad At The Movies Note: While the film takes obvious steps to minimize tough guys hitting younger women, that’s a definite theme in the story and Natasha’s “childhood” flashbacks. This theme and the overall level of violence might be problematic for younger viewers, and it would be smart for parents to talk with their tweens and younger children afterward to discuss free will and freedom, particularly as it applies to oft-objectified young women in our society.

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