Monday, July 12, 2021

Film Review: Black Widow


Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

Even though I have been writing reviews on this blog for nearly a decade now, I'm actually very easy to please as a film goer.  Sometimes all I want is to sit back and lose myself for a couple of hours in some fun entertainment.  If a film can make me enjoy the time I spend with it, then I am very satisfied.

I bring this up because I've noticed a very sharp tone with which some people are approaching the 24th entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Black Widow.  This is the first MCU movie since Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019, so there has been a great deal of anticipation.  And as I've observed on this blog before, there is a strange race to declare the era of super hero films over.  People are quick to jump on any news to indicate that the genre is in decline.  This is even more pronounced with the end of the Infinity Saga in the MCU.  

But I am here to say that Black Widow is standard Marvel movie fare.

And that is a good thing.

Even though there are some critics who have read into the story some strong political and cultural messaging, it simply is not the case with this movie.  After a year of uncertainty and a drought of big-budget popcorn films, Black Widow is a traditional Marvel crowd-pleaser.

The movie begins with a flashback to Ohio in 1995.  (As someone who lived in Ohio in 1995, I have to say that this tickled me).  We see what seems like an idyllic American family with a mother (Rachel Weisz), a father (David Harbor), and two young girls.  But this domestic peace is quickly shattered when the family goes on the run because their deep cover is over and these Russian spies must return.  While the older sister (Ever Anderson) is reluctant to return to the "Red Room" for further training and the younger one Yelena (Violet McGraw) did not know their family life was fake.  Regardless the two are taken by the leader of the Red Room, Dreykov (Ray Winstone).  The older sister is Natasha Romanoff and grows up to be the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).

Natasha is trying to live off of the radar, but she is sent a mysterious package by a grown up Yelena (Florence Pugh), who is still working for the Red Room.  The evil group sends the deadly "Taskmaster" to retrieve the package, so Natasha tracks down Yelena.  This leads them to a series of events that reunites their "family" and ultimately to a showdown with one pulling the strings.

Of all the other MCU movies, this one is most like one of my favorites: Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  In a world Hulks and gods, it is difficult to tell a more grounded story.  But most of the film feels very akin to something out of the Mission: Impossible film series or even some James Bond films.  In fact, early on we see Natasha watching Moonraker as a nod to this type of spy film.  In fact, the opening to Moonraker and the finale to Black Widow have a lot in common.

Of course, this isn't a straight-up spy movie.  This is a MARVEL spy movie.  So the elements of the fantastical always a part of it.  Someone once described the MCU formula as "Joss Whedon writing with Jon Favreau directing."  What that means is that the characters will constantly have witty dialogue while framing everything in solid, big-action set-pieces.  And that is what you get from Black Widow.  This movie is no way a break from that formula.  If you enjoy the Marvel movies, then you will feel the same about this movie.  

A lot of your enjoyment will depend on how much you enjoy the dysfunctional family dynamic with the characters.  If you are like me, then you'll be have a great deal of fun with it.  I love Harbor's "Red Guardian," a crude, overweight ex-super soldier.  His out-of-shape hero works where Thor in Avengers Endgame did not.  Red Guardian stands in for that generational gap between parents and children, where those stubborn personality traits cause strain in relationships with adult children.  It is funny when he compliments his "daughters" on how many people they killed or obsesses about Captain America, much to the disgust and chagrin of the women.  In addition, Johansson and Pugh have great chemistry on screen and both share the same charisma to make the movie fun to watch.

The biggest deficit the movie has is that the last act drags.  The dialogue between Natasha and the main villain comes off as a bit stilted and clunky and goes on far too long.  Winston doesn't have a lot to do with his villain and it almost feels like Natasha is lecturing him.  Also, his main defense against Black Widow is kind of silly.  Ever since The Avengers, Marvel films milk the last battle scene, but at some point there is a bit of a diminishing return from the sensory overload.

But that is a small quibble.  As I wrote at the beginning, I am very easy to please.  The action scenes are very well executed by director Cate Shortland.  While there are some exposition-heavy moments, I enjoy when she simply reveals the characters through action.  Early on Natasha and Yelena have a fight that shows you their level of competencies and their feelings about each other without having to say much of anything.  Johansson carries the film on the power of her performance.  Natasha is hunted and haunted, but always trying to become a person better than who she was.  Pugh steps into the spotlight with a similar grace but wisely does not try to play Yelena as Natasha-lite.  Harbour and Weisz also have good chemistry and give some good laughs.

The theme of family is an important one.  Even though their family was fake, the movie shows how important anything resembling the traditional family must be.  You can see in all of the characters that the charade they were living was the happiest moment of their lives.  And no matter how much they want to deny the connections, the pull of family is deep within us.  

I also like the theme of guilt and atonement.  We know from previous films that Natasha has done terrible things in her past.  Here she is confronted with some specific instances where she put herself before others.  One that particularly haunts her is when she allowed the daughter of one of her targets to be blown up as collateral damage for her main objective.  And throughout, she is confronted with the question of why she abandoned Yelena for so many years.  Natasha has reached hero-status as an Avenger, but this journey often reminds her of all the reasons she feels like doesn't deserve that recognition.  Towards the end, there is a moment I love where Natasha has to make a moral calculation that could put her life in jeopardy, but could also help atone for a past wrong.

That isn't to say that it perfectly executes on its themes.  Weisz character never quite get the character arc she needs.  Also, there's a scene where Yelena blows up a prison guard shooting at her.  However, there is nothing to establish that this guard is doing anything other than his job.  In an earlier scene, we establish that some of the guards are jerks, but not necessarily deserving of death.  This would be like if Captain America killed the German cops who were coming to arrest Bucky in Captain America: Civil War.

Black Widow is not breaking any new ground or shattering any new barriers as a movie.  It is unabashedly a Marvel movie through-and-through.

And if after the loooong year we all went through, I think that something familiarly fun is exactly what we need right now.

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