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Black Widow | Cate Shortland

July 1, 2021

Black Widow is fairly lightweight and doesn’t impress much with its action or visual design, but the character work and comedy prove somewhat redemptive.

Although it takes place sometime between the events of Civil War and Infinity War, Black Widow begins in the mid-’90s, with Natasha Romanoff in her teens, living a seemingly idyllic life in the Ohio suburbs. Turns out, she’s living in a long-lost ripoff of The Americans — complete with a dead lift of that show’s opening credits, accompanied by a seriously embarrassing sad cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — as her parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) are actually Russian sleeper agents, and the time has come to grab the bug-out bags and head for Cuba with mom and dad and little sister Yelena.

Flash forward 21 years and Black Widow is on the lam, a fugitive from U.S. Military justice. A communique from Yelena, now a superspy in her own right (and also now Florence Pugh), details an attack by mysterious cybernetic bad guy Taskmaster and forces her to come out of hiding to team up with Yelena to thwart the very organization — and skeevy mind-controlling asshole Draykov (Ray Winstone) — that trained them and brainwashed and mutilated untold hundreds of young women. Of course, a reunion with mom and dad can’t be far off either.

It’s stock stuff, a nominal modern spy/action movie with the expected MCU tie-in bits. Natasha’s quest for a surrogate family is called out quite literally, and with such dull frequency as a primary driver of her desire to both right the perceived wrongs of her past and perhaps reconcile with the Avengers that you half expect Dom Torreto to show up. And the feminism at the core here — women declaring their agency from controlling men or absent fathers — is hashtag-y at best. But all of that is sincerely enlivened by the cast. Harbour, as a sort of lumbering goof on a Soviet Captain America knockoff, gets to be the butt of a lot of physical silliness, while Weisz gets to be not just his foil, but return to her Mummy-ish roots as a capable action figure. But it’s Pugh that unsurprisingly eats everyone else alive, playing off Johannson’s patented knowing cool girl act with a sort of daredevil’s delight and armed with at least a dozen killer lines. The family dynamic comedy might stop the plot’s forward momentum, but it’s also the most enjoyable, distinctive part of the film.

Meanwhile, for her part, director Cate Shortland mostly fails to make this look anything but high-end televisual; it’s formally indistinguishable from those current Disney+ series, most especially when showcasing the work of this franchise-of-franchise’s true architects and artists: the pre-vis VFX department and the second unit crew. Hand-to-hand action is solidly choreographed, but of course over-cut and over-covered, while the bigger action sequences — particularly in a sky-falling finale — have the relative spatial coherence and occasional arresting image of a video game cut-scene (a descriptor that should no longer be used as a pejorative).

Somehow, it took 13 years and 23 films for the Marvel machine to give Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow character her own movie after playing sidekick all this time, but the cleverly-titled Black Widow is finally here, ushering in the next so-called phase of the MCU after a year-long pandemic delay, while also sharing the stage, fortunately or un-, with the current wave of Marvel streaming series on Disney+. While those shows struggle to stretch one film’s worth of supporting character story into 6 or so hours, this tight but not particularly integral story seems rather perfect for the small screen, even as it just survives the big screen treatment.

You can catch Cate Shortland’s Black Widow in theaters or streaming on Disney+ beginning on July 9.