Director: Cate Shortland
Stars: Florence Pugh, Scarlett Johansson, Ever Anderson
There are two prominently featured middle-aged white men in Cate Shortland’s Black Widow and they nearly capsize the whole thing. I’ve been stuck on this since leaving the multiplex. For it’s entire first act, this feels like a breath of fresh air for the Marvel brand. Shortland manages to keep a foot in the door, creatively speaking. She stamps the material with something approaching her own aesthetic. Her eye is present in the little moments, in the way certain sequences unfold or how certain shots are framed. There’s a lightly played earthen texture.
A cracking opening sequence set in 1995 introduces us to young Natasha (the strikingly well-cast Ever Anderson, daughter of Paul W.S. and Milla), her adoptive parents and younger ‘sister’ Yelena, and itemises their swift exit from faux domesticity. Then – following a refreshingly top-end title sequence that gives off pleasing ’90s thriller vibes – we land in post-Civil War territory. Natasha the Avenger (Scarlett Johansson) is laying low. 21 years after being separated from her makeshift family, global events conspire to bring them back together.
Having spent her tenure in the MCU either being sidelined or sexualised, it’s beyond time that Johansson’s character was given more of the spotlight, and its laughable that it now comes as a posthumous flashback (negating, it has to be said, some of the tension from her exploits here). Weighing in as an exec producer, one senses Johansson’s input into the net result; a film that (certainly to begin with) positions itself as a grounded, character-driven spy thriller. Reunited with her newly-deactivated former sibling Yelena (MVP Florence Pugh), the two clink beers at a truck stop and its the most naturalistic beat this franchise has manifested in years.
Johansson and Pugh make for a fantastic pairing, and Shortland seems very at ease with the chemistry between them. Quips about handy pockets in Yelena’s customised vest-top hit just the right note of unforced humour; a counterpoint to the moronic buffoonery that is poised to enter the picture.
As soon as David Harbour’s Alexei is unboxed from a Russian prison, things nosedive. The serious tone that Shortland has carefully tended is trampled down by what feels bluntly like studio pressure to keep things light. Alexei’s oafishness, his goofiness, is wholly at odds with Shortland’s more deft sensibilities. He and, to a lesser extent, Rachel Weisz’s cartoonish matriarch Melina steer Black Widow into more trad Marvel fare. The long, clownish middle act of family bickering weakens the film considerably.
The finale pushes the narrative into bog-standard MCU shenanigans and this is where Ray Winstone’s gammon visage inevitably takes centre stage. Listening to Winstone as he attempts to wrangle his thick cockney accent into something approaching a Russian one is almost as grimly captivating as his surprise turn in Cats. It’s the other big character/casting blunder that Black Widow strives to overcome.
But here’s a thought. Is it coincidence that these two burly masculine presences represent the film’s most unwelcome elements? These guys (and a barely-there appearance from William Hurt) aside, the only other male character in the film is Natasha’s token himbo contractor Rick Mason (a nicely played turn from O-T Fagbenle). The film’s plot centres around a plan to control and subjugate women. Overbearing patriarchy is the big bad this time around. Most of the time, when Black Widow lets its women interact with one another, it is a sterling success. Inherently interesting and balanced. When the testosterone is unleashed, it feels smothering and unpleasant. Bad as Harbour and Winstone may be, they do effectively underscore Shortland’s point.
Tired as I’ve become of these movies (aside from Eternals, this is probably the last I’ll cover for TLHH), Shortland mounts an impressive third act. In spite of us knowing Natasha’s fate, there’s a tangible sense of peril when she throws herself off of crumbling mid-air structures or hangs perilously from a helicopter. More-so than when it’s one of the more super super-folk who tend to just bounce off things like a rubber ball. Her humanity adds to the adrenaline. As such, when the movie does allow her to play rough, it works gangbusters. This contributes considerably to the success of the pyrotechnic finale. And then there’s Pugh; lightning in a bottle; an absolute coup for the series to get.
For it’s faults and it’s inevitable steer into blah MCU aesthetics, Black Widow represents an uptick for the series after – personally speaking – a run of bad outings since Black Panther. I appreciate I’m at odds with consensus there. That’s part of why I feel like cutting ties with covering these giant tentpole flicks. There’s enough coverage. Enough noise. Enough presence in the market. But as long as Marvel keep securing interesting talent (the likes of Shortland, Pugh, Zhao etc), I suppose I’ll keep coming back to the well, no matter how begrudgingly.
Tellingly, for me, it’s the lower-key, more humanistic elements of Black Widow that make it rise above much of its competition.
And yes, there’s a post-credits.