Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Tonight's Movie: Black Widow (2021)

As I mentioned last week in my review of F9: THE FAST SAGA (2021), we also saw BLACK WIDOW (2021) during our recent trip to Oregon.

Like most Marvel fans, I'd very much been looking forward to BLACK WIDOW, which provides Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johanssen) with her own film at long last.

Among the half dozen original Marvel movie superheroes, only Black Widow and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) had not previously had at least one film with their name in the title. Hawkeye will have his moment in the spotlight in the Disney+ TV series HAWKEYE (2021) streaming later this year.

As I chronicled over the last year and a half in my weekly Around the Blogosphere news roundups, BLACK WIDOW was originally scheduled for release in May 2020. The date was pushed forward multiple times, with rumors at various points that it would end up being released only on Disney+. It ended up having a hybrid release, available both theatrically and for a premium fee on Disney+. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see it for the first time on a big screen!

BLACK WIDOW is a prequel of sorts, set in between CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018). That said, it actually begins in Natasha's childhood, when young Natasha (Ever Anderson), her little sister Yelena (Violet McGraw), and their parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) must suddenly flee what appears to be an idyllic existence in 1995 Ohio. We quickly learn that the family isn't a real family at all, but a cover for a spy operation, a la TV's THE AMERICANS (2013-18).

Flash forward a couple of decades, and Natasha (Johansson) is reunited with her "sister" Yelena (Florence Pugh, LITTLE WOMEN) in Budapest. Natasha learns that although she had believed him dead, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the man who forced her and Yelena to become spies, is still alive.

Natasha and Yelena unite to take down the evil Dreykov, which also means first reconnecting with their "parents." They spring Alexei (Harbour) from a Siberian prison, then track down Melina (Weisz) before taking on Dreykov and his network of spies.

BLACK WIDOW initially struck me as perhaps not top-drawer Marvel, while certainly both engrossing and entertaining; one of my criticisms is there seemed to be an excessive amount of hand-to-hand combat due to the characters' skill sets.

In the week and a half since I saw it, though, I've noticed that the film has really "stuck with me" in terms of its tendency to sneak back into my mind as I mentally re-examine the characters and story. Though I might have wished for a little more focus on the characters than the fighting, the film nonetheless has a lot to say about their relationships, and I have a feeling this film will continue to improve on closer acquaintance. For more on this aspect, Rachel comments on the relationships and the film's heart at Hamlette's Soliloquy.

Johanssen's Natasha has always been one of my favorite characters since I began watching the series exactly six years ago this month. Natasha's story arc, culminating with AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), is one of the most moving of all the series' many characters. This new film gives her character added depth; for example, we learn that Natasha's vest in INFINITY WAR originally belonged to her sister. My next viewing of ENDGAME will have an entirely new resonance.

Pugh is a fascinating actress with a bright future. While I wasn't completely won over by LITTLE WOMEN (2019), Pugh's steely Amy, a very fresh interpretation of the character, was probably the best thing about that film. I thoroughly enjoyed her as Yelena and look forward to her future appearances in Marvel films.

Harbour and Weisz have some good moments as the faux parents, but for the most part this film belongs to Johansson and Pugh, and they take the movie and run with it.

One minor quibble: I don't think little girls were coloring their hair wild colors in 1995 Ohio, as Natasha has in the opening scenes. Pondering that took me "out of the movie" initially. 

On the other hand, there are some really nice character touches, such as the reunited "family" sitting in the same places at the dinner table as they did in the Ohio sequence. I also appreciated the back story on Natasha's oft-referred-to adventures in Budapest with Hawkeye.

BLACK WIDOW runs 134 well-paced minutes. It was directed by Cate Shortland and written by Eric Pearson from a story by Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson. The movie was filmed by Gabriel Beristain. The musical score was composed by Lorne Balfe.

Parental advisory: Like all Marvel movies, this film is rated PG-13, with lots of bloodless violence as our heroes make the world a better place. The films celebrate "found family," something Natasha comes to realize she has twice over, her Russian family on the one hand and the Avengers on the other.

Trailers are here and here.

Previous Marvel reviews: IRON MAN (2008), IRON MAN 2 (2010), CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011), THOR (2011), THE AVENGERS (2012), IRON MAN 3 (2013), THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013), CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014), AGENT CARTER (2015), ANT-MAN (2015), AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015), CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), DOCTOR STRANGE (2016), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017), SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), BLACK PANTHER (2018), AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018), CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019), AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), and SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019).

Since it's been a while since I reviewed a Marvel film, here's an overview of what's coming from Marvel later this year, if all goes well: SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE 10 RINGS (2021) will be released in September 2021, THE ETERNALS (2021) in November 2021, and SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021) in December 2021.

Looking ahead to 2022, the schedule is DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022) in March, THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) in May, BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER (2022) in July, and THE MARVELS (2022) in November.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA (2023) and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3 (2023) are planned for release in 2023.

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