‘Black Widow’ Review: Marvel’s Espionage Thriller Doesn’t Pull Any Punches (except in its action)

Shortly after becoming a fugitive from global authorities, Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov (Scarlet Johanson) is contacted by her long lost “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh). Holding the secret to freeing an army of enslaved young women, and relentless pursued by the villainous Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), Natasha and Yelena must reunite with their one-time “family” to succeed in bringing down the sinister “Red Room” that is quietly manipulating events all over the world!

Black Widow benefits from a spirited script that blends a Bourne-style globe trotting adventure with the intimate character moments that have become a Marvel staple. The villain’s plot concerns taking control of “the one resource that the earth has in abundance”; vulnerable young women who can be abducted and turned into weapons. It’s actually refreshing to see the bleak reality that has always been hinted at in Natasha’s past laid bare, including a fairly horrific forced hysterectomy reference that somehow manages to be played effectively for laughs. This feels like a film that is very much about the kick-ass women Natasha has inspired. This may not push Johansson to the emotional depths we know she is capable of, but this is a satisfying exploration of her character’s roots and world, which makes her fate in Avengers Endgame all-the-more tragic.

Perhaps Marvel’s greatest asset is it’s casting. It’s incredible to think of all the spot-on casting the studio has achieved over the past decade, and Black Widow is no exception. Florence Pugh is the most exciting new character. Playing the hurt but hopeful younger sister, she succeeds in being incredibly endearing, magnetically charismatic and convincingly tough. If the plan is for her to step in to Black Widow’s catsuit, then she is a very capable replacement, though I dread to think that her role in Avengers 5 shall just be to stand charismatically in the background, as was her predecessor’s fate far too often. With any luck we shall see further standalone films featuring Pugh’s Widow, and maybe even appearances in the wider universe being spun.

We also have Marvel Newcomers David Harbour, Rachel Weisz and Ray Winstone. Harbour plays The Red Guardian, self proclaimed greatest nemesis of Captain America (even though they may not have ever actually met). Harbour plays the role as a fairly traditional big-hearted, tough guy with a bear-like demeanor and a mighty laugh. It’s a fairly familiar Russian stereotype and yet made undeniably entertaining by Harbour’s vigour and largesse. Weisz is another Russian stereotype, the cold and calculating professor-type. Weisz finds the humanity and humour in the character and delivers an exposition-machine with a heart. Ray Winstone on the other hand is the villain of the peace, a flashy Russian mobster turned super-villain who’s authority is as convincing as his accent. He is also great fun, and worthy of the Bond villains the film tips the hat to in an early sequence.

I had high hopes for the action sequences of Black Widow. Marvel’s spacefaring adventures have always had an issue with scale. A CG moon crashing into a CG planet whilst CG characters hop around the ruins just doesn’t interest me at all. Black Widow promised a return to the more intimate fisticuffs of The Winter Soldier, Civil War, or even the very first Avengers. But the weaknesses of Marvel’s recent approach to action is on full display. The camera cuts every single time a punch is thrown. There is absolutely no fluidity to the sequences as we awkwardly cut from one poorly framed pose to the next. It’s upsetting to think of the magic that is being lost by this poor approach to filming and editing action. The choreography that you can make out looks good, but it’s all for nought when you can’t actually see any of it! Perhaps Marvel is still insisting that directors allow their second unit to pick up all the fights, in which case I would urge any director working for Marvel to wrestle back control and refer back to Jackie Chan for how action-comedy is supposed to look.

It is impressive that Marvel can make an action movie that I recommend in spite of it’s action. However the usual flair for humour, warmth and granduer just about distract from the choppy and incoherent action sequences. Considering Johanson’s explosively physical entrance into the franchise way back in Iron Man 2, I am disappointed that we didn’t get to really showcase her fighting capabilities in what may be her final outing, nor those of her successor. However this is a worthy beginning to the fourth phase of the great and terrible Marvel Experiment and a fitting farewell to one of the franchise’s greats.

Four Stars

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