Either Cate Shortland is an action wunderkind or Marvel’s second unit stunt team has evolved by leaps and bounds. No matter the reason, Black Widow exemplifies a big step forward for the studio in action filmmaking. From green screen-less rooftop chases to extremely hard-hitting fisticuffs, the long-anticipated solo film for Scarjo’s athletic spy feels more akin to a Daniel Craig Bond outing than a typical superhero franchise would indicate. That is, before the obligatory BIG finale on a floating fortress in the sky, the type of explosive climax that Marvel refuses to get away from. But until then, this is a first-rate action film set in the immediate aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, before Thanos rears his ugly head.
Romanoff is on the run from Secretary Ross’ government spooks who are looking to imprison and detain all Avengers not agreeing to the Sokovia Accords. She retreats to a safehouse in Norway, but will soon have to leave hiding when her past comes looking for her, in more ways than one. In a moving opening salvo, we learn she had a family once, or at least, a pretend family. Having been raised in the infamous Red Room since she was a toddler, Natascha was placed in a Russian sleeper cell in Ohio as an adolescent, the oldest “daughter” to a spy father Alexei (David Harbour) and scientist mother Melina (Rachel Weisz). When the cell’s cover is blown, the three of them and her younger “sister” Yelena are forced to activate their exit strategy to safe harbor. From that moment, the “family” is disbanded, and the children who have grown to love the other like real sisters are torn from one another’s arms and indoctrinated into Mother Russia’s abusive school for assassins.
Upon being attacked by an armored assailant known as Taskmaster, and reunited with Yelena, now a confident young assassin in her own right (Florence Pugh), Natascha discovers the Red Room she thought was vanquished, the mentor/tormentor (Ray Winstone) she thought she had killed, are still alive and kicking the world ’round and ’round. Bringing them down once and for all just means getting the band back together, the family that never was. Harbour is a joyous hoot as a Russian spy has-been who was once the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America, the buffoonish Red Guardian. Rachel Weisz has the most difficulty with her Russian accent, but given the reality of dual citizenship’s effect on accents, I can forgive it. Besides, Weisz is a perfect choice for the most duplicitous of the bunch. And as Yelena Belova, Pugh proves once again what a talent she is, imbuing this newly woke assassin (she’s recently been awoken from the Red Room’s influences) with pathos and feeling. She’s disillusioned at what became of her life, yet strong-willed as to where to go next in undoing what she’s been forced to do throughout it. She’s also the only member of the “family” to have experienced those three years together as being a real family, so she’s got some healing to do. Her and Johansson enjoy tremendous chemistry, coming off like real sisters instead of strangers. As Drakov, a Russian general at the head of the Read Room, Winstone is a properly menacing presence, perfectly encapsulating the banality of evil.
Heavy themes abound, and while such themes are nearly lost amid the computer-generated hutzpah, one can’t deny the moving quality of some of Shortland’s choices. The opening credits are cut to discordant images of Romanoff’s life in the Red Room, as well as to a killer cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The lyrics may not jive quite like they should, but the spirit of the song is so in tune with the forlorn, apocalyptic photos on screen that it hardly matters. The same hosannas cannot be said for the film’s score, yet another example of Marvel Studios phoning it in. Utilizing faux-operatic choruses and generic chase music, Black Widow joins a long list of non-Avengers pictures that are apparently considered not important enough to carry their own memorable audio signature. This is a trend Hollywood-wide, however, one that seems dependent on studio execs believing a score should be unnoticeable, a complete folly of a belief if I’ve ever heard one.
Black Widow is elevated by its cast, as well as fight and stunt choreography that occasionally almost rivals the best of what we’ve seen from the Bond and Mission Impossible franchises of late. A climax riddled with failed visual flourishes and too much CGI doesn’t ruin what is otherwise a thrilling new addition to Marvel’s cinematic universe, one that emphasizes character over world-building and feeling over technical function. Unlike snarky Iron Man, witty Ant-Man, and jolly Guardians, Widow takes itself seriously in a good way, forgoing unnecessary comedy in favor of telling a story about women trafficked into servitude, and what those who get out will do to fight back. It’s also vehemently anti-Russia at a time when anti-Russian propaganda is quite welcome.
P.S. Cannot wait to see more of Pugh’s Yelena, a character who can’t return soon enough.