Black Widow

With the Avengers disbanded after "Captain America: Civil War," Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who broke the Sokovia Accords, wants to put distance between herself and Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), so she takes an opportunity to reach back to her past in search of the family she had before she was the “Black Widow.”

Laura's Review: B+

The third major action film to arrive in post pandemic theaters also happens to be the third where family is an overarching theme.  It also happens to be far and away the best, Australian director Cate Shortland’s ("Somersault," "Lore") unique blend of goofy humor and exemplary action scenes both leading to world defining, impressively femme-charged change.  Florence Pugh slips into new Marvel character Yelena Belova like a second skin, helping to fill out the angsty part of Natasha’s back story while Rachel Weisz and especially David Harbour provide comic relief along with psychological profiles.

The film establishes their importance in Natasha’s life in the opening prologue, a flashback to the young Natasha (Ever Anderson, "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter") as a blue haired pre-teen tomboy very protective of her younger sister (Violet McGraw, TV's 'The Haunting of Hill House') in an Ohio suburb in 1995.  One day, dad Aleksei (Harbour) comes home and immediately grabs a beer.  Mom Melina (Weisz) senses something’s up and learns they have less than an hour to evacuate.  The family is a ‘The Americans’ style sleeper cell and their escape, which involves piloting a small plane, is pulse pounding.  The family’s reception in Cuba is telling, especially for the girls.

Years later, no sooner has the adult Natasha secluded herself in a remote trailer with the aid of her contractor Mason (O-T Fagbenle) than she has a run-in with the formidable Taskmaster, a skull-masked warrior able to replicate the fighting moves of his foe.  Taskmaster is after a package Natasha received from Romania, one whose contents she almost trashed then manages to get away with in a plunge off a bridge.  We’ll learn who sent that package in a Budapest safe house, where she encounters her pissed off sister Yelena who believes Natasha abandoned her and who delights in mocking her Avengers ‘pose.’  Exhausted after evenly matched hand-to-hand combat, Natasha will learn what that package contained – the antidote to the mind control agent Dreykov (Ray Winstone) is using to form armies of widows stripped of free will in his Red Room, the same female assassins who are now on the sisters’ tail.  The fact that Dreykov is still alive is also news to Natasha, who is still carrying the guilt of having killed his daughter while presumably assassinating him before defecting to S.H.I.E.L.D.

Writers Jac Schaeffer (TV's 'Wandavision'), Ned Benson ("The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby"), Eric Pearson ("Thor: Ragnarok") have constructed Natasha’s origin around four major action sequences that work like tent pegs anchoring the tale, each one distinctly different from the next.  If Budapest features a tank and motorcycle chase, the next will be a massive prison break consisting of helicopters and an avalanche, Natasha betting on the face that Aleksei will know the location of the Red Room.  The ‘family’ that reunites at the remote farm of Melina Vostokoff, a four time survivor of that Red Room now a trusted scientist working for Dreykov, is, like The Avengers themselves, a construct working for its country, ‘dad’ Aleksei Russia’s counterpart to Captain America in his less famous guise as Red Guardian.  Barely able to squeeze into his old costume, dad is insecure and wants everyone to like him while ‘mom’ struggles with her former role with these young women (who aren’t really sisters either) versus her allegiance to the only thing she’s ever known.

Even the film’s villain represents a twisted idea of family, Dreykov a malignant father figure oppressing scores of young women he uses as pawns, a surprise twist revealing just how utterly soulless this patriarchy is.  But Winstone isn’t given much to do here, Shortland instead putting her focus on these young women saving each other, Natasha’s actions ensuring Yelena will never feel she has been abandoned again, no matter how tough she’s grown in the interim.  The film has some fun with costume, Natasha’s traditional black turned white for snowier encounters, her green vest getting its own origin story.         

So, put together a darkly humorous version of ‘The Americans’ with Bondian exploits, Bournesque personality control and “Mission Impossible” style deception with a standout cast and you’ve got “Black Widow.”  Stick around for the post credits stinger which paves Yelena’s path into the Marvel Universe.  Pugh should be an exceptional addition.

Robin's Review: B-

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) was given to the KGB as an infant and raised as the ultimate fighting machine. After the fall of the Soviet Union, she went freelance and is now both the hunter and the hunted in “Black Widow.”

Not being a fan of the Marvel Comics Universe, I have not seen (or even cared to see) many of the entries from that world. But, I volunteered to see “Black Widow,” I have no idea why. Maybe it was just my good movie instinct, but I actually enjoyed myself watching a Marvel movie.

While there is a boat load of by-the-numbers CGI effects, explosions, shootout, bloodless mayhem and noise, it is also likable – mainly due to Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh (as Natasha’s protégé and “sister” Yelena) and David Harbour (as Alexei Shostakov, the gone-to-pot superhero Red Guardian and father-figure to the ladies).

I like best the first half of “Black Widow.” Time is well spent on developing the characters, the main ones anyway, and I developed a fondness for the odd little “nuclear” family, which includes a vastly underused mother figure, Melina (Rachel Weisz), who, at best, is an add on figure.

The second half of the movie descends into the as-I-expected CGI-laden MCU world with the abovementioned F/X, explosions, shootout, bloodless mayhem and noise. If you are a big fan of Marvel world, then “Black Widow” should scratch that itch that has been bothering you for about two years. But, if you are not said fan, the likability quotient of the main characters, the frequent quips, banter, humor and non-stop action helps to fill the over-long 121-minute run time. In my mind, shorter would have been better, but I was not bored.

"Black Widow" will be released in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on 7/9/2021.