Combustible Celluloid
With: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenie, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw, William Hurt
Written by: Eric Pearson, based on a story by Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson
Directed by: Cate Shortland
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material
Running Time: 133
Date: 07/09/2021

Black Widow (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Nat Chance

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Presumably, everyone reading this will know that Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), died in Avengers: Endgame, sacrificing herself for her pal Hawkeye in order to obtain one of the Infinity Stones. It's not important to know that while watching the new Black Widow — which was initially scheduled to be released in 2020, but was postponed due to COVID-19 — but it adds a certain layer of poignancy that deepens the movie and makes it all the more touching.

The creators of the Marvel Cinematic Universe did not bring Nat back to life. No, this story takes place just after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016). It begins, though, with a beautifully-composed flashback. Young Nat and her younger sister are playing at home with their mother (Rachel Weisz). Their father (David Harbour) comes home from work, looking as if he's had a bad day. "How much time do we have?" whispers the mother. "Maybe an hour," whispers the father. Then he tells the kids that they're going on that adventure he always talked about.

Thus follows a most exciting and surprising chase scene, one that includes an airplane. The gist is that they're Russian spies, and not a family at all. And now the girls are knocked out and sent to the Red Room, under the control of the dastardly Dreykov (Ray Winstone), where they are trained to become widows. In the present day, Nat tries to take a much-needed rest, with help from old friend Mason (O-T Fagbenle), one of those guys who can "get things" for you. But it's not long before she's attacked by a frightening masked warrior, who seems able to exactly copy the moves of their opponent. It's a shocking reminder that Nat is one of the few Avengers that has no super-, or technologically-enhanced powers; she's quite mortal.

From there, Nat receives a message from her pseudo-sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), and travels to Budapest, where the sisters meet face-to-face and share a nifty, evenly-matched fight. It turns out that Dreykov — whom Nat thought was dead — is still alive. Worse, his new army of widows are under a kind of mind-control; Yelena was able to escape hers thanks to an experimental red powder. So the bickering sisters decide to break their "father" — now hilariously overweight — out of jail, reunite with their "mother" — who works directly for Dreykov — and finally kill the villain before he can kidnap any more innocent girls and bend them to his will.

Directed by Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland (Somersault), Black Widow has plenty of fight scenes, and while they are expertly choreographed, Shortland does tend to fall back on the old, amateurish shakiness rather than clarity. But here it somehow works, given that the movie itself has a rather steely, ragged quality, as if it were drenched in fog and vodka, rather than bright, shiny, reds, whites, and blues. Moreover, the fight scenes do eventually take a backseat to the unlikely family drama that slowly unfolds among the four stubborn, vicious, and sometimes hilarious family members.

Many have already pointed out that Pugh's Yelena effortlessly steals the movie from Johansson's Nat, with her frequently funny, wry line readings, especially when talking about her favorite vest ("it has so many pockets!"). But this was no mistake. Nat has never been a source of levity for these movies, and, going along with Johansson's "old soul," she's frequently wallowing in a history filled with pain, slightly guarded, but bold enough to cautiously reach out from time to time (especially in her short-lived romance with Bruce Banner in Avengers: Age of Ultron).

Johansson is also a clever and brave enough performer that she generously allows Pugh to have the show-stopper moments. She's still the big sister, and has the harder job. All in all, Shortland does a remarkable job of balancing the relationships between the nuclear family, hinting at betrayals and abandonment at every moment, so that when it all comes together it feels fully earned. (It has a slight hint of Marvel's TV series WandaVision.) When Nat leaves the picture at the end, we know she's not just flying off to break some friends out of jail. She's making her final goodbye. The added depth of feeling Black Widow brings to Nat's world makes her eight-film, 11-year story arc more than just kick-ass. It's now something truly poignant.

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