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Film Review: Engaging “Black Widow” Offers Four Stars at the Cost of One

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 6th, 2021

Film poster: “Black Widow”

Black Widow (Cate Shortland, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars. 

Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) has long deserved a stand-alone movie of her own, just as every other one of Marvel’s Avengers has received. The why and the how of her heretofore short shrift notwithstanding, what she gets in Black Widow is an enjoyable romp, showcasing both the actress’s talent and her character’s appeal. But the film is not solely about her, since the folks at Marvel, having killed Romanoff off in Avengers: Endgame, clearly feel the need to establish the next chapter. And so, while it’s wonderful to see her again, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been had we been treated to her origin story years ago. Nonetheless, even though much drama, and a large new ensemble, are crammed into the movie’s 133 minutes, it remains lively and entertaining, throughout, even when the script occasionally falters. Overall, then, Black Widow delivers, despite the bitter sense of regret we feel at the alternative reality that never was. Combining humor and action in a delightful mix, director Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome) knows her way around both camera and actors, and keeps our spirits high.

We begin in 1995, in Ohio, where a seemingly normal American family – a mother, father and two girls – suddenly goes on the run from what look like military types. In a plot ripped from FX’s The Americans, these fugitives are not what they initially appear. Rather, they are Russian sleeper agents, though in a bit of narrative confusion, the writers blur the line between Soviet and post-Soviet machinations. Same difference, right? Well, not really, but, no matter. In any case, the father (or, as we will soon learn, “father,” as in, this is a manufactured “family”), Alexei Shostakov, is a super soldier in the mold of Captain America, and the “mother” is Melina Vostokoff, a scientist of morally questionable instincts. They are played, respectively, by David Harbour (Netflix’s Stranger Things) and Rachel Weisz (The Favourite). They manage their escape well enough, though both girls, Natasha and the younger Yelena, are traumatized, the one because she knows what awaits them back home, and the other because she thinks America is home. Cut to a credit montage that shows various kinds of unpleasant indoctrination and training in the years that follow.

Rachel Weisz in BLACK WIDOW ©Marvel Studios

Which brings us forward two decades, where Natasha-cum-Black Widow is in trouble over the events related in Captain America: Civil War, wanted by the authorities for her resistance to the Sokovia Accords. We’re not with her for long before we jump to the parallel narrative of Yelena (Florence Pugh, Midsommar), also a trained assassin in what we discover is the “widow program” developed and managed by one very nasty individual named Dreykov (Ray Winstone, Jawbone). Her mind is not entirely her own, controlled as it is thanks to technology that, fortunately for her, is early on disabled by a vial of some kind of aerosolable liquid. Thereafter, she is determined to take down Dreykov and free the widows, which brings her once more into the company of her estranged older “sister,” Natasha. And then, soon enough, they bring in Alexei and Melina, reuniting our opening quartet in uneasy not-so-harmony. Together, they will fight against a toxic male patriarchy intent on manipulating women. What’s not to like?

The best parts of the film, beyond the fine choreography of the fight scenes, are the performances of our four leads, who despite their vastly different approaches to a Russian accent (or not), provide one engaging scene after the other. Pugh, especially, makes the movie, which bodes well for the future spinoffs so clearly intended (with an end-credit sequence to directly show us the next steps). Her Yelena is simultaneously world-weary and very funny. She is matched in cynical charm by Johansson (always good, and no less here), but the moments between the two of them truly shine. Whether Yelena is mocking of Natasha for the way she poses every time she jumps and lands or begging approval for a jacket she chose because of its many pockets, she brings the best out of her erstwhile sister, and her sister out of her. Harbour and Weisz are also delightful, even if the final motivations of their characters prove hard to understand. In short, Black Widow is a star vehicle for all involved, even if that means its ostensible main star therefore burns less brightly as a result. Sharing is caring, though, right? And here, we care a lot.

l-r: Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Scarlett Johansson in BLACK WIDOW ©Marvel Studios
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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