In an early scene from The Avengers, still the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s finest entry, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is being interrogated by Russians when she gets a phone call from S.H.I.E.L.D. handler Agent Coulson. “I’m in the middle of an interrogation, this moron is giving me everything,” she protests while the Russian general and his henchmen look confused. “I don’t give everything,” he barks back, not even realizing how much he just got played. Almost 10 years later, Romanoff and Johansson finally get their own headlining feature in Black Widow, a too-little-too-late prequel that sidesteps the qualities that make the character distinct in favor of generic action setpieces and family-based pathos.
The film takes us back to 2016 after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which find Romanoff on the run from the US government for violating the Sokovia Accords. She flees to a safe house in Budapest, where she is surprised to find her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) hiding out as well. Growing up in Russia, both Natasha and Yelena were trained to become deadly spies under the Black Widow program, now ruled by the power-hungry Dreykov (Ray Winstone) who utilizes mind control to keep his burgeoning assassins in line. Incensed by the idea that hundreds of women have lost their free will to a madman, the sisters team up with their estranged father (David Harbour) and mother (Rachel Weisz) to take down Dreykov and his elusive training grounds known as the Red Room.
When Avengers director Joss Whedon spoke years ago about a potential Black Widow project, he envisioned it as a paranoid spy thriller in the vein of John le Carré. While I can’t imagine Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios would go for something that subdued at this stage in the game, I would still love to see that movie. Instead, the final product here feels much more anonymous by comparison with some glimmers of personality but far too many action beats that don’t seem germane to this character. I kept thinking during Black Widow how much different it would be if it were another Avenger like Hawkeye in the main role and I doubt the end result would’ve been altered very much.
The best parts of the film play like both a far less pretentious re-do of the Jennifer Lawrence dud Red Sparrow and a female-centric take on The Bourne Supremacy. When Natasha and Yelena chart out their mission, we get a sense of both their shared skills and shatterproof sisterhood as they plot together. A sequence late in the film is cross-cut with a prior scene of planning, giving us just enough insight to figure out how carefully those moments were configured and how the cat-and-mouse game may transpire. Unfortunately, director Cate Shortland doesn’t have as firm a grip on editing and timing for the majority of the film. A prison break scene that serves as the Black Widow‘s major action sequence has admirable stunt work but is marred by dubious staging and an uneven rhythm.
Johansson is strong as ever as a character she’s played for over 10 years now but the movie’s secret weapon is Pugh as Natasha’s younger sister. After a Bourne Identity-aping brawl during the sisters’ reintroduction, Yelena doesn’t waste much time razzing Black Widow for her penchant for posing when alongside her fellow Avengers. “I doubt a god from space has to take ibuprofen after a fight,” Yelena smirks. That Romanoff is a human among superheroes is one of the qualities that reportedly drew Johansson to the role but in an effort to super-size her narrative, Black Widow forgets the cunning and intellect that made the character unique in the first place.
Score – 2.5/5
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Reprinted by permission of Whatzup