It is amazing how fleeting the world can seem. It can vanish in a flash.
It has been two years since Marvel’s last film. This is a huge gap for an ever-churning movie studio. Marvel has also made some of its most ambitious television ventures, including “WandaVision”, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, and “Loki.” Marvel isn’t moving anywhere.
It’s possible, however, that the pandemic wasn’t just a temporary blip in Marvel Cinematic Universe. Before COVID-19, “Black Widow”, and subsequent installments were delayed for a year or more by COVID-19, “Avengers: Endgame” felt like the end of something. Can the all-powerful juggernaut of movie history pick up from where it left off?!
“Black Widow” is not designed in this way. It’s about as Marvel-like as it gets. It was set between 2016’s Captain America: Civil War (when the superheroes were thrown out) and 2018,’s Avengers: Infinity War (when they reunited). It doesn’t have a greater purpose than Scarlett Johansson playing Natasha Romanoff/ Black Widow, which is the sequel to 2019’s Captain Marvel, with Brie Larson. This movie marks the first time that a Marvel movie has been directed solely by a woman. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden shared the “Captain Marvel” helm.
It works partly because it is “Black Widow”, which needs to exist by itself. It is a fascinating film in its own right. The almost-standalone movie is less concerned with pushing a film universe forward. Instead, it explores slightly darker and deeper parts of the normally bright and shiny Marvel universe. Shortland is an Australian director of indies (“Somersault,” and “Berlin Syndrome”) that grounds “Black Widow” within a tactile, murky reality. “Black Widow,” a European-set spy thriller, has all the shadows and postwar period (WWII not the “Civil War”), and “Black Widow,” is a more tactile and murky reality than “Thor”. Ray Winstone, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone — all great actors — give “Black Widow’ a boost in a world that’s been heavily dependent on its longest-running stars.
“Black Widow” isn’t a departure from the Marvel formula. As usual, the film features a huge contraption, winks at the Avengers, light banter, and battle scenes. It’s in Marvel movies where the director often has the best opportunity to make their own films before the set-piece demands set in. “Black Widow,” however, excels very early.
Eric Pearson scripted the movie. It begins with familiar suburban scenes featuring two young girls and their mother (Weisz), getting ready for dinner. He is distraught when the father (Harbour), arrives. He whispers that they have one hour to flee. They grab a few things before heading straight to a small airport. While “American Pie” is playing on the car’s stereo, all-American scenes show families enjoying a game of ball under the lights. This is an early indication that “Black Widow,” which will be about the American Dream denied, or delayed, and a type of anti-“Captain America,” will be about a family playing on the lawn. Only when the dad flips the car to clear the runway can we see that these aren’t your typical Americans. We realize that they are not citizens and they don’t have a family once they land in Cuba.
Harbour is actually Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian. He is a Soviet-built super soldier who was made to rival Captain America. Their family was an Ohio sleeper cell that had been put together. They quickly break up and play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” over a melancholy cover. The opening credits show a montage U.S.-Russian relations, accompanied by images of Soviet mastermind Dreykov, (Winstone), and his Red Room program elite assassins, dubbed “Widows”, all of whom were taken from the streets as young girls.
Twenty years later, Natasha — now an Avenger — has come a long way from her difficult beginnings. She was wrong. When she meets up in Budapest with Yelena (Pugh), her childhood faux-sister, she is shocked to discover that Dreykov has invented a terrifying new method of controlling his Widows. He can remotely control their movements and end their lives by pressing a few buttons on his computer. It is a form of male control over females that has a broad metaphorical meaning. “Black Widow” seamlessly transforms into a comic-book allegory.
Yelena and Natasha decide to overthrow Dreykov and to create the Red Room. This mission will require them to reconnect to their parents. Harbour plays the Red Guardian in the film, a cartoonishly washed up ex-super soldier who has long since disappeared from any sort of family.
They are an emotionally wounded group, and their task is to bring about vengeance as well as psychological healing. Pugh is a rising star of “Lady Macbeth”, and “Midsommar”, and an actor of great strength and poise. He plays Yelena, the younger one and the only member of the Ohio clan who didn’t know it was a ruse.
All of them owe their abilities to the cruel, crippling system that gave them their power. This is Natasha’s uncomfortable truth, which lies just beneath the surface. Natasha’s actions are tinged by revulsion and acceptance of her own nature, as Johansson is excellently played. “Black Widow” is a film about sisterhood, improvised family and trauma pasts. It’s a movie that stirs.
Like the moon, Marvel movies are classified in phases. “Black Widow” will be the start of “phase four,” although it is not clear if the empire’s strength is waning or growing. This Marvel movie will not be available in theaters, and it will be streamed at home on Disney+ at $30. It is a fallout from the pandemic but also a retreat for an once unstoppable box office force. It’s a promising sign that things are to come, with new directors, gritty tones, and feet on the ground.
The Motion Picture Association of America has rated “Black Widow”, a Walt Disney Co. film, PG-13 for violent sequences/action and some language. Running time: 134 mins. Four stars.