Saturday November 26, 2022
Movie Review: Black Widow (2021)
Why wasn’t this better reviewed? It got 79% from critics, which is fine, but the likes of “Shang-Chi” somehow got a 91%. Its IMDb rating is 6.7, which is like a C+. I assume the latter is because of the misogynist crowd, and the former who knows. Maybe critics thought it odd to make a movie about a character who was already dead.
How did Black Widow die again? On another planet, right? Right. She survived the blip of “Infinity War” only to die trying to reverse it in “Endgame.” The Avengers went back in time to collect the infinity stones and for some reason she and Hawkeye—the two superheroes without any super in them—are sent to that far-off planet where Red Skull acts like a gatekeeper and you have to sacrifice something you love to get the stone. Thanos sacrificed Gamora; Natasha sacrifices herself. The greatest love of all, I guess.
Hers felt like the most unnecessary death in that movie, and maybe this movie, set between the wars—after “Civil,” before “Infinity”—felt like an unnecessary prequel to critics. But I thought it was rip-roaring fun.
Here we are now
It’s basically a James Bond flick. Early on, at a safehouse in Norway, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) watches “Moonraker” on TV and happily repeats one of Bond’s quips: “I discovered she had a crush on me.” Think of it as a hat tip. “Black Widow” is an action-adventure romp in which spies battle each other in glamorous international cities. It even ends, a la Bond, with our captured heroes blowing up and escaping from the villain’s outré lair. We even get a reprise of “Moonraker”’s most famous stunt: the hero, falling from the sky without a parachute, maneuvering to acquire one.
There’s even a Bond girl.
Well, sure, Scarlett, but since she’s Bond in this analogy, the Bond girl is her sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh, excellent). We finally get their backstory. Turns out it’s “The Americans.”
In small-town Ohio, 1995, young Natasha and Yelena learn their parents, Alexei and Melina (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz), are Russian spies, and they have to flee, past high school football games and one step ahead of S.H.I.E.L.D., to get out of the country. They also learn, by and by, that their parents aren’t their parents. They’re just agents. The girls are orphans, widows in the movie’s vernacular, who are inculcated into the horrific Widow program by the villainous Gen. Dreykov (Ray Winstone, also excellent).
At this point we get the opening credits, and it’s a moment where the movie deviates from the fun Bond thing. Bond’s credits are silhouettes of sexy women doing gymnastics on guns over the raucous vocals of the pop star of the moment. Here, we get shots of young girls separated from families by faceless soldiers over the deadened vocals of Think Up Anger’s version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s powerful. Hell, it’s a kind of critique of Bond credits. You like slinky spy-girls? Well, this is the horror that made them.
(And sure: Why are there Soviet spies in the U.S. four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union? And why is Natasha’s superhero name a reference to the Soviet-era program that broke her and hundreds of other girls? You’d think she’d want distance from that. But onward.)
The orphan girls are indoctrinated not only with training but chemicals. It’s in Morocco, taking down a rogue agent, that Yelena is sprayed with a red powder that frees her mind, and sets her on a path to take down Dreykov’s infamous Red Room. First, she sends the extra vials of red powder to Natasha at her safe house, which … How does she know where to send them? I guess they’re forwarded? More, how does Taskmaster, the masked Russian villain, know where to find Natasha? Who knows? But their bridge-battle (nicely done) propels Natasha to Budapest (“Budapesht”) and a rocky reunion with sis. After the obligatory fight, they team up and flee from Taskmaster and the widows.
More backstory: Natasha was able to join S.H.I.E.L.D. when she assassinated Dreykov, but—shades of “Munich”—she had to blow up his young daughter, Antonia, too. She feels guilty about that. But Yelena lets her know, no, Dreykov lives, and—I’ll cut to the chase—so does Antonia. She’s Taskmaster (one-time Bond girl Olga Kurylenko). So that’s nice. Natasha has less to feel guilty about. At the same time, it means she completely failed her first S.H.I.E.L.D. assignment. Oh well.
The two sisters then set about freeing “Dad” from prison—Harbour as the superpowered, out-of-shape Red Guardian is great comic relief—and the three reunite with Mom, the brains of the operation, out in the country. But she betrays them to Dreykov, and they’re flown to the Red Room, which is like a cloud city.
Ah, but at some point Melina has a change of heart, so the Melina who shows up is really Natasha, and Natasha Melina, and this allows our hero face-time with the villain, whom she can’t kill. Some kind of pheromone prohibitor. Except she knows it, which is why she allowed Dreykov to punch her the way he did. Sadly, he wasn’t strong enough to sever the nerves; she has to do that herself.
I would’ve liked it better if she’d killed him there, immediately, but of course he escapes and then dies trying to get out of his exploding cloud city, while Natasha, parachute-less, saves Yelena, and then battles and saves/frees Taskmaster/Antonia. She’s also downloaded intel on where all the widows are around the world. She will free them, too.
She was busy between the wars.
“Black Widow” was written by Eric Pearson, who also wrote “Thor: Ragnarok” (nice) and “Godzilla vs. Kong” (not), and who was apparently on set for filming. He overheard Pugh teasing Johansson about Black Widow’s three-point stance and hair-flip, for example, so he had Yelena tease Natasha similarly. I like that kind of thing. The director was Cate Shortland, who’s written and directed a lot of psychological, female-centric stories (“Lore,” “Berlin Syndrome”), but who, per IMDb, has nothing else on her plate.
Why? We’re in an era when Hollywood is looking under every other rock for female directors, and here’s a good one, and yet nothing. I guess she—and the movie—got screwed over by the times, too. Its original release date was May 1, 2020, the first of the “MCU Phase 4” stuff, but of course Covid shut everything down. So it was delayed until November 2020, then May 2021, then July 2021; and then it was released both in theaters and on Disney+, leading to a lawsuit from Johansson, who was set to get a cut of the box office, which the prescence on Disney+ would and did cut into. The lawsuit was settled last September.
Amid all that, I think Shortland and the movie got short shrift. Again, it’s fun and zippy, with an occasional dark undercurrent as in the opening credits. I liked the evocations of Americana as they flee Ohio: lawns, fireflies, Friday night lights, “American Pie.”
I talk about the movie being like a James Bond movie, but it’s also deeper and more poignant than Bond. One of the first lines we hear is from young Yelena (Violet McGraw) to young Natasha (Ever Anderson). They’re on a playground, goofing around, and having a contest about who can do a backbend the longest. “We’re both upside down,” Yelena says. It’s a little kid’s line, but more than that. After they’ve beaten the bad guys and fallen to Earth, Yelena repeats it. It makes you realize that these are women who have lived their entire lives upside down; and the thrust of the film is getting them right side up again.