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- Black Widow
- Directed by Cate shortland
- Written by Eric Pearson
- Featuring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh and David Harbor
- Classification PG; 133 minutes
Last year has been a remarkable 12-month period, and not just because of you-know-what: 2020 was the first year in more than a decade without a new movie from Marvel Studios. Did you miss them? Was superhero-skeptic Martin Scorsese happy? Will your life damaged by the pandemic now be over with the long-delayed arrival of Black Widow? The answer to all of the above questions is a warm… maybe!
I am well aware that I am particularly hard on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The story of my Rotten Tomatoes cannot lie. But I’m only tough because I care. If Marvel is determined to remain the world’s No.1 hit machine forever, then it will need to produce some hugely entertaining work that stands up to even close scrutiny. She must produce films that show, or at least feign, progress: stylistically, narratively, emotionally. And with Black Widow, the MCU’s 24th attempt to pierce global audiences, Marvel is showing all signs of regression, far beyond mere creative stagnation.
When the MCU was new to the scene, it delivered a reliable and consistent explosion of entertaining and gee-whiz diversions – although most of its novelty was found in post-credit scenes promising crumbs of ‘To Be’ continuity. Continued… ”which were often more exciting than the films that preceded them. Regardless, it was cool. Or pretty cool.
Space worm turned with punch one-two from 2016 Doctor strange and 2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – two fake whoa movies that were both so consistently convinced of their own awesomeness that they refused to engage with any of the elements (quick wit, visual inventiveness, real stakes) that defined so many of their predecessors . From that point on, it was the MCU versus the movie buff. It was often easier to turn around and mourn Captain America.
What to watch Black Widow it’s like: submission, pure and sweet and inevitable. If you can sit in director Cate Shortland’s action-thriller and not see your attention drift away every few minutes – to your mental to-do list, to your curiosity about how much Rachel Weisz was paid for co -star, to your annoyance that you’re watching this trapped at home rather than in a dark theater, which would at least offer some super-deafening sound to drown out your brain volume – then you have my respect back.
Black Widow didn’t have to be that way – at least not if Shortland’s first 10 minutes are anything to judge. Set decades before Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) became a leather Avenger, the opening sequence plays out like a very expensive episode in FX’s Russian spy series. Americans. But instead of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys playing KGB secret agents, we have Weisz and David Harbor, Soviet-turned-digital superheroes, forced to flee Ohio with their two daughters, including a young Natasha, after their cover was destroyed by SHIELD agents
The scene, which involves car chases, machine guns, a plane leak, and a beautifully jarring soundtrack (jumping from Don McLean’s American pie to a slow combustion blanket of Smells like Teen Spirit) hints at the kind of tense and messy movie Shortland could have made if she hadn’t been weighed down by the franchise’s obligations. Once we’re in the actual story – something involving Natasha and her younger sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) dismantling a Russian brainwashing operation – Black Widow quickly turns into another rote exercise in Marvel house style.
If you’ve seen an MCU movie, you’ve seen this one too. There are MacGuffins to hunt down and protect, villains with ambiguous overtones to defeat, and a climax where a lot of CGI nothingness is smashed to bits. The only thing to think about Black Widow try to figure out why we are getting a superhero origin story that doesn’t cover the actual origins of the superhero. It’s less “How Natasha Romanoff Became Black Widow” and more “What Black Widow Did On Her Summer Vacation”.
Like many who enlisted before him, screenwriter Eric Pearson throws us some funny bones, letting a gag on Natasha’s fighting stance do a lot of legwork. But most of the time, Pearson tries to move the few game pieces given to him with as few problems or complications as possible.
At least the artists seem to be having a good time. For a story about austere Soviet super-spies reunited after a traumatic separation, everyone smiles hugely. Maybe the actors are just thinking about how much money they make for a few months of spandex work. And of course them, especially the devious Weisz and the Forest Harbor, whose 75 percent effort here looks more like 100 given their surroundings. It’s almost superheroic.
Black Widow is available July 9 on Disney + with Premier Access and in Canadian theaters, subject to public health restrictions
In the interest of consistency across all critical critics, The Globe has removed its star rating system in film and theater to align with the coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, Works of Excellence will be noted with a Critics’ Choice designation throughout the cover.