Friday, July 9, 2021

Fighting with Her Family: BLACK WIDOW

After a decade spent hanging around the movies of other heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow gives Scarlett Johansson's action hero a movie all her own. It’s set between Civil War and Infinity War, but the best part is you don’t really have to know that. The movie is, as far as these things go, pretty self-contained, token Avengers references aside. It’s also smaller and with a bit more of a hard edge to the action; when people fall, they might break a leg, or at least take some ibuprofen and wrap a bandage before bouncing back into the fight. We knew Black Widow is a defector from a secret program of brainwashed women assassins. This story involves her discovery that her old captors (led by a glowering Ray Winstone) are still up to their nasty tricks. To help put a stop to them once and for all, she’s pulled back into the life of her sister (Florence Pugh) and parents, father a Russian super solider (David Harbour) and mother a scientist (Rachel Weisz). That they aren’t her real family, but were a family of Soviet spies given to each other as a cover story and then tearfully separated decades prior, makes this one weird reunion. This emotional spine of betrayal and reconnection gives slightly better than average rooting interest to her endeavors, and a desire to see the group actually find a way to belong to one another again helps to give some small amount of tension to the superheroics that are the inevitable endpoint here.

Because it takes a step back, and finds a potentially complicated globetrotting plot quickly and legibly sketched, there’s room to find nice character moments. The prologue is given over to a scene of childhood happiness torn asunder; later we’ll find room for an awkward family dinner as the years melt away to prickly banter around the table. It’s sweet, especially because the rest of the movie — think The Americans by way of Bourne with sci-fi Marvel touches, a comparison which wouldn’t surprise me to hear was on screenwriters Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson’s cork board — is wall-to-wall action that’s about as good as Marvel can do it. The acrobatics and strategy play out comprehensibly, and the steady escalation of stakes and scale allows it to be the rare MCU property that gets a good climactic workout instead of mere repetitive CG glop. Director Cate Shortland leans into the strengths: the talented stunt team and her excellent cast, who bring satisfying personality to the scenes between chases and flips and kicks. What can I say? I cared about this family. Best in show has to be Florence Pugh, who has great plucky and teasing little-sister energy in her scenes with Johansson, and proves herself adept at navigating a role that’s equal parts comic relief and setup to a new hero we’ll definitely see return. That’s part for the course. But because the movie feels so tight, even at its just-over-two-hours runtime, the familiar never overstays its welcome, and finds a far more satisfying subtext — about autonomy and control — and backstory for Black Widow than what was only hinted before. If we have to have Marvel dominating our discourse and our screens, at least this entry is one of the better ones.

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