About halfway through Black Widow, the quips between the “sisters” played by Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh come to a humorous peak when the two formidable battlers talk about fighting stances. Pugh’s Yelena Belova is mocking Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff about her signature landing pose and how ridiculous it looks with the hair toss, sprawled legs, and overall posture. “Don’t be such a poser,” she says. Sure enough, a little later in the movie in the heat of the moment, Yelena catches herself sticking a landing with that same pose too, which earns the character’s embarrassed scoff and a programmed audience laugh.
Before that, though, the grief Yelena was giving Natasha was spot-on, and deserves to echo more than a little into Black Widow itself. There is a great deal of character posing, and it’s not all to show off Jany Temime’s excellent costume designs. Black Widow aims to put a superhero stamp on the female spy thriller niche and cannot help but look like a pretender. There’s a spontaneity and edge missing in that regard because much, maybe even too much, of what is seen has been done better and stronger in other places.
Slotted with a self-important story to tell that takes place after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, this prequel arrives with a better-late-than-never party invitation of hype. Boasting some of the best melee work in a Marvel film, Black Widow belongs on the big screen and displays gratifying action sequences that rightfully highlight powerful females worthy of the spotlight. It also belonged in front of our eyes five years ago and not now. There is an unshakable magnitude of foregone conclusions that curtail the upper tier of potential excitement.
Natasha Romanoff is traveling to rural Norway on the lam from S.H.I.E.L.D. pursuits orchestrated by the familiar U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (a returning William Hurt) for breaking the Sokovia Accords. Supported with supplies, tech, and weaponry by the romantically-friendly ally Rick Mason (The Handmaid’s Tale cast member O-T Fabenle), her solitude is quickly interrupted when an even deeper portion of her past life resurfaces. Romanoff finds herself targeted by The Taskmaster, the top asset of the Red Room– the clandestine guild that conditioned and trained Natasha and hundreds of other castoff girls, including Yelena, to be obedient killers.
Controlled by the menacing Dreykov (Ray Winstone, putting his signatured gravelly tone to good use as a professional movie villain), The Taskmaster seeks a package of glowing red MacGuffin vials that contain an counteragent gas which instantly removes the years of biochemical programming forced upon the Black Widows of the Red Room. Those vials were sent to Natasha by Yelena with the hope of multiplying it to liberate more Widows.
Their bond is introduced by an extended pre-credits flashback to 1995 Ohio and time-forwarding montage set to a dynamite “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover by Malia J. and Think Up Anger afterwards. This opening offers an origin as to how their adoptive parents Melina Vostokoff (Oscar winner Rachel Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov (David Harbor) are more than who they let on. Back in Black Widow’s 2016 present day, Alexei is the imprisoned and forgotten Red Guardian and Melina is a scientific researcher for the Red Room. Dreykov’s Red Room network and the imposing personal stakes can only be rectified with the full, former family’s involvement.
What transpires in Black Widow, directed by Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome) is a cavalcade of showy combat. The fingerprints of MCU mainstay artists are everywhere. The visual effects supervised by Geoffrey Baumann (Black Panther) and the vast production design creations of Charles Wood (Avengers: Endgame) thrust the dueling opponents into vast settings. Concurrently, the impressive stunt work from veteran coordinator Rob Inch (Wonder Woman 1984), fight coordinator James Young (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and the small army of stunt doubles rivals that of Black Panther with its close quarters precision and intimacy. Posing or not, the folks prove their looks and their punches.
For these women, the question can be posed of where they get their toughness from. Some might answer this question with a personal trainer, a workout regimen, or a physically demanding career choice. Those can indeed add toughness, but the real answers are the conquered adversities throughout life and the people who get you through them. Natasha and Yelena were certainly hardened by both. More often than not, those assistive people are family members. Alexei beams with pride at what his “tough girls” turned out to be and the red in their ledgers.
Such iron will is a means of survival against subjugation but it gives way to internal softness and a humane identity through this lesson’s line from the movie. These women are still killers. They still absorb and employ pain and suffering. Through all of that, in a bit of a contradiction, having heart is a way to keep true toughness, as punctuated by Alexei’s quoted lesson of “never let them take your heart.”
This duality of ass-kicking and heart-massaging comes forth from the screenplay of Eric Pearson (Godzilla vs. Kong) fashioned from a story conceived by WandaVision’s Jac Schaeffer and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby trilogy writer Ned Benson. That narrative pendulum doesn’t always swing as well as the trained assassins do on their rappelling harnesses. Black Widow has a sagging middle of rehashed family ties and hit-and-miss attempts at chummy humor (mostly released by Harbour). What’s missing the most is the severity of what should be heavy history.
Natasha Romanoff may have “Black” in her codename, but we have never fully been presented the true murderous darkness, or even any dense shades of gray, within her now-heroic film character. Going that grim was likely never going to happen under the Disney brand, yet all the veiled hints count, again, as posing more than emoting. Try as she may, Scarlett still looks like she (or her script) is holding back. In fact, the sharper force of Black Widow is the confident, courageous, and torch-receiving Florence Pugh. You don’t have to hand her the franchise. She flat-out stole it, and that’s not a bad consolation prize at all.
Still, this irrefutable dilemma with any prequel film must be repeated. Quoting my own Solo review from three years ago, “Because the audience knows certain characters have documented futures, there is a perceptible, if not even enormous, storytelling loss in the peril department. The edge of one’s seat becomes a little more relaxed and more than a bit farther away.” The effect is fully apparent in Black Widow. Sure, as the usual counterargument always goes about the “journey” mattering more, this Marvel prequel feels like a tardy reward for what could have really been something special years ago, when the time was right and the fire was hot.