BLACK WIDOW

Producer: Kevin Feige   Director: Cate Shortland   Screenplay: Eric Pearson   Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Olga Kurylenko, Ray Winstone, William Hurt, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw and O-T Fagbenie   Distributor: Disney

Grade: C+

It’s always dangerous to bid a farewell to a comic book character—after all, they have a penchant for coming back to life after their funerals—but this single stand-alone film in the ever-expanding Marvel Universe would appear to be the swan song of Black Widow, or at least Natasha Romanoff’s (and thus Scarlett Johansson’s) Black Widow.  She actually died, of course, in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” but the makers get around her demise by situating the action of this picture in the period between “Avengers: Civil War” and that one, not counting the prologue, which acts as a sort of brief “origin” tale. 

In that introductory segment, set in 1995, Natasha is introduced as a girl (played by Ever Anderson) living with her pretend family—father Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), mother Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and younger sister Yelena Belova (Violet McGraw)—in Ohio, where daddy is stealing American military secrets for General Dreykov (Roy Winstone), the Russian spymaster.  Their cover blown, they make a daring escape to Cuba, where the girls are carted off to the infamous Red Room where Dreykov makes them part of his hidden army of Widows, women under mind control who are doomed to do his bidding.

Spring forward twenty-one years, and Natasha (now Johansson) is on the lam from the U.S. government, having taken the side of Captain America Steve Rogers in the split within the Avengers.  With help from her ever-loyal supplier Mason (O-T Fagbenie) she holes up in a remote trailer in Norway, but soon finds herself under attack by a mysterious armored figure with extraordinary powers acting for Dreykov, her erstwhile mentor turned enemy.  Escaping, she makes her way to Budapest, where she encounters her long-lost “sister” Yelena (now Florence Pugh).

Yelena is also a graduate of the Red Room, and thus one of Dreykov’s widows, but she has not only removed her controlling device but absconded with vials of an antidote to his drugs.  She is now out to destroy him, and so after a sibling skirmish joins forces with Natasha, who broke with Dreykov earlier, even trying to kill him—though in the attempt she killed his daughter instead.

In order to find his Red Room lair, the “sisters” break their “father” Alexei out of a Siberian prison.  The boozy, beefy fellow prides himself in having been the USSR’s version of Captain America, the so-called Red Guardian, and even tries out his old suit after he and the girls have fully rebuilt the old “family” at Melina’s pig farm, where she has been doing experiments on the animals.

But the reunion is short-lived as all of them wind up in Dreykov’s huge headquarters, which has escaped detection by being located in a most unlikely place.  Natasha, Yelena and their “parents” have to overcome multiple obstacles—supposedly inescapable cells, Dreykov’s army of widows, his powers of mind control, and of course that formidable armored warrior—to overcome him and bring his reign of terror and dreams of world domination to a n end.

No points given to those who correctly guess whether Black Widow succeeds.  Even fewer for anyone who doubts that self-sacrifice are cleverness will be required as well as courage, or that loads of VFX will be absent in an explosive finale.

This is less a super-heroine movie than an overblown super-spy one, weighed down by the expectations of devoted fans of the Marvel franchise for the biggest, loudest blowouts imaginable.  Black Widow, after all, is, despite her remarkable physical prowess, endowed with no special powers; she’s like a female Batman lacking even his many gadgets, and Yelena is the same.  So what we have is a sort of big-budget Batwoman and Robinette tale, with the dynamic female duo taking on a villain with delusions of grandeur. 

The movie has those kinds of delusions, too.  What works best in it are the more intimate bits—the banter between Natasha and Yelena, with Johansson and Pugh nimbly engaging in verbal duels even when the dialogue isn’t particularly witty, or the flamboyant he-man act Harbour puts on.  They all manage the action demands well enough, too; Johansson might not be the most expressive of actresses, but in her shiny leather outfit she has Natasha’s moves and poses down pat, and Pugh proves quite her equal.  Weisz is the quiet one of the quartet, but she provides the more serious ballast the group needs.  The direction of Cate Shortland is most assured in these parts of the narrative, too.

Unhappily the demands of the Marvel Universe require an action overload, and the movie responds with set-piece after set-piece, from the opening escape sequence, which compares unfavorably to the much more modest but far more suspenseful escapes of “The Americans,” to the overextended, effects-laden finale.  Some are reasonably well executed, but too often Gabriel Baristain’s cinematography and the editing by Leigh Folsom Boyd and Matthew Schmidt conspire to render the movement overcut and confused—regrettably, a common failing nowadays. 

Nor is the film fortunate in its villain.  Dreykov is like a lesser Bond bad-guy, and hard as Winstone tries, he fails to make him memorable.  The character played by Olga Kurylenko is more interesting, but largely unexplored. 

Like all of the Marvel pictures, this one is spares little in the way of production values.  One can debate the quality of some of the effects supervised by Lisa Marra and Geoffrey Baumann, but Charles Wood’s production design is first-rate, and though Lorne Balfe’s score is hardly exceptional, it does the job. 

“Black Widow” will be an enormous success, as all the films in the Marvel Universe are, especially since fans have been waiting for another chapter in the saga for so long; and it’s nice that after providing support in some many earlier installments Johansson has been given the opportunity to take center-stage, even if it’s a one-time deal—though the inevitable post-credits teaser indicates that it’s not the end for the Widows. 

It’s likely, though, that in time it will be regarded basically as a sidebar to the overall Marvel project rather than an essential part of it, a mixture of spy story and superhero movie that, despite the charisma and chemistry of both Johansson and Pugh, comes across as less than the sum of its parts.