What is Family?
By David Josselyn
As people crawl back to movie theaters, Marvel Studios releases its first film since 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far from Home.” The solo adventure of Scarlett Johansson’s “Black Widow” has been in the works for many years; however due to delays in scripts, producers, and creative decision making, the movie did not come to fruition until 2018 with an expected release date of 2020. Everyone knows what happened in the year-that-shall-not-be-named which brings us to July 2021 and the theatrical release of “Black Widow” telling a story set back in 2016 immediately following the events in “Captain America: Civil War.” The good news is this movie is a stand-alone adventure not requiring any prior knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The bad news is the movie feels very much stuck in the past with little relevance. The biggest question will be is it worth your time to see it in theaters, or should you check it out from your comfy home-couch?
The story begins in 1995 showing two pre-pubescent sisters playing in Ohio suburbia. They live in a nondescript middle-class home with a doting mother and hard-working father. Their idyllic American dream is quickly shattered when dad comes home and tells them the adventure he promised they could go on is starting now. We watch them quickly grab hidden weapons and go-bags and drive away just ahead of black SHIELD cars arriving. The family ends up at a small airport where dad shows some amazing Captain America-style strength before flying to Cuba where they meet a Russian general that has arranged for their transportation to their “real” home in Mother Russia. We are then treated to a montage of imagery showing both the passage of time and what happened to the girls backed by a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Think Up Anger. The story then picks up with a grown Natasha, played by Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story,” “Jojo Rabbit”), evading General Ross, played by William Hurt (“Broadcast News,” “Lost in Space”), by traveling to Norway and eventually seeking out her fabricated American family by first finding her “sister” Yelena, played by Florence Pugh (“The Falling,” “Lady Macbeth”), when she learns that the Red Room; the program responsible for their severe training to become deadly assassins, is still active and training kidnapped girls. The sisters have a common goal to destroy the Red Room and take down its diabolical leader, Dreykov, played by Ray Winstone (“The Departed,” “Beowulf”). The problem is no one knows where the Red Room is and Dreykov was presumed dead. The sisters concoct a plan to free their fabricated father, Alexei, played by David Harbour (“Stranger Things.” “Hellboy”), from a maximum-security prison in Siberia. Unfortunately, Alexei does not know as he has been in prison ever since they flew back from America, but he believes that their fabricated mother, Melina, played by Rachel Weisz (“The Favourite,” “The Bourne Legacy”), is still active in the program and he knows just where to find her. After the family reunites, they find that their fabricated family experience in America was more important than they realized and slowly reform the bonds of traditional family; all the while working together to find the Red Room and take down Dreykov.
Hands down, I want Florence Pugh and David Harbour to continue in the MCU. They over-shadowed the primary protagonist, Scarlett Johansson stealing every scene they were in. Johansson and Rachel Weiss were both good, but neither were given as much nuance to their lines or story.
The music scored by Lorne Balfe (“The Dark Knight,” “The Crown”) has a unique flavor while incorporating the family Avengers theme and typical comic-book movie fare. The track titled “Natasha’s Lullaby” is hauntingly fantastic starting with a soft sung lullaby and as the music builds, a Russian men’s chorus competes for attention until the music swells into an anxious crescendo. Balfe is not afraid to use instrumentation that is simple and naked which worked for the quieter moments in this action-packed film.
The cinematography was beautiful and much of the movie was filmed on location. Yes, a Marvel movie was filmed on-location in Budapest, Morocco, and Norway. Other real-world locations were also used in England and Georgia (pretending to be other places such as Ohio and rural Hungary).
Marvel has a villain problem that they mostly solved with Kilmonger and Thanos; however, the villain Dreykov and his henchperson Taskmaster, played by Olga Kurylenko (“Quantum of Solace,” “Oblivian”), were given zero development and very little reason or motivation. Dreykov was creating an army of widows to… take over the world, or something? We never know why he does what he does. Taskmaster is a really cool character that can mimic the fighting style of anyone just by observing them and the Avengers have been on top of that observation list. Unfortunately, the fight scenes with Taskmaster are clipped and short. There was tremendous potential to have a great backstory and character arc for Taskmaster and the opportunity was wasted.
Physics. Comic book movies, by their very nature, give preferential treatment to cool scenes over the physics of nature, so it should come as no surprise that “Black Widow” does the same. However, the character of Natasha Romanov has no super-powers and is completely human making her completely vulnerable to real-world things such as gravity. I would expect her solo movie to be better grounded in the same laws of nature we all have to follow.
“Black Widow” is a decent film filled with the expected comic-book action surrounding a worthy commentary on the importance of family and how it is defined. The film is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some language, and thematic material. For an MCU film (“Deadpool” is not canon), the language has been ratcheted up with multiple uses of the ‘s’ word which was unusual. Overall, the film is a fun and interesting romp through Natasha’s past. With the reopening of theaters, I was able to see the film on opening day with some friends and they all gave me their ratings. Of my friends: Katy gives it four-point-seven posers; Abby gives it four-point-five dynamos; and Garret gives it four (was undecided on unit of measurement). Of my family: my daughter Rachel gives it three-point-five broken noses; my son Christopher gives it three-point-five pigs; my son Micah gives it five ibuprofens; and my beautiful wife gives it four-point-two-five arm wrestlers. As for me, because they broke the laws of physics too many times and since it feels like a movie out of time, I give it three-point-five sisters.