REVIEW: ‘Black Widow’

REVIEW: ‘Black Widow’

Black Widow is a superhero movie without a superhero, and therefore easily the oddest Marvel product yet. It’s the origin story of a pretty boring secondary character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—a character who actually died right in front of us a few Marvel movies ago. Now, Natasha Romanoff’s death was a noble death, for sure, a death to ensure the Avengers could secure the Soul Stone and thereby prevent Thanos from collecting all six of the… I can’t believe I’m even writing this sentence because who the hell cares. I didn’t remember why Black Widow died until I Googled it, and if you do without looking it up, I would respectfully suggest you get a life.

Anyway, the point is the entire movie is a flashback. It mostly takes place in 2016, in the time period between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. The writers and director of Black Widow actually assume you don’t have a life because the plot requires you to know this and to have total recall of what happened in Captain America: Civil War. That was a very good superhero movie, but it came out half a decade and like 40 Marvel pictures ago and it’s hard enough for most people to summon up the knowledge of what they had for breakfast this morning.

I was mostly thunderstruck by seeing William Hurt, the fair-haired, golden-boy WASP par excellence when I was in my 20s, looking like an old man as the American official tasked with tracking down Natasha for her violations of the crucial Sokovia Accords, which required the Avengers to blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda in exchange for not yibbity dibbity dong. There’s no way on earth William Hurt remembers what he had for breakfast. He looks so ancient now I can’t even believe he could remember his lines. I was young when he was relatively young. Now I’m terrified to cast a glance at my sexagenarian self in the mirror.

But enough about me. Does anyone even care about the life and times and pains and sorrows of Natasha Romanoff—whose name is spelled “Romanov” in a subtitle at one point? Pick a transliteration, Marvel! Natasha is a character so ill-defined that when she first began in the Marvel pictures she spoke with a Russian accent but then dropped it when it was clear nobody cared. And why should we? Natasha doesn’t really have a costume, she can’t fly, she isn’t a scientific genius, and nobody gave her a magical serum to enhance her abilities.

Even Hawkeye, the other incredibly peculiar Marvel hero you can’t quite recall and have to keep reminding yourself is part of the Avengers, can shoot arrows with supernatural proficiency. Natasha is just an assassin trained by Russian bad guys who switches sides and goes over to the West.

It’s unclear how she can even survive for five minutes when she comes under assault from mind-controlling demigods, alien attack ships, and whatever other unearthly or inhuman creatures the Marvel Cinematic Universe throws at the Avengers. Not to mention, you know, a well-aimed bullet. Or a fall from a building. Twice in Black Widow, she falls from a great height and then brushes herself off and runs away. How? She’s just an ordinary mortal.

This is dirty storytelling pool, because about 15 minutes in we see another Russian-trained assassin fall off a building in Morocco—not even off a Russian secret-agent spaceship, which happens to Natasha later—and that one lands in a puddle of water and can’t get up. So we know it’s bad for your health to fall off a building. Unless, apparently, you’re Scarlett Johansson, an actress who mostly left me cold until her absolutely staggering performance in Marriage Story, the best American movie of the past decade. I was stunned to learn, through incredibly deep Internet research involving a five-second Google session, that this is the eighth Marvel picture to feature Natasha as a character. She made almost no impression in any of them.

And she makes almost no impression here. Black Widow has a sensational central performance, but it’s not Johansson’s. The movie’s real star is the young British actress Florence Pugh, who plays her sort-of sister Yelena, a sardonic fellow assassin who spends most of the movie muttering disrespectfully about Natasha’s celebrity as part of the Avengers. Physically commanding, charming, and with absolutely crackerjack comic timing, Pugh rivals Chris Hemsworth’s later turns as Thor in her ability to provide sheer amusement during the proceedings. This is one of those supporting turns, like Sandra Bullock’s in Speed or Meg Ryan’s in Top Gun, that immediately tells you this is a person we’re going to be watching with great pleasure for decades.

Pugh triumphs without chomping on the scenery. The same cannot be said for David Harbour, best known as the baleful town sheriff in the great Netflix series Stranger Things, who does an absolutely hilarious over-the-top job as Natasha’s pseudo-father Alexei. He is actually a superhero—the self-described Captain America of the Soviet Union, a grandiose and sentimental and Homer-Simpson-level dumbass who’s been in mothballs for decades until Natasha and Yelena break him out of a prison from which he seems entirely capable of breaking out by himself.

Black Widow really isn’t any good when Harbour and Pugh aren’t on screen. Actually, it’s worse than not good—it’s kind of embarrassingly derivative in a way that the Marvel movies really haven’t been before. Natasha’s family is ripped off from the FX series The Americans. The Russian-trained female assassin squad we see here is a steal from Jason Matthews’s 2013 spy novel Red Sparrow (made into a terrible movie with Jennifer Lawrence a few years ago). The floating Russian spy base is a direct lift from the James Bond picture Moonraker (which the movie wants to pretend is an homage, because it shows Natasha watching a scene from Moonraker at one point). There’s even a scene in which Alexei puts on his old superhero costume that duplicates the same bit of business from, of all things, The Incredibles.

By allowing her star vehicle to be hijacked in this way by Pugh and Harbour, Scarlett Johansson has proved herself either the most generous performer in the history of the world or someone too easily fooled into taking the lesser portion. As for Marvel, this long-awaited return to the big screen after the pandemic—the 24th picture in the unprecedented string of successes beginning with 2008’s Iron Man—is so lacking in excitement it makes you wonder whether audiences are going to respond as enthusiastically to the flood of MCU pictures coming over the next two years. There’s something exhausted about Black Widow. Does that herald an exhaustion in Hollywood’s greatest all-time cash cow? Nothing lasts forever, especially a superheroine without powers who’s outclassed by her little sister.

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