It has taken more than two years, but finally Black Widow, the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is here, and it lands like ‘Mission Impossible: Sisters Edition’. Black Widow is the second story focused on a female character after Captain Marvel, and with Cate Shortland at the helm, it’s also the second time a woman has directed a film for the studio. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck shared duties on Captain Marvel. With Black Widow, along with, at DC, Patty Jenkins’s wildly successful and critically acclaimed Wonder Woman, and Cathy Yan’s Bird of Prey, producers and the powers-that-be at the studios really should put the ‘women can’t direct superhero movies’ argument to rest. Along with that, put to rest ‘female-centric films don’t make bank’. Yes. They. Can.
When Wonder Woman was released, female film fans finally got a super heroine movie, and it was glorious. Larger than life but still an icon of femininity, Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman kicked ass along with her Amazon sisters, showed compassion, and fell in love. There she was, on the big screen, speaking about equality like it was a forgone conclusion. Wonder Woman, though, has always been…well…a goddess. Unlike Natasha Romanoff, she doesn’t carry a life of regret and a complicated relationship with her murderous past with her like Jacob Marley’s chains. Much as Wonder Woman will always be a favorite, it’s such a delight to see imperfection, moral ambivalence, and femme fatale and boss bitch energy taking up the screen, through not only Scarlett Johansson’s Romanoff, but also Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova and Rachel Weisz’s Melina Vostokoff.
There is an impressive balance, one for which Marvel is rightly known, of explosive set pieces and intimate moments between well-constructed characters. Taking place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, it’s a time when the Avengers have been disbanded, and Natasha is on the run. She gets embroiled in a mission to release the many girls, who, like herself, were manipulated and brainwashed into becoming killers. She does it by reconnecting with the faux family from her childhood, fake mom and dad Melina (Weisz) and Alexei aka Red Guardian (David Harbour) and fake sis Yelena (Pugh). A supervillain very much in the vein of Bond’s Goldfinger or Blofeld, or one of the many far less memorable villains from the Mission Impossible franchise, Dreykov (Ray Winstone) has total control over thousands of girls stolen in childhood and taken to the ‘Red Room’ to be trained as mindless killers. They are aptly called ‘widows’, because they have lost all their autonomy, their reproductive organs, and their individual wills. They would mourn all that if they had a shred of agency. It takes all the considerable skills Natasha and her found family possess to save these mentally captive women and kill their tormentor and puppet master Dreykov.
There are certainly a number of derivative story elements, but they are packaged in a new and empowering way, even as they stretch our suspension of disbelief to a near-breaking point. Who am I kidding? Marvel is fantasy. Natasha is a super soldier in a world where she’s friends with a Norse God, a man who shrinks to the size of an atom, and a dude who woke up after being frozen in ice for over 50 years.
It is mostly the performances and Shortland’s knack for timing, comedic, action, and dramatic, that makes this film work, and there is a depth to Natasha and Yelena’s interactions that will resonate with both biological and found sisters. It’s in the way they hold grudges, bicker, try to best each other, and clearly love each other fiercely that gets under the skin, and because of the performances, we believe every emotion and relate to every awkward pause between them. As Melina, Weisz blends loving mom, brilliant scientist, and ruthless operative energies seamlessly. She is a great female character and we could do with seeing more of her in what is likely to be a Yelena Belova stand-alone tv show or feature film. David Harbour offers much of the comic relief as the blundering, narcissistic spy/superhero/suburban dad. The way he obsesses over Captain America, whom he sees as his American counterpart is not only funny, it’s consistent with his other rather significant personality flaws.
Two things for which Marvel can always be depended upon are in evidence in Black Widow. There is a diverse supporting cast, and there are no sexualized female costumes. Some may not notice, but for those who finally see themselves onscreen it’s always appreciated, and it really is important in moving the needle in terms of authentic representation.
What other ways did female filmmaker Cate Shortland, who by the way was suggested by Scarlett Johansson, make an impact? It is unlikely we would have gotten a sequence that literally goes from Lord of the Flies to a celebration of sisterhood in a matter of seconds, nor do I believe there would have been a weighty subtext around the continued exploitation of women and girls around the world in a haunting scene with hundreds of pictures of the widows parading across the screen in rapid succession.
Summer 2021 is going by quickly. With new COVID variants, don’t know if we’re really coming out of a disastrous epidemic or we’re in for another lockdown. Everyone, including movie lovers, should seize the day, grab a mask, and head out to support this femme-centric, visually flamboyant, fun flick.
4 out of 5 stars.