Movie Review: BLACK WIDOW

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Australian director Cate Shortland, known for her femme-centric films that explore the woman — as opposed to human – condition, presents Black Widow‘s two of the MCU’s beloved and well defined comic book blam! pow! take no prisoners female warriors as deeply traumatized women — sisters, in fact — whose troubled and troubling backstories — entailing what is essentially intensive child abuse — have rendered them to be emotionless killing machines who are filled with rage and completely devoid of love and unable to have babies — because, as one of them states quite notably, all of their reproductive organs were torn out of them.

The plot is not what you’d call original, although it is Avengers character Natasha Romanova’s origin story. “I’ve had a lot of lives,” says Natasha, “Now it’s time to go home to where it began.” Think female Jason Bourne, with similarly implanted skills but minus the amnesia. And, as in the Bourne franchise, Black Widow’s ‘home’ is the base occupied by a ruthless and power mad scientist who is as evil as he is brilliant. Drakov (Ray Winstone) holds the key to open the door to Natasha’s past and clear the way for her to have a ‘normal’ future — which, as you know if you are an Avengers fan, will never happen because, as it is written, this chapter in the MCU bible is actually a post-scripted and produced prequel to Natasha Romanova’s demise. Time isn’t always linear in the MCU reveal, but you can always count on action, and Black Widow has plenty of that.

However, Black Widow‘s origin story is actually expanded to embrace the intertwined backstories of abandoned and displaced sisters – Natasha and her younger sibling, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). The sisters, who engage in almost incessant cg-enhanced one-on-one and group combat, share common roots that are compellingly emotional and raise issues that are, unfortunately, quite relevant and timely in today’s real world, issues that are taken up not only in other current narrative and documentary films (see other recent Movies of the Week for examples), but also find space in newspapers and nightly news broadcasts, where heinous child abuse and completely warranted serious concerns about women’s reproductive rights are frequently front page or top of the hour headline reports.

The Black Widow plot also includes the mortal struggle to control the chemical — it’s a red air born mist-like powder that immediately disables mind-controlling chips that have been implanted in thousands of young and able bodied women — known as ‘widows’ — to govern their behavior and transform them into a legion of robotized women warriors who are under the sole control of Drakov, the arch villain and pimp of violence who intends to take over the world. Mind control is one of Black Widow‘s fundamental themes and, again, it is disturbingly timely.

In general, Black Widow‘s female characters are most fully realized. Scarlett Johanson and Florence Pugh, as sisters Natasha and Yelena respectively, give complex and unusually nuanced superheroine performances, and neither of them are clad in skimpy shorts. The quiet and intimate moments that reveal their conflictedly loving and hateful relationship are more compelling than the preponderant and daringly choreographed balletic bad ass fights that they — in predictable comic book form — survive. Their fights will, however, more than meet the expectations of MCU action fans, who will also be satisfied by the plethora of explosions through which the warrior women — the sisters and their adversaries — parkour from peril and impeding doom to transient safety.

On the other hand, Black Widow‘s male characters are, in general, more stereotypical and less convincing. The character of Natasha and Yelena’s dad, Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), for example, enters the Black Widow saga as a middleclass American family man with a gun. survival skills and an unusual plan to save his kids from peril. Then, he’s seen to be a bear-like imprisoned Russian dissident strongman with a thick accent, wildly unkempt hair and a right arm that cannot be beaten in arm wrestling. And, then, after he’s busted out of jail, he loses the accent and resumes fatherhood. His mad Russian persona could have been drawn directly from the pages of a comic book. And, while his character’s behavior bounce might make sense to MCU timeline aficionados, it is a bit disorienting for MCU novices. But this is the stuff of MCU, and you sort of go along the with the flow and get the drift.

Such incidental glitches and nonsense not withstanding, Cate Shortland’s keen directorial perspective and prowess are evident in every frame of Black Widow. She reportedly didn’t want to accept the job, but Scarlett Johansson convinced her to do so. And that’s a good thing. Shortland has not only created a beautifully crafted and technically impressive flick, she’s planted seeds for serious thought and discourse that make Black Widow meaningful and memorable.

As mentioned, you need not be an MCU aficionado (disclaimer: I am not) to enjoy Black Widow, and it may not make an MCU devotee of you, but film has sufficient substance to maybe make you want to watch it twice.

Black Widow will undoubtedly get plenty of attention from the critics’ community and the multitude of MCU’s devoted fans. It will be a focal point in current cultural discourse. Black Widow has been selected as the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week. Disney’s much anticipated mainstream MCU actioner is an unusual choice for #MOTW, where the tendency is to feature highly watch-worthy indie films that garner significant exposure thanks to the #MOTW endorsement. That said, it’s important that the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Team #MOTW’s collective women’s perspectives on the film be part of the discussion.

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