The Stew Review: Scarlett Johansson finally gets the action movie she deserves with ‘Black Widow’

This image released by Disney/Marvel Studios' shows Scarlett Johansson in a scene from "Black...
This image released by Disney/Marvel Studios' shows Scarlett Johansson in a scene from "Black Widow."(Source: Marvel Studios/Disney via AP)
Published: Jul. 14, 2021 at 2:57 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - It shouldn’t have taken this long to happen, but now that it’s finally arrived Black Widow was (almost) everything it needed to be.

Admittedly, it’s a little difficult not to harbor at least a small amount of animosity toward Marvel Studios regarding the first (and almost certainly only) solo outing for Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Black Widow should have, at minimum, replaced the release of Captain Marvel in 2019, if not arrived years earlier. One of the founding members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of The Avengers deserved a more prominent placement in the canon thus far. But, none of that is really the fault of this particular film or the people directly responsible for making it, but I felt it necessary to specify that upfront.

Given that Natasha has already (spoilers for a three-year-old film, I guess) died, it made me wonder what the point of giving her a solo film would even be at this juncture of the MCU. Making it a prequel, though technically necessary, sounded even less interesting. That said, once this thing hits home video you can quite easily slip it in right after Captain America: Civil War where it belongs and nearly all of the release timing issues will simply melt away.

So how does it fare when you’re watching it right now in the theater (or on Disney+ Premiere Access)? I was honestly a bit surprised at how much I enjoyed it and at how well it holds itself up as a standalone adventure, albeit with some notable flaws.

After a brief prologue in 1990s Ohio where it shows Natasha and her little sister Yelena were raised by a pair of Russian sleeper agents, we pick things up right after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Natasha is on the run having betrayed her commitment to the Sokovia Accords (the pact which outlaws all superhero activity not explicitly sanctioned by the United Nations). She heads out into the middle of nowhere and does her best to lay low (she’s a big fan of the James Bond movie Moonraker, it turns out). But it’s not long before trouble comes calling.

Natasha wasn’t the only child groomed to be part of the Widow program. Yelena (Florence Pugh) grew up to become quite the adept secret agent as well, only she’s discovered the hard way that her generation of Widows have all been genetically brainwashed after being unexpectedly dosed with a vaccine that reverses the mental locks put into place. Now on the run herself, Yelena attempts to reunite with Natasha in an attempt to free their Widow sisters and take down the so-called Red Room program.

The ensuing film moves at an appropriate breakneck pace with all the motorcycles, car chases, fist fights, shootouts,derring do and clandestine political intrigue that one would expect to find in any given movie starring the likes of Jason Bourne. And like Jason Bourne’s escapades, this becomes a very personal mission for Natasha and Yelena as they seek to enact vengeance upon the organization and people who so callously disregard the humanity of the women they reprogram and exploit.

There’s a pleasing physicality at play throughout the action and mayhem of Black Widow. Granted, that’s almost by necessity given that all but one major character lacks anything resembling traditional super powers, so the action takes on a more grounded feel than what we typically get from a Marvel movie where robotic suits of armor, demigods and mystical arts have become de rigueur, bordering on passe’. It doesn’t (or perhaps can’t) measure up to the type of action and stunts offered up by the likes of, say, the recent Mission: Impossible films but it’s still satisfying and engaging on its own terms.

That said, what makes this more than just The Bourne Imitation, though, is the focus and attention on the ersatz family that ends up being the heart of the film. Natasha and Yelena are initially abandoned by Alexei (David Harbour) and Milena (Rachel Weisz), only to once again be thrust together decades later. This culminates in a wonderful scene at a dinner table where everyone slips back into their domestic roles both knowingly and not. There is both conflict and affection flowing back and forth, and not always equally. But the chemistry and writing at play turns this scene and, as a group, these characters and this scene into something that rarely rears its head within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Harbour has sort of cemented his career playing lovable schlubs and that’s played to maximum effect (and affect) here as he charismatically lumbers his way through each scene as the Soviety Union’s own Communism-loving Captain America knock-off The Red Guardian. Alexei’s blowhard nature is quite often played up for comedic effect (even during fight scenes) but Harbour still manages to allow an endearing sincerity to shine through, especially when he’s interacting with his “daughters.”

Weisz, sadly, is given very little to do though she makes the most of it. It’s Pugh and Johansson who, rightly, carry the weight of the entire proceeding. Their interactions feel human, fully informed and realized thanks to years of resentment, hardship and all that comes with being a hyper-trained super spy. Pugh and Johansson carry it naturally and with ease. Johansson deserved to have this film much sooner, but I will at least admit that having it this late in the game does at least allow for Johansson to draw from a deeper slate of the character’s history and experience, lending additional weight to the proceedings. Pugh also is a superb actor in her own right and at the risk of spoilers, let’s just say that I can’t wait to see where she takes Yelena further down the road.

If there’s a significant flaw to Black Widow it’s that the story’s central villain leaves a lot to be desired, and not just by the fairly high standards Marvel Studios has set with its canon of villains. I realize that not every film can have a Loki or Killmonger or Hela-caliber villain, and certainly more than a few MCU films have faltered when it comes to the bad guy in charge. But so much of Black Widow’s thematic weight comes from watching these women reclaim their lives from the men who stole them. Natasha has an engaging encounter with Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the man behind the Red Room, but there’s too little meat there, too little actualized history for it to mean much. It doesn’t help that Winstone’s performance is wildly, distractingly uneven as he wavers constantly between a cartoonish persona and delivering actual menace. To say nothing of his hilariously inconsistent accent.

Despite this, Black Widow largely succeeds at providing a proper sendoff both for the character and for Johansson via an exciting outing that’s got heart and laughs to spare.

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