Black Widow (2021)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 7/11/21
Director: Cate Shortland
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone, cameos by William Hurt, Michelle Lee, Olga Kurylenko, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

A long overdue love letter to The Avengers' most neglected and mistreated member. Taking place after "Captain America: Civil War" (2016), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from SHIELD and ends up living off the grid in Norway. But her peace and quiet are rudely interrupted when a mysterious super soldier comes looking for her, which leads her back to a safehouse in Budapest. A tense reunion with her long lost sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) reveals that an old enemy is still very much alive, and the two of them decide to take him out for good, along with his notorious Red Room project.

I'd been looking forward to this film for a long time, and to be honest, after seeing the awful trailers I had very low expectations. Marvel's disastrous mishandling of "Captain Marvel" (2019) also had me concerned, and I braced myself for yet another disappointment. Thankfully, the film is considerably better than advertised, which makes you wonder why Marvel put out such shitty and misleading trailers. It's like they were actively trying to sabotage the film by dissuading people from seeing it. It's a straight-up action movie in the spirit of James Bond, with exotic locales, car chases, shootouts, hand-to-hand combat, death-defying stunts, and a completely outrageous climax. The action is relentless and hard-hitting, and while the fight scenes are superbly choreographed, needlessly shaky camera work spoils some of the fun. It baffles me how a car chase can be filmed with impossibly smooth precision, while two people fighting in a room can't. Regardless, I was impressed with the power, grace, and physicality of all the lead characters and their stunt performers. The film is gorgeous and boasts numerous shooting locations including Norway, Morocco, Hungary, Australia, Los Angeles, England, and The Bahamas.

As Natasha's swan song, the film mainly revolves around Scarlett Johansson, but Florence Pugh ends up stealing the show. Her physical prowess, cold stare, and sardonic wit are a perfect match for Johansson, and the two of them share great chemistry. Pugh often upstages Johansson, but she doesn't seem to mind the competition. There's definitely rivalry and tension between their characters, but there's also mutual affection and admiration. Both actresses are able to bring a certain warmth and humanity to their cold and ruthless characters, while challenging and supporting each other at the same time. David Harbour is wonderful as the super strong, but simple minded Red Guardian, who is lost in the glory days of his fights with Captain America. While he's initially sold as comic relief, there's also an underlying sadness to his old and out-of-touch character. Rachel Weisz shows up as "the smart one," which isn't a stretch for her. While it's nice to see her back in action, she suffers from regrettably awful makeup. It's laughable how she found time to completely redo her makeup while gearing up for combat. "Look! I'm evil now!" Seeing Olga Kurylenko's name in the opening credits definitely caught my eye, and I kept waiting for her to show up. Unfortunately, she literally has only two scenes in the film and they're both head shots. While I'm glad she's still working, it seemed like a strange casting choice and a huge waste of talent.

I enjoyed "Black Widow" a lot and was thankful it wasn't an origin story, which allowed Natasha to get into the action at the top of her game. It's a female action lover's dream, and the characters are all handled with an amount of respect that Hollywood rarely gets right. The characters also suffer an incredible amount of physical abuse, which is just part of the common cinematic language for action films and superhero films. Unfortunately, it seemed about 20 minutes too long and the weak final act struggles by being overly silly and contrived. There are lots of references and tie-ins to the MCU for fans to geek out about, and while Scarlett Johansson may have hung up her belt for good, Florence Pugh is primed to take over and continue her legacy.