After the apocalyptic smorgasbord of the Avengers trilogy, Marvel Studios seem to be struggling to find their proper niche in the cinema.
Black Widow has been a conspicuous victim of the lockdown, its release delayed by almost two years. Finally, here it is, gamely attempting to make its presence felt under the restrictions of a 12A certificate, where the excessive violence feels somehow at odds with what the filmmakers are actually allowed to show. This seems an ill-advised move. Cartoon violence is one thing, but Black Widow appears to have all the smashing, bashing and limb-breaking of a more realistic depiction without any of the consequences. Director Cate Shortland has to employ a lot of shakey-cam, so we don’t linger on injury detail. Protagonists emerge from bruising combat with a discreet smear of blood at the corner of the mouth. It’s unconvincing to say the least.
Maybe a 15 certificate would have been a better option?
The film is, by necessity, a prequel. It begins in 1995 in Ohio, where Russian super-soldier Alexie Shostakov (David Harbour) and his ‘wife,’ Melina (Rachel Weisz), are posing as a happy family, with their two ‘daughters,’ Natasha and Yelena in tow. But when evil forces close in on them, they are forced into running for their lives. Yelena winds up being a ‘widow,’ a genetically engineered soldier, for the ruthless Dreykov (Ray Winstone), while Natasha defects to the West. She grows up to be an Avenger and, of course, in time, Scarlett Johansson.
In 2016, Natasha finds herself on the run once again, this time from her American employers, and it isn’t long before she reconnects with her sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh). After first attempting to beat the crap out of each other – as you do – they team up and go in search of their ‘parents.’ Alexie’s in a penitentiary and first needs to be sprung, while Melina is hard at work in a remote outpost teaching pigs to stop breathing (that’s not a misprint BTW). Subsequently, the family decide to team up in order to take down Dreykov and what has now become a massive army of widows, all of them turned into mindless servants by the liberal application of er… pheromones.
Much bloodless punching and kicking dutifully ensues – at times, this feels decidedly like Marvel’s take on the Jason Bourne movies, only with added Spandex – before everything culminates in one of those big action set-pieces which takes place aboard Draykov’s sky-station.
The screenwriters make a valiant effort to establish a feminist statement amongst all this Sturm und Drang, but the effect is horribly overdone, the proverbial sledgehammer/nut scenario played out at maximum volume with minimal coherence. While we should definitely be pleased that a mainstream superhero franchise is finally trying to get in step with female empowerment, it needs to be done in a less ham-fisted manner than this. Once again, here’s a clear case of what is essentially an animated comic strip getting ideas above its station.
Johansson and Pugh are both good in their roles – indeed the film’s best moments are rooted in their bickering, competitive sisterhood – while Harbour is assigned the role of comic relief, a blundering Russian oaf addicted to shots of vodka. Overweight and out of practice, he can still put up a decent fight when he needs to. Weisz seems criminally short-changed in her thankless role as mother/scientist/all-round ass-kicker.
Marvel aficionados will know to hang around for the inevitable post-credits sequence, but I feel so underwhelmed by Black Widow, I really can’t be bothered to wait. Another helping? No thanks, I’ll pass.