Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Girl Week 2021: Black Widow

    Welcome to Day 3 of Girl Week 2021! Thanks again to anyone who has joined me, or will join me, in our annual celebration of women in film. Keep the posts rolling in. You guys are doing a great job, as always. Now, let's get into some superhero stuff.

Directed by Cate Shortland.
2021. Rated PG-13, 134 minutes.
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, Olga Kurylenko, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw, William Hurt, O.T. Fabenie, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Michelle Lee.

     Way back in Iron Man 2, a character named Natasha, AKA Black Widow, made her debut, played by Scarlett Johansson. She wasn't superpowered or using previously unimaginable tech. She was just an incredibly high level spy with some amazing hand-to-hand combat skills. Owing much to Johansson's appearance, especially when all of it is poured into a sleek, black catsuit, and Marvel's fanbase being full of mouth-breathing, eternally teenage boys, she became an instant fan favorite. If you're offended I'll take it as meaning you're one of said mouth breathers. It's okay. I'm a member of the club. This takes nothing away from Johansson's acting because she's phenomenal in that area, as well. The point is, she became a mainstay of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and one of the few female superheroes for whom people were clamoring to see a solo adventure on the big screen. Thanks to years of backroom shenanigans and a global pandemic, it didn't happen until now, at least five years too late, two if you limit yourself to the events of a certain other film. Things worked themselves out, the shenanigans not the pandemic (yet), and he we are.

    Where we are is Ohio in 1995. We meet Natasha, a pre or early teen (then played by Anderson), her younger sister Yelena (McGraw), and their parents Alexei (Harbour) and Melina (Weisz). They seem to be a typical middle-class American family until Dad announces that everything has hit the fan and they gotta go. Now. Soon enough, they've made it to a private air strip and boarded a plane with some dangerous folks in hot pursuit. Narrow escape. Cut to them landing the plane and us finding out that the entire family is made up of Russian operatives who are not actually related. We also find out that Yelena knows nothing of what's going on and that she and Natasha have been forced into this life. To these two it was real, and they consider themselves sisters. Flash forward to somewhere in the MCU timeline between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Natasha is an Avenger, but also a fugitive after the events of Civil War. Yelena (now played by Florence Pugh) is a full-fledged Russian spy/assassin known as a Widow. Moments after we catch up with her, she is broken free from the mind control that keeps the Widows in line. Of course, the sisters reunite and try to take down whoever is responsible.

    Through its spy flick leanings and heavier reliance on practical fx than most MCU movies, Black Widow invites comparisons to Captain America: Winter Soldier. For several reasons, it doesn't quite get to those heights, but it holds its own against much of this universe. The action is naturally more impactful thanks to our heroine being of flesh and bone at her most powerful, while most others achieve their greatest feats as a collection of pixels. This is most beneficial to fight scenes. Blows actually feel like they cause pain. The drawback is that they are often over-edited with lots of quick cuts and the camera too close. Both Johansson and Pugh have clearly put in the work to make this come across on screen. When the camera pulls back and allows us to see what's happening it appears they don't need to be obscured as much as they are. Johansson, in particular, has previously shown the athleticism necessary to make a believable super spy without relying on cheap tricks. Therefore, what's meant to add to the illusion subtracts from it. 

    When the action slows down, the odd family dynamics and/or tight situations the characters find themselves in help keep the story moving along at a good pace. These are the part of the film where David Harbour shines as Alexei. Aside from the opening, he serves up most of the comic relief and does a good job of it. Narratively, this is a bit of an issue because he comes across like a complete moron, and stays that way, but we know that he can't be that simple based on the job he once had. Anyhoo, his shtick keeps us entertained when not a whole lot is happening. Because of this, he winds up being memorable, but not nearly the best among the cast. Those honors go to Johansson and Pugh as a tandem since they share so much screen time. The two play well off each other with Rachel Weisz providing a strong third wheel. At many points, more attention is actually paid to Pugh's character. That's when, like T'Challa in Black Panther, Natasha feels like a side character in her own film. Here's where the Marvel formula bites this film in the rear. All of its movies are made with an eye towards altering or maintaining the overarching direction of the MCU. This means something or someone is always being set up for future installments. This is speculation born of watching every movie in the MCU multiple times, but it seems their philosophy is if the main character has to share the spotlight in order to push the overall narrative, so be it.

    The third act is when things start to fall apart. The movie's biggest sin is that it holds relatively few surprises. We know what's going to happen, and often, how. It doesn't get boring. It's too kinetic for that, but the intrigue is missing. No longer locked in, we start noticing and nit-picking things. We realize that this film has one of the worst villains in all of the MCU. He goes full Bond baddie, including coming up with contrived ways to kill the hero he already has dead to rights. His main henchman is suddenly not as formidable as they were at the beginning of the movie. And if we haven't already had a problem with it, we notice that pixie dust is way too important in this particular slice of make-believe. Finally, all the blows and falls endured by our heroines start to add up in our brain and we think about how many times they could and should be dead. Still, things fly around, smoke, crash, and go boom so hopefully you won't mind too much.

    It all boils down to how you feel about the MCU and superhero movies, in general. If you're a fan you're more likely to enjoy Black Widow. It's fun, if a bit long, and has lots of good ideas. A weak villain keeps another MCU film from reaching its full potential. Ranking it against the rest of the franchise, I'd say it manages to get into the top half, but not quite top 10. If you're already burned out on superhero flicks, this isn't going to reignite the flame.

Day 2 Wrap-Up

It's not too late to join. We're going to keep this thing rocking until the 28th. I look forward to reading your contributions. Click below to check out the contributions that were made yesterday.

Of course, if I missed your post let me know in the comment section and I'll fix it ASAP!


  1. Despite the awful screening I went to where the projector went to shit a bunch of times and it had to be rebooted. I did enjoy the film as I re-watched it last month as it may not be in the top-tier films of the MCU but I had a lot of fun with it. I hope we get to see more Yelena, Melina, and Alexei in the MCU. I know Yelena is going to be in Hawkeye but I'm convinced that this film is really the start of a trilogy that focuses on Yelena. Florence Pugh definitely was the star of that film as I loved every moment she had with Scarlett as it just felt natural. And to think, Emma Watson was considered for the role. That wasn't going to be good. Pugh just has more spark, more humor, and charisma.

    1. Pugh was fantastic, and this movie is very much a setup for her character to become a much bigger part of the MCU, essentially stepping into her sister's role. I'm looking forward to seeing her in Hawkeye.

  2. I am suffering superhero burnout and have been for years but with that said I like Scarlett Johansson enough, and LOVE Rachel Weisz, to give this a shot. Knowing that it has deficits I'll consider myself forewarned and not rush to see it.

    The whole massive invulnerability thing that is a staple of these films does have a tendency to keep you from buying in to sympathize with the character. One of the best parts about a film like Die Hard is that Bruce Willis performed all this derring-do but he paid a price for it physically and kept going so the audience was rooting for him. I know he wasn't a superhero, although in the increasingly absurd sequels he might as well have been, but it's the sort of thing missing from most of the films now. I remember going to see The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and being pleased that after the climatic fight all three of the leads at least showed bumps and bruises, nowhere near what they would have suffered in real life but I appreciated the effort.

    1. Die Hard is a perfect movie to bring up for the reasons you give. That we feel McLane's humanity makes the first 3 films great, in my opinion. In the last 2 movies of the franchise, he very clearly is a superhero doing a bunch of stuff that just washes over us. He does get battered and bloody, especially in Live Free or Die Hard, but it's just window dressing. In Black Widow, they push the humanity part through the relationships, but undercut it by having ScarJo fall from massive heights, bang violently into several hard surfaces and objects on the way down and walk away like nothing happened.

  3. I am late here and, forgot me😢🤪. We just watched this movie a week ago and enjoyed it but we were laughing at how many times they would have died but, somehow to lend some realism, we see that Natasha has bruises. I thoroughly enjoyed Alexei and thought it showcased the actor’s range since he normally plays villains. You are right that he was just comic relief when he was so much more before although we laughed at him trying to get his suit on. That scene reminded me of The Incredibles.

    1. Hey, Birgit! Sorry about that. I have corrected the Day 3 Wrap-Up to include you. That's on today's post, though, not this one, as that's the post that shows all of Wednesday's entries. Thanks again!

      And yes, that scene also reminded me of The Incredibles.

  4. I loved Nat as a character, so I enjoyed this even though it wasn't perfect. I think the biggest hurdle for me is bitterness that died in Endgame and Hawkeye didn't. *sigh*

  5. Hey Dell, great review! I pretty much agree with you that I enjoyed it and it reminds me of Captain America: Winter Soldier, though it didn't quite reach that heights. That movie is my favorite MCU but this one won't likely crack my top 5. I didn't care for the villain at all either, just awful and you're right about him being like a Bond baddie!

    P.S. I'll be participating on Girl Week, as I've mentioned on Twitter :-)

  6. I agree that Black Widow had a weak villain but I did love the family aspect of the entire film. I think some of the emotional punch was lessened when this came out *after* End Game, knowing what happened to Nat. But I'm excited to see Pugh's character in more.