‘I’ ON CULTURE
One way we know the pandemic is waning is the coming of big, new movies. And the “big kahuna” franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has just opened a real winner, Black Widow. Since several of the highest-grossing movies of all time are part of this universe, it finally is time to get back to the movies, although you can pay to see it at home on Disney+ if you have the service. But on the big screen, it is much more fun.
The film begins by showing a typical American family in the mid-1990s, two parents and two girls. But daddy comes home one day telling the kids there will be an adventure, and they rush out so fast the younger girl leaves her shoes behind. After a battle, they wind up in a plane and fly to Cuba, where we find out that it was not only not an American family, but not even a family. All of them, even the girls, were Russian agents. That opens the film.
Twenty-one years later, the older girl, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), also known as the Black Widow, is on the run after the whole big fight during Captain America: Civil War… about the only reference to the major backstory. Hiding out in Norway, she gets a package that contains a tracer and is almost killed. The trail leads to Budapest, where she meets up with fellow “widow” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), who sent the package. The two women have a big, exciting fight and only create a truce when a group of the other widows goes after them. It turns out Yelena is the “kid sister” that Natasha grew up with and is described later as having been “the most efficient child assassin in the world.” She has a grudge against Natasha for leaving her behind when the older woman escaped.
At any rate, Yelena has a formula that allows the widows to be free of the mind-control programs installed in them by the evil Dreykov (Ray Winstone) in his infamous Red Room and gets Natasha to join her crusade to free their “sisters.” The problem is they don’t know where the Red Room is. They begin by rescuing Alexei (David Harbour), the agent who had played the part of their father from the Russian prison Dreykov had gotten him sentenced to. It was a great, even fun sequence. Alexei, who at one time had been known as Red Guardian, the Russian version of Captain America, doesn’t have the answer but knows where Melina (Rachel Weisz), the agent who played their mother, was living.
Probably the best non-action scene in the movie follows as Melina, who not only raises pigs, but has learned brain control through her work with them, invites the group in for a family meal, which winds up looking more like a real family meal than action planning. The group is betrayed and winds up spending the last hour of the movie fighting their way out.
The film is more a show for great acting than for super action, although the action scenes are excellent even, as usual in Marvel films, over the top. But the great actors are what pushes the film. Johansson has made Natasha the most interesting of the Avengers. She’s not a superhero or god, just a talented woman whose background is complex. Johansson has expressed her anger in the past about not having her own film, and this one proves her right. She is exceptional. But she is matched by Pugh, who some have called the “Meryl Streep” of the rising generation. She matches the big star in terms of the action but manages both humor and petulance, and a whole variety of other emotions, which all show clearly on her face. It looks like she will be a permanent addition to the Marvel universe. Harbour is marvelously funny as Alexei, wistfully asking Natasha if Captain America had ever mentioned him, wincing and avoiding the subject of the forced sterilizations of the girls. He then manages to be convincing as the protective dad. In the most complex role as the somewhat brain-controlled Melina, Weisz manages to be sly, helpless and conniving at almost the same time.
Yes, the MCU is back. And this is one of its better films. It’s fun, and the acting is among the best in the series.