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Film Reviews

Black Widow

Published July 30, 2021
Natasha & Yelena share another family moment

Over the years I’ve never found it a hardship to watch a movie that stars Scarlett Johansson, but with Black Widow any lingering spark of male fantasy went under the   steamroller. Every time I sit through one of these superhero flicks I find myself asking: “Is it me, or is it the rest of the planet that’s got it all wrong?” The stories are ridiculous, the scripts lamentable. The only realistic summary is: “Famous actors humiliate themselves for large paychecks.”

The standard template features a procession of explosions, martial arts fights against impossible odds, over-the-top chase scenes, and so on; punctuated by intervals of mawkish sentimentality as the hero or heroine confronts some deep, dark secret from their past.

If the action sequences are diverting, the sentimental bits are sheer torture, yet these movies almost invariably enjoy huge success at the box office and a surprising degree of “critical” success. Make the hero African-American, as in Black Panther, and you’ve got a triumph for contemporary race relations. Put Wonder Woman in the lead role and it’s a big step forward for feminism.

There is certain sense of equality involved, as we recognise that films featuring black people and women can be just as stupid as those that revolve around some musclebound, white meathead.

Naturally these movies are not made for sceptics like me, but for rusted-on fans of the Marvel Comics Universe who have followed all the twists and turns in their favourite superheroes’ careers. Come to Black Widow cold and it feels as if you’ve entered in the middle of a story – and that’s precisely the case. The film begins soon after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016) and ends on the brink of Avengers: Infinity War (2018). If that sounds odd for a feature released in 2021 it demonstrates how hermetic this genre has become. The filmmakers assume the audience already knows all about the lead characters and the other movies.

Not enjoying that familiarity I was left to make what I could of Black Widow, AKA. Natasha Romanoff, a former Russian agent who has gone over to the good guys, becoming a member of the super-hero co-operative, the Avengers. By the time we meet Scarlett in the role of Natasha it seems the Avengers themselves are being viewed as a threat by the US government.

Before this we’ve been treated to an origin story that shows how the young Natasha’s father and mother, Alexei and Milena (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) were really Russian spies who beat a dramatic retreat from the United States when their wicked work was done. It turns out the entire family was nothing more than a front, but as the film progresses we’ll discover how deeply these hardened agents loved playing mum, dad and the kids.

Indeed, the main theme of the movie centres around Natasha’s reunion with her little sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), and with Alexei and Milena. This celebration of the nuclear family – a completely phoney nuclear family – is relentless. They’re killers but also big softies, who look back nostalgically on those happy days spent undercover in Ohio. When Milena asks Natasha, with all seriousness, how she managed to keep her “heart”, one feels like countering: “And how did you manage to say those lines without laughing?”

The obligatory evil genius is Dr. Dreykov (Ray Winstone – as a Russian!), who has established a clandestine, global empire policed by svelte young women in catsuits. To ensure their loyalty he keeps the girls under strict mind control. Yelena was one of these glamorous, lobotomised assassins until she got sprayed with a magic red dust that dissolves Dreykov’s spell. Now she’s out for revenge, joining with her sister and her pseudo-parents to bring down the villain – which naturally requires an extravagant amount of violence.

I won’t elaborate any further. One of the popular talking points of the movie is whether Florence Pugh in her role as the feisty little sister manages to upstage Scarlett. It might be more pertinent to ask how anyone could upstage anyone else in a film in which all the characters are cardboard. Personally, I’d like to know how Natasha and Yelena can walk away unscathed from so many crashes and falls? How do they absorb so much punishment without being crippled for life, or even having their make-up disturbed? I’d like to know why all the bad guys in these movies are such terrible shots that even armed with machine guns they can’t hit anyone? Finally, it would be good to know if there is some underlying meaning in the way the cast’s funny Russian accents come and go, seemingly at random?

The director of Black Widow is Australia’s Cate Shortland, whose promising debut, Somersault (2004), was followed by the fuzzy, arty Lore (2012) with dialogue in German; and Berlin Syndrome (2017), a psychological thriller that never quite took off. The common thread in each of these movies is a vulnerable female protagonist who finds her strength as the story progresses. One can see how this same motif could be applied to Natasha in Black Widow but it’s extremely difficult to create layered, dramatically-convincing characters when they have to be plunged into a punch-up every ten minutes.

The scenes where Natasha and Yelena bond with their ‘parents’ are obviously intended to be the emotional core of the movie but the dialogue is so feeble and the scenarios so implausible, no amount of ‘interpretation’ can bring this stuff to life. There is zero chance of engaging sympathetically with these cartoon figures. Time simply drags while we wait for the next fight or explosion.

The chance to make a big-budget blockbuster constitutes a Mephistophelian bargain for an emerging director. It’s an entrée to a big studio, and presumably well remunerated. On the other hand you are wedded to a formula and a familiar cast of characters. Shortland is not the first director that has tried to inject a little emotional depth into a superhero film – almost every director has tried and failed, with the most engaging portrayals being exceptionally dark ones.

Natasha, by contrast, is presented as a sensitive, caring person – the embodiment of stereotypical female virtues. It’s a strange persona for someone who spends the entire film locked in ferocious, life-or-death combat. If you’re not the least bit worried by these sorts of contradictions then prepare yourself for an entertaining night at the pictures or a long session on the psychiatrist’s couch.

 

 

 

Black Widow

Directed by Cate Shortland

Written by Eric Pearson, after a story by Jac Schaeffer & Ned Benson

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone, O.T.Fagbenie, Olga Kurylenko, William Hurt

USA, rated M, 134 mins

 

 

For those in lockdown, Black Widow is viewable on-line, on Disney Plus

 

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 31 July, 2021