There’s an art to delaying the inevitable. By the god of thunder, director Cate Shortland demonstrates that art in this Marvel spin-off, which basically functions as a wondrous, two-hour-long goodbye.
Scarlett Johansson’s sardonic and wily assassin, Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, shone darkly in seven MCU blockbusters (eight, if you count her cameo in Captain Marvel), only to meet a cruel and irreversible death in Avengers: Endgame. A way has been found to resurrect the Russian mortal, albeit temporarily, via a prequel that doubles as Black Widow’s first and last stand-alone movie.
I consider myself Natasha’s number one fan, and would happily engage in combat to prove my devotion (though I’ve yet to perfect her signature move, the “crotch-throat grab”). I thought I’d be sniffling throughout. In fact, I couldn’t stop laughing.
Black Widow is a contender for funniest film of 2021. Mostly this is is because Johansson is a comic genius. Age 15, she had a small part as a wry old-soul, in the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There. One of her co-stars was Frances McDormand, and you can see the influence of McDormand in every performance Johansson has given since. Whether intentionally or by osmosis, the older actress taught Johansson how NOT to keep a straight face.
Johansson’s mouth starts twitching from the moment she hears the voice of Florence Pugh, the brilliant Brit who plays Natasha’s twentysomething “sister”, Yelena Belova.
In the mid-90s, for the purposes of a dastardly, three-year mission, Yelena and a pre-teen Natasha - along with Russian double-agents, Alexei Shostakov (Stranger Things’ David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) - pretended to be a normal, happy American family.
After that, the family went their separate ways, with Yelena and Natasha recruited into an army of tough but ultimately pliant girl warriors, controlled by sinister “Red Room” chief, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Natasha eventually escaped and joined the Avengers. Thanks to a “synthetic gas that acts as an antidote to mind control”, Yelena’s now a Red Room renegade, too. And she has lots of questions for our heroine. Does Natasha realise that Dreykov is still alive? Were the emotions she and Natasha shared as children fake? And why is Nat such a “total poseur”?
The goof-ball-ish chemistry between Johansson and Pugh is a joy. And things only get fizzier once Natasha and Yelena re-connect with their errant “parents”, in order to take-down Dreykov.
Alexei has the words ‘karl’ and ‘marx’ tattooed on his knuckles. As well as being immature and self-centred, he’s old-school, in many ways, and, when confronted by the understandably pissed-off Yelena, demands to know if it’s her “time of the month”. She explains that, as part of the Red Room’s sterilisation programme, her ovaries were all chopped up. A discomforted Alexei says, “There’s no need to get biological and NASTY.” How smart to use the n-word, which will forever be associated with Donald Trump’s dislike of strong women, to add texture to the film’s good guy. Shostakov is a marvellous creation and, as you’d expect, Harbour makes hay with every line.
Nor is Weisz short-changed. Black Widow owes much to The Hunger Games trilogy, especially in its refusal to over-sexualise the female leads, (clothes and shoes are all fit to be fought in), but goes one better by offering a middle-aged female who’s both complex, competent and loveable.
Another thing. The trailer had fans worrying that fat shaming would be the order of the day. Quite the reverse: Black Widow celebrates a diverse range of body types.
Indeed, at every opportunity, the script, by Eric Pearson, promotes women’s right to choose.
Meanwhile, the fights, as you’d expect, are full of biffs that pack a real punch (one head-butt is particularly satisfying). And the overall aesthetic is best described as a grungey take on James Bond (note the gloriously morose cover of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit).
What can’t be denied is that villain Taskmaster (played by someone whose identity it would be a spoiler to reveal) is a tiny bit of a let down, and that the casting of Winstone leaves something to be desired - not least his mangled Moscow-via-the-Queen-Vic accent. Luckily, that we laugh at Dreykov doesn’t count as a proper flaw because, as already mentioned, laughter is something that Black Widow encourages.
Though Johansson will be much missed, it’s a pleasure to welcome Pugh, Weisz and Harbour into Marvel’s galvanised universe. Yes, indeedy, they’re quite the silver lining.
Black Widow is in cinemas from July 7; it can be ordered on Disney+, with Premier Access, from July 9