Film review: ‘BLACK WIDOW’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

You may have blissfully entertained the notion that the brain-pummelling Marvel superhero movies had ended with the encouragingly titled Avengers: Endgame.  You would, however, be wrong… so wrong.  Folks, believe it or not, there’s several lifetimes of these films yet to come.  The latest is the unremarkable Natasha Romanov spin-off Black Widow which was largely filmed in Australia.

Rather than the typical Marvel sci fi superpower fantasy, this film is more of a Jason Bourne-style espionage action drama.  Given that the film universe from which Black Widow has emerged is, despite its myriad flaws, epic in scope and ambition, it feels like a strange backward step to recast the franchise, or at least this film, as a 90’s/ early 2000’s-style small-scale spy drama.  That would have been fine had they pulled off a really potent action film here but the Bourne movie-style visceral thrills have been blunted by the general silliness of the Marvel film world.

Set in 2016, the film’s surprisingly convoluted and not particularly engaging plot (that had one audience member snoring loudly) sees super spy Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow, separated from her Avenger colleagues and trying to solve a mystery involving her estranged family members: mysterious mother Melina (Rachael Weisz),  goofy Russian-bear like father, Alexei (David Harbour) and feisty younger sister Yelena (Florence Pugh).  Reunited, they attempt to thwart the old megalomaniacal villain, in this case the crazed General Dreykov (Ray Winstone with a ridiculous Russian accent) who, like something out of spy parody Our Man Flint, has created a mind control device by which he commands his army of highly trained, leather cat-suited female assassins of whom Natasha is an alumnus.

The film certainly isn’t short on action as it offers plenty of elaborate, dynamic, sometimes bone-crunching but often unrealistic fight scenes as well as some large-scale CGI spectacle and lots of explosions.  Still, at over two hours, there are long dull stretches where director Cate Shortland  (Somersalt, Lore, Berlin Syndrome) bravely but unsuccessfully attempts to introduce some character development into the MCU.  The exploration of lost family connections lacks emotional bite and the attempt at confessional and comic banter between Natasha and Yelena isn’t particularly insightful, moving or funny.

One of the main problems with this film is that Scarlett Johansen is surprisingly underwhelming in the title role.  She doesn’t seem very invested in the character;  at times she appears disinterested and often delivers her lines without conviction.  It’s also more than a little ridiculous that a character without superpowers is so astonishingly resistant to injury.  She’s subjected to innumerable beatings and explosions but winds up with little more than a few charcoal scuff marks like a chimney sweep from Mary Poppins.  Admittedly Jason Bourne is just as ludicrously indestructible.

Florence Pugh has more screen presence here giving a cheeky edge to Yelena and the talk is that the next film will focus more on her.  Rachel Weisz is typically impressive as the sultry, enigmatic, morally ambiguous, kick ass and occasionally funny scientist Melina; we could have done with more of her.  David Harbour’s loud, slobbering goofball routine as Alexei is vaguely amusing for about five seconds before it becomes tiresome.

Like most Marvel films, Black Widow touches on a few pertinent themes, in this case female empowerment and solidarity but doesn’t do much with these concepts apart from show some reconciliation between enemies.

It’s admirable that director Shortland and Marvel have given this film a different texture to the typical MCU movies but it ends up as a slightly dated looking, if occasionally exciting, action flick with too much CGI and only partially successful attempts at human drama.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Superhero / action/ drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Cate Shortland.

Release date: 8th July 2021.

Running time: 134 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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