‘BLACK WIDOW’ Review: Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh Stand Out in a Marvelous Stand-Alone Story

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

BLACK WIDOW

Rated PG-13, 2 hour 13 minutes
Directed by: Cate Shortland
Starring: Scarlett JohanssonFlorence PughDavid Harbour, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw

Scarlett Johansson should’ve gotten a stand-alone Black Widow movie much sooner than now, after witnessing her Avenger Natasha Romanoff’s ultimate demise in AVENGERS ENDGAME, to explore the delicate intricacies and complexities of her character’s enriching backstory. But the filmmakers assigned to the challenge have given the superheroine a dramatically meaty, meaningful, resonant and redemptive tale on which to gracefully land, posing in her trademark position one final time. And her glorious send-off seemingly gives way to new power players in the MCU. Altogether, director Cate Shortland’s BLACK WIDOW is an exhilarating shot of adrenaline.

Screenwriter Eric Pearson, working from a story by Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson, keeps the plot blessedly clean, caulking the spaces in between the stepping stones with characters’ interpersonal dynamics while avoiding any convolution. The unfolding events occur between CIVIL WAR and INFINITY WAR and involve a Russian criminal mastermind, a mind-control serum and a fleet of female mercenaries. For decades, merciless Russian General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) has been secretly and inhumanely amassing a troupe of female assassins he calls “widows” to do his evil bidding. Those caught in his web are operatives Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), Natasha Romanoff (played in younger years by Ever Anderson) and Yelena Belova (played in more youthful years by Violet McGraw).

Back in the mid-90s, the quad was deeply embedded in suburban Ohio, maintaining a wholesome family image while working undercover and spying on the government. However, once their years-long mission ended, the faux family fractured, splintering the adults and forcing the youngsters into a strict, cruel training camp. Yet, a recent shift has occurred that stands to bring the family back together. A now older Yelena (Florence Pugh) has uncovered an airborne antidote that will awaken the women under Dreykov’s thumb – one she sends to her older “sister” Natasha (Johansson) for safe-keeping. But when Dreykov sends his right-hand helper – perfect mimic Taskmaster (whose real identity would be a spoiler) – after the two troublemakers, the pair reunite with their patriarch and matriarch in hopes to finally defeat the sadistic menace who enslaved them.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) faces off against Taskmaster in BLACK WIDOW. Courtesy of Marvel Studios.

While there’s a heavy sense of gravitas infused into the picture, there’s also a lightness and wit to the familial archetypes and relationships within. Shortland and Pearson find multi-layered thematic resonance in scenes that lace together the ladies’ deep-seated trauma and anguish with caustic barbs and ribbing, whether that be in an airplane after a death-defying rescue, or casually sitting around a dinner table digging into a meal as a reunified family. That latter sequence does yeoman’s work, tracking each character’s emotional throughlines, simultaneously delivering rhythmic timing on the comedy and drama. Shortland keeps all the metaphorical plates spinning at a steadied pace, balancing the sentimentality and seriousness, blending emotive touchstones into camera composition, choreography and character drive. A stirring, haunting sense of duty is fused into Lorne Balfe’s score. Small, almost innocuous detailing augments character traits, from the mixed-media costuming hinting at their duality, to the hairstyling – messy Russian braids – rooting these women in their heritage.

The female-forward feature also houses one of the better executions of villainy in the MCU. Though Dreykov isn’t quite comparative to a galactical super-being like Thanos, he’s unlike the big bads embodied before in this universe. The Bond-styled baddie is profoundly insidious given his nature as a nefarious force, thrusting himself upon vulnerable women (both pre-pubescent and adult), exacting complete control over their bodies and decision-making. Despite some similarity to CAPTAIN MARVEL’s villain in his use of toxic masculinity, gaslighting and psychological manipulation, Dreykov’s character coheres effortlessly and successfully, feeling earned and without a hint of desperate pandering to feminists.

Shortland and her stunt team continually keep character at the forefront of the action, adding a visual layer as a form of subliminal storytelling. During the sisters’ fight in the Budapest apartment, Nat and Yelena’s fighting styles are similar but at odds with each other, and it gradually progresses to where they get their groove back working as a cogent unit, mirroring the narrative’s mechanics. It’s also fun to see the two pluck dear ol’ Dad – now leaning into the adoptive superhero persona “The Red Guardian” – out of a frozen gulag. The third act climax, which shows how they function as a makeshift family, feels gratifying.

Johansson and Pugh nail the sisterly ribbing, repartee and banter as efficiently as they do the beautiful, balletic stunts. The newcomer threatens a few times to almost run away with series stalwart’s own film. Almost. Johansson finds new colors in the superhero, shading in further the already well-drawn, well-established character. Pugh continues to show she’s an assured performer. She’s got the pathos down, providing equal amounts of heart and humor. Harbour’s delightful hamming, particularly in the second act, gives the proceedings levity. He brings a touching vulnerability and teddy bear softness along with his hulking frame. Weisz is also formidable, shining light in the darker recesses and hidden playful facets of her character.

Though there are a few on-the-nose song selections on the soundtrack (like Don McLean’s “American Pie” playing under picturesque shots of romanticized Americana as the frenzied family flees town, and the blasé cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” featured in the opening credits) and some other extraneous issues (like the opening and closing notes failing to conjoin perfectly in their obvious tonal echoing), the grand spectacle of it all wipes away any misgivings. Thrilling, clever twists and turns combined with capably constructed and propulsive set pieces make this a film with stamina and staying power, far beyond the end credits coda.

Grade: 4 out of 5

BLACK WIDOW opens in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 9th.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.

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