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Black Widow 2021

Scarlett Johansson back in the suit, but its white this time. She also has family trouble, but Black Widow is after all a Disney film.

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Dysfunctional family issues are part-and-parcel of films of the last decade, and Black Widow works this angle in a well-thought-out way that uses the superhero team genre as the backbone for a tale of an odd spy team from before the USSR became defunct. Made up of a "Dad" (commie superhero Red Guardian played by David Harbour), "Mom" ( Rachel Weisz as Russian super scientist Iron Maiden), and two daughters (Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova and Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow) and when we see them in flashback on the screen they at first seem like a rather typical American family. However, this changes rapidly and we learn they are in fact a "sleeper cell," but rather than being impersonal soldiers masquerading, they have in the space of years gelled into a family, something which only the young "daughter" Yelena acknowledges. When the film picks up the tale decades later, the four get brought back together because their old boss super villain Dreykov (Ray Winstone) has to be stopped, and this forces this "fake family" to work out their Real Family Issues with each other.


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The film itself is logged as a background episode in the development of Natasha Romanoff before becoming a member of the Avengers, but visually and through hints and situations, Black Widow is an examination of much more. One is the obvious mechanics of 21st century family cohesion where the young children characters believe in the illusion of their family group but the two adult soviet super-soldiers don't (at least on the surface they don't), and in this way Black Widow is a kind of bizarre genre remake of the old Disney The Parent Trap (two clever daughters plot to force their divorced Mom and Dad back together). Besides this real word drama of family dynamics, a second active element in Black Widow is that Ray Winstone's villain Dreykov reminds us of infamous Hollywood figure Harvey Weinstein. The portrayal on the screen of Black Widow of an evil and manipulative monster keeping a harem of young women under his control through conditioning and chemical mind control isn't hard to parse, and neither is the stubble-faced actor chasing girls around in an office difficult to connect to "real word" events.

A third element in this unexpected paean tribute to the traditional family is that though the four soviet super-soldiers are shown to us as a surrogate "family" of trained killers, this is then broken down further into something like the group being mere employees of an evil organization that has a mild-James Bondian flair to it once they're aboard its floating home base in the sky. But, under examination by director Cate Shortland, the illusion first shown at the beginning of an average family at a dinner able in a suburban home is ultimately venerated as a true ideal and hope of these characters as all of the other masquerades are torn down and revealed as not just self-destructive (Dreykov is shown with an attitude toward his army of girls as being utterly disposable) but as complete lies, in a direct reversal of the original images we got in the story of the four, the lie was the truth and the truth was a lie.

The cast is perfectly able to carry the script over the finish line, and the jokes and one liners lubricate the tale and the stunt fighting is first rate. CGI special effects and the quality and pacing of the storytelling in Black Widow is right in line with previous Marvel films and as a superhero movie isn't particularly better or worse than most of Disney's library of 24 MCU feature films. Where this movie is advanced is in the smuggled commentary on family and the skewering of a creepy male power figure, though not as crazily as Tom Cruise as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder, (an older Weinstein jab) but probably as wild as any mainstream movie from Disney corp. is going to be allowed to get.

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Scarlett Johansson comes off well in this film and though its not the movie most Marvel cinema fans were advocating for (a Budapest story co-starring Hawkeye), it is something with a lot more heart than I would have expected at this stage in the development of the MCU films which seem governed by ever tightening controls, formulas and conformities. Black Widow does have this dilemma (if it even is a dilemma. The average MCU fan would surely see it as a virtue as it insures a constant level of quality within the series and not the wild-eyed throwing spaghetti against the wall approach of the Warner DCU) but compared to that other big-budget female flashback tale whose release was also sabotaged by pandemic delays, Wonder Woman 84, it is Black Widow that is the far more sophisticated story. The Gal Gadot movie aimed itself squarely at young girls, with an added substory of Diana Prince bummed-out over losing her boyfriend. Black Widow glosses over the simple fact that our four heroes are assassin killers and we're not allowed to ruminate on what that means as we instead root for them to free the horde of captive young women under Dreykov's power, and get back together as a family, something Diana Prince doesn't get when she's got to finally let Steve Trevor "go" and the film ends with her alone (and presumably on a glide path toward joining the Justice League).

With Scarlett Johansson suing Disney over contractual issues having to do with how Black Widow was released, this may be the last time she is seen in the Black Widow outfit (though there's a claim she has a cameo in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings which comes out later in 2021). Since Black Widow is set in the past well before the much younger Scarlett Johansson appeared in Iron Man 2 (2010), we've got the weird "Benjamin Buttons" experience of seeing an older Scarlett Johansson playing a much younger Black Widow.

Black Widow also supplies the added satisfaction that Johansson finally got the solo movie that has been talked about since she signed a nine-film contract with Marvel back in 2010.

The general internet rumor consensus is that without Johansson in the role, Disney will presumably graduate Florence Pugh (the younger sister assassin Yelena Belova in Black Widow) into the role of the titular character.

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Original page July 31, 2021 | Updated Aug 3, 2021