Overblown action sequences and a silly storyline are standard fare for comic book movies; “Black Widow” is no exception. Having grown up watching the ‘60’s “Batman” TV show, I wasn’t fazed. What came off as slightly campy to me was solidly sold by its stars-the cast makes “Black Widow” move at a better pace than it deserves.
As another “Avengers” superhero movie, I had no expectations for an origin film for Black Widow, who I view as the second-least effective Avenger next to Hawkeye- an expert archer whose arrows pale in comparison to the bullets that whizz by him in battle. For the uninitiated, Black Widow is one of Marvel Comics’ Avengers alongside Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and (diminutive bow-and-arrow boy) Hawkeye. Though she can’t crush buildings or fly, Black Widow can karate kick and fire a gun with the best of them. The fact that she’s nimble, pretty, wears a black leather bodysuit and can flip to scissor-leg an opponent’s neck are just added bonuses for any teenage fan boy (or adult submissive) at heart. Yet without any expectations on my part, “Black Widow” exceeded them (how’s that for a backhanded compliment).
Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as Black Widow, a.k.a Natasha Romanoff. Brainwashed as a child and trained as a ‘Widow’ -female Soviet assassin- by bad guy Dreykov (Ray Winstone), Natasha defects and gains loyalty with S.H.I.E.L.D (the agency that handles the Avengers). Once bad girl now good, Natasha/Black Widow finds a package sent to her by fellow Widow/sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) and is quickly attacked by Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), a bodysuit-clad thug with matching skull motorcycle helmet who can flip and scissor-leg just as well as Natasha. Black Widow soon realizes Taskmaster is not after her but Yelena’s package, which contains small vials of a red Day-Glo gas that can break the mind control of brainwashed Widows. Foiling Taskmaster’s attempt to procure the package, Black Widow travels to Yelena and learns an ugly truth: to become an Avenger, Black Widow had to kill Dreykov…but Dreykov’s still alive! To get Dreykov, Black Widow and Yelena must break their father Alexi/Soviet superhero Red Guardian (David Harbour) out of prison to find Dreykov’s secret lair, Red Room.
The action’s aplenty, what with the prison break and Taskmaster hot on their heels, but it’s the actors selling their stereotypes that give “Black Widow” its likability. With Johansson solidly at center as the determined and undaunted Avenger, Pugh plays Yelena as the wisecracking sidekick well, Harbour is goofily gregarious as the dad proud of his daughter’s Avengers fame, and Rachel Weisz gives her role of mom Melina a caring and capable spin. For all its familiarity, Black Widow reuniting her family is akin to movies assembling mercenaries for a mission. Since the actors play well off each other, it works.
The campy element I described in “Black Widow” is the same tongue-in-cheek approach screenwriter Eric Pearson used in the Avenger entry “Thor: Ragnarok.” Director Cate Shortland supports this style: before Taskmaster visits Black Widow, she’s watching the James Bond film “Moonraker” on TV. In some ways, it’s fair to compare “Moonraker” to “Black Widow”- both films feed on audience appetite: while “Moonraker” sold the “Star Wars” space setting, “Black Widow” answers questions left by “Avengers: Endgame.” Also, the two movies have similar plot points: bad guys turning good, an imploding fortress finale where heroes scramble for safety. With good actors and action to outweigh cliché, “Black Widow” serves its purpose for the Avengers fan base. Everyone else can enjoy a gyrating, vindicating vixen.