A couple films back, I read someone’s observations on the movie multiplex dominance of Marvel Entertainment. They listed off a few of the business and creative decisions that could be plausibly considered key contributors to the success of the studio sprung from a comic book publisher. This shrewd analyst, whose identity has slipped from my memory just as assuredly as if wiped cleaned by timeline-twisting sorcery, posited that Marvel has developed a particular mastery for one aspect of the big, booming moviemaking process. I think the specific phrasing was: Casting is Marvel’s superpower. Black Widow is a strong argument in support of that thesis.
Black Widow is Scarlett Johansson’s ninth, and presumably final, time donning the tight-fitting togs of Natasha Romanoff, the former Russian spy who made up for past dubious deeds by signing on as a founding member of the Avengers. In the equivalent of continuity-clarifying footnote a Marvel Comics editor would offer after affixing an asterisk to a line of dialogue in a word balloon, I’ll note that the new film takes place right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, as our heroine is an outlaw in the eyes of the U.S. government that once gratefully accepted her derring-do. Drawing on shady connections in her past, Natasha retreats to Europe, where some tumbling dominoes lead to a reunion with her formative family figures.
Nice as it is to see Johansson be given a fine farewell showcase after years of often thankless work as the Marvel maestros struggled to give her character a consistent voice and a respectable place in their cinematic universe, Black Widow belongs to the performers recruited to support her. As the one-time parental stand-ins for Natasha, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour take opposite tacks — she’s sly and icy, and he might as well be gnawing on the set — but they have sparkling charisma in common. The star turn unsurprisingly belongs to Florence Pugh, as essentially the bratty little sister to Johansson’s cool kid. Pugh doesn’t waste a moment in screen, pumping personality into every moment, no matter how small.
The story in Black Widow is fairly standard Marvel fare, albeit with just enough of feminist twist to make it distinct. In some of its gutsier moments — such as an exchange in which Pugh’s character speaks candidly about the biological assault perpetrated on the girls in the Russian spy-making program she was plopped into — the film benefits from the curve it’s grade on when it comes to such material. Even so, director Cate Shortland deserves credit for persisting in the theme of empowerment that shouldn’t have to be hard won. A lack of subtlety to the message doesn’t diminish its value. (Considering the size and varying level of evaluative of savvy of the audience, the lack of subtlety might even be admirable.) Shortland is less effective in staging the action, which is often over-edited and lacking in clarity. A few of the set pieces bear enough of a similarity to sequences in Christopher McQuarrie’s expertly constructed Mission: Impossible films to prove that kinetic incoherence isn’t a necessity for conceptually ambitious action.
Like a lot of the Marvel movies, Black Widow is a fine entertainment, satisfying as a plate of french fries. So the calories are a little on the empty side. There’s still a buzzy joy that comes from consuming it.