Marvel is known for weaving a good storyline with dazzling action. but Australian Director Cate Shortland often lets the relentless explosive chase scenes overpower the narrative at the expense of the characters. It begins as an intriguing prequel of of Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) backstory as the Russian spy who became one of the Avengers. But this film turns messy in the last act.
There’s been a long wait for this first installment of this MCU Fourth Phase. It’s been in the works since 2016, interviewing numerous directors with a push to get a woman to direct this female centric film. And the pandemic delayed it’s release to the big screen which is the most impactful way to see these Marvel epics. This one follows Captain America:Civil War, and comes before the events in Infinity War.
In this film, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) who was a trained KGB spy and assassin is now being hunted down by those who brainwashed and groomed her. Dreykov (Ray Winstone) is the villain who comes off more like a creepy businessman than a super villain. His goal, as always in this genre, is world domination. The film is basically Natasha trying to take him down, save the world, and she is using every trick in her bag to survive in the process. It reminds us of Bond, Bourne and the Mission Impossible spy series, especially with all of the locations, traveling to Norway, Morocco, Budapest, even a Russian prison.
This is definitely Scarlett Johansson’s moment to shine. But Florence Pugh, as long lost relative, Yelena, with dry humor and resentful attitude is also one tough cookie and gets some of the best laughs, especially when showing up Natasha’s Black Widow super hero pose. Their push-me-pull-me chemistry develops through the course of the film and are the scenes that work best.
Both women show extreme physicality. They can throw a punch, take a punch and use their signature leg sweeps to great effect. The phrase keeps coming up that “Pain only makes you stronger.” And Natasha and Yelena just keep going back for more. Every time they get together, it’s battle royale with maximum destruction of buildings, cars, tanks, anything in the way. It’s all pretty violent, but very antiseptic without blood or bruises. They should all looked as if they were in a great deal more pain.
David Harbour as Alexei/Red Guardian plays it for laughs delivering as uneven a performance as his Russian accent. He’s a very comical character, even when he tries to be serious, even clown like at times, but definitely fun to watch. Rachel Weisz as smart scientist, Melina, plays it pretty straight, trying to keep the interrelationships of the family in check between Natasha and Yelena, and herself with Alexei.
Constantly going from one fight scene to another proves more a distraction than support for the backstory created by Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson with the screenplay written by Eric Pearson. There are a number of quips which convey attitude and humor as in other Marvel films, many of which come out at the most serious moments to lighten the mood. But the script is fairly dry and doesn’t elicit much emotion.
The action overload doesn’t make sense. It’s more a device to keep the audience on edge. The car chase scenes with the undertank shot into an explosion and a vehicle hurdling down stairs crash landing on an underground train platform are certainly eye catching. But after several misguided twists, the last part of the film loses its way and turns into pure spectacle. It all looks pretty violent, but still very antiseptic without displaying blood or bruises. Their characters should all have shown themselves to be in a great deal more pain. It, once again, follows Melina’s advice, that “Pain makes you stronger.”
Was this MCU installment worth waiting for? We’re glad to see Scarlett Johansson star in her own, stand-alone, Marvel property. Good after 20 something films to see a woman in the lead. Florence Pugh makes a strong impression and it looks like her Yelena is due to get more exposure. As always, the post credit scene is worth staying for. Despite its faults, seeing Scarlett Johansson in action as the Black Widow on the big screen, is worth going back into a theater.
Marvel Studios 2 hours and 13 minutes PG-13
In theaters and Disney+ with Premier Access July 9.
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