At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Black Widow “2021”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Superhero/ Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, Olga Kurylenko, Ray Winstone, Rachel Weisz, William Hurt, Liani Samuel, Michelle Lee, Nanna Blondell, Jade Xu, Olivier Richters, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Violet McGraw, Ever Anderson/Runtime: 134 minutes

I think the argument could be made that if there was ever a period of time where the world needed the superheroic shenanigans of a slice of cinema from Marvel to help bring audiences back to movie theaters then I would say that the release of Black Widow last year most assuredly was just what the good doctor ordered. Indeed that darned devil COVID may have caused Marvel’s diabolical scheme to dominate cinemas across the planet for the next 40 years minimum to run into a few speed bumps, but thankfully Black Widow is here to save the day. Yes this is one superhero slice of cinema that fans have been clamoring for since the character’s live action debut in the 2nd Iron Man back in 2010 and yes Avengers: Endgame kind of did put this slice of cinema in quite the intriguing position since it does (without going into spoilers) provide the titular heroine with a touchingly beautiful resolution to her storyline that has been a thread present in every single movie in the MCU that she has been a part of. At the same time though, I do feel that not only will this please the aforementioned fans who have been clamoring for a Black Widow solo movie, but for those people who either just want a good Marvel superhero movie or just a good slice of cinema period. No you don’t need as much in the way of familiarity with everything the MCU had thrown our way to that point in time (or at least when comparing it to something on the level of Avengers: Endgame) and yes there are a few flaws to be found here and there. Yet even when taking those things into account, there is no denying that Black Widow is a fairly engaging, riveting, terrifically directed, phenomenally performed, and overall quite enjoyable slice of superhero cinema on both sides of the camera that is a genuine winner from beginning to end even if you will still find yourself sadly wishing that we had gotten this solo outing way before this point in time.

The plot is as follows: Getting its riveting yarn underway in the 1980s, Black Widow begins as we witness a younger Natasha Romanoff as she spends her days in suburban Ohio with younger sibling Yelena and their loving and decent mom and dad. However we soon learn that this idyllic life is tragically nothing short of an illusion since not only Natasha and her sister not what they appear, but their parents Alexei Shostakov and Melina Vostokoff aren’t all that they appear to be either. Rather, what we have assumed to be a loving and good-hearted to say nothing of as American as Kansas on the 4th of July family is actually a quartet of spies from Russia. A fact incidentally we come to learn on the fly since this literal family unit is having to get the heck out of America since their identities have practically been compromised. As a result, we see the “family”, with agents of a teeny-tiny little organization known as SHIELD dead set on catching them, manage to barely get out of this country with their lives and make their way to Cuba where a man by the name of Drekov is waiting for them. You see dear reader Drekov is the head of the Russian Black Widow espionage program and the time has now come for Natasha and her “sister” Yelena to be split up from their parents let alone each other and take their places in the program…..regardless of how they feel about this. From there, we see that this slice of cinema then propels us to the immediate aftermath of Captain America: Civil War as Natasha, due to her actions from that movie, is now being relentlessly pursued by the government of the United States and in particular one General Thaddeus Ross. Yet even though Romanoff is consistently more than a few steps ahead of her pursuers and that time has seen her be viewed by some of the world as an underground hero of sorts to say nothing of her status as an Avenger, we see that time has sadly not been as kind in giving her the ability to heal from what occurred in her past involving her first highly dysfunctional family unit. However, we now witness that perhaps time feels the conditions for such a reconciliation to take place since, despite Natasha’s turn to SHIELD in the ensuing years, younger sister Yelena is still very much a member of the Black Widow program. Yet when Yelena finds herself being exposed to something that enables her to be rid of the psychological restraints placed on every Black Widow agent, we see the stage is set for a collection of events to occur. Events that will see Natasha return back to the world she left behind in order to come to terms with not only who she was let alone the family she left behind, but also to make the world a safer place. Not only from the nefarious machinations of Drekov to say nothing of the Red Room that took so much out of her life, but also from a particularly ruthless and insidious agent that has been assigned the mission of bringing down Romanoff, little sister Yelena, and anyone else who dares to work alongside them using whatever methods that it takes known only as Taskmaster…

Now yes there is quite the emotional weight to this movie, but there is also a wonderful wit and a vibrance to the familial bonds at the heart of this film as well. Indeed this slice of cinema’s helmer and her terrific crew behind the camera manage to do beautiful work in locating extensive emotional power in moments that involve both our heroine and her family unit’s emotional baggage with one another as well as acidic retorts toward one another be it on board a plane after rescuing one or if they are all sharing a meal together. A sequence incidentally that manages to do a terrific job at keeping an eye on every single character’s emotional wave length and as a result possesses a brilliant sense of timing in regards to both humor and pathos in equal measure. Suffice it to say that this film’s helmer does a wonderful job of keeping the proverbial plates they are working with properly balanced whilst also making sure to include little touches here and there especially in regards to the characters, the camera, and the cinematography on display. In regards to the second component, we see that the creative crew behind the camera do a wonderful job of ensuring that every action beat places the characters front and center whilst also propelling the narrative forward in subtle ways. Perhaps the best example of this is when Nat and Yelena first get into fisticuffs with one another in Budapest where we are able to see that although their combat styles are fairly the same, they are also butting heads with one another. Yet as the movie goes on, we see that things slowly but surely get to the point where they can work together as a pretty darn effective team. As a result this is also why when you see the family all together in action during the third act of the movie it not only feels earned, but also immensely satisfying as well since you’ve seen just what it took for all of them to get back on the same page emotionally with one another. Finally, there may be some song choices in this film that might be a bit too on the nose as it were, but I do feel that not only does each and every one have their own part of sorts to play in the narrative. That and if that’s still not enough the sheer amount of skilled spectacle on display should win you over thus making this yet another well-done entry in the MCU from behind the camera.

Now due to the fact that this slice of cinema contributing to this ever-growing cinematic universe a collection of intriguing new characters, we see that this does at times have the unintended side effect of the titular heroine every so often being outshined in a slice of cinema that is supposed to revolve around her (oh the irony). At the same time though do not mistake the cause for this outshining to be in any way because lead actress Scarlett Johansson makes the choice to not give 110% because that most assuredly is not the case. I say this because with the chance to place the titular heroine front and center, Johannsson not only makes the most out of every minute of screen time she is given, but is also able to give a performance that is equal parts potent and emotional whilst also functioning as a wonderful exit stage right for this iconic character she has brilliantly played for the better part of a decade. With that having been said though, the breakout star of this slice of cinema undoubtedly is Florence Pugh in the role of Yelena Belova. Indeed Pugh not only takes over every single scene that she is given, but she also brings to the film a wonderful mix of charisma, comedy, and also heartfelt emotion that it sorely needs. Indeed if this slice of cinema is being utilized as a way for Yelena to become a major component of what lies ahead for the MCU in the foreseeable future then they did a great job in casting Pugh because it is through her incredible efforts in this that you will easily want to see more of this character. We also get wonderful work in this from David Harbour as Russian Captain America surrogate Red Guardian. Yes the character might be the one who is in this slice of cinema to be in many respects the comic relief and yes Harbour definitely brings that to the table in this, but at the same time he also brings just as much heart as well and thus makes this character just as much a joy to see in this movie as his “daughters”. Now yes Rachel Weisz, the returning William Hurt, and O-T Fagbenle are also fun in their respective parts, the first one is a role that I felt could have been played by a lot of just as talented actresses and the other two have their parts in the narrative, but sadly don’t get nearly as much screen time as you might think. As for the antagonists in this slice of cinema…..well at least they’re not terrible. I mean don’t get me wrong dear reader: I love whenever Ray Winstone pops up in something and here he is both charismatic yet ruthless to a t as Drekov and yet at the same time I really do wish the movie gave us more with his character than what we ultimately get. As for Taskmaster I can safely say this is one character who is not going to be looked back on with the same fondness as Loki, Thanos, or Killmonger from Black Panther. At the same time however, this slice of cinema does utilize this character properly and represents the individual in question fairly well courtesy of making them a seemingly unstoppable force akin to the freaking Terminator complete with combat action beats with the character and Natasha that will leave you absolutely riveted in the best way possible.

All in all flaws with this slice of cinema aside, I have to be absolutely honest with you dear reader: I really did enjoy the heck out of this movie. Indeed the 2021 slice of cinema that is Black Widow proves to be a fairly strong slice of cinema to say nothing of a worthy addition to the MCU. Not just in terms of the titular heroine (who is once again brought vividly to life by Scarlett Johannsson), but especially in terms of the supporting cast, the riveting narrative laced with a surprisingly emotional thread about the concept of family, delightfully surprising bits of comedy especially from David Harbour and Florence Pugh that will have you consistently chuckling, and action beats that you would expect more in a Bond or Bourne entry than in an entry of the MCU. Yes they do come equipped with the Marvel vibe of feeling larger than life, but they are also being rooted in a logic that is surprisingly semi-realistic and that is exactly what a solo film about this character requires. On top of that, this slice of cinema also does a wonderful job of making sure the moments of combat in this are not only brilliantly intricately tied to each character and their distinct fighting styles, but also wonderfully given the chance to bring some necessary gravitas to the picture. Suffice it to say that this is one winning cast and one delightful crew, led by talented film helmer Cate Shortland and writing trio Jac Schaeffer, Ned Benson, and Eric Pearson who not only get this character, but also the world that she inhabits and as a result really elevate her first solo outing into a slice of cinema that also beautifully operates as a fitting farewell to one of the definitive MCU characters of the first three phases of films. Sure there might be an unjust amount of Russian stereotypes on display herein, but in all fairness I have seen other slices of cinema (cough the 4th Indiana Jones movie) which handled the concept of Russian bad guys a whole lot worse. Thus if you are a die-hard MCU fanatic who has to see every single thing Marvel puts out then give this film a shot. However if you are someone who is just looking for a fun action-packed slice of cinema then definitely give this film a shot too. I promise you most assuredly will not regret it. On a scale of 1-5 I give Black Widow “2021” a solid 3.5 out of 5.