Thursday 15 July 2021

Russian doll: "Black Widow"

The latest crash-bang-zoom movie for kids young and old picks up somewhere in the vicinity of an earlier crash-bang-zoom movie for kids young and old. Was the Black Widow - the alter ego of Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson - among those who perished at the bejewelled hands of arch villain Thanos in 2018's Avengers: Infinity War? Oh, I can't remember: that movie and its pendant-sequel Endgame were so long with so many takebacks, we're three years down the line now, and besides, there's been a lot going on out here in the interim. Practically the only thing this viewer could recall about Romanoff as a movie character going in was that brief flashback showing her being schooled in the dark arts by Julie Delpy, of all the people to show up in an Avengers movie for twenty seconds - and if La Delpy (who doesn't appear in the new film) has turned an elegant heel and moved past this juvenilia, there should be no reason you and I can't do likewise. Anyway, whether out of nerd completism or in an effort to convert a few more holdouts and heretics, Romanoff has been handed her own standalone showcase, titled Black Widow, which is the Marvel Cinematic Universe attempting to do Bourne. Cate Shortland's film watches its heroine go rogue, pursued both by the Russian heavies who raised and brainwashed her (represented by the not terribly Russian Ray Winstone, with stick-on 'tache) and the agents of SHIELD (headed by William Hurt) who claim Romanoff has violated some protocol or other. This means that wherever she and little sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) go in the world - and though shot entirely Down Under, the drama unfurls a considerable carbon footprint, starting undercover in Ohio before heading East to Budapest and points beyond - they barely have chance to unpack before someone bursts through the door to shoot at them or engage them in close-quarters combat.

An entirely reasonable example of action-figure cinema, Black Widow hardly finds new positions to mould its action figures into, but that no-rest-for-the-wicked premise at least ensures the toys' constituent parts are kept moving for a couple of hours. As the first in a new phase of Marvel movies, staking out and inhabiting its own small corner(s) of this world, it has the advantage of not having to keep checking in on what Clark Gregg and boring old Captain America are having for tea. So we get a car chase in Budapest, and a prison break in the Siberian wastes that somewhat excitingly coincides with an avalanche, and the film wrings a modest amusement from the fact Natasha and Yelena have to undertake the latter mission in a rusty old Soviet-era chopper, rather than the gleaming military hardware that comes as standard within this genre, and the Avengers movies more specifically. The gag, and it's one that conceals a barbed ideological point, is that these tatty old Commies - microchipped and monitored by the State - have had to make do without the flashy kit and free-market benefits Tony Stark enjoys. No wonder Natasha has come to defect, but this is one of the odd things about 21st century studios stripmining the plots and themes of comic books conceived a good sixty years ago: the movies that result end up relitigating old conflicts that will likely mean as little to teenagers in 2021 as, say, York Fruits or Two-Way Family Favourites. The biggest mystery here, however, is why the film in front of us bears the name of Shortland, a director who's previously worked the indie festival circuit as a scholar of history, discovery and trauma (Somersault, Lore).

Sure, Black Widow gives up some unfinished family business involving the sisters, their burly jailbird dad (David Harbour, knuckles tattooed with "KARL" and "MARX"), deceptively domesticated ma Rachel Weisz, and the family's pet pot-bellied pig. Yet none of this cuts remotely deep; indeed, it's not allowed to cut deep, a) because it gets outlined within a safe, self-contained universe that remains impervious to real hurt (viz. the reduction of state-enforced sterilisation to plot point/fleeting joke), and b) because there are goons with guns coming through the windows on zipwires. Our sense of Romanoff as a character, hazy enough to begin with, never develops much beyond catsuited pawn in a much bigger game - which may explain why Johansson seems to get less out of her own star vehicle than either Pugh, Harbour or Winstone (on comparatively svelte form, adding an appreciable suavity to his usual heaviness). The most totemic character may be Winstone's chief assassin, a masked human-cyborg hybrid who resembles Star Wars' Darth Maul spliced with the chess computer Deep Blue, programmed as she has been to assimilate her opponents' fighting styles and signature moves. This textbook B-movie figure lodges in the mind because the film is operating with similar software: it's absorbed the lessons of those action movies that worked these past 20 years, recast the male roles with women in a mirror of recent societal developments, and then shoved its data back at the same audience that turned out for those films first time around. Black Widow is unarguably efficient in doing this, but it's also no more or less mechanical than its immediate Marvel predecessors, and allows for little in the way of human input: Olga Kurylenko - the film's sole naturalised Russian speaker - gets one line of dialogue as the cyborg, and that only ten minutes from the end. Stay tuned through the closing credits to learn which massively overqualified performer is the next to jump aboard the gravy train.

Black Widow is now showing in cinemas nationwide, and available to rent via Disney+.

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