Black Widow’s name may be on the title, but the true heroes of the 24th entry in the MCU mega-franchise are her supporting characters — a pack of gonzo Russkie faux relatives.
The film opens on an undercover mission from Natasha’s youth. She’s playing the 10-year-old daughter in an all-American family living the dream in suburban Ohio. The rest of her nuclear unit are mom Melina (Rachel Weisz), dad Alexei (David Harbour), and little sister, Yelena (who will grow into Florence Pugh). One of the film’s charms is how this time becomes an idyllic touchstone in all their lives — a perfect summer globe of fireflies, family dinners, and Fourths of July — taunting them with the good life they might have had but for the accident of being born Soviets.
Soon, of course, the fantasy breaks apart. “Mom” is recalled back to the USSR for a new assignment. “Dad” becomes Red Guardian — the Russian version of Captain America. And the girls are sent to education camps that will shape them into one-woman killing machines. Flash forward 25 years and we find Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) killing time in Norway in the gap between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”
Conveniently, that’s the exact moment Yelena reappears on the scene asking for help to end the girl-trafficking “Widows” program once and for all. To have any hope of doing so, they’ll have to track down their one-time adoptive parents.
As sibling rivals, Johansson and Pugh show ten times the chemistry of the Falcon and Winter Soldier. No Avengers moment has ever felt so authentic as Yelena mocking Natasha for her “superhero poses,” and the acrobatic fight scenes have the added intrigue of sisters working out their always-complicated relationships. Overall, this story simply feels more muscular and earth-bound than other Marvel outings. As Yelena points out after one knock-down-drag-out: “I doubt the god from space has to take an ibuprofen after a fight.”
But if Pugh does the heavy lifting in bringing a fresh spark of character development to the MCU, Harbor provides a massive assist in the comedy department.
His Eastern Bloc growl feels intentionally over-the-top, leaning into the Reagan-era nostalgia the actor has already built through Netflix series “Stranger Things.” His anxiety over whether Captain America ever speaks of him and nervous inquiries into whether Steve Rogers considers him as an equal isn’t just a hilarious bit because Harbour is clearly having so much fun with it. It also captures the spirit of the 80s, offering a rare pop culture moment that allows American audiences a chance to revel in being citizens of a super power without guilt, without post-post-modern privilege analysis. Of course the Red Guardian would obsess over us — we’re the best!
Unfortunately, all that fun mostly falls by the wayside in the last third of the film.
As the MCU bends in on its own timeline, it necessarily erases the reason for us to care about what comes next in any given scene. However spectacular the visual of watching Natasha fall from the wreckage of a blown-up sky lair may be, it’s ultimately an empty gesture. We know she must survive to play her part in “Endgame.”
The answer, if Marvel chief Kevin Feige and co. want to keep exploiting little, unexplored pockets in the MCU timeline, is to create stakes that don’t hinge on mere physical survival. Moral victories, emotional losses are the only way to make it work. And for the first half of this latest Marvel entry, it looks like that’s what “Black Widow” will do.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have the courage to see those intriguing convictions through to the end. Instead, we go right back to the old faithful ending of bringing bad guys to justice in ever more outlandish action scenes. We’ve been here with Marvel a thousand times. We know how a story like this ends. In this case, we even know when it ends.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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