Braids, French and other, loom large in the visuals of BLACK WIDOW, and it is an apt metaphor. The ultra-femininity of long, flowing hair rigorously trained into orderly rows of tightly disciplined tresses echoes the rigorous training given to ultra-feminine assassin-turned-Avenger Natasha Romanoff, the eponymous super-heroine in this her first spinoff from the Marvel Universe.
No, this isn’t a tale of resurrection. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), you may recall, sacrificed herself for her one true love, the semi-happily married (to someone else) Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). This story is set between the action of AVENGERS: CIVIL WAR and well before Natasha’s demise while offering a springboard for future adventures for Black Widow that can move into the future. But before we get into the action of this interlude, we get a backstory involving a Russian sleeper cell living a bucolically blissful life as an ordinary Ohio family. When they are precipitously called home to Mother Russia 20 or so years ago, the homecoming separates Natasha and her sister, Yelena (later played by Florence Pugh) as their father gives them to arch-villain Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and his band of Black Widows to be trained as crack assassins.
Fast forward and Natasha has become a worldwide criminal for attacking the king of Wakanda, and Yelena has been sprayed with a red mist that undoes her Black Widow mind control conditioning. Suddenly, Yelena is no longer hip to being a state assassin, putting her in the same dangers, albeit from different sides, as Natasha. Being endlessly resourceful, she manages to get a mysterious package to her sister, though, thereby attracting an even more mysterious assassin wearing a skull-like helmet. Thanks to a clue hidden in the contents of that package, the sisters are reunited and join forces to take down Dreykov. As if the sibling tensions aren’t difficult enough, the two find that they in order to succeed, they need to seek out their estranged parents, Alexei (David Harbour), aka Red Guardian now incarcerated for ticking of Dreykov, and Melina (Rachel Weisz), the scientist currently living in isolation with a small flock of pigs and, of course, a sophisticated weapons stash in a hidden room. Speaking of rooms, the Red Room is the specific McGuffin in play here. It’s the hidden lair where Dreykov spins his plot for world domination via a novel method of chemical mind control used on his Widows. Finding it drives the plot, while sorting out family difference while defining what a family actually is, provides the emotional thrust to keep us interested beyond motorcycle acrobatics and other assorted death-defying exploits.
Amid the spectacle of action sequences that toss the instinct for self-preservation to the four winds, even for those not under mind control, BLACK WIDOW is after more than merely being visually impressive. And it succeeds. Dreykov is a cookie-cutter of a nemesis, but Alexei, Melina, Yelena, and Natasha are complex creatures with inner conflicts and suspicious loyalties that make for a film full of twists and suspense. Harbour may be the comic relief as a former super hero with a paunch and a need to relive his glory days, but the stakes are always serious for this quartet. Weisz, radiates her usual intelligence as well as suspicious motives. She is all maternal warmth while explaining the mysteries of fireflies to the child Yelena, and all barely contained excitement coupled with scientific detachment when showing off her latest breakthrough in mind control at the expense of a particularly adorable pig. The core, of course, is the relationship between Yelena and Natasha, the former more wounded than she will admit to after having been left behind by her sister, and the latter more in need of a sibling than she wants to admit. Sure, their first meeting as adults results in the wholesale destruction of the safe house in which they find themselves, but it’s no less explosive, , and a whole lot less fun, than the fireworks attendant on how they work out their issues, like when Yelena calls her sister out for that dramatic pose (complete with hair flip) that are part of her combat moves.
Pugh’s Yelena is gleeful irony and sardonic joy as Yelena evaluates the best ways to die in tight situations and then dispatches the opposition with palpable pleasure in her power. It’s a tonic for the resigned introspection of Johansson’s Natasha, a character who has never gotten over her regrets at what her country made her, and who keeps her feelings as tightly coiled as her braids.
The action sequences come thick and fast, with an aerial rescue impressively finding a way to be both heart-stopping and to obey (most) of the laws of physics, but BLACK WIDOW is a film that focuses on sentiment while somehow eschewing the trappings of sentimentality. It embraces feminine power unapologetically (these warrior women don’t wear tank tops and high heels to do battle), while bravely taking an admittedly rudimentary stab at pondering the nature of free will. Of course, you should stay through all the credits. As with the movie itself, you won’t be disappointed.