Black Widow Could’ve Been Worse

Black Widow is a dumb movie that recycles the same Russophobic Cold War narrative Hollywood has been using for years. But it’s just dopey enough and supplies just enough laughs that I couldn’t be mad at it.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff in Black Widow. (Disney / Marvel)

As a nonfan of the whole cultish superhero movie experience, my expectations of Marvel movies are in the cellar. That should be noted before I say that I kind of enjoyed a few sequences in Black Widow — which, by the way, has been a very successful release for Disney, though theater owners are none too happy about the simultaneous theatrical and VOD (video on demand) release.

Don’t get me wrong: the movie is stupid as hell, locked into the idiotic Russophobic Cold War narrative that the United States will never part with, it seems. But enough of it is conducted at a Boris-and-Natasha level of dopiness — and, as a kid, I used to be very fond of that old pair of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon villains — that it livens up the typically overlong, lumbering, clanking, massively CGIed superhero spectacle.

Though it must be acknowledged that the required Russki plot to achieve global dominance conducted by an evil mastermind — in this case General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) — is a little uncomfortable in its bid for topicality. Dreykov looks like an overweight, toadlike, Harvey Weinstein-ish figure whose empire relies on victimized young women, a kind of fantastical spin on #MeToo. His diabolical plan is to rule the world by controlling an army of brainwashed young female “Black Widow” assassins who were kidnapped, bought, or coerced away from their families as children.

They’re also subjugated by the scent of Dreykov’s pheromones — no, I’m not making this up — so that even those women like Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) who manage to cast off the brainwashing find themselves unable to kill or harm this monstrous patriarch.

Global maps frequently flash on-screen to show us the vast network of red points representing all the Black Widows stationed internationally, along with rapid montages of all the girls and young women forced to act at the behest of Dreykov. This takes on the resonances of the paranoid QAnon belief in an international sexual abuse ring run by figures like the late Jeffrey Epstein, supposedly catering to Democratic politicians, Hollywood film industry types, and a Jewish cabal of corrupt financial power.

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow. (Disney / Marvel)

Given all these cultural reverberations, there are uneasy moments of would-be seriousness that are unintentionally funny. For example, when Natasha frees a crowd of young women assassins from a lifetime of mind control, and they’re sitting there slack-jawed, hardly capable of moving on their own, she tells them solemnly, “Go make your own choices.”

That’s a great moment in American ideology right there.

But let me tell you about the intentionally funny stuff. A long prologue setting up a seemingly ordinary family — made up of Dad, Mom, and their two adorable daughters — opens the movie. There they are, acting ultra-normal in small-town Ohio, when suddenly Dad comes home seeming a bit unsettled and looks at Mom meaningfully, and Mom says, “I don’t want to go.” Then it’s explained to the girls that they’re finally heading out on that “big adventure” Dad always told them about. After a harrowing escape from pursuing feds, they fly off to some mysterious destination where they all get seized and separated by soldiers. The girls get drugged and hustled off to separate fates. Back in small-town America, a TV news headline tells us that the Ohio “family” was no family after all, but a Russian sleeper cell.

So you know the inevitable “family reunion” many years later is going to be a doozy.

The movie takes off for a short while when it becomes clear that adult Natasha — now estranged from her other cobbled-together family, the Avengers, after that whole “Civil War” fracas — is going to try to enlist her embittered younger “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) in the job of dismantling Dreykov’s organization. Having both been trained in his brutal child-assassin program, and having both broken the hold of his mind control and “deserted” his ranks, they’re evenly matched in the inevitable room-destroying fight that breaks out between them — so evenly matched that they have to call it a draw when each is strangling the other to death at the same rate with the same long window curtain.

Sisters fighting is what you might call “relatable comedy.” It’s lazy and obvious, but it gets the job done. And Florence Pugh is amassing all the rave reviews for bringing excellent comic timing to her tough-Russian line delivery as she mocks Natasha for her eroticized Avengers fighting stance (“Poser!”) and messy escape strategies (“Great plan, I loved the part where I almost bled to death”).

Then they go to collect their former parents. “Dad” is Alexei Shostakov, aka Red Guardian, a brawny superhero running to fat in a Russian prison, who’ll have to be broken out by Natasha and Yelena as they bicker over the proper use of their massively excessive transportation and weaponry. David Harbour of Stranger Things deploys his Baby Huey charms as the true believer of the family, with “KARL” and “MARX” tattooed on his knuckles. Harbour’s performance seems particularly endearing, given his interview quotes making the rounds on social media saying, “I don’t know that there’s anyone who could disagree with socialist ideology.”

Red Guardian is amusing in his praise for his disaffected “daughters” — one the top “child-assassin,” the other an Avenger! “You two have killed so many people!” he enthuses, holding their limp hands and flapping them up and down to simulate enthusiasm.

He’s also very proud to be able to squeeze himself into his old Red Guardian uniform, though he bulges in all directions. But he’s mainly concerned with whether Captain America ever mentions him and their supposed great clash-of-superpowers rivalry.

In short, there are a few characters representing a refreshing departure from American sentimentality and moralizing. It can’t last — both parents will have to confess at the end that they really love their temporarily adopted children and cherished their time together as a family. But until that point, there are enjoyable moments, such as when Red Guardian laments his best superhero years lost playing American dad in Ohio: “It was soooooo boring!”

The “family” in Black Widow. (Disney / Marvel)

Then they find “Mom” (Rachel Weisz), aka Melina Vostokoff, Dreykov’s right-hand woman, who was also abducted as a child, brainwashed, and trained as a Black Widow. She’s a top scientist on a farm, experimenting on mind control in pigs. (Don’t worry, the pig in the demonstration doesn’t die!) Though they’re not blood relatives, when they’re all gathered once more at a dinner table, they revert to familial habits. Melina says automatically to Natasha, “Stop slouching,” and as Natasha starts to protest, Red Guardian chimes in automatically with, “Listen to your mother.”

Again — it’s lazy, obvious humor, but if you happen to get trapped into seeing this movie, you’ll bless it for helping you through the two-hour-plus running time.

The lead foursome — Johansson, Pugh, Harbour, and Weisz — are all talented actors working hard to give the public some pleasant distraction, no matter how stupidly solemn the material gets. It has to get lugubrious, I guess — the fans seem to crave it. The commentary by director Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome) and the film’s stars tends toward incredibly self-serious responses to gushing fan interviewers asking earnest questions about the urgent issues the film is taking on. To hear Shortland tell it, Black Widow is dealing with vitally important “family issues” in representing the way all the members of the “found family” have different relationships to their time spent together in Ohio:

I think what we’re exploring is [how] some members of the family are in denial, one member of the family, which is Yelena, is saying, “No, guys, this was wrong, and we were part of this system that was corrupt.” And she sort of forces the family to look at their actions. And Natasha . . . she doesn’t want to know, it’s all too painful, and Yelena forces her to look at it.

Shortland never cracks a smile to indicate the film is actually a light humorous gloss on well-known aspects of family dynamics.

Led by fanboys, legions of otherwise sane adults have gone so far down this rabbit hole of treating big, wacky commercial films that ought to be fun as a combination of self-help tome and holy writ, I don’t see how the culture will ever come out of it again.