The effect is more jarring than subtle, and it instantly sets “Black Widow” apart from your average Marvel comic book action movie.
We aren’t watching digital superheroes brawl in a blur of digital effects, digital backgrounds and the like.
There’s still a lot of special effects trickery, digitized aircraft and environments, augmented stunts and “Bugs Bunny Physics” in the leaps, tumbles and what-not our heroes and villains carry out and somehow survive.
But when Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh and Rachel Weisz and David Harbour go at it with legions of “widows” and other minions of the villainous Dreyko (Ray Winstone), including a monstrous “secret weapon” whom James Bond fans will recognize, they’re going at it. As in, there’s not just a fight choreographer (James Young) here. There’s a vast team of choreographers, stunt folks and trainers and using them gives the movie a visual coherence that most Marvel movies and every Transformers film lack.
The stars and their stunt doubles make “Black Widow” the most tactile of any Marvel movie. Punches land, actresses tumble, stunt-doubles execute twisty spins and kicks. “Super” heroics abound, but as Natasha Romanov’s “sister” Yelena cracks, unlike “god from space” (Thor), they’re going to need “Ibuprofen” when all is said and done.
We’ve been watching trailers to this movie for YEARS, it seems, as the pandemic held up the release. Fortunately, the only stuff those trailers give away is the “family” dynamic that Black Widow Natasha grew up in, cute “reunion” quarreling, and a few moments where our heroine strikes her “ridiculous (hair-flipping super-heroine) pose” and is thus “a total poseur,” or so says her little sister.
“Black Widow” begins in 1995 as the “family” — two young daughters played by Ever Anderson (Milla Jovovich’s kid) and Violet McGraw — are yanked from their Ohio home by their sleeper-agent parents (Harbour and Weiss).
Their boss (Winstone, in a big Stalin mustache and wig) has summoned them home as their covers are “blown” and Feds and S.H.I.E.L.D are hot on their trail.
But that “escape” is just the beginning of the girls’ “nightmare.” Their “parents” weren’t real parents. And in scenes ripped straight from the border camps imagery of America’s ongoing immigration debate, the girls — who aren’t real sisters — are heartlessly hurled into a “system” with no family.
They’re trained to become Black Widows, heartless post-Soviet Russian assassins.
In 2016, Natasha is laying low during “the Avengers getting divorced” timeline, but Yelena’s still on the job for Vladimir, murdering who she’s told, fetching vials of a red gas that Dreykov needs.
“Dad?” He’s in prison, the onetime “Red Guardian” bragging about his super-soldier exploits as he lays waste to every would-be arm wrestling opponent. “Mom?” She’s doing the Devil’s work somewhere else.
Time for “reunion” and “revenge!”
This has been a year where the go-to action film analogy has been “The Roger Moore James Bond” films, the lighter, jokier pictures in that long-running franchise. I know. I get Google alerts every time some wag sees “Roger Moore as Bond” in “Hit Man’s Wife’s Bodyguard” or “F9” or what have you.
Aussie director Cate Shortland (she did “Lore” and “The Berlin Syndrome”) and screenwriter Eric Pearson lean into that, showing the 1995 family catching “Moonraker” on TV, using a little “Moonraker” music at one point.
The tone is light, although the finished product isn’t remotely as funny as the laugh-out-loud jokey Joss Whedon “Avengers” movies.
But the casting is spot on. Finding two shortish actresses of great skill to pass for Natasha’s mother-and-sister, it’d be hard to top the Oscar winning Weisz (“The Constant Gardener”) and Oscar-nominated Pugh.
The British Pugh and American Johansson click in ways you’d never expect. And that’ll be handy, as they’re going up against “a man who commands the very will of others.”
That whole “free will” subtext, a new concept to our Russian anti-heroes, gets kind of lost in the mix. The “today’s politics” that come up in montages (reminding SOME people that Putin is still The Enemy) is fuzzy. The picture reaches its climax, stuffs in a coda to get us back into the Avengers timeline, and then adds a TV tie-in after the credits.
Marvel selling Marvel never ends.
But the stars make it a fun ride, even when the action goes “Roger Moore as Bond” goofy, even when Harbour is hitting a Russian-accented punchline entirely too hard, and even when Yelena relents and strikes her own “super hero pose.”
MPA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt and Ray Winstone.
Credits: Directed by Cate Shortland script by Eric Pearson, based on the Marvel Comics. A Marvel Studios release.
Running time: 2:13