In Marvel blockbuster "Black Widow," the sisters who snark together spark together
Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenie, William Hurt, Ever Anderson and Violet McGraw. Written by Eric Pearson. Directed by Cate Shortland. Playing at Greater Toronto Area drive-ins and streaming on Disney+. 134 minutes. PG
The best moment in "Black Widow," the latest eruption from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is when new hire Florence Pugh mocks that very same universe.
Pugh plays Yelena, the attention-seizing younger "sister" (the quote marks get explained) of flame-haired and leather-clad Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow of Avengers fame.
Mischievous Yelena wants to know why Natasha always adopts a crouched on-your-marks stance when she's about to fight, which makes her "look like you think someone is looking at the you all the time." She laughingly accuses Natasha of being a poser, which maybe she is. I've never be able to see Black Widow again without thinking that she's modelling for her plastic action figure.
Natasha's embarrassed denial indicates the sibling rocket found its mark. But she gives as good as she gets, in a belated Black Widow showcase that marks only the second time in 24 MCU films that a female character lands her own movie. On the MCU's wonky timeline, "Black Widow" is set mainly in 2016, between the larger family feuds of "Captain America: Civil War" and "Avengers: Infinity War," that temporarily shattered the superhero covenant.
Squabbling sisters Natasha and Yelena continue to exchange snark as the stakes get higher. They reluctantly join forces to find out why their idyllic American family, seen in a prologue set in the Ohio of 1995, turned out 21 years later to be connected to Russian espionage and other skullduggery. Taking the stage at this point is a dastardly baddie named General Dreykov, played by a lifeless Ray Winstone with a bad Russian accent. He's busy creating his own version of Dr. Evil's killer fembots, although his motives are murky.
And so it goes over 134 monotonous minutes, in a blockbuster saga that bolts like Bugs Bunny right off the hop but waddles like Elmer Fudd through much of the rest.
Besides clueing in on the secrets of Natasha and Yelena, we're also schooled about the real lives and agendas of their parents: mysterious Melina (Rachel Weisz) and pugnacious Alexei (David Harbour), aka super thug the Red Guardian. Like Pixar's Mr. Incredible, beefy Alexei has to struggle to fit into his Spandex suit.
No question Australia's Cate Shortland ("Somersault") has what it takes to boss a Marvel movie. All the action set pieces and explosions happen on cue and she handles character development better than most MCU directors.
But the film, written by Eric Pearson ("Thor: Ragnarok"), never satisfactorily resolves the structural conflict of being both an origin story and a franchise baton-passer between characters old and new.
When Johansson and Pugh are having at each other, all is (almost) forgiven. Can we find some way to get them together again, please, inside or out of the MCU? 🌓