Three Sisters (Minus One)
When the cinemas started closing last Autumn, long before the second full lockdown, the reason given was the decision by Eon to postpone the release of No Time to Die: a demonstration of how dependent movie theatres can be on a just a handful of huge movies in order to stay open. Not many films pack as much clout as Bond, obviously, but when it comes to balancing box-office power with sheer ubiquity, you could do much worse than look at the Marvel franchise.
Marvel started pumping out three blockbusters a year a little while back, and the delay in the release of Cate Shortland's Black Widow means that they have been piling up during the period of the pandemic: we can now look forward to (or nervously anticipate) the appearance of no fewer than four films under the Marvel marque before the end of this year, with another four in 2022.
Could this finally be the point at which the brains behind Marvel overestimate public demand for their products? (Bear in mind there are also a dozen TV series either in development or already available.) Well, given Marvel's success in defying expectations and really altering the way that people engage with blockbuster entertainment, it would be a brave person who predicted their imminent demise – certainly, the appearance of Black Widow (finally) suggests that cinema is on the verge of getting back to something approaching normal.
The fact that it's a film which makes a couple of call-backs to Bond films of yesteryear (one Roger Moore title in particular) is probably a coincidence. It opens in a very domestic mode, with two young sisters living with their parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) in mid-90s Florida – but all is not as it appears and the family (if such it really is) ends up fleeing the country, pursued by the authorities: they are Russian spies. (The film does its best to skate over the fact that this is a few years too late for it to be Cold War espionage, but there's still something a bit odd going on here: Harbour's character is just a bit too much of an OTT communist ideologue.) The two girls are removed from their surrogate parents and entered into an indoctrination and training programme designed to produce elite spies and assassins: the Black Widow project.
And all this is just the pre-credits sequence. Things pick up over twenty years later, with the elder sister, Natasha Romanoff (the splendid Scarlett Johansson) on the run from the authorities following the events of 2016's Captain America: Civil War (don't worry, detailed knowledge of Marveliana is probably not required). Her attempts to live quietly in Norway are foiled when she receives a mysterious package from Budapest and is shortly after attacked by a silent, lethal assassin codenamed Taskmaster (Greg Davies).
Naturally, Nat pops off to Budapest to see what's what, only to encounter her younger 'sister' Yelena (the fabulous Florence Pugh), now another graduate of the Black Widow programme. Yes, it's still going, despite Nat being under the impression she had killed its prime mover, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), many years earlier. After smashing each other into the fixtures and fittings for a bit, the two women decide they both really want to stop Dreykov properly, but to do so will involve reaching out to other figures from their past, as well as evading the Taskmaster and the army of Black Widows their enemy has under his control…
So, yes, many moose-and-squirrel accents on display in this one, along with quite a lot of leather catsuits (as befits a film about character spawned from late-60s spy-fi fantasies). It's probably worth mentioning that the Progressive Agenda Committee have been in session and Yelena's Black Widow outfit is notably less… how best to put it? …likely to inspire impure thoughts in the audience; I suspect this sort of thing may prove to be a bit of a hallmark of the latest phase of the Marvel project.
Nevertheless, it's good to have something as solidly, reliably entertaining as a Marvel film back in the cinema. I suspect that not even the most fanatical fan of either Scarlett Johansson or Black Widow would seriously contend that this is a film from the uppermost echelon of the series, but let's not forget that even their weaker movies tend to be pretty good.
As usual, they modulate the usual Marvel tone and structure a bit to suit whatever story they're telling – in this case, a relatively gritty tale of shadowy covert projects, not entirely unlike one of the Bourne films but with extra retired super-soldiers and flying secret HQs – and, also as usual, the producers work their usual trick of hiring distinctive, interesting talents (Shortland, Johansson, Pugh) and then putting them to work making something which is really much of a muchness with the other films in the series. (But hey, this is no-two-ways-about-it commercial film-making, and you can't argue with a total box office take of twenty-two billion dollars.)
It's such a consistently enjoyable muchness, anyway, even if the carpentry supporting the rest of the franchise is as visible as ever – one of the film's jobs is clearly to establish Pugh as the 'new' Black Widow who will be appearing in future projects. The plot is deceptively slim this time around, especially for a film clocking in at nearly two and a quarter hours, but the action is rousingly done, and the comedy of Romanoff and her dysfunctional family is very effective (David Harbour in particular is good value as a bombastic, gone-to-seed ex-patriotic hero; shades of The Incredibles here a bit). The emotional subtext is also surprisingly effective given the context it's in.
What is missing somewhat is Scarlett Johansson herself, especially considering this is almost certainly the last time she'll be playing this role. She's front and centre throughout, certainly, but given she plays the character very straight indeed she's prone to get upstaged by anyone else who's prepared to push the envelope and go big, performance-wise. It's a bit of a shame, as Johansson is obviously a talented, committed performer – but even the star of a Marvel film isn't bigger than the larger project.
You're allowed to revile and detest Marvel movies, obviously (but if you do so while suggesting that anyone else makes this kind of film better, your anchor has clearly slipped from the moorings of reason), and Black Widow is not the film to persuade anyone to get on board who has issues with this franchise. It has many of the strengths of the series, along with most of the weaknesses – business as usual, really. The end result is a solid piece of entertainment the like of which the last year and a half has largely deprived us of. The Marvel project may ultimately be just a grand and implacable machine, but it's also quite nice to have it back.