‘Black Widow’: This MCU cloak-and-dagger story somewhat satisfies

“Black Widow” (2021) – Budapest. 

Hungary’s capital city is also the country’s largest, with 3 million people living in the greater metropolitan area.  Budapest is known for old-world architecture and a slew of museums, theatres, and operas.  If you’re hungry, a mean goulash or chicken paprikash could satisfy, or an easy, breezy boat ride along the Danube River might soothe the soul.

Well, Marvel fans – including this critic – have wondered about some specific events in the Queen of the Danube – involving Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) for years.  Black Widow (Johansson) and Hawkeye (Renner) briefly mentioned Budapest during their New York City battle with the Chitauri in “The Avengers” (2012) and, more recently, just before Natasha died in “Avengers: Endgame” (2019). 

As they fly to Vormir, Clint smiles while enjoying the space travel and remarks, “It’s a long way from Budapest.” 

Well, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen Natasha (two years), but she’s back in a full-length feature film.  No, Marvel Studios isn’t resurrecting the dead nor parading a Black Widow from an alternate universe.  For the record, that multiverse stuff is so well-played in the “Loki” (2021) Disney+ series, but in “Black Widow” (2021), our femme fatale travels back to Europe after “Captain America: Civil War” (2016).  She catches up with some former colleagues and faces off against an old enemy.  Both parties are from another life before she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Avengers.

Director Cate Shortland and screenwriter Eric Pearson also reveal the happenings in Budapest….and Ohio.

Ohio? 

Yes, Natasha’s on-screen journey begins somewhere in The Buckeye State, a comforting place with Friday night football games, kids riding bikes sans organized, parental-planned playdates, and warm family dinners that arrive at the kitchen table every night at six. 

Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour)

After recently enduring “F9: The Fast Saga” (2021), I can report that “Black Widow” offers more satisfying emotional beats and heart-pounding thrills in its first 10 minutes than the latest Dominic Toretto flick does during its entire 143-minute runtime.  With all the talk about family in “F9”, we feel a closer one here or the presumption of one.  Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), and Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh and Violet McGraw) are the dearest forms of kin that Natasha knows.

Not only is Shortland filming a post “Civil War” adventure and Budapest reveals, but also an origin narrative, so she and Pearson pack a ton of story into one film. 

After a spectacular opening, Ms. Romanoff searches for a dénouement or an escape from the Sokovia Accords, as its enforcer Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) looks to mark her with his brand of justice

Well, Norway seems a pleasant reprieve, especially during the summertime.  Although someone interrupts her moment of peace faster than you can say, “Villains are everywhere.”

An armored Skeletor-looking baddie confronts her and seeks a package of vials with glowing red liquid that packs more wallop than Texas hot sauce in July.  This crimson concoction could crash the Black Widow program, a Russian quasi-military array of female assassins, one that Natasha knows all too well.

So, she aims to confront its ringleader, Gen. Dreykov (Ray Winstone), and dismantle his sinister militia.  Ms. Romanoff catches up with her sister from another mother, Yelena (Pugh), and they recruit Melina and Alexei.  Pugh, Weisz, and Harbour are perfectly cast, but Florence gets the most screen time since Yelena and Natasha are close in age, and these two loners are better as a dynamic duo.  Natasha paired up with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), and this film has a similar vibe, including Taskmaster, the mysterious masked villain (chasing after the after the radiant red stuff) who is this story’s Winter Soldier. 

Taskmaster

Europe is the setting for this cloak-and-dagger flick, where fists, flips, kicks, and kabooms do the talking, and car chases sometimes spill onto subway platforms.

The danger is everywhere, and as our heroes keeping driving forward through gunfire and explosions, the stakes are dramatically raised, figuratively and literally.  The film, however, works best in smaller, intimate quarters, especially when Natasha confronts her past that includes Yelena, as these pseudo-sisters sometimes act as frenemies.  Pugh and Johansson have strong on-screen chemistry, especially when Yelena challenges her older sibling.  She feels that Natasha abandoned her to hang with a superhero tribe.  In turn, Natasha pushes back while also extending branches with at least an olive or two. 

Both women have mastered brawling and accurately firing bullets, which they sometimes target at each other.  The ladies are peers or pretty darn close to it for all intents and purposes and don’t share unequal Electra Woman and Dyna Girl dynamics.  The point is that Ms. Romanoff is deceased in MCU present-day (or 2023), and Yelena looks to be the heir apparent in future MCU adventures. 

Yelena will have to lose the Russian accent because Natasha shed hers for General American English, which is puzzling, especially when her mom, dad, and little sis are around.

How long does it take to lose an accent anyway?

Well, Natasha lost track of her old clan for years and years, so the movie aims to reform those emotional ties while the formidable foursome faces Dreykov and his Black Widows.  The antagonists are offshoots of similar mercenaries that we’ve recently seen on the big screen, including “Red Sparrow” (2018) and “Anna” (2019), except on steroids.  Not actual steroids, but Dreykov has amassed more cash and technology than Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk put together, so let your imagination run with that.

Bigger doesn’t always mean better, as the third act – like the aforementioned “F9” – ignores physics laws and also the frailty of flesh and blood against detonations, thousands of bullets, and flying steel shards ever-present in every conceivable direction.  Look, Natasha, Yelena, and Melina are not souped-up super-soldiers, but – at times – the film sort of pretends that they are.  Either that or they are Harry Houdini disciples in secret. 

Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Alexei, and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson)

Alexei actually is a super-soldier – the Red Guardian, a Soviet/Russian version of Captain America – but Shortland doesn’t explore his abilities nearly enough.  The same goes for developing Taskmaster’s character and explaining the Black Widow program’s reach, but then again, the film’s 133-minute runtime could’ve used another hour to address all the moving parts.  Shortland and her assistant directors and editors had the unenviable tasks of cutting from somewhere. 

Still, the film looks tip-top, delivers hold-your-breath thrills, and gives a goodbye salute to Natasha Romanoff after her shocking and affecting demise two years ago.  Loki suffered a similar fate in “Endgame”, but he (or a Loki variant) landed on a whole series that was greenlit for a second season.  Ah well, at least we get the lowdown on Budapest, albeit without a hearty bowl of goulash.  So, the movie somewhat satisfies.

⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: Cate Shortland

Written by: Eric Pearson

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, and Ray Winstone

Runtime: 133 minutes

Rated: PG-13

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