Movie Review: Another summer, another Marvel comic book movie

MarvelScarlett Johansson (left) and Florence Pugh are on the run in 'Black Widow.'

Setting aside the latest exercise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Black Widow character for just a few paragraphs, if you want to see how wonderful Scarlett Johansson is as an actress (she plays the Black Widow), you should watch these eight films in which she is featured: “Lost In Translation,” “Girl With A Pearl Earring,” “The Prestige,” “Under The Skin,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Vicki Cristina Barcelona,” “Scoop” and “Match Point,” the latter three written and directed by Woody Allen.

Start with this trio: “Lost In Translation,” the minimalist masterwork of contemporary ennui from director Sofia Coppola; “Under The Skin,” which is a mesmerizing dramatic science fiction movie; and “Match Point,” the brilliant morality tale about the dangers of lust and obsession.

If you feel like laughing after watching them, or desire a little romance, try this Allen double feature: “Scoop” in which Johansson delightfully plays a classic screwball comedy character alongside Hugh Jackman, Ian McShane and Allen himself. Follow it up with “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” and its two female friends and the smooth-talking European gentleman enamored of them.

Johansson is an alluring actress who can be seductive or quirky and is always in the moment. Her “Black Widow” can be seen in movie theaters or through Disney+ for $29.99, plus your monthly streaming fee.

The film is Marvel’s latest entry in its scheme to control the entertainment landscape. A dozen or so movies based on comic book characters are in the pipeline. Marvel needs to slow down because “Black Widow” is not the guiding star they wanted it to be.

I’m not anti-Marvel by any stretch of the imagination. I especially enjoyed “Spider-Man” (2002), “Iron Man” (2008), “Thor” (2011), “The Avengers” (2012), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), “Guardians Of The Galaxy” (2014), “Ant-Man” (2015) and “Black Panther” (2018).

The problems with “Black Widow” include not only how misguided and unnecessary it is, but also how manufactured it feels, as if it were crafted on an assembly-line of countless meetings involving production teams at Disney and Marvel.

Let’s start at the beginning. “Black Widow” is a prequel and an origin story. Watching it requires knowledge of some aspects of the Marvel Universe. It’s not a good movie, but it will be a better movie for you if you know who the Black Widow character is and can add some background information from films that have already been made.

Most important is the fact that the Black Widow (played by Johansson) died in “Avengers: Endgame” (from 2019). The point of the new movie is to flesh out some unknowns about her. Filling in the blanks is not a particularly good filmmaking concept for a story that should really have been told five year ago.

We meet the future Avenger in childhood form in 1995, as a little girl named Natasha Romanoff. Her family life in Ohio is sugar and spice and everything nice. She has a little sister named Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). Their mom, Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), is a lovely lady. Dad is Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour). Are you sensing something odd here? Perfect Americana? Don’t be silly. No one in this quartet is actually related.

The illusion presented is that these Russian spies are waiting to participate in the overthrow of the American government by an army of happy homemakers, working dads, and cute kids. The arch and creaky screenplay by Eric Pearson seems rooted in those 1950s paranoia movies in which Soviet spies were everywhere. “I Was A Communist For The FBI” from 1951, for example.

I was also reminded of the exceptional “Little Nikita” from 1988, which stars River Phoenix and Sidney Poitier and is about Soviet Union sleeper agents in the United States. There’s also a hint of the acceptable “Abduction” from 2011.

Before you can say bowl of borscht, one day dad comes home and advises his family they have to skedaddle. In a nicely composed action sequence — the best in the movie — they face long odds, swarming cops and an airplane ride out of Ohio. The escape of this phony middle-class family escalates into chaos and before you know it, time jumps.

Australian director Cate Shortland, who is decidedly not an action filmmaker, is out of her element here. She slowly burrows into the gist of the overlong “Black Widow,” which is a convoluted plot about a subhuman monster named Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who uses mind control drugs on women in order to send them into the world and murder people who he thinks need to be murdered.

Who can stop this nefarious scheme? Ah yes, the sisters who aren’t really sisters. Natasha and Yelena reunite, and we are in an action picture that pauses far too many times for conversations about familial love and caring. Touchy-feely doesn’t work here. Director Shortland and screenwriter Pearson bog down the proceedings with scenes of emotional anguish.

As talented as Johansson and Pugh are, nothing they do or say feels honest or character-driven. We are literally being shoved through plot points so we can get to the familiar mundane battles. Natasha has a nifty action stance, as if she’s a leaping leopard ready to pounce, but by then you may not care.

“Black Widow” is a hollow attempt to deliver strong female characters, but the effort is wasted because in this unimaginative origin story, nothing is truly original.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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