KATE MUIR: Widow’s peak! Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh dazzle in spectacular return of delayed Marvel superheroes saga Black Widow
Black Widow (12A)
Scarlett Johansson gives a cracking performance as Natasha Romanoff, a whip-smart, Russian-trained killing machine in the long-awaited Black Widow Marvel blockbuster.
But she’s nearly upstaged by her little sister, played by British actress Florence Pugh with oomph, wit and often hilarious childlike enthusiasm.
Black Widow has all the back-to-cinema bravura audiences could want. As two catsuit-clad female assassins, Johansson and Pugh rival the best of the supermen in Marvel Cinematic Universe with the balletic brutality of their fight sequences.
Their enemy is veteran hardman Ray Winstone playing Russian supervillain Dreykov, who is running the Black Widow assassin programme. He hams it up as he tries to drop his East End accent and sound more Eastern Bloc.
Scarlett Johansson gives a cracking performance as Natasha Romanoff, a whip-smart, Russian-trained killing machine in the long-awaited Black Widow Marvel blockbuster
Johansson first appeared as Black Widow, the Russian agent Natasha, in Iron Man 2 in 2010. Later, she swapped allegiances to America to join the Avengers, and finally reprised her role in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, where her character died. It’s not exactly John le Carre, but it’s sometimes hard to keep up.
Now, in Black Widow’s first stand-alone film, according to the crazy logic of the Marvel Universe, we return to 2016, where Natasha is still alive – and kicking ass, big time.
Her mission is to destroy the Russians’ Red Room programme, which trains and brainwashes girls, including herself, to become Black Widow killers (n.b. don’t mix that up with the Red Room in Fifty Shades of Grey – quite a different matter, despite similar black leather costumes).
Compared with some of the clunking, overblown efforts in the previous Avengers films, Black Widow has shape, coherence and emotional heft, thanks to Australian director Cate Shortland, who has successfully leapt from arthouse films to this £150million CGI spectacular.
The story goes back to Natasha’s origins, her childhood with her sister Yelena in rural Ohio in 1995. The scenes are shot in faded Kodachrome colours, a nostalgic view of a happy family in suburbia.
Rachel Weisz is their mother Melina, and their father is a chunky Russian played by David Harbour. But daddy turns out to be super-soldier Red Guardian, and the family is not what it seems. Dysfunctional doesn’t cover it.
But let’s avoid spoilers and cut to 21 years later, when Black Widow is a grown woman. Hiding out in Norway, she gets a mysterious parcel from Yelena, and goes to find her in Budapest.
But she’s nearly upstaged by her little sister, played by British actress Florence Pugh with oomph, wit and often hilarious childlike enthusiasm
The girls haven’t seen each other in two decades, so think they are on different sides, and a sisterly skirmish occurs, as funny as it is furious. Soon they are fighting an entire squad of Black Widows, each deadlier than the last.
Yelena takes the mickey, pointing out that her sister flicks her hair back showily after battle, and lacks superhero powers, despite being an Avenger: ‘I don’t think the God-from-space had to take an ibuprofen after a fight,’ she says, laughing.
Actually, the two Black Widows are extraordinarily athletic, with daredevil stunts hanging on ropes from clapped-out helicopters, and traditional motorbike-to-car chases which end untraditionally. Plus a finale with all guns and space-stations blazing.
But what makes this film a cut above the usual superhero fare is the dry wit and depth of almost every character. Red Guardian’s old-fashioned romanticisation of his super-soldier role; Yelena’s delight at buying her first non-uniform clothing; and Melina’s uncanny mental connection with – yes – her experimental pigs.
Johansson’s combination of vulnerability and power gives her a magnetic screen presence, and in terms of female superheroines, she’s up there with Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel and easily outdoes the wooden performance of Wonder Woman. Black Widow, cancelled twice due to Covid, has been worth the wait.
÷ In cinemas from Wednesday, July 7 and on Disney+ from July 9
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