“Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister,” sang Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas. Black Widow takes a similarly hard line on the subject, with mutually protective siblings Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) reacting unfavourably to anyone who threatens their sisterhood. “Natasha” may be the name on her library card but it is as Black Widow that she is a member of the Avengers superhero team. Not that newcomers would guess these credentials from the scene in which she sits in a rusty caravan eating dinner in front of the TV and mouthing along to Roger Moore’s dialogue in Moonraker. Alan Partridge would be proud.
During a tiff with Yelena, Natasha points out that they are not technically sisters, but then family in the movie is whatever you make it. The girls grew up together as part of a Russian sleeper cell in Ohio, along with two adult operatives: Melina (Rachel Weisz), a scientist, and Alexei (David Harbour), whose alter-ego is the Soviet superhero Red Guardian. “I could’ve been more famous than Captain America,” he gripes, squeezing himself into his old costume – a gag that is familiar from The Incredibles but has been in service at least since The Return of Captain Invincible in 1983.
A prologue in Black Widow shows the family escaping to Cuba under enemy fire. Risking life and limb only to be greeted on the tarmac by Ray Winstone in a shell-suit and faltering Russian accent is, in all honesty, not ideal. As the criminal mastermind Dreykov, he takes one look at young Natasha and spots her potential. Or as he puts it: “Dat one, she hass fire een her.”
Press-ganged into his platoon of young assassins, the sisters’ paths diverge, only for them to meet up again years later as adults. After some introductory hand-to-hand combat, the women call a truce. At this point they are panting on the floor, surrounded by broken crockery, and with a net curtain wound around both their necks – an oddly beautiful image that suggests a Flapper-ish glamour as well as the violent trauma which will bind them forever.
They have some catching up to do. Yelena wants to know what the deal is with Natasha’s trademark fighting stance – one leg outstretched, one hand on the ground, hair tossed back. “It’s a great pose,” she says in a don’t-get-me-wrong tone. “But it does look like you think everyone is looking at you all the time.” This works as a kid-sister tease, though it also shows Marvel’s tendency to have it both ways, ridiculing its own conventions before indulging them all over again once the next action scene rolls around.
Black Widow is set immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which means the Avengers have recently broken up. “It’s fine, I’m actually better on my own,” shrugs Natasha, giving off definite Zayn Malik vibes. Yelena has even bigger news: she recently escaped from Dreykov’s brainwashed assassin squad after being sprayed with a tube of raspberry-coloured stardust by one of her targets. It may look like your average vial of pink body glitter from Claire’s, but this is potent stuff capable of breaking the deadlock of docile groupthink and causing instant empathy. Imagine the difference it could make to Twitter.
The film follows the women’s attempts to liberate the rest of Dreykov’s trafficked female killers from his nerve centre. It’s called the Red Room, either in honour of Twin Peaks or Jane Eyre, or to reflect the practices that go on there: the girls are forced to have hysterectomies, as Yelena explains in grisly detail in response to an offhand joke about her “time of the month”.
Finding the Red Room necessitates a family reunion of sorts. The sisters use a fighter plane to bust Alexei out of jail before tracking down Melina, who is busy doing mind-control experiments on pigs. “You named one after me?” says the uncouth Alexei in dismay. “You can’t see the resemblance?” she replies. Welcome to Marvel humour. It’s enough to make you miss Roger Moore.
As evidence of a drive to look beyond the usual suspects (and gender) for its directors, Marvel Studios has appointed the Australian film-maker Cate Shortland, whose track record lies in small-scale psychological dramas about oppressed women (Lore, Berlin Syndrome). She introduces hints of griminess to undercut the usual gleam, and treats the scenes between the long-lost sisters with a lingering warmth. It’s no small thing to bring together actors who have carried two of the most audacious films of the past decade (Johansson in Under the Skin, Pugh in Midsommar) but they deserve better than this material, which could only feel fresh to viewers who have avoided Red Sparrow, Atomic Blonde and Killing Eve.
Marvel Studios can hire any director it likes, but until the movies start taking the formalist risks of its recent TV spin-off WandaVision, which filtered superheroes through the world of sitcoms, the result will always be the same: action, talk, action, jokes, fireball, fireball, fireball.
“Black Widow” is in cinemas and on Disney+ now
Black Widow (12A)
dir: Cate Shortland
This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust