By Tim Basaraba
As a film reviewer I was hitting my stride pre-pandemic. I had written over 35 reviews in 5 months. The variety of films and their subsequent “grades” were diverse and unpredictable. An AMC A-list membership made me feel like a young Pauline Kale, Gene Siskle or even Dan Murrell. The premium service allowed me early access to some films and the price to see up to three films a week was well worth it. I would arrive early mostly on opening nights, turn off my phone and let the images and sounds flood over me and then directly head to the library and hammer out a first draft of the review.
The films I covered ranged from near perfection (Joker and Parasite) to utter disappointment (Gemini Man and Doolittle) and everywhere in between. The solitude of the process was in direct conflict with the communal aspects of the viewing. Sure, I mostly arrived alone and felt the comfort of being in my church with autonomy, but with each shocking moment, well delivered comedic line or action sequence I could sense the other people around me. Gasps, laughter and cheers was all I needed from my fellow church goers and I assume this is all they needed from me. This sense of being alone yet being a part of something bigger was something I took for granted, as with many things the nearing pandemic would remind us what was/is important.
My “church” wasn’t perfect, occasionally I would slip into misanthrope mode when a kid kicked the back of my seat. Or even brim with silent rage when an ingrate checked their phone after a text and the illumination of the screen distracted my attention but, for the most part, going to “church” was a fruitful religious experience. This reverent five months of viewing and reviewing gave way to 15 months of isolation – just me, my wife, two dogs and streaming services. That all changed in July 2021 when I returned to “church” to see Marvel Studios latest film, Black Widow.
Black Widow (2021)
Directed by Cate Shortland
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour & Ray Winstone
How could a film have gravitas when its main character died three films ago?
This was the question I asked myself heading into Marvel’s Black Widow, the franchise’s first major release of 2021 and first to debut on Disney plus on the same day as it’s theatrical release. Pre-pandemic, the zeitgeist finally matched up to the admiration I had with the comic book superheroes I read about in my childhood. Not only was Thanos the coolest villain ever created by Jim Starlin on the comics page, he was also the coolest villain in the history of film, making Infinity War and Endgame two of the highest grossing films of all time. Could the return of a Marvel film help us see the light and restart the zeitgeist to things that are important, like cinema?
Despite these lofty expectations, director Kate Shortland delivers an excellent addition to the MCU canon. Black Widow shines by surrounding its title character with other stars so the film can shine far beyond the darkness of Natasha’s inevitable sacrifice. The richness of the supporting characters were a great addition and made it so we didn’t have to be bummed the whole film knowing that our hero dies later in the MCU chronology.
The core of this espionage/action film isn’t the explosions or dynamic set designs – both which are impressive – the core of the film is a question: “What is family?” Shortland’s story explores this quandary in a sweet and subtle way throughout the course of the film, rather than hammering the point into us at the beginning. As a result, the viewer can devote more focus to the film’s nearly non-stop action and engaging storyline.
When it comes to Natasha’s relation with her family members, I related most with sister Yelena Belova – played masterfully by Florence Pugh. Her 2019 roles as Saraya Knight, Dani and Amy March in Fighting with My Family, Midsommar and Little Women respectively convinced me that she may have shown the most impressive acting range of any actor in a single year since Heath Ledger’s impressive 2005 run (Bonus points for naming two of the four without IMDB)– and she continues this achievement as a super spy sister. Her character’s family-fueled vulnerability coupled with her near invulnerability as a ruthless killer created the perfect dichotomy which I had no choice but to latch on to.
The rest of the cast were superb – from the boisterous Red Guardian played by David Harbour, to the stone-faced manipulative scientist Melina played by Rachel Weisz, and our big bad Dreykov played – with a “Harvey Weinstein on steroids” approach – by Ray Winstone. Hopefully we will see at least one of Natasha’s family members in future MCU films, in fact we may have been given a sneak peak at Tash 2.0
It has been a while since I’ve written a review. So please forgive me if I forgot my formula, but I promise to not spoil anything by finishing with a “If this is a __, then this was a ___” comparison. So here it goes: If Natasha’s final appearance in Avengers:Endgame was an A, and Marvel’s highmark espionage film Captain America: Winter Soldier was an A+, then Black Widow – my first film viewed in a theater since March 2020 – is a B.