AT THE MOVIES: Thanks to Florence Pugh and vulnerability, Black Widow packs an enjoyable punch

By Doug Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune
Director Cate Shortland (second from left) goes over a scene with 
stars Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh and David Harbour on the set of "Black Widow."

After a brief detour into 1995, Black Widow picks up right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) on the run from the U.S. government. With her Avengers found family disbanded, she just needs a place to lie low. That plan gets derailed once it turns out Dreykov (Ray Winston), the man who trained Romanoff to be an assassin in The Red Room, is alive. Not only that, but he has sent out master assassin Taskmaster to hunt down a collection of vials that would prove fatal to Dreykov's operation. To stop him, Romanoff will have to unite with her former adopted sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), as well as other figures from her old life like Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz). 

Scarlett Johansson stars in "Black Widow."

A welcome surprise regarding Black Widow is that it actually feels like a thematic successor to Shortland's 2012 movie Lore. Both features are about human beings navigating what it means to exist and what their worldview is in the aftermath of their status quo's collapsing. Lore went in a bleak direction in exploring what a teenage girl does when Hitler's regime falls. Meanwhile, Black Widow, being a movie aimed at 10-year-olds released by Disney, is slightly more optimistic in exploring this theme. Here, the concept manifests in how Romanoff and the other three principal characters respond to being involved in an organization that kidnaps and trains young girls to be killers. The concept of women working together is depicted as a critical tool to help create a better tomorrow and evolve from the past. 

Shortland's experience with this theme means it gets rendered with welcome nuance here, with this notion providing a solid thematic foundation for Black Widow, particularly in the great dynamic between Natasha and Yelena. Of course, that rapport is also helped by the performer in charge of playing the latter character. As shocking as Governor Greg Abbott being racist, Florence Pugh is terrific in an on-screen performance. In a movie full of master superspy's, she lends a distinctly human point-of-view to everything, including in her observational gags (like her line about Natasha's "posing") or in her extremely well-realized moments of vulnerability.  

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff in a scene from “Black Widow.”

Come to think of it, vulnerability is actually something Black Widow does quite well as a whole movie. Dating back to the days of Iron Man, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to lean on conversation-heavy sequences because they didn't have the budget for wall-to-wall spectacle, these movies have often found time for surprisingly affecting moments of human connection. Black Widow nicely continues that tradition with various low-key conversational sequences that get to the heart of the lingering pain these characters carry and the messy ways they're coping with that turmoil. There's usually a joke or a punch waiting around the corner to make sure things don't get oppressively bleak, but scenes like Yelena and Alexei's father/daughter "chat" have enough insight to make these characters feel like people. 

Of course, this is a summer blockbuster, so it isn't all laidback conversations. There is also a bunch of action sequences to lure people into movie theaters. On that front, Black Widow is quite fun, Shortland and the second unit directorial team come up with a bunch of exciting fights that nicely vary in geography and backdrops. An early kitchen scuffle between Natasha and Yelena is especially fun, love the way they kept creating weapons out of household objects just lying around. CG elements can be distractingly incorporated into the proceedings, including in some green-screen work in the climax. On the other hand, the practical sets utilized in sequences like a snowy prison break help to reinforce a tactile quality to the various fistfights. Most of our lead characters are just normal people, after all, and it's nifty that Black Widow's exciting chases and fights find ways to reinforce that. 

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, left) reconnects with her younger sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) in "Black Widow."

Black Widow isn't groundbreaking, to be sure. We've certainly seen more subversive takes on the spy movie genre and Eric Pearson's screenplay has its share of flaws (like early scenes too heavy on exposition). Thankfully, the movies entertaining enough to ensure that these are not a major problem. In particular, I found myself quite moved by how the finale of Black Widow isn't about blowing up cities or hunting down space rocks but rather emphasizing the importance of women working together. What a shame it took such an excessively long time to get here since the Black Widow movie turned out to be an extremely enjoyable popcorn film.  

A lifelong movie fan and writer, Douglas Laman graduated from UT Dallas and is currently a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.

Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) in Marvel Studios' 'Black Widow.'
"Black Widow" will be available on Disney Plus Premier Access starting July 9.