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Black Widow

Year: 2021
Production Co: Marvel Studios
Studio: Disney
Director: Cate Shortland
Writer: Eric Pearson/Jac Schaeffer/Ned Benson
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone, William Hurt, Olga Kurylenko

Though not as hammy or overblown and with (as you've heard) a little more human interest tham most superhero jams, it's still the same old superhero origin story and can't escape all the conventions you can recite in your sleep.

In the events after Captain America: Civil War, when half the Avengers (including Natasha) are fugitives from the law for reasons I couldn't remember, Black Widow (Johansson) is living off the grid in far flung Scandinavia.

The film actually starts earlier, where a young Natasha and her little sister Yelena are living an idyllic life in the Middle American suburbs with their parents Alexei (David harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz). But when Alexei comes home one night full of foreboding, Melina knows the day she's dreaded for years has come. They pack their car and take off with federal agents hot on their trails, only just escaping in a light plane to Cuba.

The terrified girls have no idea their parents are Soviet spies implanted in America who've decided to go rogue and make off with a serum that elicits complete obedience in children... or something. Their parents are bundled off back to Russia, the girls torn from their arms and put into an elite training program to make them killers, and the family that was an illusion anyway is traumatically destroyed.

Natasha is bought back into the fight after Yelena (now played by girl of the moment Florence Pugh) sends her a package of the vials containing the obedience serum. Yelena is still a Widow, the name given to the young female warriors who emerged from the childhood-spanning training program. After tracking and killing of of her own that's gone rogue, Yelena is exposed to the serum and realises none of them have to put up with a life of violence and servitude... or something.

Natasha, not knowing what she has in the package, is attacked by a super-suited figure sent by the assassin she thought she'd killed years before who still operates the Widows program... or something, moving to a safe house in Budapest where her sister is waiting, hoping Natasha will join her but instead trying to kill each other in a brutal fight... for some reason.

They team up to try to get back inside the program run by the guy Natasha thought she killed... I think – Dreykov (Ray Winstone, doing one of his signature awful foreign accents and collecting his cheque), which leads them to a floating city in the sky that's been hidden from the world, which leads to the climatic smackdown fight amid huge sections of steel and debris falling through the air.

If you understood everything that led them to that point you're either a Marvel completist or you're just smarter than me. I've never watched one of these flicks where prior knowledge of the characters and their stories was this important, and I spent most of it either just trying to enjoy the visuals or furrowing my brow trying to figure out what everyone was talking about.

Amid it all are themes of what constitutes real family but it's throwaway backboning to a moving comic book and no more. Throughout it all I should have been concentrating on a story that made sense, but all I felt was pity for director Cate Shortland (and others like her subsumed into the machine), who toiled for years back in her native Australia in indie cinema for no money until the movement collapsed and Marvel became the only game in town, talking the talk to the press afterwards about how they really wanted a story about emotion and character and that's why she signed on.

Since seeing it, any memory or sense of the plot has receded further into the background because of two other developments. First was the magazine story where one of the directors in the running revealed Marvel executives told her not to worry about the action scenes because they were all company business, something I believe tells us all we need to know about the industry of blockbuster cinema today.

And second is ScarJo's Hollywood-stopping (against Disney, not Marvel – a notable difference) lawsuit over lost earnings because after a catastrophic second week theatrical drop off it shunted the movie straight to its streaming service.

Instead of a movie, it's made Black Widow ground zero in a new battleground over what actors are paid when movies are products from a content pipeline rather than cultural fixtures.

We all know what happened to Natasha at the end of Avengers: Endgame so at least we theoretically won't have to sit through another one of these, and Johansson's very public dissing of Disney with her suit is probably tacit admission she knows she's not going to be invited back anyway. Aside from all that, it's just more of the same.

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