Black Widow

2020, Marvel Entertainment et al

Just as Logan was for the X-Men, Black Widow is the least comic-bookish film in the Avengers franchise. Director Cate Shortland does an admirable job of keeping the focus on the characters amidst a steady stream of intense, genuinely gripping action set pieces and an over-the-over-the-top climax. She's also made a film populated predominantly by strong women that doesn't feel as though it's delivering a gratuitous "female empowerment" statement, as has been the case with some other recent films, such as Infinity Wars and Endgame. It's not that I object to the message—quite the contrary; it's just that those films seem to pause awkwardly in the midst of the action for a Public Service Announcement.

What makes Widow a Top Pick for me is that it checks all of the boxes. The story is satisfying, breathing heart and soul into what could easily have been a collection of action figures. It's not without humor, too; one scene in particular was so funny I repeated it two or three times. (Incidentally, if aspects of the plot remind you in some ways of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, you're not imagining things.) Production values are astronomical, as to be expected from a Marvel property—their budget for destroying cars alone must have been phenomenal. Scarlett Johansson, who also executive-produced, and Florence Pugh deliver strong, heartfelt performances. Also of note, Ray Winstone as Dreykov, principal antagonist, feels like a flesh-and-blood human instead of a mustache-twirling cartoon character, as so many superhero villains often do. Oh, and kudos to all involved for keeping their Russian accents far more subtle than one might otherwise expect from comicbookski fare.

But the biggest win for me was undoubtedly the magnificent score by Lorne Balfe, who replaced Alexandre Desplat in the eleventh hour for reasons unknown (although it was likely due to scheduling issues caused by the Covid pandemic). Like the film, it's undeniably superhero stuff, but with strong Russian overtones, making it refreshingly different from the typical bombast of an action-adventure blockbuster. Employing a 118-piece orchestra and a 60-member choir singing in Russian, Balfe created powerful, stirring music that's solid and substantial, yet also aged and melancholic. I put the soundtrack on repeat for a whole day, and it was still giving me goosebumps at the end of the day. Watch out, Hans Zimmer, you've got competition!

Note that the film has one tiny shortcoming: it requires some awareness of the Marvel Universe; without it, references such as "Captain America" or even just "Avengers" may go over your head. But I don't hold this against Widow; the film would otherwise be bogged down with exposition in an effort to accommodate the unindoctrinated. You do not necessarily need to be a fan, just have a little familiarity, which you can easily pick up online.

DKS 3/29/22




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