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Satisfying detour for Marvel

by Jake Coyle, AP Film Writer

How fleeting world domination can be. It can disappear in a snap.

It has been two years since the last Marvel film, an unfathomable chasm for an ever-churning movie machine.

In between, Marvel has made its most ambitious forays on to television, with the streaming series WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki. Marvel, of course, isn’t going anywhere.

But it’s also possible that the pandemic hasn’t just been a blip in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even before Covid-19 delayed the release of Black Widow and subsequent instalments a year or more, Avengers: Endgame felt very much like the conclusion of something. Can the most all-powerful juggernaut in movie history just pick up where it left off?

Black Widow, thankfully, isn’t exactly designed that way. It’s as close to a one-off as Marvel gets.

Set in between 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, it doesn’t have any grander, universal purpose to the franchise’s overarching aims than giving Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (who perished in Endgame), a proper sendoff after a decade of service stretching back to 2010’s Iron Man 2.

It is the second Marvel movie fronted by a female star and only the first to be directed solely by a woman, Cate Shortland.

And I think partly because Black Widow needs to exist purely by itself, it works. It’s absorbing in its own right.

Less occupied with driving a universe of movies forward, the almost-standalone film instead digs into slightly darker, deeper realms of the typically bright and shiny Marvel world.

Shortland, an Australian director of indies, grounds Black Widow in a more tactile and murky reality. Essentially a European-set spy thriller with all the shadows of the postwar period, Black Widow is, for much of its running time, closer to Bourne than Thor.

And while it marks a farewell to Johansson, Black Widow is given a boost by a number of new faces — Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone — who supply some new verve in a movie world that has recently been dependent on many of its longest-running stars.

The movie, scripted by Eric Pearson, begins with familiar suburban scenes of two young girls and their apparent mother (Weisz) readying for dinner.

When the father (Harbour) arrives, he’s distraught. They have an hour to flee, he whispers. They grab little before driving straight for a small airport.

Out the window, while “American Pie” plays on the car stereo, are all-American scenes of families playing on the lawn, a ball game under the lights. It’s an early sign that Black Widow will be about an American Dream denied — or at least delayed — and a kind of anti-Captain America.

Only when the dad flips a car to clear the runway do we have any sense that these aren’t your average Americans. And once they land in Cuba, we realise they aren’t citizens at all, nor are they a family.

Harbour’s character in fact is Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian, a Soviet-built super soldier made to compete with Captain America. Their family was a cobbled-together Ohio sleeper cell.

The four of them are quickly split apart, and over a melancholy cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the opening credits roll with a montage of US-Russian relations over time, mixed with images of Soviet mastermind Dreykov (Winstone) and his Red Room programme of elite assassins — dubbed Widows — all of them plucked from the streets as young girls.

Twenty years later, the long-freed and reformed Natasha — now an Avenger — is well beyond her painful beginnings. But not as much as she thought. Her belief that she killed Dreykov is spoiled when she reunites in Budapest with her faux-sister from childhood, Yelena (Pugh), who informs her that not only is the Red Room very operational, but Dreykov has created a new, frightful method of control of his Widows.

From afar, he can operate their movements and terminate their lives with a few computer buttons. It is an overt form of male control over female bodies with a wide metaphorical meaning that Black Widow transforms seamlessly into comic-book allegory.

Marvel movies, like the moon, are categoried in phases.

Black Widow is meant to kick off “phase four”, but it’s not clear if the empire is waxing or waning.

Black Widow, a Walt Disney Co release, is rated PG13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material. Running time: 134 minutes. Three stars out of four.

NEW REALM: Scarlett Johansson, left, reprises her role as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, alongside Florence Pugh, right. AP picture via Walt Disney Co