Grimness of ‘Black Widow’ offset by acting . . . and even a bit of jocularity

Scarlett Johansson stars in “Black Widow.” –Disney photo

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Film Fare . . . with M.V. Moorhead

Introduced in Marvel’s Tales of Suspense in 1964 as a Cold-War-era enemy for Iron Man, Soviet assassin Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, was later allowed to defect, and eventually became a member of The Avengers. She’s been played in the movies by Scarlett Johansson since 2010.

Technically a prequel to the Avengers flicks, Black Widow offers a backstory for the character. We see her enjoying an idyllic childhood in small-town Ohio. We soon learn that her family is a sham spy cell.

MV Moorhead
M.V. Moorhead

Forced to flee, she and her younger sister Yelena end up in the Red Room, training as brainwashed Russian agents. Years later, the grown-up Natasha teams with Yelena and their “parents,” to stop the cruelties of the Red Room.

Directed by Cate Shortland from a script by Eric Pearson, Black Widow is everything that Marvel movies usually are: well-made, absorbing, overlong, uneven. The main unevenness here is of tone early on. It starts with screaming little girls hauled away from their families and shoved into horrible captivity, and it takes a while for the silly action and jocularity that follows to counter this grimness. Or it took a while for me, anyway.

But once Natasha’s freaky family reunion takes place, and everybody’s speaking English with radio comedy Russian accents, the movie does start to get fun, and by the multiple climactic scenes I was invested.

As usual, the acting is what makes it worthwhile. David Harbour and Rachel Weisz have a blast as the ebullient Dad and the haunted Mom, respectively, and Ray Winstone makes one of the more thoroughly despicable villains ever in a Marvel movie as the loathsome master of the Red Room.

Johansson is lithe and confident in the title role, but the movie is utterly purloined from her by Florence Pugh, sporting a delicious accent, as Yelena. Just as Pugh’s Amy was the liveliest element of 2019’s Little Women, she stands out in Black Widow as another upstart little sister.

Expanded from a children’s book by Marla Frazee, 2017’s The Boss Baby was a pretty laborious animated saga, but it had a hilarious character at its center: toddler Ted Templeton, who swaggered around in the persona of a corporate honcho.

The diminutive tycoon spoke in the peerless silky growl of Alec Baldwin, tossing off lines like “I need upsies,” as if he were asking an administrative assistant for a cup of coffee.

In the sequel The Boss Baby: Family Business, Ted, now grown up, is transformed back into a baby, and his older brother Tim (James Marsden, replacing Tobey Maguire in the original) is transformed back into a little kid so they can infiltrate the school for overachieving kids that Tim’s daughters attend. Tim’s younger daughter (Amy Sedaris) is, it turns out, herself a boss baby.

In short, it’s even more laborious than the first film. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you need to kill a slow afternoon with a 6-year-old.

But if you go, you’ll see gags referencing everything from Pulp Fiction to Norma Rae, and the movie still has Baldwin going for it, delivering quips like, “I’m in the dum-dum holding tank!” with effortless authority.

He gets to square off with another great Hollywood voice, Jeff Goldblum, as the oily, passive-aggressive headmaster. Also, it has kind of a pretty song, called “Together We Stand.”

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