Cate Shortland’s “Black Widow”: Film Review

February 3rd, 1959: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, three of the musical greats of the 1950s, all tragically perished in a horrific plane crash. It would later be known as “The Day The Music Died” as immortalized by Don McLean in the hit song “American Pie”. McLean’s tune is one filled with wistfulness for a past that seemed more clear and hopeful.

A newspaper clipping from that tragic day described in “American Pie”

In Black Widow, the musings of McLean beat like an anthem for Natasha’s makeshift family. While the titular character wants to push on and forget her past, regaling the ‘good ol days’ are all Yelena, Alexei and Melina have to maintain their sanity. They all wish to return to 1991 Ohio, where there still appeared to be clear cut heroes and villains (the Russkies versus those capitalist Americans), and a sense of family and community between the individuals.

We know now though that “American Pie” greatly waxes nostalgia. Between the fight for civil rights, the Korean War and the beginning of Cold War tensions, the period depicted in McLean’s hit was much more tumultuous in reality. Likewise, the time that Yelena, Alexei and Melina all yearn for is nothing but a mirage. Their memories of family are no more real than the present boxes in their Christmas cards.

While it’s foolish to try and recreate one’s personal history, it’s still possible to build something from the rubble of the past. Natasha’s family may have been simply a Cold War illusion in 1991, the troubled past they all share is a unifier for them to truly bond in the present.

Similarly, Black Widow itself has a fondness for the past. Director Cate Shortland fills the film with classic James Bond tropes, like the evil villain monologue, the unique henchman that’s given little to do, and shadow organizations thay run on nifty gadgets. Shortland though, wisely never tries to directly recreate the classic Bond films, instead blending those elements with the superhero genre, the modern equivalent of globetrotting crowdpleasers like Moonraker.

On a narrative and cinematic level, Black Widow acknowledges how nostalgia can cloud and distort our perspective of the past to the point that we are unable to progress in the present. If we instead try to live in the moment while still taking account of our history, we can discover new communities just like Natasha and Yelena did.

The Silver Lining

Just like in Midsommar and Little Women, Florence Pugh (Yelena Belova) steals every scene she is in. Pugh is able to balance her character’s quippy humor that is a trademark to the MCU’s roster with authentic moments of emotional clarity. In fact, Yelena is the first new MCU character since the Guardians of the Galaxy that feels like a fleshed out individual and not a joke machine. If Florence Pugh is at the forefront of the next iteration of The Avengers, the MCU should be in incredibly safe hands.

Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova

Black Widow is available now on Disney+ Premier Access or at a movie theater near you.

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