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Film review24th installment has women wielding the hammers for a change

Jewish troika breaks more than glass ceilings in Marvel’s epic ‘Black Widow’

Scarlett Johansson, Rachel Weisz and director Cate Shortland make up a trifecta of Women of the Tribe propelling this dazzling action film, out in the US July 9

  • Scarlett Johansson in 'Black Widow.' (Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
    Scarlett Johansson in 'Black Widow.' (Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
  • Scarlett Johansson, left, and Florence Pugh in 'Black Widow.' (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
    Scarlett Johansson, left, and Florence Pugh in 'Black Widow.' (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
  • A still from 'Black Widow.' (Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
    A still from 'Black Widow.' (Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
  • Scarlett Johansson in 'Black Widow.' (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
    Scarlett Johansson in 'Black Widow.' (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
  • From left: Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Scarlett Johansson in 'Black Widow.' (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
    From left: Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Scarlett Johansson in 'Black Widow.' (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
  • A scene from 'Black Widow.' (Adrienn Szabo/ Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
    A scene from 'Black Widow.' (Adrienn Szabo/ Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
  • Rachel Weisz in 'Black Widow.' (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
    Rachel Weisz in 'Black Widow.' (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
  • Florence Pugh in 'Black Widow.' (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)
    Florence Pugh in 'Black Widow.' (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)

NEW YORK — “Black Widow” may be the 24th (wow, 24th!) entry in the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe series, but it’s the first ever mainstream, big-budget Hollywood summer movie with Jewish women as the star and producer (Scarlett Johansson), director (Cate Shortland), and supporting actress (Rachel Weisz). And since we’re rolling, let’s add that second-billed Florence Pugh may not be Jewish, but she’s famously dating one Zachary Israel Braff, aka That Nice Boy From “Scrubs.”

For this alone: dayenu. Hollywood’s glass ceiling has been slow to crack for women, but it is happening. And it’s great to see Jewish women holding the hammers. (Not to mix our Marvel metaphors too much.)

But putting aside the naches (pride) we feel at seeing our Semitic sisters succeed, there’s still an important question: Is the movie any good?

Well, I guess this all depends on how you define your terms. If by “good” you mean, “I sat in the dark for two hours and barely thought about my upcoming doctor’s appointment or my car payments,” then sure, it’s good. There’s a lot of activity on the screen — running, racing, swinging out of helicopters — so you won’t feel ripped off. But is there a story that makes a lick of sense? Are there characters that resemble real life in any way? Does this enterprise follow the basic laws of physics? No, of course not. But clearly — 24 entries into the series — these are not prerequisites for success.

Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov died in the last “Avengers” movie, and not a superhero death that means she’ll be coming back. She’s gone for good, so this movie hits the rewind button a bit and is set in 2016. But before that, we go even further, to 1995, when Natasha was 12 or so, and living an innocent and idealized childhood in Ohio. Romping around the swingset with a younger sister, a loving mother (played by Weisz) and father (David Harbour), this prologue sequence is truly a gorgeous, brief cinéma étude of warm memories.

It is, of course, a ruse. They are Russian agents. Yes, this is after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but just go with it: They’re Russian agents and their cover’s been blown. After a daring escape to Cuba, the two girls (not actually sisters) are separated from their parents (not actually their parents) and sent back to their academy of horrors known as the “Red Room.”

From left: Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Scarlett Johansson in ‘Black Widow.’ (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)

It is there where the girls undergo mind control, are crafted to become elite Jason Bourne-like killers, and are also sterilized to prevent familial attachments. (“Black Widow” is rated PG-13, as are all the Marvel movies, but this one feels like the most PG-13; some of the kidnapping imagery is a little harsh.)

But as I said, most of the action is set in 2016, which means you may need to jog your memory a bit regarding the wider “Avengers” arc. This need to be a “puzzle piece” is probably the biggest flaw in this whole picture, but likely a direct note from the bosses. At regular intervals there are references to other Marvel characters, and each crack about Captain America or Iron Man yanks you out of the rising tension of the film you are already watching in pursuit of some hazy connection. You can feel the suffocating tendrils of corporate marketing choke the life out of the few genuine dramatic moments in the movie.

From left: Rachel Weisz, Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in ‘Black Widow.’ (Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios/All rights reserved)

Which is a shame, because Johansson is very good as the ex-killer hoping to find redemption, and Pugh is outstanding as her daffier, younger comrade with the thickest Russki accent since Natasha Fatale tried to catch Bullwinkle the Moose. After a “do I trust you?” reunion that means a lot of bone-crunching martial arts moves and smashed windows, the two women (and eventually Weisz, too) join forces to take down the nefarious group that’s been transforming girls into unwitting assassins.

If there’s any sort of message to the film — and it isn’t pushed too hard — there is a vaguely feminist “we’re not going to take it anymore” motif.

Speaking as a man, I’ve always found it strange that there has been a resistance in some quarters to female-led action pictures. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if I had to choose between watching Tom Cruise and Matt Damon grunt and snarl while cavorting in tight-fitting action-wear versus Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh, I know very well whom I’d pick! Naturally, my choice is rooted in progressivism, not prurience. What do you take me for?

Scarlett Johansson and O.T. Fagbenle in ‘Black Widow.’ (Jay Maidment/ Marvel Studios/ All rights reserved)

Despite this mighty troika of Jewesses at the helm of this picture, I can’t fib and say there are too many Jewish “moments,” other than maybe a line where Weisz’s mother character demands her children “eat, eat” because they look thin. This is, of course, a motherly trait found in many cultures, but I’d like to think our heroes had a bit of a chuckle together on set that day.

Marvel movies always come with a little mint on the pillow after the closing credits, and while I don’t want to give it away, I will say that there it is actually another Jewish woman, making her first appearance in a theatrically-released Marvel film. It’s unclear if we’ll be seeing much of Scarlett Johansson in future entries, but her legacy will live on.

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