Film reviews: Black Widow | The Tomorrow War

A Black Widow spin-off movie for Scarlett Johansson has been a long time coming given her status as the most prominent woman in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Having been killed off in the last Avengers film, though, her character’s eponymously titled solo outing is more swan-song than rebirth, a fan-servicing way to fill in the mysterious super-assassin’s backstory in the full knowledge that this is it for the character.
Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow (Picture: ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved)Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow (Picture: ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved)
Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow (Picture: ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved)

Set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, the film starts promisingly enough with a mid-1990s prologue straight out of The Americans, the hit TV show about Russian sleeper cells living in suburban USA.

Previous Marvel films may have flashed back to Black Widow alter-ego Natasha Romanoff’s teen years as part of a Soviet brainwashing programme, but here we get a thrillingly staged set-piece built around her fake American family’s cover being blown. As seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Natasha and her six-year-old adoptive sister, Yelena, their forced exodus to Cuba sets up the central dynamic of the film in high-octane style, allowing us to hit the ground running when we rejoin Natasha (Johansson) 21 years later as she’s exiled once more following the temporary disbanding of the Avengers.

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With Yelena (Florence Pugh) newly liberated from her chemically subjugated life as part of the same assassin programme that turned Natasha into such a lethal asset, it’s not long before the film brings these sort-of siblings back together to go after Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the sinister Russian super-villain who made them who they are.

Chris Pratt in The Tomorrow War (Picture: Amazon Studios)Chris Pratt in The Tomorrow War (Picture: Amazon Studios)
Chris Pratt in The Tomorrow War (Picture: Amazon Studios)

This idea of chemically controlled covert assassins has shades of the Bourne movies and there are more direct nods to those films in the frequent bouts of hand-to-hand combat that punctuate every other scene. Then again, there are some pretty shameless lifts from plenty of other spy franchises too, whether it’s Johansson and Rachel Weisz (cast here as Natasha’s former spy mum) trading identities using Mission: Impossible style rubber masks or the Bond nods that come from giving Natasha her own English-accented version of Q, Mason (British actor O-T Fagbenle).

But if this suggests Black Widow doesn’t have much personality of its own, that’s not strictly the case. Australian arthouse director Cate Shortland makes an admirable attempt to imbue proceedings with some of the lyricism that made her earlier films – Somersault, Lore, Berlin Syndrome – such distinctive works and this, along with a storyline built around women being chemically gaslit to do the bidding of powerful men (the film was co-written by WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer), ensures that for a short while Black Widow looks and sounds unlike any other Marvel movie… until it does.

At which point it becomes yet another chaotic, episodic mishmash of escalating CGI set-pieces that make little sense for a character with no actual superpowers.

That’s one of the downsides of the Marvel juggernaut, though. Since the start of the superhero movie boom in the early 2000s one of the most intriguing things has been seeing what left-field directors might do when given the chance to play in a bigger sandpit. But the sandpit has now become so huge it’s almost impossible for a filmmaker to make a lasting mark, no matter how good they are (and Shortland is a very good filmmaker indeed).

Which isn’t to say there’s no fun to be had. Johansson and Pugh’s repartee is pretty entertaining, and there’s a larger-that-life-supporting role for David Harbour as the frustrated Soviet equivalent of Captain America. But even here, franchise demands put such emphasis on grooming Pugh’s and Harbour’s characters for future instalments that Johansson can sometimes feel sidelined in her own movie. Black Widow deserved better.

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Johansson’s fellow MCU alumnus Chris Pratt continues his quest to become Kurt Russell with The Tomorrow War, an ultra-cheesy sci-fi film that plugs his rugged, jokey, action-hero persona into a derivative story with derivative special effects.

Pratt plays Dan Forester, an ex-soldier turned high school biology teacher whose desire to do something great with his life is answered when soldiers from the future interrupt the World Cup – which for some reason is taking place at Christmas – to inform everyone on the planet that an alien invasion will decimate the human population in 30 years’ time.

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When world leaders (which this film imagines still include Theresa May and Gordon Brown) respond by conscripting civilians into the military and time-warping them into the future, Dan – against the wishes of his wife and daughter – forgoes his teacher’s deferment and finds himself thriving in an environment that requires him to fight giant space bugs while cracking wise.

But when an encounter with someone from his past ups the stakes, he has to go on a quest back in time to prevent this war from ever taking place.

It’s all very silly, just not in an especially entertaining way. Liberal borrowings from War of the Worlds, The Terminator, Interstellar, Independence Day and practically every Gerard Butler-starring disaster movie of the last decade give the set-pieces and emotional beats a seen-it-all-before vibe and while JK Simmon’s arrival as Dan’s estranged father briefly enlivens proceedings through sheer force of his personality, it’s not enough. This is just product, a fireworks display masquerading as a movie.

Black Widow is in cinemas from 7 July and on Disney+ with premier access on 9 July; The Tomorrow War streams on Amazon Prime from 2 July.

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