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Florence Pugh Sets the Bar

In ‘Black Widow,’ a movie meant to be a send-off for Natasha Romanoff, it’s her pseudo-sister who ends up snatching nearly every scene

Marvel Studios/Ringer illustration

As my dad and I drove out of the parking lot after seeing Black Widow, our first movie in theaters since 2020, he asked where he’d seen Florence Pugh before. After a mild heart attack during which I reviewed every embarrassing tweet I’d ever sent about her, and then a moment of reassurance when I remembered that my dad is not on Twitter, I told him she was the sassy, rebellious younger sister in Little Women, a movie I’d forced on him in early quarantine. “So, the same character?” he asked.

He has a point.

Give Amy March a thick accent, a machine gun, a beloved cargo vest, and even deeper family-related trauma, and you have Yelena Belova, Natasha Romanoff’s (fake) younger sister and the MVP of Marvel’s latest studio effort, Black Widow. As Russian Amy, Pugh’s braids are upgraded, her bratty streak has taken on a particularly violent edge, and she’s better than ever at negging her older sister. (Is Natasha a Meg or a Jo? A debate for another time.) And instead of burning manuscripts, now Pugh is taking kill shots and blowing up buildings. Maybe Florence Pugh is such an Amy herself that she brings that particular brand of charisma to every role, but the similarities were such that I expected David Harbour’s Alexei to embrace his (again, fake) daughters at any point in the film and exclaim, “My little women!” He didn’t do it, but it felt like he wanted to.

Pugh’s current Internet Girlfriend phase feels a lot like the early Jennifer Lawrence days, what with her quirky cool girl energy and the internet’s breathless adoration. But unlike Lawrence’s (infamous, hated) turn as Mystique in the X-Men series, Marvel was smart enough not to force Pugh into layers of blue makeup and CGI. Instead, Yelena is just a girl—even the superspy braids and leather catsuits look sort of wearable on her. Yelena is fun, and sort of messy, and despite her assassin status she still seems like someone you could hang out with. I imagine no viewer has ever thought this about Scarlett Johansson or Natasha Romanoff, which is part of why Pugh so thoroughly snatches the movie.

To be fair, Johansson has it tough because she plays a very straight character (on every level, unfortunately) in a cast full of goofy fan favorites. David Harbour has a hell of a time as the has-been strongman Red Guardian, who leaves much to be desired in terms of fatherly instincts. Rachel Weisz as faux matriarch Melina has less to do, but Rachel Weisz With Gun has been a rich genre since The Favourite, so give her something to kill and I’m happy. And Pugh fits perfectly into their dynamic, shooting the shit and swigging vodka with both characters throughout the film. It’s not Johansson’s fault that Natasha seems utterly incapable of humor, but it does lend an edge to the other three characters. Literally, one of the best bits in Black Widow is Yelena roasting the way-too-serious Black Widow.

But speaking of fan favorites, Black Widow’s post-credits scene adds one more—Julia Louis-Dreyfus pops up as Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine to enlist Yelena for a new mission: going after Hawkeye, the “man responsible” for Natasha’s death. I’ve got Marvel fatigue as bad as anyone, but if anything can convince me to commit to yet another series, it’s the concept of watching Florence Pugh hunt down Jeremy Renner. Consider: What if, in Little Women, Amy tried to kill her sister’s old flame instead of marrying him? Goddamnit, I’m in.