Set between the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Black Widow launches ‘Phase Four’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) on an oddly backwards-looking note. It’s also disappointing that Marvel waited 11 years to hand a solo movie to a popular female character who—spoiler alert?—is now dead in the present-day continuity of this comic-book saga. But as an entertaining grace note for Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), it’s a welcome addition, although I’d advise you pretend this was released in 2017…
While Black Widow isn’t an origin story, strictly speaking, it does delve into the backstory of Natasha and even finds time to play into the running joke of what she did in Budapest with Hawkeye years ago. We begin in 1995 with a seemingly ordinary American family living in Ohio; a husband (David Harbour) and wife (Rachel Weisz) with their two young daughters (Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw). That’s until it’s revealed they’re actually deep undercover Russians, in shades of FX’s The Americans (2013-18) TV series, and are soon on the run from US authorities…
Jump forward 21 years and we’re reacquainted with the now-adult super-spy version of the eldest girl, Natasha—who’s still on the run from US authorities, embodied by General Ross (William Hurt), as one of the fugitive Avengers who refuses to be put under state control after what happened in Sokovia during Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). We all know how that story turns out, of course, so Black Widow suddenly pivots to give Natasha a side mission involving her estranged younger sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). It turns out Yelena was likewise trained as a deadly assassin once they returned to Russia after three years posing as American kids, but has only recently escaped the ‘Black Widow’ programme thanks to an anti-brainwashing gas she was exposed to during an assignment. So now it’s up to the two siblings to work together, in order to free hundreds of other Back Widows and destroy the infamous ‘Red Room’ facility where they’re trained and controlled by mysterious mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone).
One benefit to Black Widow is that the stakes here are relatively low, in terms of there being no world-ending threat. It’s a simpler story, taking cues from how grounded Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) was, down to the story again involving mind control. This does mean it feels less essential, however, particularly as the eponymous character’s not going to be playing any future role in the MCU, so a direct sequel isn’t even possible. It therefore feels like a weird kind of admission that Scarlett Johansson should’ve been given this project years ago, so… better late than never? On the plus side, Black Widow introduces a handful of ancillary characters into the MCU that could easily reappear.
The success of the supporting cast is a two-edged sword, however, as Natasha Romanoff herself is often pushed into the background within her own movie! As we already know so much about her character, thanks to many appearance in the Captain America trilogy and four Avengers films, while intuiting a lot of Natasha’s backstory without even reading the comic-books, the screenplay by Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision) and Ned Benson is clearly more excited by the new characters.
Yelena is a rougher, tougher, less-Americanised version of her big sister, and gives Pugh a lot of opportunities to mix sass, snark, and bone-crunching violence. Having made her name in horror Midsommar (2019) and period drama Little Women (2019), Pugh clearly relishes playing an action hero. She excels at being amusingly grouchy, emotionally vulnerable, and looks convincing when it comes to doing the stunts and fights. She could clearly inherit the ‘Black Widow’ mantle from her elder sister one day, too, even if an end credits scene suggests this journey won’t be so straightforward…
David Harbour is somehow having even more fun as Alexei Shostakov, the girl’s father who turns out to be a Soviet super-soldier known as ‘Red Guardian’. He gets to grow his beard out and chew on a thick Russian accent, and manages to keep this larger-than-life character grounded and amusing—despite being a Communist and the kind of dad who’s overjoyed his kids became lethal killers. And for MCU fans, there’s even a fun tease in some dialogue about Red Guardian’s exploits in the 1980s that seems to open the door for an unexpected return of a fan-favourite.
The other actors aren’t as immediately engaging, although Rachel Weisz (The Favourite) is suitably icy and strange as Melina Vostokoff, an OG Black Widow who moved into the science of porcine mind-control. O-T Fagbenle also appears as Rick Mason, an old friend of Natasha’s who supplies her with equipment while she’s off-the-grid, but his smitten character’s little more than a way to explain how she’s able to keep working as a globe-trotting mercenary. Ray Winstone also enters the picture towards the end, giving a comically broad performance as a Russian bad guy, complete with a wobbly accent and a tendency to monologue his dastardly plans.
There’s a steady stream of fun action sequences, although most have been spoiled to some extent in the marketing material. And it hasn’t helped that Marvel were forced to release more trailers than usual because of Black Widow’s year-long delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s certainly interesting to see a Marvel adventure where almost everyone’s a normal human being, devoid of super-strength and stamina, having to rely on their wits and combat training, but in truth the likes of Natasha and Yelena are frequently taking beatings that would put ordinary folk into a coma and constantly surviving vehicular crashes. Still, the emphasis on Bourne Identity-style hand-to-hand fighting is appreciated, looks comprehensible, and is bolstered by the involvement of a few super-human characters like Red Guardian and ‘Taskmaster’—an almost robotic villain with the ability to mimic the skills of any adversary.
Overall, Black Widow begins on a promising note with the idea of two Americanised girls thrown back into a life of brainwashing in Mother Russia, who grow up and move apart from each other, then have to reconnect in adulthood. The theme of broken families is strong throughout, with Natasha dealing with the ‘divorce’ of The Avengers as she’s suddenly thrust into a new adventure where she must reunite with her first, older, more dysfunctional family. The performance are all good, the action’s fun to watch, the VFX are reliably excellent, Harbour and Pugh savour on all the funniest lines, and Scarlett Johansson gets to finally headline a $200M MCU movie (even if she’s a little overshadowed by her colourful co-stars). It ultimately feels a bit inconsequential once it’s over and done, but with the likely return of a few characters, Black Widow provides a lively introductory for them and a sweet farewell for Natasha Romanoff herself.
Just, please, enough with the Communist mind-control plots…
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USA | 2021 | 133 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Cate Shortland.
writer: Eric Pearson (story by Jac Schaeffer & Ned Benson; based on ‘Black Widow’ by Stan Lee, Don Rico & Don Heck).
starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone & Rachel Weisz.