For years now, one of the criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was that its female heroes were given short shrift. Chiefly, the lack of a solo film for Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow, has been a sticking point, especially as almost all of her male counterparts have gotten one. Well, at long last (and after a year-long COVID delay), Black Widow is here, in all of its blockbuster glory. The Marvel adventure is a lot of fun and very well done, but there admittedly is a sense that this is coming a bit late in the game. The narrative is a solid one for Romanoff, but it works more as a filling in of the character, as opposed to the tribute it might have been at this point. Had it come out in Phase One or Phase Two, it would have been thrilling. Now, it’s very good, but lacks just a little something to make it great.
Black Widow feels like a gritty spy thriller, and in some ways, it is. Think a scaled-down version of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and you’d be on the right track. Here, Romanoff again is paired with other characters, though it’s still largely her narrative that’s being depicted. However, as good a character as she is, the supporting ones around her are just as interesting, or even more so. That’s good for the movie, but does somewhat detract from this being her solo flick.
The MCU is growing outward, so this somewhat smaller and more restrained (though still globe-hopping) adventure has a novel feel to it. As mentioned above, it’s almost more of a spy thriller than a superhero tale. The stakes are plenty big, but somewhere closer to James Bond than The Avengers. It’s not a complaint about that decision, mind you, just an observation, really.
Set after the events of Captain America: Civil War and before Avengers: Infinity War (aside from a stunning prologue in the 1980s), we find Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) on the run. Prepared to just be in hiding after the Sokovia Accords, Romanoff is almost immediately targeted by a mysterious villain known as Taskmaster. Unleashed by Dreykov (Ray Winstone), they want something she doesn’t even know she has. It turns out, her estranged sister and fellow Widow Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) has sent her a package of great importance. Seeking her out, the two have a rocky reunion, only curtailed by other Widows attacking them. Once they are able to catch their breath, Yelena explains how Dreykov has been chemically controlling the women, but an antidote has been synthesized. This is Natasha’s opening to do what she thought she did a long time ago…kill Dreykov.
Paired with Yelena, the two set out to destroy the Red Room where they both suffered for so long, stop Dreykov, and end the Widows Program forever. To do that, they’ll need the people who once pretended to be their parents. That would be Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), formerly the Red Guardian, and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). Though placed together decades ago in an undercover mission, the quartet were a family, and that will be essential now if they are all to survive.
Scarlett Johansson has always been a steady presence in the MCU, so seeing more of her here is great. She’s fully invested in the role, obviously, and wears it like a comfortable sweater. It’s almost a shame that Florence Pugh is so vibrant here, since it takes away from appreciating Johansson in likely her last turn as Black Widow. Still, she’s very good. That being said, Pugh is great, and if she’s our next Black Widow, the title is in excellent hands. Badass, funny, and with a compelling presence, the actress is made for the role. David Harbour is steady comic relief here, while Rachel Weisz is mostly wasted. They do have some very good scenes together, though. As for the villain, Ray Winstone is one of the weakest in the franchise, sadly. Supporting players include O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Olga Kurylenko, and more.
Director Cate Shortland makes this an equally fun and intense experience. The hand to hand combat that makes up most of the fight sequences is shot close up and with an edge to it. Shortland keeps things moving along, never letting you feel the runtime. Efficiently paced and exciting, she should have been allowed to make this film years ago. The screenplay, credited to Ned Benson, Eric Pearson, and Jac Schaeffer, doesn’t mess with Natasha as a character at all. Instead, they go all-in on establishing Yelena, and that pays dividends. Nothing here is ground-breaking, but it definitely works. That being said, the prologue, which shows us something decidedly new, is excellent.
As it fits into the MCU, Black Widow doesn’t feel essential to the new Phase of it all, but that remains to be seen. Something is definitely set up for the future, but this is mostly looking back on a character we love. That’s not a bad thing, either, as Marvel could use these occasionally more self-contained films.
Black Widow is a comic book movie that should delight Marvel fans. Spy thriller aficionados should dig it too. Honestly, with how rare superhero movies have been of late (after being inundated with them for years), it feels exciting to have the flick coming out. The feeling won’t last, but while it does, embrace it. This may not be top-tier Marvel, but as a middle of the road title, it’s still a lot of fun.