[While the following review contains NO SPOILERS for ‘Black Widow’, there are some spoilers relating to the character’s previous appearances in the MCU – particularly in ‘Captain America: Civil War’ and ‘Avengers: Endgame’.]
There’s no doubt that a Black Widow movie at this point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, particularly following the lead character’s, you know, death, simply feels a little too late. Nevertheless, as an episode of the long-running film series that is the MCU, it proves to be a solid chapter – if not exactly one that unveils a huge amount on the character fans didn’t already know.
Black Widow catches us up with what Scarlett Johansson‘s Natasha Romanoff got up to following Captain America: Civil War, which concluded with her on the run from Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and on Tony Stark’s bad side after she allowed Cap and Bucky to escape. Without giving away too much, the film puts the spotlight firmly on Natasha’s past, looking at her forced upbringing as a Russian agent and introducing us to her mother figure Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), father figure Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and, importantly, her sister figure Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). Natasha finds herself facing her past and reunited with her estranged family of sorts when villainous figures, such as the mysterious Taskmaster, surface.
Australian director Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore, Berlin Syndrome) enters the studio blockbuster realm with Black Widow – and she certainly appears to be at ease in it. Shortland proves herself adept with both the film’s action sequences (which range from hand-to-hand combat to car chases) and the more dramatic moments. It’s these dramatic moments that perhaps line up best with Shortland’s previous feature, 2017’s Berlin Syndrome, with elements of female oppression serving as a narrative element. Indeed, screenwriter Eric Pearson manages to include some surprisingly heavy themes in Black Widow‘s subtext, from shades of childhood trauma to human trafficking. Of course, it’s a Marvel action movie, so don’t expect these thematical layers to be explored thoroughly, but kudos to the studio for having them worked into Natasha’s story in mostly appropriate fashion.
The action is well crafted and there’s high-octane energy to the combat and chase sequences. That being said, the film lacks the type of original set pieces that could have made it a little more memorable in the action department. Natasha’s story is of the more grounded variety in a universe that once had a big purple alien guy snap away half the universe, so why not embark on some John Wick-esque, long-take buttkickery with the spy-on-spy mayhem? Even the admittedly fun everything-is-falling finale feels a little too been-there-done-that to really impress. The film also dabbles in a few too many CG crutches to ramp up certain moments, such as obvious injections of FX during combat (there’s a slight tackiness to certain acrobatic takedowns, for example). It may be a tad nitpicky, but these flashes of needless computerisation stood out too often to this writer.
As you would expect, Johansson, who has been playing Romanoff for over a decade, delivers another strong turn as the Marvel character. Johansson’s been pivotal in crafting the persona through various Marvel films, and it’s nice to see her finally allowed to explore – on screen – the backstory that she’s had to infuse in Romanoff over the years. Reliable stars Rachel Weisz and David Harbour are both good as Melina and Alexei, respectively, with Harbour in particularly given the chance to drive a number of the film’s humorous moments. Their Russian accents, on the other hand, are amusingly all over the place; that especially goes for Ray Winstone, a dependable star who is, nevertheless, also decent here.
It may be a Black Widow movie, but it’s very clear that this is also a Yelena origin movie. Following a number of strong performances in films such as Midsommer and Little Women, Florence Pugh introduces Yelena with undeniably confident screen presence, not only showcasing appropriate physical prowess on the action side of things, but a very welcome emotional range for a new character – from quipster to sadness. It’s a great start for a character that will only be growing in MCU importance from here on out.
Ultimately, Black Widow is an example of the well-oiled machine that is Marvel. Even with some of those thematical layers, the studio’s downpat formula is ever present throughout, from the familiar structure and character beats, to the effects-heavy finale. It’s a comfortable MCU film through and through; although, perhaps, a little too comfortable when compared to some of the more tonal and narrative change-ups we’ve seen of late, such as Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and two of Marvel’s Disney+ tangents, Loki and WandaVision.
Big fans of Johansson’s badass superspy will no doubt see the MCU film as an important chapter – and when it comes to filling in some of the gaps of Romanoff’s story and as the character’s long-awaited solo screen adventure, indeed it is. But with her sacrifice in Endgame, this reviewer found that there was a bittersweet, almost futile angle to exploring her story. Still, this is two-plus hours in the MCU that fans won’t regret experiencing, particularly when also looking at it as Yelena’s introduction.