Let’s be honest: Black Widow really should have had a movie before now. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been in the MCU since Iron Man 2 in 2010, she’s part of the original line up of Avengers, she’s one of the most popular characters in that Universe and is one of the few lead females. Oh, and she’s also now dead. It’s pretty shocking how Nat’s been treated. So her long awaited solo film, delayed even further by the pandemic, and the first Marvel movie out of the stable since lockdown, has quite a bit of heavy lifting to do.
Beginning with a flashback to 1995, then mainly set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, this is an extension of a backstory for Natasha but also a tale of resolution. It’s a chance for her to clean up her ledger and although we know that her journey won’t truly end until the events of Endgame, this is definitely her farewell, made all the more poignant with knowledge of what’s to come. It’s action packed, yes, but it’s also very funny, emotionally nuanced, and a different flavour for Marvel.
After a glimpse at Nat’s idyllic/traumatic childhood in an impressive pre-credits sequence, we’re back to 2016. Natasha is a fugitive, in violation of the Sokovia Accords, and on the run from General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). With help from her charming go-to guy Mason (O-T Fagbenle) she’s hiding out in a remote cabin in Norway convincing herself that after the Avengers’ “divorce” she’s better off alone. Peace doesn’t last long. A package sent from abroad and the sudden appearance of a relentless masked killing machine throws her back into the fray and into a mission which will reunite her with family and foes from the past.
With nods to James Bond and Jason Bourne, Black Widow is an espionage movie that’s rammed with epic set pieces and spans the globe, taking us from Ohio to Cuba, Morocco to Budapest and more. Planes are crashed, cars are flipped, things fall out of the sky… though it’s getting a simultaneous Disney+ release, this is a movie built for the big screen with stunt work and spectacle to match anything the MCU has done before. It looks great but it’s in the character dynamics that Black Widow really shines.
This is a movie about family and central to it is the relationship between Natasha and her estranged surrogate sister Yelena (Florence Pugh). Pugh is brilliant – sulky, witty, and full of resentment at Natasha’s abandonment. She’s an equally skilled fighter as her sister, but burdened with being the younger sibling of an Avenger who adorns magazine covers.
The chemistry between her and Johansson is palpable and they make a formidable double act. Meanwhile their one-time ‘parents’ Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour) are equally dysfunctional. She’s a former Widow, and current genius scientist/pig wrangler, he’s an overweight former super-soldier with ‘Karl Marx’ tattooed on his knuckles, and neither has nailed it at parenting.
Harbour is larger than life and gets some of the best lines – he views himself as the Soviet equivalent of Captain America and he’s the perfect counterpoint – disgusting, hilarious, overtly sexual, completely amoral, but also gloriously emotional when it comes to his ‘girls’.
We get to see another side of Nat too, suddenly in the presence of her folks, she’s vulnerable, she bickers with her sister, and her mother tells her off for slouching.
Set in the real world, away from the gods and aliens of the wider MCU, Black Widow is most akin to the Captain America sequels but with a sharp script from Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer, and Ned Benson and some very deliberate choices from director Cate Shortland (no spoilers), this is a more feminine film than we’ve seen from Marvel before. It’s not just that the most capable characters in the film are women, the whole film is packed top to bottom with female faces and some of the best gags are about fallopian tubes, clothes, and what a poser Natasha is, while our big baddie, Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, is a human man with too much power who treats women as commodities.
Feminine doesn’t equate to gentle though. Black Widow has a high body count (albeit mostly off screen) and Dreykov could be one of the most purely nasty villains the MCU has ever seen.
The movie has some of the usual Marvel Studios pitfalls. The final act is CGI heavy and convoluted, and for a gritty real-world movie, some of the falls Nat takes are almost as ridiculous as Ray Winstone’s Russian accent. But you’d have to be pretty hard of heart to have that as your main takeaway. We’ve waited way too long, but at last we have a Black Widow film that does Natasha justice. And though it feels like we were only just getting to know her, Black Widow gives Nat a legacy that could reach wide into the MCU and might just change it for the better.
Black Widow opens in cinemas on 7 July (UK) and 9 July (US) and is available at a premium on Disney+ from 9 July.