Warning: This review contains full spoilers for Black Widow.
Well, it’s taken over a year to reach cinemas – and too many more to even be put in production – but we finally have a solo film for Scarlett Johansson’s founding Avenger. Black Widow backflips away from standard origin fare, instead focusing on delivering a tense and tautly-paced spy thriller, all tangled up in the web of a complicated family history. While not the best thing Marvel has ever put out, this solo outing is a mostly successful superspy adventure, and a suitably poignant entry for the franchise’s return to the big screen.
The last we saw of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), she had just sacrificed her life to save literally half the universe. Her ledger had been wiped clean of red, and her heroic redemption had been completed. As those stakes are impossible to top, Black Widow dials things right back, to focus on a more grounded story that digs into the murky history of the Assassin-Avenger.
Set in between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, the film picks up with Nat on the run from the US government, having violated the Sokovia Accords. After some slick evasive manoeuvring that would make Jason Bourne proud, Natasha encounters Yelena (Florence Pugh), her surrogate sister and fellow Black Widow, and discovers that the Red Room – where women are kidnapped and tortured into Black Widow assassins – is still very much active.
Together with their surrogate parents – Alexei (David Harbor), former Soviet Captain America knock-off, The Red Guardian, and Malina (Rachel Weisz), ex-Black Widow and current genius scientist – Natasha and Yelena set about tracking down the Red Room to end it for good. This hurls the ragtag nuclear family right into the crosshairs of shadowy Red Room overseer, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), and his top soldier: the fighting-style mimicking, Terminator-esque Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko).
Cate Shortland proves to be an inspired choice of director for Black Widow.
On the scale of realness in MCU films, Black Widow definitely falls closer to Captain America: The Winter Soldier than Avengers: Endgame. Sure, there’s mind control and a flying fortress, but Winter Soldier had that too. In fact, there’s a lot more commonality between this and Cap’s sophomore soiree than just visceral combat and exciting espionage. Seeing as Winter Soldier is often lauded as the best of the MCU, this certainly isn’t a bad comparison to make – right up until it is.
Screenwriter Eric Pearson (working from a story by WandaVision showrunner Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson) starts the story strong, opening with a Cold War-era flashback that sees the undercover family – Natasha and Yelena as young girls, Alexei and Melina posing as their parents – have to flee the US in a dramatic midnight flit after their cover is blown.
While the escape is action-packed and filled with exciting tension, the most defining scenes comes before that, when the undercover family learn that they must uproot (and run for) their lives. Everything here is exceptional – the stoic understanding between Alexei and Melina, Natasha sensing the ramifications before the younger Yelena – and serves to establish a clear identity for the film, one that is unlike anything seen in the MCU before.
A huge part of that distinction is Cate Shortland’s direction. Continuing Marvel’s recent trend of plucking talented indie filmmakers out of the festival circuit and handing them the reins to an enormous blockbuster, the Australian director proves to be an inspired choice for Black Widow. In addition to making history as the first woman to helm an MCU film solo, Shortland’s experience of directing female-led dramas filled with complex, grounded relationships makes her a natural fit for Natasha’s story.
After a Cold War-tinged title sequence that feels directly out of The Americans, the film picks up at a brisk pace, bringing the family back together and diving deep into their dysfunctional relationships. This is easily the most compelling material in the film, and though some difficult questions are glossed over – Alexei and Melina sending their “daughters” off to be tortured and turned into killers doesn’t get as much milage as it should – the connections shared between the characters are still completely engrossing.
The action is visceral and inventive, with some unique ideas that help to differentiate from other MCU punch-em-ups.
The third act loses this focus on family somewhat in favour of a bombastic, explosion-filled action sequence – this is still Marvel, after all. While undeniably exhilarating and excellently shot, the finale feels out of step with the more espionage-orientated story that preceded it, drifting back into familiar MCU territory while sacrificing the unique identity established early on.
That being said, every action scene is still pretty spectacular. There’s a steady mix of thrilling hand-to-hand combat and more high-stakes, set pieces, ranging from a tense stand-off between Natasha and the Taskmaster to an avalanche-backed jailbreak. All the action is visceral and inventive, with some unique ideas that help to differentiate from other MCU punch-em-ups.
As engaging as the action is, character is still the heart of this film, with the focus firmly on the legacy of Black Widow. After years of being relegated to a supporting player, Johansson takes to centre stage with ease, bringing new layers to Natasha that add extra weight to her ultimate sacrifice. While the dramatic material here doesn’t feel as poignant or impactful as her work in Endgame, it’s still a solid, engaging performance, one made all the more bitter by the likelihood that this is the last we’ll see of her in the MCU.
If anything can soften the blow of never seeing Natasha in action again, it’s the introduction of Pugh’s Yelena. With plenty of little-sister snark mixed in with her cold-blooded assassin antics, the new Black Widow is funny, interesting, and believably badass enough to step into her sister’s boots. While her best material was in the sisterly relationship she shared with Natasha, there’s enough personality here to build anticipation for her future in the franchise.
Another huge stand-out of the film is David Harbour as Alexei. From his borderline obsession with Captain America to his awkward trying-his-best fatherly approach, Harbour’s gregarious super soldier is an electric presence throughout the film. Though not given as much material as the other family members, Rachel Weisz is nonetheless brilliant as Melina, and like Harbour, her best work is in the conflicted, quasi -motherly interactions she has with Natasha and Yelena.
Keeping the Taskmaster’s secret until the final act removes any personal stakes from all the encounters leading up to it.
The one place where the characterisation falls down is with the villains. Ray Winstone’s Dreykov is intimidating enough (if you can forgive his Cockney-Russian accent), but he doesn’t get enough screen time to be a truly menacing threat. The biggest missed opportunity, however, lies with the Taskmaster. While Antonia’s identity could have been an interesting twist on the character, the reveal happened too late for it to dramatically impact the plot.
Having the Taskmaster move through the film as this unstoppable force makes her feel like a copy of the Winter Soldier, which would be fine, except that they remove the internal struggle that came from Steve recognising Bucky after their first fight. Keeping the Taskmaster’s secret until the final act removes any personal stakes from all the encounters leading up to it, and though Kurylenko delivers a decent enough performance in the few minute’s she’s out of the mask, it’s too late to give her any personality.
Looking to the future, the Dark Avengers flames get a further fanning in the post-credits scene, with the reveal that present-day Yelena is doing missions for the Contessa (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Though technically meant to be seen before her appearance in The Falcon and the Winter Solider, this scene feels like an escalation of Val’s shadowy plans, especially when she sets Yelena’s vengeful sights on the man who “killed” Natasha, Hawkeye.
We already know that we’ll next see Florence Pugh in Hawkeye’s own Disney+ series, but less clear is when the Contessa will make her next move. For anyone counting, the Dark Avengers roster now has its own Captain America and Black Widow – what are the odds Val turns up next in Shang-Chi to net herself a “Hulk” in Tim Roth’s Abomination?
Though it falls into the classic Marvel villain trap, Black Widow is still a thrilling spy adventure that sheds some light on the past while informing the future. Overdue by more than a decade at this point, it’s still better late than never, serving as much as a eulogy for Natasha as it does an introduction to the new generation of Black Widow in Yelena. As the first cinematic entry for the long-anticipated Phase 4, it may not be the most world-shaking choice, but after the high stakes of Endgame, this kind of character focus is exactly what the MCU needs to stay relevant.
Verdict: 4/5 Paddles