Johansson and Pugh shine as a dysfunctional family reunion clashes with an action thriller
After her noble sacrifice during the events of Avengers Endgame, a standalone feature for Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow, could be construed as coming a bit late, or perhaps a way to milk more money from the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). While both those things might be true, Black Widow succeeds in carving out a standalone entry that enriches a long established character and embracing action and humor with a more adult tone than previously seen in the MCU.
Black Widow takes place just after the events of Captain America Civil War. The Avengers are fragmented, Natasha’s allies are imprisoned on the Raft, or in hiding. Going off the grid herself, she finds herself dragged out of seclusion by a message from her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh). Reuniting for the first time since they were kids, she discovers Yelena has been working as an operative for the Black Widow program under the control (literally) of General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a man Natasha has long thought dead by her own hand. An act that sealed her defection to SHIELD. Rather than ending him and his Black Widow project, he sunk further into the shadows, developing a new insidious tactics to manipulate and use women as pawns in his political maneuvering. Determined to end Dreykov and free their brainwashed sisters, the pair find that their adoptive, and very much estranged father Alexi (David Harbour), currently rotting in a Russian prison, and mother Melinda (Rachel Weisz), living in Siberia, might be the key to finding his operation and destroying it once and for all.
Writers Jac Schaeffer (Wandavision), Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok), with a story by Ned Benson (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), go to great lengths to root Natasha in her past, and show us what made her the woman we know, or at least think we know. The result is part dark spy thriller and part dysfunctional family reunion. What’s surprising is how much the latter dominates. Kicking off with an opening in 1990 Ohio, we see Natasha and Yelena as youngsters, ensconced in a family home with their ‘parents’. Melinda, herself a trained Black Widow, and Alexei, aka the Red Guardian, the first Soviet to receive their own version of a super-soldier serum. An emotional and bustling escape sequence sees them on the run to Cuba, where their ‘daughters’ are taken by Dreykov to begin their training in the infamous Red Room. And so the seeds of Natasha’s trauma and trust issues are pretty evident.
It all sounds heavy, but there is much delight in how this proxy family falls back into a rhythm, alternating between frictitious and friendly. All bubbling with laconic quips and generally dry sense of humor, teetering between reminiscing and redressing with each other. The quartet bicker, banter, and bond, creating a wonderful dynamic that spills into the action, which is surprisingly brutal at times. Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore) cuts scenes well, with fluid set-pieces and intense hands on combat. If you’ve gotten used to letting your kids go and see any Marvel film, there are moments in this one that might give you pause. This extra grit feels apt for the more sombre themes of trauma and abuse. Delving into the darker corners of the world and Natasha’s past too. Yes, we do find out what really went down in Budapest. While much of the film feels intimate and personal, exploring the shackles put upon Natasha, Yelena, and the others, the final act descends into the CGI spectacle these films seem to be contractually obligated to deliver. Having this family unit in the middle of it all is a true saving grace.
As you’d expect, Black Widow underscores both Johansson’s talents, as well as Natasha’s. A plot that takes her back to basics and in doing so, highlights what makes her so potent in a superhero lineup, despite her lack of superpowers. Pugh (Lady Macbeth, Midsommar) assuredly kicks ass herself and adds a spark to the whole film. From a sisterly reunion/throwdown that feels akin to a scene from Atomic Blonde, to dropping barbs about Natasha “posing” when she fights, or her need to take ibuprofen after a fight (unlike a certain God of Thunder), she provides the kind of brilliantly skewering foil that only a little sister could. The film also delights in puncturing some of the God-tier level characters and epic events to have occurred in the MCU. Weisz is a cool yet quirky presence, while David Harbor is a riot as the buffoonish Red Guardian, whose bravado is only exceeded by his obsession with his Western counterpart, Captain America. Ray Winstone, who I never thought I would see Forest Gump’d into American Political history, delivers the gruff odiousness you’d expect in playing a man whose remit is the kidnapping and subjugation of women to use in his political power play.
After Wandavision, Loki, and now Black Widow (well most of it), it feels like Marvel is (somewhat) open to taking risks in terms of tone and structure in its ventures. Planted in a grittier and more grounded corner of the MCU, Black Widow embraces the spy thriller, but plants it in themes of family and sisterhood. The action entertains, but it’s the conversations and dry humor that will really draw you in. For Romanoff, this solo entry doesn’t negate the heroic end to her character’s journey, rather fleshes out her past, reinforces her talents, and reaffirms her motives, and in doing so provides a fitting epilogue for a MCU stalwart, if it is indeed that.
Black Widow hits theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on July 9th