The overdue solo film is a fitting sendoff that peels back some of the layers of the most mysterious Avenger
While some folks have experienced superhero fatigue from the ever-expanding and box-office-dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve found it just keeps getting better. I still enjoy all the earlier movies like Iron Man and Avengers, but to me the more recent entries like Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and the 2-part Avengers saga of Infinity War and Endgame, handily blow away the early stuff in terms of fun, originality, and quality.
But as the more expansive and weird facets of the MCU are explored, something I’ve heard expressed from time to time is “When will we get another Captain America: The Winter Soldier?” — meaning a more grounded tale focusing on a specific character arc, espionage, and combat over superhero high theatrics, fantasy elements, and cosmic stakes.
Black Widow is the film that quenches that particular thirst, and also course-corrects one of the MCU’s biggest foibles — in a male-centric lineup of heroes, Black Widow, one of the most consistently interesting Avengers, was long overdue for her own headlining film. And here it is, helmed by Catherine Shortland (The Secret Life of Us, Berlin Syndrome).
The story is set in the interim period between the events of Civil War and Infinity War, in which the Avengers have disbanded and those members in non-compliance with the Sokovia Accords (“Team Cap”) are fugitives on the lam from General Ross (William Hurt). Although Natasha — Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson)— gave her support to the ruling, a fateful decision to aid Captain America marked her as an accomplice.
The film finds an on-the-run Natasha hiding out in Norway, but the arrival of a fateful package puts her back in action when an assassin called “Taskmaster”, with ties to Natasha’s own past, arrives to retrieve it — with guns blazing.
The film is an exploration of Natasha’s character, her murky past, and an estranged family with a complicated history. She discovers that Red Room, the brainwashing-based assassination & espionage organization which trained her, is still operating in the shadows, and their leader General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), believed to be dead, is still very much alive.
This mission puts Natasha back in touch with those most likely to be able to help her: her “family” consisting of sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), mother Melina (Rachel Weisz), and father Alexei (David Harbour), a group fraught with much brokenness. Natasha and Yelena later learned that their family life and childhood in American suburbia wasn’t real, but rather a strategically placed espionage unit concocted by the Red Room to steal technology from SHIELD. Their life was a lie, a betrayal. And when the mission ended, so too did their childhood: the girls were cruelly sent off for training as Widows. Assassins.
The family aspect of the film is particularly good; Florence Pugh is dynamic and funny as little sister Yelena, the core relationship of the story. Previously under Dreykov’s mind control, she was rescued and now has a real life ahead of her for the first time. David Harbour’s Alexei is a self-centered but ultimately loving partiarch who tries to do the right thing but is kind of an oaf. And finally, Rachel Weisz has one of the most intriguing roles as Melina, a high-ranking Red Room officer whose loyalties are uncertain.
While the film has a large-scale action finale and elements of fantasy and superpowers (a key plot point involves chemically-induced mind control, Alexei is a Russian super-soldier, antagonist “Taskmaster” has an enhanced suit, etc), the core story is one of family dynamics and traditional espionage, and relatively grounded — more in the vein of a Bourne or Mission: Impossible movie than Marvel’s more wacky and cosmic adventures. It’s not as bombastic or obviously crowd-pleasing as those films, but with a heartfelt family throughline and down-to-earth action and fights, Black Widow feels fairly unique and refreshingly straightforward in the Marvel annals and is a terrific sendoff for the character.
Black Widow is available on Blu-ray today, September 14, from Marvel Studios/Disney.
My copy came in snazzy looking translucent red Viva case- though notably no slipcover.
Special Features and Extras
Filmmaker Introduction (:57) with director Cate Shortland
Sisters Gonna Work It Out (5:24) — The relationship between Natasha and Yelena is the heart of the film. The featurette unpacks thoughts on the concept, Florence Pugh’s role, and the pair’s action scenes.
Go Big If You’re Going Home (8:50) — Making-of packs a lot of BTS material into a relatively short runtime.
Deleted Scenes (14:11) — Deleted and expanded scenes, mostly pretty minor and rightly cut.
Gag Reel (2:54)
Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.