The long-awaited solo outing for Natasha Romanoff AKA Black Widow has hit a few speed bumps along its way to release, as has most tentpole films over the past 16 months. While the MCU has grown this year into the realm of television with the likes of WandaVision, The Falcon & The Winter Soldier and Loki, Black Widow is the first MCU film to hit theaters in about two years since the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home. While Black Widow is a fairly typical Marvel film in terms of quality, it serves as a welcome chance to bid adieu to a beloved character, while also introducing some new and exciting characters that should become future staples of the MCU.
Having tragically sacrificed herself in Avengers: Endgame, Black Widow focuses on Natasha’s time as an international outlaw taking place between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Director Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome) establishes a more grounded, character-driven narrative off the bat with an extended opening focusing on Natasha’s adolescence. The film opens with a tween Natasha, her younger sister and their parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) being forced to leave their idyllic life in Ohio behind and fleeing to Cuba where it’s revealed their entire family unit is merely a decoy for an undercover mission. Shortland then cuts to a harrowing and artful opening titles sequence depicting Natasha and Yelena’s traumatic years forced into the evil General Dreykov’s (Ray Winstone) elite system of super spies known as the “Black Widows”.
Flash forward to the events preceding Civil War where Natasha is on the run. She manages to track down her estranged “sister”, Yelena (the incomparable Florence Pugh), in Budapest where Yelena has just gone rogue from the Dreykov’s grasp. After a long-time-coming scuffle between the two “sisters” they team up to find their former “parents” in attempts to bring down Dreykov’s evil system, which causes the mysterious super-solider Taskmaster to trail their various movements.
Black Widow is at its best when it explores the deep psychological trauma inflicted on its heroes and the lingering wounds they carry with them. The strained family relationship also feels rich with pathos. The sizable middle chunk of the film that involves the former family reuniting in a desolate farm house and confronting one another on past wrongs and regrets is by far the film’s most compelling aspect. Johansson is expectedly great once again, but Florence Pugh, coming off her immensely successful 2019 with the hit Midsommar and her Oscar-nomination in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, steals much of the thunder. Pugh’s Yelena is equally tough to Natasha, but the character has even more of a tragic side, giving her a rich vulnerability that makes her an even more compelling presence.
David Harbour gets to really chew the scenery in a meaty role as Alexei, the one-time father figure to Natasha and Yelena, who was formerly used and subsequently tossed aside by the Russian government in their attempts at making their own Captain America in the “Red Guardian”. Harbour’s uncanny ability to mix drama with comedic undertones is once again on full display as he infuses the role with a hefty amount of gravitas and torment. Alexei still holds a grudge against those who cast him aside as he views himself in the same league as the heralded super-soldier. The moments between Harbour and Pugh are especially compelling, with much of the heartbreak and resentment coming from their strained relationship. Rachel Weisz makes for another strong supporting player as the more morally conflicted mother figure, Melina, who also shares plenty of guilt for her past actions.
Director Cate Shortland has a firm, if unspectacular, eye for action, with a number of requisite set-pieces that keep the film moving along without falling in numb-inducing eyesores. An early sequence involving a Russian prison break is equally intense and comical as Shortland continuously raises the stakes that feels both clever and ludicrous. However, the final act divulges into typical superhero spectacle that becomes less interesting as it goes along. Ray Winstone does his best job as the big third-act baddie, sporting an unfortunate Sean Connery-level Russian accent, but his character is generic even by Marvel villain standards.
Black Widow serves largely as a long-overdue solo outing for the beloved Avenger, while also serving as a final goodbye and a way to usher in a new cast of characters into the MCU. Given the circumstances with the time period and not having to bridge together several future installments allows Shortland to keep the focus primarily on the characters, which brings some much-welcomed depth and layers to what could’ve been a generic spy-focused Marvel flick.