This standalone movie for Scarlett Johansson’s super-skilled but not superpowered Avenger, Black Widow, feels like it’s been a long time coming – and not just because it’s been mooted since her MCU debut in Iron Man 2 back in 2010.
And if the wait hadn’t been protracted enough already, the pandemic has seen Black Widow’s release postponed by more than a year until now, as it arrives simultaneously in cinemas and on Disney Plus (with a Premier Access price tag). By now, it’s been a full two years since an MCU movie has played in cinemas, although recently the streaming series (WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki) have been tiding fans over.
For a film that’s kicking off Marvel Phase 4, Black Widow is an atypical franchise installment. By necessity, it’s a prequel, with Natasha having sacrificed herself for the Soul Stone in Avengers: Endgame. As it’s mostly set in the time between Captain America: Civil War (where the heroes took sides over the superhero-curtailing Sokovia Accords) and Avengers: Infinity War (where making up was essential for the struggle against Thanos), Black Widow doesn’t have the propulsive what-happens-next momentum the MCU often trades in. Instead, it’s a breather, a chance to put the spotlight on a character who has never quite been center stage, and dig into her chequered past.
Although it’s mostly set circa 2016, it kicks off with a prologue in 1995. In Ohio, a seemingly perfect family is playing outside, admiring the fireflies, preparing dinner. It’s only when dad returns home – from a day at the office so rough that they have to evacuate the house almost immediately – that it becomes clear all is not quite what it seems. It’s an immensely effective kick-off and demonstrates the key strength that director Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore) brings to the table: intimate character moments foregrounded in a film that’s still largely a non-stop action ride.
When the story picks up 21 years later, Natasha is giving the slip to General Ross (William Hurt) and heading to a safe house in Norway, where a trusted fixer (O-T Fagbenle) has set her up with essentials. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Natasha to be explosively sent on the run again, and into the orbit of Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, another Widow with whom Natasha shares an intensely personal connection. Their resolve to destroy the Black Widow program and its overseer, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), sends them on a globe-trotting mission to reunite with parental figures Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour). Melina’s an OG Widow, and Alexei is Russia’s answer to Captain America (in his own mind, at least), the Red Guardian.
The Marvel movies have often found success by grafting comic-book characters onto recognizable film templates, and Black Widow cribs from the Bourne films. That series’ imprint is most noticeable in an early fight scene in a Budapest apartment, in which curtains and tea towel become potential murder weapons, and it’s also visible in the car chases, locations, and the title hero: a super-skilled assassin still troubled by half-remembered past misdeeds. There are also references (direct and indirect) to Bond. Bringing the comic-book flavor to Black Widow is Taskmaster: a skull-helmeted mystery villain employed to do Dreykov’s bidding. Taskmaster’s key skill is being able to impersonate any opponent’s fighting style to use it against them.
Despite a two-hour-plus runtime, Black Widow never drags. Pugh and Harbour are particularly welcome additions to the universe. Pugh’s fierce, funny Yelena is a character you’ll definitely want to follow through the franchise going forward, and Harbour is a blast as the heavily tattooed super-soldier seeking Cap levels of fame. He walks off with the film’s biggest laughs, even if he does have to shoulder the Marvel burden of never not wisecracking, even when it seems indelicate.
While on some levels Black Widow refreshes as a ‘smaller-scale’ Marvel movie (don’t worry, there are still prison breaks, armored vehicle chases, and aerial skirmishes) and it has fun pointing to Natasha’s lack of superpowers (“I doubt the god from space has to take an ibuprofen after a fight,” Yelena quips), its status as a more grounded Marvel movie does cause the occasional eyebrow raise, for instance when Natasha emerges practically unscathed from a particularly crunching fall from a high building. And some of the story’s more ludicrous tech (including Dreykov’s method of self-protection) and OTT flourishes don’t sit entirely comfortably with the Bourne aesthetic and grim allusions to trafficking and forced hysterectomies.
Black Widow is also content to have its cake and blast it to smithereens when it comes to the violence – while Johansson and Pugh wrestle convincingly with the immoral missions they’ve been forced to carry out on behalf of the Red Room, they’re also happy to take out swathes of goons with bazookas and ignore considerable collateral damage when the mood strikes.
Ultimately, though, Black Widow succeeds in injecting emotion into Natasha’s backstory and making the idea of a standalone film feel like a worthwhile endeavor, even after her MCU arc found conclusion in the Endgame sacrifice. Watching Johansson add shades to the character while still kicking plenty of ass is the delight we’ve long known it would be, and Pugh proves just as capable; together they’re electric. If ever proof were needed that Natasha could easily carry her own movie, here it arrives fully formed. Better late than never.
Black Widow is in UK cinemas from July 7 and US theaters from July 9. Order it on Disney Plus with Premier Access from July 9. For more on Black Widow, check out our interviews with Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, and more on the making of the Marvel movie.