The Plot: Following the seismic events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff AKA Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself on the run. She’s not looking for trouble, but it comes looking for her. The secretive Red Room organisation, fronted by Russian heavy Dreykov (Ray Winstone), wants to bring her back into the sleeper cell fold that her family started out in. This means confronting her past head-on, having a literal run-in with little sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) followed by reunion with her estranged parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz). Somewhere amidst the family conflict, Natasha will have to come to terms with the consequences of her actions and stop Dreykov’s villainous plan…
The Verdict: Even the heroic superheroes of the mighty Marvel fold couldn’t stop cinemas from being shuttered, resulting in a long delay for the long-awaited standalone Black Widow outing. For a while, it looked like it might follow the unfortunate fate of Mulan and Pixar’s recent outings by going direct to Disney+ only. Thankfully, Disney patiently held out for the large canvas and immersive sound of the big screen. There’s something wonderfully warm and reassuring as the Marvel logo swishes into form on the cinema screen and the banner theme proudly blasts through the speakers. This is why cinemas remain relevant. Get ready to deep dive into the world of Marvel once more in all their finely-made blockbuster glory, this time focusing on the fearless, self-sacrificing Avenger without any actual superpowers.
Black Widow launches Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though it rewinds the clock several years to focus on the period in-between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Natasha is drawn into a dangerous conspiracy with worldwide implications, as her shady past comes bubbling up to the surface. This will involve re-uniting with her mother, father and sister – a nuclear family just about ready to go into meltdown at the flick of a switch. This is already hinted at in the frenetic, well-staged prologue sequence, before moving forward to show how the years have affected the relationship with her Russian sleeper cell family. Can she trust them again, now that she’s an Avenger and fighting for the good guys? Natasha doesn’t waste any time, coming to blows with sister Yelena at first before realising that she’s part of a Blofeld-style mind-control plot to dispatch deadly Red Room agents around the world. It’s not the only reference to the world’s most famous spy in the film – Moonraker is name-checked in one scene.
What we have here is Marvel’s own take on the spy film, with some hearty dashings of Bondian plotting, globe-hopping antics and character double crosses to keep audiences on the edge of their seats throughout. Those pesky Russkies are the bad guys once more, but Natasha isn’t planning on coming back behind the iron curtain. She’s going to fight for what’s right and restore relations with her family. This is all shot through with Marvel’s customary sense of quirky humour, right down to the poignant post-credits scene. Director Cate Shortland mines these bickering family scenes for some surprisingly revealing character moments that build up the backstory and character of Natasha in ways that the team effort films weren’t fully able to. As an executive producer as well as a star, Johansson no doubt had a hand in fleshing out Natasha for her solo adventure. She gives a commanding performance, creating dynamite chemistry with Florence Pugh as two halves of the same coin.
Shortland is an interesting choice of director. Like Chloe Zhao and her upcoming film Eternals, the Australian had directed only three independent films before Marvel came calling. Shortland steps up to the demands of a major blockbuster with confidence, showing visual flair via terrific action sequences including a dizzying finale that rounds up the film in a satisfying manner. For a film that’s over two hours, it doesn’t feel overlong or drawn-out. The pacing is spot on, stopping at the right moments to see where Natasha’s head is at while keeping the other characters in check with the plot machinations. A barely-glimpsed and nearly wordless Olga Kurylenko is under-used though, which is a shame as she’s a decent actress playing a character with a tragic backstory. It’s a small fault though in a film that gets a lot of things right. Most importantly, Black Widow is true to the character of Natasha and her ultimate fate in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – which is another reason to savour it. If this is to be her cinematic swansong, then she’s going out in grand style. Marvel-lous indeed.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Black Widow (USA / 12A / 134 mins)
In short: Marvel-lous
Directed by Cate Shortland.
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone, Olga Kurylenko, William Hurt.