Not only is the release of Black Widow a reason to rejoice because the movie has finally come to theaters and Disney Plus Premier Access fourteen months behind schedule after being shunted way, way back from May 2020 due to the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, but it’s also giving Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff the solo adventure fans have been asking to see for a decade. Admittedly, it comes at a point when she’s already been killed off in the main timeline, and the entirety of the film can’t seem to shake off that “too little, too late” feeling.
A breezy prologue sets the stage in 1995 Ohio, with a regular family unit soon revealing themselves to be a cover story for Russian infiltration of the United States. Rumbled, David Harbour’s Alexei Shostakov and Rachel Weisz’s Melina Vostokoff are forced to make a quick getaway, handing their ‘children’ over to Ray Winstone’s Dreykov where they’re indoctrinated into Red Room training, and we’re off to the races.
The following two decades are neatly filled in by the opening credits montage, which also reveals the presence of a relatively big name among the cast that’s been kept top secret throughout the promotional and marketing blitz, so as soon as you see who it is, you can probably guess where things are heading when the big reveal is eventually made.
After escaping from William Hurt’s General Ross, who’s either hunting for the rogue Avenger or his paycheck, Nat flees to Norway to regroup with O-T Fagbenle’s Rick Mason, who most definitely isn’t who you think he is, with the actor pretty much there to deliver some exposition, a couple of wry quips and ostensibly fill the role marked “tech/gadget guy”.
It’s a sluggish start for what’s been pegged as a propulsive spy thriller, but things kick up a notch when Taskmaster first appears and kicks Agent Romanoff’s ass six ways from Sunday, instantly establishing the villain as a force to be reckoned with. We’re also introduced to Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova and Black Widow‘s primary plot device in one fell swoop, forcing the estranged sisters on a collision course and swift reconciliation, which happens via a bruising showdown in a Budapest apartment, complete with Hawkeye references for good measure.
In fact, you’ll probably lose count of the number of times Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are mentioned, and they loom over Natasha’s entire arc, for better or worse. Black Widow is supposed to be Johansson’s movie, and it definitely is to a certain extent, but as soon as the makeshift family unit are reunited she becomes little more than a cog in what’s still an incredibly well-oiled machine, at points acting as nothing more than a passenger in her own story.
That can be forgiven when you’ve got a force of nature like Pugh on the screen, though. The 25 year-old has long since been touted as one of the industry’s fastest-rising stars, and she’s an absolute firecracker throughout Black Widow. Smart, dangerous, sarcastic, foul-mouthed and more than capable, the mantle looks to be in fantastic hands for the foreseeable future, and it’s no coincidence that all of the best scenes in Cate Shortland’s blockbuster have her right in the thick of the action.
Speaking of which, the set pieces are fun and functional as opposed to spectacular, so there’s really nothing in Black Widow that fans of either the action, espionage or superhero genres haven’t seen done before, and done better. In particular, the third act finale falls into one of the tropes the MCU really should have moved away from by now, as things explode in the sky and any sort of tangible stunt work is replaced by CGI stuff smashing into other CGI stuff, as CGI character models fly around in among the CGI destruction. If somebody had cut the budget in half and told Shortland and her team to tell the exact same story, chances are Black Widow may have turned out a lot better given how willing it is to indulge in unnecessary effects-driven excess.
The hand-to-hand combat is far and away the strongest aspect of the spectacle, and while it’s clear that Black Widow is aiming to emulate the highest points of the Mission: Impossible, Jason Bourne and James Bond franchises through face-swapping and bone-crunching scraps, it’s more like John Woo’s polarizing Mission: Impossible II and The Bourne Legacy, which ironically also had Rachel Weisz and a secret chemical compound driving the narrative. We’ll let it off with the Bond comparisons, though, when there’s a direct Moonraker reference thrown in.
It’s an interesting concept for the MCU to attempt to tell a grounded and gritty tale powered by the reunion of a dysfunctional family brought together and then torn apart by the very same lie, but at the end of the day we’re still talking about a group of costumed heroes flying up to a floating sky base to detonate a mind-control chemical and stop a madman they can’t lay a finger on so long as they can smell him, and those two diametrically opposed approaches are always at war with each other.
Had Black Widow arrived right after Captain America: Civil War, then it might have carried greater dramatic heft, but it’s a 134-minute epic explaining the past of a character that doesn’t have a future. It can never really shake off the feeling that it’s largely inessential and inconsequential in the long run, with the notable exception of giving the MCU the gift of Florence Pugh. It’s hardly going to go down as one of the franchise’s very best, but it’s still an entertaining ride that reminds you of how effortlessly the Marvel machine can go through the gears.
Black Widow isn't going to go down in the history books as top-tier Marvel Cinematic Universe content, but it's not too bad at all.