After a solid decade of being a big part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ensemble, Avenger and super-spy Natasha Romanoff finally gets her own starring movie in Black Widow. It comes after the character’s arc was complete in Avengers: Endgame so it may seem a bit belated but interquels in comic book franchises are not uncommon. On its own, this is a fun bit of superhero spy-craft that doubles as a family reunion drama with some solid quips and heartfelt character moments. But where the movie works best is a cathartic release for Nat as she literally confronts her dark past face to face. Also, lots of explosive action and kicking in the head.
On the run from the government after the Avengers Civil War, Natasha aka the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), is lying low until she is attacked by the mysterious villain Taskmaster. Nat meets up with her former fake sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who was also a member of the Black Widow super-spy program. Their leader Dreykov (Ray Winstone) is using chemical mind control on Widow operatives that he trains in the hidden Red Room facility. This is particularly perplexing for Nat since she thought she killed Dreykov years ago. But Yelena has access to a chemical that will wipe out the mind control. Now the two sort-of sisters find their sort-of parents, Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexi (David Harbour) to lead them to Dreykov and free the women he has controlled for decades.
Black Widow delivers family reunion melodrama with Nat’s operative “family”. The familial angle is set effectively in an opening flashback in 1995 when Melina and Alexi take their young “daughters” on the run after being discovered. There are some inventive de-aging VFX that make it look like The Mummy era Weisz was on set. A high-speed airplane runway chase with superhero power flourishes ends with the kids being taken to the Red Room by Dreykov. A visceral and riveting opening title scene montage speeds through the Red Room training of the Black Widows is set to a hauntingly effective cover of “Smells like Teen Spirit” that shows how their personality was stripped to make the girls Dreykov’s warrior puppets.
Johansson plays Nat as a hyper-competent super-spy who has buried her past but when she confronts Dreykov all her repressed anger comes spilling out. In a very intense scene she rips into him for being an abusive overlord. Winstone’s Dreykov is a truly nasty bad guy who says he is using the world’s most abundant natural resource, abandoned orphan girls, to take control. He’s the mastermind baddie and his physical instrument is Taskmaster, a villain who can replicate the abilities of anyone they see. The backstory behind Taskmaster is an interesting twist that is different from the comic book source but it works emotionally for this film’s story. Taskmaster doesn’t say anything instead being a silent, ever advancing unstoppable threat. They’re certainly menacing if not memorable.
Alexi is a Russian super-solider named the Red Guardian and Harbour portrays him as a boastful has-been who has been spending years in prison, recollecting the glory days to his fellow inmates although he may be twisting a few details to make himself more grandiose. He says how the mission raising the kids was a drag but deep down he seems to care about them. Weisz as Melina delivers some motherly moments like complaining about the posture of her “daughter” even while Melina has seemingly unwillingly contributed the Widows mind control program. As Yelena, Pugh is sort of the snarky little sister who makes some funny comments about how Nat is always “posing” in mid-battle. Yelena also involved in a now-mandatory post-credit scene that teases more Marvel content. A big reason the family dynamic works is because the aforementioned prologue and title scene do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting.
This is a little different style of action from the last few Marvel outings, while movies like Infinity War had super powered beat downs, this is more close-quarter fighting befitting the spy movie genre. It’s very crunchy and hard hitting, even at one point Nat has to reset her broken nose which is super gnarly. There’s a chase involving a Widow going after Nat and Yelena that ends in an unexpected reveal who is pulling the strings behind the Widows. Alexi being a super-solider adds some spectacle to the fights and the initial surprise of his super-strength when he flips a truck to let the family escape is great. The reveal of how the Red Room training facility has stayed hidden is a nice usage of Marvel Universe technology. This is a “smaller” Marvel movie but it still has lots of big action scenes, just with less robots, wizards or aliens.
Black Widow is a very cool side-story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that gives some depth to a character that never had the spotlight before. It may not be essential to the grand big picture of the MCU but it is nice to have Natasha be the main character, fleshing out stuff that was previously hinted at. It’s great seeing Nat confront her past and find some sort of closure in the Merry Marvel way by beating the hell out of a very nasty man.
Director: Cate Shortland
Starring: Scarlett Johansson , Florence Pugh and David Harbour