After several delays from its original release date of May 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Black Widow is finally here! Set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe reunites our assassinating Avenger with her estranged “family” where they must band together and face a deadly enemy linked to their past.
The seemingly normal lives of young Natasha Romanoff (Ever Anderson) and her sister Yelena Belova (Violet McGraw) are turned-upside down when they flee their Ohio home in 1995 with their parents Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) – AKA the Red Guardian. If leaving the country they love and then being separated from their parents wasn’t bad enough, the girls soon find themselves forced into a gruelling and traumatizing training program at a place called the Red Room that produces highly trained female assassins known as Black Widows. Most girls don’t survive.
Jump forward in time and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is in hiding after the events of Captain America: Civil War. However, a random package sent to her by Yelena (Florence Pugh) and a deadly encounter with a lethal warrior called Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), forces Natasha out of hiding to help her sister. Yelena is free from the control of the leader of the Widows, Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and is now being hunted by her former assassin brethren. Natasha and Yelena will need to track down their parents if they are to have any chance of stopping Dreykov and freeing the other Widows from his control.
While these two sister assassins feel they are prepared to take down a deadly assassin organization, they are about to find out they are not necessarily prepared to deal with a family reunion.
Ignoring the last act of the film, Black Widow has a very different feel to most other MCU films with its darker spy/thriller vibe, similar to The Bourne Identity franchise or Red Sparrow, coupled with a good amount of humor to offset the fact that you’re essentially watching a movie about human trafficking of young girls.
What makes this mix of darkness and humor work so well (apart from the writing, of course) is the amazing chemistry between our protagonists and the great performances they give in the context of a dysfunctional and broken family trying to reconnect and find answers. If anything the family dynamic is so good, it actually steals the limelight from the main mission of stopping the villain. To be honest, I didn’t really care much about our heroes stopping Dreykov; I wanted to see the family deal with its issues, reconnect, heal and maybe become something like the Fantastic Four.
But since this is Scarlett Johansson’s last hoorah as Natasha Romanoff (spoiler: she obviously dies in Avengers: Endgame) I was just going to have to settle for the usual Marvel-esque ending.
Scarlett Johansson gives a solid final performance with the role of Natasha Romaoff. She’s pretty comfortable with this character by now, having played her since first appearing in 2010’s Iron Man 2. While the story provides much more character development and depth for the character along with more juicy, dramatic (as well as ass-kicking) scenes for Johansson to work with, she’s unfortunately overshadowed by her co-stars – making this last appearance a little bit of a let down if you’re a hardcore Natasha Romanoff fan. Most of the time she felt like a side-kick in her own movie.
Joining the MCU is newcomer Florence Pugh giving a show-stealing portrayal of Yelena Belova. The younger sister of the dysfunctional family, Yelena is equal parts ass-kicking warrior and grieving victim. Just like Natasha, Yelena had her childhood stolen from her when she was forced to join the Red Room to train to become a Black Widow. But she was younger than Natasha and her earliest childhood memories are those of a normal life in Ohio whereas Natasha knew more of their circumstances.
Pugh expertly portrays a hardened female warrior whose entire life has been controlled by a secret institution and must now try to figure out how to function like a normal human, now that she has her freedom. This dynamic of being a trained killer, while also experiencing normal adult things – like choosing and buying your own clothes – provides many hilarious moments. Pugh and Johannson have amazing chemistry together and encapsulate a genuine feeling of sisterhood that really made these characters feel more real than other characters in other Marvel movies. It will be interesting to see where the character goes now that the torch has been passed on to her.
Offsetting the strong sense of sisterhood between Johansson, Pugh and also Weisz, is the hilarious performance given by David Harbour who plays the tragically flawed father figure Alexei Shostakov, AKA the Red Guardian. I wasn’t expecting his character to be such a buffoon as I was expecting to see an over-the-hill Russian equivalent of Captain America. But I’m so glad the filmmakers went down that path. Harbour is pure comedic genius as this bumbling relic of a time forgotten who is now having to deal with his grown up assassin daughters who are more than happy to point out his flaws.
My only gripe is that he didn’t do more ass-kicking and they could have done more with him redeeming himself for his past injustices. But for all the laughs he got out of me, I can forgive that.
Director Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, Lore) has delivered a movie that’s two thirds awesome, and last third meh. Black Widow feels like two different types of movies stitched together with the first two acts in the style of a spy thriller/drama with engaging drama revolving around a broken family, to becoming a shallow, Marvel visual spectacle.
But even though the last act is nothing particularly special because we’ve seen it before, I’ll forgive it because the lead up to the overly CGI and bloated finale is something special. It’s special because there’s a serious and dark foundation the story is built upon, and the focus is on how that traumatic introduction has scarred our heroes for life.
Sure, there are superhero elements (this is still a Marvel movie after all), but the focus is more on the relationships between these characters to not only each other in the artificial family they find themselves in, but with the relationship they have with the organization that has taken away their childhood and made them who they are today.
Black Widow is among the better Marvel movies thanks to fantastic chemistry between its lead cast, strong dramatic and comedic performances – particularly from Pugh and Harbour – and a gritty story that pushes the Marvel films into more serious territory. However, a lackluster and predictable ending prevented it from reaching the true cinematic heights it might have. Still, with the passing of the torch to newcomer Florence Pugh I look forward to seeing where the story goes with our new Black Widow.