Synopsis – A film about Natasha Romanoff in her quests between the films Civil War and Infinity War.
My Take – It is hard to pin point what is more exciting, the long delayed release of the 24th feature installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or that Black Widow, who has been a mainstay character for a while now, having appeared in eight films prior, is finally getting a solo offering?
Despite being one of the first leads introduced in the MCU, it is regretful that Natasha Romanoff has had to wait more than a decade for her own film, only to have it realized after her death in the franchise’s main continuity. While other members of the original Avengers team, with the exception of Hawkeye, who’s getting his own Disney+ series later this year, have had a trilogy of stand-alone adventures to themselves, Natasha started off as playing a sexual object who could be depended upon to triumph in any kind of combat, only graduating to play second fiddle to the rest of them.
With this Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome) directed film, Marvel clearly aims to course correct their action by providing the character’s legacy the deserved justice, with the help of a perfect supporting cast that elevates the film’s themes on family, and a story that marks the start of the MCU’s Phase 4 on the big screen.
As a summer blockbuster, the film delivers by being one of the more self-contained Marvel films, filled with winks to the kind of old-school spy thrillers that came out in 80s and 90s, but most importantly, without the weight of the world on its shoulders.
There is some MCU familiarity in there, with occasional similarities to the more grounded offerings like Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) but this one is very much its own entity, setting itself apart from this superhero franchise by being more of a simple action thriller than anything else.
Sure, the film falls short of being a great Marvel film due to its flaws, like the customary Marvel villain problem, and how it kind of comes apart in the last half. Yet, it remains an enjoyable entry (way better than the over hyped Captain Marvel) into the ever expanding MCU, and does well by sending off a formidable heroine on an incredible high.
Starting off with a prologue set in 1995 Ohio, the film sees a young Natasha (Ever Anderson), well-adjusted in an American life with her younger sister Yelena (Violet McGraw), and their Russian undercover parents Alexei (David Harbour) aka Red Guardian, Russia’s answer to Captain America, and Melina (Rachel Weisz). That is until they get uprooted in a single night as Alexei completes his said mission, forcing them to head back to their country where the four are duly separated.
Fast forwarding to a time set after Captain America: Civil War (2016), but before Avengers: Infinity War (2018), the story follows a grown up Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), an Avenger who is on the run after being marked a fugitive by U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) for violating the Sokovia Accords, and for helping Captain America and Bucky Barnes escape from the Leipzig/Halle Airport.
While she seems to be settling into a quite hideout set up by Rick Mason (O-T Fagbenle), an ally from her S.H.I.E.L.D. past, in the Norwegian mountains, her life turns chaotic again when she is forced to reconnect with a grown up Yelena (Florence Pugh), who informs her that the Red Room, the program that turned both of them into trained killers is still up and running, and so is the earlier presumed dead General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), its head. Determined to put an end the Red Room’s schemes once and for all, Natasha and Yelena join forces to go on a globetrotting mission to take on Dreykov and his ultimate fighting weapon, Taskmaster.
Flitting between global heists and chasing after mysterious red colored vials with the usual disregard for property destruction, the film feels more like an installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise than part of the MCU, even though it puts in a valiant effort in establishing Natasha as someone who can exist on her own.
It is intimate, aggressive, funny, and brutal in every PG-13 sense possible, with Lorne Balfe’s soundtrack bringing out the big guns, charging the dizzying action set-pieces with energy and excitement. Director Cate Shortland shoots the film like a roller coaster on descent. Filled with exhilarating set pieces, the film’s fight scenes contrasts the clean, bright aesthetic of Natasha’s introduction in Iron Man 2 (2010).
Self-consciously avoiding those slow-motion poses, the action sequences here don’t pause in the same way, instead embracing the lightning-fast technique of these skilled assassins. Every moment feels punctuated with some crazy ambush happening on screen.
What’s fascinating is how, in attempting to course-correct for Natasha as a character, the film ultimately ends up introducing a much more compelling female MCU character in Yelena Belova, who is dealing with the same trauma that birthed Natasha’s personality. By allowing her to be onscreen in a way Natasha never was, Yelena as a character gets imbued with more layers, making her the perfect candidate to pick up the mantle of Black Widow.
However, where the film loses itself is in the final half, where the leads set out to take on Dreykov. The whole segment seems shortchanged and shoehorned for an excuse to cause big explosions in the way the Helicarriers fell off in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). A character is forced to do something boneheaded to give the mission some tension but ends up feeling like a plot hole more than anything. It’s all just super spies infiltrating an evil lair filled with a dozen more uninteresting evil super spies.
Also continuing here is the Marvel villain problem, a stumbling block the studio and its writers haven’t been able to fix. Of course Josh Brolin‘s Thanos and Michael B. Jordan‘s Erik Killmonger are exceptions, while Daniel Brühl‘s Helmut Zemo and Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki have become more of antiheroes now. While Dreykov is the pretty standard angry Russian general, its Taskmaster the film fails miserably.
In the comics, Taskmaster’s whole shtick is that he can read, predict, and counter any move his opponent makes, making him not only a complete physical threat but a mental one. He’s a supercomputer that can destroy anyone. Here, the character is treated like a fighter simply a few notches above Natasha but one that doesn’t require a whole new set of skills to beat. The combat isn’t bad, by any stretch, but the way it lacks feels like a disservice to a character who is known for kicking everyone’s ass at an impossible level.
Yes, the direction they take with the character is actually pretty exciting, but the problem is that they don’t give the character that much to do other than show and try to kill. Disappointingly, even the Red Room isn’t explored much beyond its opening credits montage and we don’t learn anything about the other Widows.
It is a testament to director Shortland’s strengths that the film succeeds despite the flaws. This is as good of character work as Marvel has ever done, and makes for a good throwback to the beginnings of the MCU when Marvel films were a little simpler, a little more stripped down, and focused a wee bit more on character interactions than CGI feats (not that I am complaining).
Performance wise, Scarlett Johansson is nothing short of magnificent here. Johansson has always been one of the MCU’s most consistent performers but there is something about her leading performance here that stands apart from the rest. Whether that be down to the fact that she knew it would be her final performance as that character or the determination to prove that the fans were right and that Natasha was always deserving of that headlining adventure.
Florence Pugh is quite good and manages to be quite the scene stealer and bounces off Johansson very well. Both Dave Harbour and Rachel Weisz bring a lot flare to their characters. Olga Kurylenko too is effectively in her very brief screen time, while Ray Winstone play his character straight. In smaller roles, O-T Fagbenle and William Hurt are effective. Playing the younger counterparts both Ever Anderson and Violet McGraw bring in noticeable turns. On the whole, ‘Black Widow’ is a good old fashioned action thriller that makes for another genuinely entertaining Marvel film.
Directed – Cate Shortland
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 133 minutes