Black Widow – Directed by Cate Shortland. Written by Eric Pearson. Starring Scarlet Johnasson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenie, Ray Winstone, William Hurt, Olga Kurylenko, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw

***1/2 out of ****

Few movies have ever had as much resting on their shoulders as Black Widow. Not only is it the swan song for the popular Natasha Romanoff, who died in Avengers: Endgame, but it’s a long-demanded solo film for the MCU’s first solo heroine. Originally slated to come out in May 2020, it was the highest-profile film derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, as Disney was determined not to casually throw it on streaming like so many other films. And as the first A+ tier film to come out since the pandemic, it’s the biggest test yet of the box office – even bigger than franchise hits like A Quiet Place: Part 2 and F9.

And amid all of that, it still has to be a good movie. Well, the good news is, the MCU hasn’t put out a truly bad film yet in over twenty installments. It’s put out a few mediocre ones – but this certainly isn’t that. Coming on the heels of a series of movies that got increasingly cosmic and chaotic, it’s one of the most gritty and down-to-earth MCU films yet – and it’s anchored by a quartet of fantastic performances.

The film begins with one of the best prologues I can remember in an MCU film, as a preteen Natasha (Ever Anderson) lives a normal life in American suburbia with a loving mother (Rachel Weisz, barely deaged with CGI) – and a naive little sister. It’s a strangely pastoral scene, but when dad (David Harbour, completely unrecognizable with CGI) bursts through the door, it becomes clear what’s going on. They’re deep-cover spies, and the time has come to flee America. And while Red Room trainee Natasha understands what’s going on, tiny Yelena has no idea yet. This unconventional family unit may be fake, but they care for each other deeply – and that makes what comes next all the more heartbreaking.

The bulk of the movie takes place close to the present – but not in it. Instead, it takes place an eternity ago in MCU time, around the time of Captain America: Civil War. A fugitive after working against the government to help Captain America, Natasha is pursued by General Ross (William Hurt, snarling as always) and is forced to go off the grid with the help of her sarcastic fixer Mason (O-T Fagbenie, providing some early comic relief). But it’s not long before her past comes calling and she’s forced out of her hideaway and into a spy plot that feels much more James Bond than Marvel.

It’s not a surprise from the trailers that Yelena (Florence Pugh) is now a Black Widow in her own right – and part of a team of them. What is new is exactly how she was turned into a super-spy, and that unravels a plot that reveals some of the darkest material ever explored in the MCU. This is a movie about brainwashing, manipulation, torture, and the horrors that men get up to when they think women belong to them. Despite that, it never feels like it’s preaching at the audience – it lets us discover these horrors as Natasha does, and react to them in the natural way. It’s a movie about serious issues without ever being an issue movie.

Despite this, Black Widow manages to be a very funny movie without its humor being out of place. Much of its humor comes from one man – Alexei (Harbour, looking much more like himself in the present day). The former Red Guardian, he’s a boorish brawler who loves his “daughters” while seemingly being blind to many of the horrors of “mother Russia” – even after it betrayed him many times over. Self-aggrandizing, larger than life, and obsessed with a past that makes sense only to him, he’s one of the most entertaining new characters to hit the MCU in a long time. Melina (Rachel Weisz) has had a much calmer time of it since their family experiment ended, although what she’s done since leads to some brilliantly dark comic moments as well – especially an extended scene involving a pig.

What doesn’t quite work? Going back to a problem for the MCU for a long time, Black Widow has a pair of relatively weak villains. General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the sadistic mastermind of the Red Room, is a good example of the banality of evil. A generic man in a suit, he manages to be one of the most evil villains in the MCU besides maybe Ego. But he doesn’t have much flair, instead coming off like a twisted bureaucrat. And then there’s Taskmaster, the skull-masked assassin who can mimic any fighter. One of the most popular villains in the Marvel Universe, this character is given a complete makeover in identity and origin to the point where they barely feel like the same character in any meaningful way. One might even say they got the Cassandra Cain treatment. They deliver the visual flair and action, but this character didn’t need to be Taskmaster and the movie didn’t do the legacy justice. There’s still time for the MCU to fix that given how the story ends here, though.

But this also ties into the movie’s biggest strength. Taskmaster’s fight scenes are stunning – and so is almost every single action scene in Black Widow. The fact that it’s a more down-to-earth movie doesn’t stop it from delivering some of the best action set pieces in MCU history, including a dazzling escape segment from a massive collapsing fortress in a very inhospitable environment right near the end of the movie. But amid that action is an intimate, angst-driven story that is ultimately about the bond between family – chosen, atypical, and those bonded by trauma. And of course, it’s all the more poignant because we already know how Natasha’s story ends. The epilogue sets up what could be the future of the franchise – as well as the next big project featuring one of the players. If it plays out, it’ll be the biggest test yet of the MCU’s split focus between movies and Disney Plus. But for now, let’s just enjoy the fact that Marvel movies are back – and they started with a winner.

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