It’s nine years since The Avengers altered the landscape of mainstream cinema in 2012, and finally, finally, the group’s sole female member is given her own movie. Long overdue, and slightly overdone, Black Widow is a lively return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that bogs down the franchise’s future with concerns of the past.
Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run, and, when clearing out her safehouses, finds a message from her adopted sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh). Now also a Black Widow, Yelena’s mental conditioning was reversed thanks to an antidote, and she wants to use the remainder to take down the whole organisation.
This is unfinished business for Natasha, though, because she’s certain she killed Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who torturously conditions his female assassins in the Red Room. Just like in comics, if there’s no body, the job wasn’t done. Typical of anyone in this universe, the estranged sisters start working out their differences while dodging Dreykov’s grunts, making their way to his skybound lair.
The premise is novel insofar as it lets Marvel have a two-for-one with Natasha and Yelena – the former gets her solo movie, while the latter’s handed the baton for further sequels. The jibing between the spy sisters makes for good chemistry. Pugh has proven herself versatile in recent years, with period drama Little Women, and horror movie Midsommar especially, and she adds comic book superhero without much convincing.
But the retroactive insertion of a deeper backstory for Natasha gives a sense of some shoehorning, where a perfectly fine thriller starring Yelena has been intermingled with latent ideas for Black Widow that previously never came together. Guardians of the Galaxy co-writer Nicole Perlman had a treatment as early as 2014 that never came to pass, Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer, and Ned Benson being the credit writers here.
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David Harbour and Rachel Weisz play their parents, Alexei ‘Red Guardian’ Shostakov, and Melina Vostokoff, another Black Widow-turned-scientist, who worked with Dreykov. A boisterous prologue of the family’s escape from the US opens the film, leading into an intense open credits covering young Natasha and young Yelena undergoing the early stages of Dreykov’s training. They’re among scores of young girls left in storage containers to starve, bullied by the surrounding soldiers, all to an airy pop cover of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
It, like Natasha averting Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt), feels like bridge notes for another film, one where she and her trauma are centre-stage. Aside from some broad, poorly executed mention in Avengers: Age of Ultron, these movies have barely mentioned this side of Natasha, brushing it off like she’s the one who doesn’t want to talk about it.
Pairing her with Yelena makes for easy thrust, but what we’re seeing is the sequel to a story that should’ve already been told. Set right after Captain America: Civil War, where Natasha assisted Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in helping his friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), a sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where Natasha assisted Steve Rogers in helping his friend Bucky, Natasha gets a title picture – where she assists her sister in helping her friends.
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Natasha gets plenty to do, of course. She gamefully handles Taskmaster in their first encounter, and makes easy work of a hearty prison breakout. Pokes from Yelena at Natasha’s moves don’t do much to rework how she’s been framed in movies past, but the running joke gets a giggle in the moment. Director Cate Shortland’s fight scenes are explosive and close-quartered, leaning toward impact like in The Winter Soldier. Marvel is still nowhere near John Wick or The Raid for intensity and substance in its crash, bang, wallop, but less cuts help that weight.
Indeed, The Winter Soldier casts a long shadow in the climax, set aboard the collapsing Red Room. Each family member has their own sequence: Red Guardian lumbering against Taskmaster, Yelena running infiltration, Natasha keeping Dreykov busy, and Melina causing quite a bit of engine trouble. It goes a bit Mission: Impossible in the end, to its credit.
Winstone brings enough slime for Dreykov to be a suitably detestable stand-in for systemic misogyny. He and Johansson commit in their stand-off, but they can only do so much when we’re hearing about all of this a good five years after the fact. Doesn’t help that Dreykov’s abuses are given only throwaway lines, as if tacked on addendums.
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The problem remains that Natasha is still the big sister to Yelena’s story of breaking away from the Red Room, and stopping the cycles of abuse. A family dinner helps in this regard, seeing the ways the sisters Widow are Alexei and Melina’s children. The film comes closest to justifying itself during these moments, when Harbour and Weisz, whose endearing charisma makes one overlook the questionable accents, act as separate foils to Pugh and Johansson.
Neither Yelena nor Natasha feels like they have a real family, and their brief taste of American ’90s suburbia pours salt in the wound. Unlike her old pal Steve, Natasha never quite gets to go back there. Well, she does, but just a little too late for it to really feel like it matters.