Combining spy thrills with family dramas — and aided by a top-notch cast — the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally gives the first female Avenger her own solo feature.
Closure is a beautiful thing. It's also not something that a 24-film-and-growing franchise tends to serve up all that often. Since 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has operated with the exact opposite aim, in fact — extending and expanding the series at every turn, delivering episodic cinema instalments that keep viewers hanging for the next flick, and endeavouring to ensure that the superhero saga blasts onwards forever. But it's hard to tick those boxes when you're making a movie about a character whose fate is already known. Audiences have seen where Natasha Romanoff's (Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story) story finishes thanks to Avengers: Endgame, so Black Widow doesn't need to lay the groundwork for more films to follow. It's inexcusable that it has taken so long for the assassin-turned-Avenger to get her own solo outing. It's indefensible that this is just the second Marvel feature to solely focus on a female figure, too. But, unlike the missed opportunity that was Captain Marvel, Black Widow gives its namesake a thrilling big-screen outing — in no small part because it needn't waste time setting up an obvious Black Widow sequel.
Instead, the pandemic-delayed movie gets to spend its 143 minutes doing what more MCU flicks should: building character, focusing on relationships, fleshing out its chosen world and making every inch of its narrative feel lived-in. The end result feels like a self-contained film, rather than just one chapter in a never-ending tale — which gives it the space to confidently blend family dramas with espionage antics, and to do justice to both parts of that equation. Indeed, like Black Panther, Black Widow is one of the few Marvel movies that could dispense with its ties to the saga and still not only work, but still engage and entertain with precision. And, free of the dutiful task of linking into ten, 20 or 50 future features, it sincerely leaves viewers wanting more — more jumps into the past like this with Romanoff; more of its no-nonsense, high-octane spy action; and more of Florence Pugh (Little Women), David Harbour (Stranger Things) and Rachel Weisz (The Favourite), Johansson's supremely well-cast co-stars.
Harbour and Weisz play Alexei and Melina, happy Ohio residents, parents to young Natasha (Ever Anderson, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter) and Yelena (Violet McGraw, Doctor Sleep), and the portrait of all-American domesticity — or that's the ruse in 1995, at least. But Black Widow doesn't give them long to revel in small-town life, neighbourhood playtimes, 'American Pie' sing-alongs and an existence that could've been ripped from The Americans, with the quartet soon en route back to Russia via Cuba at shady puppetmaster Dreykov's (Ray Winstone, Cats) beckoning. When the film then jumps forward to 2016, and to the aftermath of that year's Captain America: Civil War, Natasha hasn't seen her faux family for decades. On the run from the authorities, she isn't palling around with the Avengers, either, with the superheroes all going their separate ways. Then the adult Yelena (Pugh) reaches out, because she too has fled her own powers-that-be: Dreykov, the fellow all-female hit squad she's been part of for the last 21 years, and the mind-control techniques that've kept her compliant, and killing, since she was a child.
Vials of a brain-liberating serum are of vital importance here, and so is getting revenge on Dreykov — although they're really just the gadgets and goals that help reunite not just Natasha and Yelena, but also their ex-foster parents. Alexei, Russia's first super soldier, has slid from prominence, while Melina has fared better; however, they're all soon trying to break into Dreykov's Red Room training camp. There's an unmistakable air of Bourne and Bond to Eric Pearson's (Godzilla vs Kong) script, and to the story by Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision) and Ned Benson (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) he's working with. Moonraker especially comes to mind in Black Widow's visuals and action setpieces, too. But this deftly satisfying flick doesn't trade the MCU's blueprints for other franchises' templates, thankfully. With Cate Shortland in the director's chair, it spins a thoughtfully weighty story about women trapped at the mercy of others and fighting to regain their agency. If that sounds familiar, that's because the Australian filmmaker has a history with these types of notions thanks to Somersault, Lore and Berlin Syndrome.
The first solo female director in the MCU, Shortland proves a savvy pick to guide Black Widow, and not only because she's in her thematic wheelhouse — or because her past films have all been about young women and their connections, as this Marvel instalment is as well. When it comes to action, she directs intense and suspenseful yet always fluid scenes. When the movie gets interpersonal, including during a memorable dinner table exchange where Natasha and Yelena demand answers from the closest thing they've ever had to a mum and dad, Shortland finds the ideal balance between raw emotion and rich character interplay. The film finds humour also, and repeatedly. Yelena's jokes at her sister's expense are a light but disarmingly realistic touch, and they always play that way. Their banter persistently reads that way, in fact. As Alexei, Harbour is given room to get goofy as well, and it never feels out of place — even in a feature with a deep vein of poignancy pumping through its frames, particularly when it comes to the childhoods that Natasha and Yelena didn't get to have.
Using a breathy female cover of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', frenetic fight-scene editing that's occasionally too quick for its own good, and Winstone's unconvincing Russian accent: these are among Black Widow's rare missteps. Thoroughly deserving her time in the MCU spotlight after 11 years and eight prior big-screen appearances, a flame-haired Johansson relishes the long-awaited chance to give Natasha more depth than she's ever been afforded — and, in a generous performance, she also sparks with and bounces off of the always-impressive Pugh, who just keeps going from strength to strength (see also: Lady Macbeth, The Little Drummer Girl, Fighting with My Family and Midsommar). It doesn't need to, and it didn't spend an entire feature threatening to, but if Marvel somehow found a way to pair these two together again, it'd be more than welcome. If it keeps genuinely trying to push aside its usual formula and do more than extend its brand, that'd be welcome as well. Luckily for audiences, it's definitely handing the reins to another female filmmaker again, and soon — and now Chloe Zhao's Eternals can't come quickly enough.
Top image: Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.