Even before its various pandemic-induced delays, one of the big questions surrounding Black Widow was ‘well, what took so long?’ To not have a solo movie for one of the MCU’s most beloved characters and to fail to put an actor of Scarlett Johansson’s calibre front and centre in a tentpole blockbuster has felt like a missed opportunity for quite some years now. Natasha Romanoff’s final outing doesn’t quite make up for the lost time – due in no small part to the fact that she died in the last movie – but a more lo-fi feel and the introduction of fun, memorable new characters in the MCU ensure it’s still worthwhile.
Taking place between the events of Civil War and Infinity War, Black Widow is part prequel, part sequel, and part origin story. On the run following her betrayal of Iron Man’s government-backed team, Natasha receives a mysterious package which sends her to Budapest and tumbling back into her past. It transpires that the parcel was sent by Yelena (Florence Pugh), a fellow Black Widow who also acted as Natasha’s younger sister during an extended fake-family undercover mission in ‘90s Ohio. Sinister Russian commander Dreykov (Ray Winstone doing an accent that could be generously described as baffling) has crafted a new generation of Widows under the spell of some mind control mumbo-jumbo, and it’s up to Natasha and Yelena to stop him.
Dreykov, alongside his mysterious masked assassin the Taskmaster, proves a lacklustre villain though, and Black Widow is at its best when it’s paying the least attention to its central plot. Johansson and Pugh have a great chemistry – Yelena is an instant top-tier MCU character thanks to Pugh’s impeccable balance of stoic strength and childlike vulnerability – and Rachel Weisz and David Harbour are good value as the pair’s ‘parents’. Weisz’s Melina is an older generation Widow who now raises some adorable pigs, while Harbour plays the Red Guardian, a knockoff Soviet Captain America pining for glory days that likely never existed in the first place. It’s the sort of wounded oaf performance that made Harbour such a star on Stranger Things and it remains a winning formula here.
Director Cate Shortland draws some of the MCU’s most human performances from her cast, aided by a script from Eric Pearson that trades a lot of the franchise’s typical smarmy laughs for something more sincere. There are still plenty of jokes here, to be sure, but they feel more natural coming from the dynamics of this makeshift family rather than just existing to undercut any earnestness.
It’s just a shame that the necessary ‘Marvel plot’ has to intrude on this family reunion and, as is by now very familiar with the MCU, every step towards the finale raises the stakes and bombast, trading Black Widow’s strengths for a generic climax. The crunching stuntwork and location shooting of the earlier action scenes make way for unconvincing CGI explosions (the VFX work is pretty ropey throughout) and the personal stakes are replaced by yet another world-ending threat and predictable twists that are even further dulled by the fact that we know what’s coming next for Natasha.
Shortland and Pearson clearly want Black Widow to say something about the brutality of misogyny with their creepy villain and his army of leather-clad female assassins, but the film as a whole isn’t smart or serious enough to give its Big Issues the focus they deserve. Jumping from a frank discussion of forced hysterectomies to nonsense about controlling women with a ‘pheromonal lock’ creates a jarring tonal whiplash, and the horrifying implications of the Black Widow program are too easily forgotten whenever they become inconvenient for the plot.
It’s an issue throughout Black Widow that the film it wants to be and the film it has to be are often in conflict, but whenever Shortland is allowed space to make it the former it’s an enjoyably warm-but-spiky family drama with some more subtly spectacular Bourne-style action, easing fans back into the world of the big-screen MCU with style.