The long-anticipated solo movie for the lone female Avenger is almost everything a fan could hope for, but it still doesn’t make up for the past treatment of the character
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone, and Rachel Weisz
Originally set to premiere in May 2020, but pushed back due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Black Widow was undeniably highly anticipated. Not quite the first MCU instalment to have a female central character (that accolade going to 2019’s Captain Marvel), Marvel have been teasing a solo outing for Johansson’s ruthless assassin as far back as 2010. With the character meeting an unfortunate end in Avengers: Endgame, there was a certain amount of scepticism to how a Black Widow film would work, whether it would take the form of an origin story or a necessary number of flashbacks or, indeed, a surprise revival.
Fortunately, the latter is not the case, as that would have dramatically dented the impact of Avengers: Endgame, even if Natasha was not afforded the dignity of a funeral, unlike Tony Stark. Instead, the story takes place immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which Natasha finds herself on the run, cut off from her universe-saving, super-powered pals and thrust into an adventure that involves her confronting her chequered past.
Black Widow more than lives up to the expectation placed upon it, providing an action-packed, self-contained story about family which successfully cements Natasha in the audience’s hearts. Even though there are action sequences aplenty, director Cate Shortland manages to make these dynamic and varied such that they do not feel repetitive or exhaustive. The relationships that Natasha has with characters from her past are also placed in a central place within the narrative, and the villain in question, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), feels sinister and memorable. The MCU is somewhat renowned for the poor construction of its villainous characters, giving them flimsy motivations, but enmeshing Dreykov in key events within Natasha’s own past helps legitimise him as a meaningful threat, as well as the audience to have a suitable reasoning for rooting for his defeat.
Black Widow opens perhaps unexpectedly, seeing a young Natasha with a younger sister, Yelena, mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) and father Alexei (David Harbour). As it transpires, however, this is purely a front. Melina and Alexei are Russian spies, and Natasha and Yelena are soon to be inducted into assassin training, led by Dreykov. In the intervening years, both Natasha and Yelena are moulded into the perfect killing machines through many traumatic and violating procedures, until Natasha, seemingly, killed Dreykov and disbanded the Red Room once and for all.
Or, at least, so she thought. Fleeing the country and remaining incognito after breaking the Sokovia Accords, Natasha prepares herself for a banal existence. However, after she receives a mysterious package, Natasha finds herself attacked by a mysterious, seemingly robotic enemy known as the Taskmaster, which seems able to perfectly mimic its enemy’s skills. Tracing the package to Budapest, Natasha comes face-to-face with her erstwhile sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), recently freed from the Red Room’s chemical mind control through a synthetic gas.
Armed with the vials, the pair set about dismantling the Red Room once and for all, leading them on a family reunion, first to break Alexei out of prison, and then to confront Melina, the scientific brains behind Dreykov’s sinister operations.
Compared to lots of other MCU instalments, Black Widow feels far more streamlined. Our heroes have a clear objective and goal and they make evident steps towards achieving that goal. It’s remarkably less reactionary than other Marvel films in which our heroes are the ones being attacked, instead of the ones being proactive and doing something about it. The plot moves in a logical fashion from exciting set piece to exciting set piece while still able to spend the necessary time to invest in the characters’ emotions. This helps the film feel impactful and emotional.
Unfortunately, despite Johansson’s typically wonderful portrayal of Natasha, it doesn’t eliminate the elephant in the room: that is, why now? It is undeniably clumsy to have a solo film for a character who is unlikely to appear in the MCU again. After years and years of playing a background character with minimal development and a necessary amount of ruthless stoicism, to finally reveal the trauma behind the veil once she’s already been killed seems a waste of potential. Had this story been told where it falls chronologically, in between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, it arguably would have lent even more pathos and emotional weight behind Natasha’s sacrifice.
Johansson is, of course, brilliant here, demonstrating that she should have been trusted to helm and MCU film some time ago, displaying all of the action heroism that we have come to expect from her, as well as more shades of vulnerability than we have seen from her before. It’s a shame, however, that Florence Pugh is given far more material to work with here. She thoroughly steals the show, and is obviously being set up for future storylines within the MCU. She manages to strike the balance between Yelena’s vulnerability and ferocity, and the film’s most impactful moments are due to her heartbreaking delivery.
A wonderful, streamlined, well paced and impactful film, Black Widow is one of the MCU’s best and it almost – almost – makes up for its shoddy treatment of female characters for the past 20-something films. Even though this seems to be the final outing for Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, the future for Yelena seems bright, and the presence of Florence Pugh, a proven incredible talent both here and in Little Women, can only be a boon for Marvel Studios.
Black Widow is available to stream on Disney+ with Premier Access. It is released for all Disney+ subscribers on October 6th 2021.