Better late than never, right? That’s the feeling many exasperated Marvel fans have about Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), finally getting her own movie after four of Marvel’s other five Avengers enjoyed 10 (!!!) character-centric films between them. Now that Black Widow has finally arrived — after an additional year-plus delay due to COVID — the snub is that much more frustrating, because Romanoff’s spotlight film is superior to at least half of those other stand-alone Avenger installments, including the one in which her Black Widow character debuted, Iron Man 2.
Black Widow kicks off with one of the most absorbing, tense, and heartbreaking opening sequences in MCU history. Teenage Natasha (Ever Anderson, one to watch) and her younger sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) seem to be living a normal life in Ohio when their dad Alexei (David Harbour) comes home from work and tells them that the day he’s been prepping the girls and their mom (Rachel Weisz) for has finally arrived. It soon becomes clear this is no ordinary family as they flee their home, are chased by (and fire upon) the authorities and begin speaking with Russian accents. While the film’s opening credits sequence plays over Malia J’s haunting cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” we see what becomes of the two “sisters” after their escape, and it’s chilling.
Then we fast-forward to immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War, when the Avengers are scattered and Natasha is on the run. With help from the mysterious Mason (O-T Fagbenle, who I wish we saw more of), Natasha attempts to begin a much quieter phase of her life … until she receives a package from her long-lost faux sister that motivates a trip to Budapest. There, Natasha and Yelena (Florence Pugh) reunite in a violent, funny, and unforgettable way, and Natasha soon learns that Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the evil director of the Red Room, aka the Black Widow training program, is still alive, despite her attempt to murder him years prior.
After Yelena rips her older sis for all of her “posing” (she does make some great points!) and fills her in on what she’s suffered through since they last saw each other, she proceeds to inform Natasha that the Widows are now subjected to a new and insidious type of mind control. However, it can be undone with a red powdery substance the sisters have in their possession, so they make a pact to bring down the Red Room and Dreykov once and for all. But to find the location of the Red Room, they need some help from their old mom and pop.
Once the fake family is back together, the movie really sings. It’s revealed that Harbour’s Alexei is actually the past-his-prime super-soldier Red Guardian — Russia’s answer to Captain America. And let me tell you, Red Guardian is hilarious. I was truly not expecting Black Widow to be as funny as it is, and much of that is due to Harbour’s performance. Pugh is another standout, switching effortlessly between bad-ass action hero, emotionally scarred orphan and sarcastic smart-mouth with ease. While the film is meant to be a tribute to Johansson’s character, it’s almost equally a set-up for Yelena’s future in the MCU. The best parts of the film, however, don’t belong to any one character, but rather are when the reunited Ohio fam is playing off of one another.
An example of this is a simultaneously comical and cringey scene where Natasha and Yelena attempt to explain their reproductive-organ removal to Alexei. I actually wish director Cate Shortland and screenwriter Eric Pearson had gone a little deeper with the feminist themes that are only superficially explored in moments like this one, but I still appreciated what they were trying to do with it. If by some miracle we ever get another film about the Widows, I hope whoever directs it truly goes there.
My only other beef with Black Widow is that its villains were kind of meh. It was hard to believe that someone wouldn’t have already taken down Dreykov in Natasha’s absence. I mean, yeah he controls this Widow army and has lots of high-tech stuff at his disposal, but in the end he’s just an old human dude, you know? And the robotic assassin “Taskmaster” just didn’t do it for me, even after a “reveal” regarding this character late in the film. All I kept thinking was that Taskmaster was some sort of Iron Man gone horribly awry.
But overall I thoroughly enjoyed Black Widow, and felt that watching it after we’ve learned Natasha’s fate in Avengers: Endgame made it all the more poignant. I’m usually not one for “battle sequences,” but a few in this film were just extraordinary, including a mid-air fight between Black Widow and Taskmaster that left me wondering “How did they DO that?” In the screener version I watched there was also one end-credits scene that’s not to be missed.
Though it’s a shame we had to wait this long for Natasha Romanoff to get a film of her own, Cortland did a fantastic job of giving us more insight into the only female Avenger while also introducing new characters who will hopefully keep her legacy alive. (Though maybe not her legacy of posing.)