Written by Anna Harrison
Over a year since it was first slated to come out, Black Widow has finally arrived on our screens, marking the first Marvel Cinematic Universe property to grace theaters since Spider-Man: Far From Home in July of 2019. Its titular character has been through quite the wringer with Marvel: introduced as little more than kickass eye candy in Iron Man 2, shoved into an inorganic romance with the Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and then killed—albeit in a poignant and affecting fashion—in Avengers: Endgame, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff finally has her own movie, replete with posed superhero landings galore. Even if it’s not quite worth the wait, Black Widow provides more than enough fun to warrant its existence, helped by a handful of exhilarating fight scenes and a stellar supporting cast.
Black Widow opens in atypical Marvel fashion: a cookie-cutter family in suburban Ohio sitting down to eat, the mother preparing dinner and kissing her daughters’ scrapes and bruises, the father coming home from a long day of work to greet his family. Then, slowly and then all at once, things go awry.
As S.H.I.E.L.D. comes for them, the family rushes to get to their hidden plan and off the ground; in the ensuing fight, the mother is shot in the side but they all manage to escape and make their way to Cuba. There, things start to get even thornier: these aren’t Americans at all, and they aren’t a family, either. A group of Russians take away the “mother,” Melina (Rachel Weisz), on a stretcher; when they come for the youngest daughter, Yelena (Violet McGraw as a child, Florence Pugh as an adult), the elder Natasha (played by Ever Anderson as a child) refuses to let them take her until “father” Alexei (David Harbour) calms her down, only for the two children immediately to be whisked away. What follows is an opening credit sequence clearly taking cues from the James Bond films and other spy capers, names layered over a montage of young Natasha receiving spy training and overlaid with a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that classic anthem of apathetic American youth juxtaposed with the horrors of what Natasha undergoes.
The opening act of the film is arguably its strongest, setting us up for a Marvel film of a different breed, one rooted more in espionage and familial relationships than quips and big fight scenes. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise set by its opening. 21 years later, Black Widow—set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War so they have a living protagonist and not a corpse left on Vormir—finds Natasha on the run, hunted by Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt, reprising his role from prior movies) after she refused to sign the Sokovia Accords.
Her “sister,” Yelena, finds a way to contact Natasha, letting her know of a chemical compound that was planted in some other graduates of the Red Room program that Natasha and Yelena went through. This compound allows the nefarious Red Room director, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), to control his various female spies around the globe with what amounts to mind control. Yelena has discovered a way to stop it, and so the gang gets back together again: Natasha, Yelena, Alexei, and Melina.
The plot itself is fairly standard and more than a little bit ludicrous (and Natasha survives countless injuries that should have left her dead, superhero or not); in other words, it’s standard action fare. The movie does best when director Cate Shortland allows it to breathe, such as in a standout dinner table scene between the fractured family, and when she lets her stellar actors bounce off of each other. Florence Pugh in particular stands out, giving a performance that is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and David Harbour excels as his former superhero gone to seed, providing the best moments of humor in the film.
Unfortunately, the others do so well that despite this being Natasha’s film, and despite Johansson turning in a strong performance, she gets outshone by her supporting cast, due more so to the writing than any flaw in Johansson. Part of this comes from the fact that Natasha is dead in the present day MCU, having sacrificed herself to retrieve the Soul Stone in Endgame, so there are no stakes for her; furthermore, her character arc has already been completed, and while this can fill in some gaps, Natasha’s arc doesn’t satisfy as it should.
What could have been an intriguing commentary on agency, the lack of control women often have over their own bodies, how they are used and discarded by men in power, et cetera, is reduced to a joke about Fallopian tubes and a few throwaway lines about making choices. Had the film marinated a bit more in some of its weightier themes and allowed Natasha to truly grapple with her past outside a handful of scenes, it could have been an MCU caper on the level of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As it is, it’s a fun movie to get back to theaters with and serves as a decent swan song, but Natasha deserves something just a little bit better.
Black Widow Trailer