Strange as it may seem to be launching a new era of storytelling with a forgotten episode from the last one, Black Widow is as solidly entertaining as they come in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The direction is as creative as it is assured. The visuals are aptly bombastic and the cast terrific. If the film doesn’t quite overcome the colossal embarrassment that is Marvel’s failure to give Scarlett Johansson a stand-alone feature in over a decade of contractual availability, it does evidence how much she will be missed moving forward.
The film is set in the immediate wake of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. It’s tonally familiar to that film also. Steve Rodgers is on the run and Natasha – Johansson’s titular Widow – has been found guilty of breaching the Sokovia Accords. The pact that, more or less, insists supers require government say so to operate in society. With Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) lukewarm on her heels, Natasha sets sail for Norway and a life on the low key. Would that it were so simple. Indeed, it’s not so long before Natasha is in possession of the only known antidote to a Russian chemical mind-control agent. How so? Courtesy of her estranged, would be sister Yelena (a typically astounding Florence Pugh).
Once victim to the dictatorial drug in question herself, Yelena has her opened eyes set on bringing down the powers behind the operation. This is the Red Room, hinted at in prior films and here led by the seemingly untouchable Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Even with an Avenger on board, more help will be needed. Help that comes in the form of a pair Yelena and Natasha once called Mum and Dad. This was in the days they spent as a phoney nuclear family, lodged undercover in Ohio – c.1995 – and purpose built to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. Enter Rachel Weisz, as steely scientist Melina, and Stranger Things’ David Harbour, as Russia’s one time wannabe Captain America Alexei – aka: the Red Guardian. While the show clearly belongs to Pugh – nobody does layered impetuosity better – all four are dynamite. It’s their inherent chemistry that elevates the film above dismissal as standard Marvel fare. Rarely has the line between comedy and tragedy felt so finely trod in a superhero blockbuster.
All that said, Black Widow is not without it’s fair share of faults. Winstone is pretty dire as the film’s alleged big bad, leading the way for a barrage of risible accents. They’re Russian, apparently? Eric Pearson’s script, meanwhile, never truly mines the inherent misogyny in Dreykov’s machinations. Certainly, there’s unexplored potency here in the concept of a patriarch so disturbed by women that he has developed a drug to strip the young of their emotions, agency and childbearing capacity.
Refreshing as it is to hear the – very real – brutality of forced hysterectomies so candidly condemned in mainstream cinema, the darkness of this world feels too heavy for the film to handle. So it doesn’t. Director Cate Shortland instead retreats to scenically varied, but ultimately overlong, action sequences and a typically explosive climax. Praise be, at least, for Yelena’s mockery of her ‘sister’s preposterously pose-based fighting style. Expect more from her in future outings.
In a context all of its own, Black Widow delivers the goods. Within the wider MCU, an exasperated critic might call it the studio’s most expensive end credits add on yet. Natasha is, after all, very much dead already and it would not be unreasonable to baulk at a film that, arguably, undermines so tragic a final act. All told, however, Johansson wastes no time in proving herself worth the effort. Not that this was ever in doubt. Likewise, if Black Widow does nothing else for Marvel’s fourth phase than launch Pugh as an essential piece of the puzzle, well that’s fine too.