Director: Cate Shortland Starring: Scarlett Johannsson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone Running Time: 134 minutes
It has been a long auld road to a solo adventure for Natasha Romanoff, who’s had movies in development on and off since long before the MCU was even a dollar-sign shaped twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye. In-universe and out, a lot has changed for Black Widow over the years, arguably including the peak of fan demand for a movie solely devoted to the super spy’s exploits.
Which isn’t to say that Black Widow, finally in cinemas and on Disney + this month after a Covid-related postponement, is a too-late endeavour. Timing is a funny thing, and if anything the movie stands as a familiar settling back in for fans to movie-sized Marvel after a year off and an intro to what the various Disney+ series have to offer. For non diehards too, it offers a fun, by-the-numbers blockbuster, confidently comfortable big screen fare; in other words, a Marvel movie.
Still, Black Widow’s place in its world’s timeline may offer an indication of the ‘sure, we’ll get around to that one’ energy that occasionally radiates. Taking place just after Captain America: Civil War, with Natasha off-grid and on the run from Thunderbolt Ross and pals, the story presents itself as slotting in at a time when family, how important and how its defined by our heroine is very much front of mind, what with the Avengers on the outs because of those pesky Sokovia Accords. That you could probably slot the same story in easily enough after Winter Soldier (her bosses were Nazis the whole time!), Age of Ultron (she’s confronted with visions of her past) or Infinity War (a lot of her found family no longer exist!) might say something about the connective tissue of the MCU, which is very much whatever the producers need it to be, whenever they need it to be it. Still, we’re in 2016 again and Natasha finds herself back in orbit around her old undercover family of Russian spies. She teams up with fellow former child spy and Red Room grad Yelena (Florence Pugh) to take down the sinister Red Room runner Dreykov and liberate the legion of lady spies mind controlled to be under his thumb.
The family dynamic that this introduces for the usually aloof Black Widow is fun and fresh, particularly the interplay between her and ‘bratty younger sister’ mode Yelena. Once David Harbour and Rachel Weisz return to fold too, it’s a sitcom of family sniping, with additional ridiculous Ruskie accents. In terms of how well this all serves Natasha’s character though, the Marvel machine kicks in and there is a feeling of the boat being missed. With her future fate sealed and the release slate marching on, the story is really more about Yelena, her feelings towards the family, her deciding her own fate now free of the Red Room. Which is grand, Pugh is funny, endearing and certainly more engaged at this stage than Scar Jo, but for a movie built around finally telling its main character’s solo story, its focus on that story is a little blurred. Efforts to reckon with the Widow’s past, including her confrontation with the Taskmaster character, mostly fall flat. The film is much better off when engaging in bits of banter and face-swapping espionage.
As a pure spyflick before the superhero sized stuff comes in, Black Widow is exciting and brings in enjoyable genre trappings, a very Mission Impossible filtered approach from director Cate Shortland and co. The action choreography, as is often the case in Hollywood blockbusters, is far too heavy on the cuts, but harder hitting than other movies in the series, focusing on close quarters combat and precision strikes. When Natasha and Yelena kick and shove each other into walls, it feels more physical than the more typical CGI light show, and Lorne Balfe’s score, drawing heavily from his MI work, helps set that scene. You know it’s going to escalate, but it almost doesn’t need to, the interpersonal relationships and scene to scene spy plotting all much more engaging than Ray Winstone’s Bond villain baddie and his eeevil red mist.
Still Black Widow accomplishes its mission, presenting a strong cast, setting up the next stage and offering plenty of action along the way. If it’s to serve as a sendoff to Natasha Romanoff though, there are still questions as to whether the nature of the Marvel machine allows us to really get to know these characters other than through omnipresence.
(3 / 5)