For a while, it seemed like the Marvel Cinematic Universe was one of the great constants, alongside death and taxes. Then Covid hit and even Disney had to duck for cover.
Now, more than two years after Spider-Man: Far From Home, the MCU makes its return to the big screen – as well as home entertainment, after a slight delay – but has the magic returned with it? Will audiences brave the public multiplex now they can enjoy the likes of Loki without leaving the house?
Black Widow is the first movie to star the eponymous agent; by necessity1 a
premidquel that fills in the gap between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.
Hiding out from the US government, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is prepared for a quiet life, off the grid. What she’s not prepared for is sudden contact with her long-estranged sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), whom she hasn’t seen since the two were separated as children. Reunited in the midst of conflict, they form an uneasy alliance and set out to take down the Red Room, the secret Russian program responsible for their upbringing.
As directed by Cate Shortland, Black Widow takes the majority of its influences from the late 90s/early 2000s thrillers; particularly in its use of shaky-cam, no-holds-barred combat (making use of whatever objects or furnishings come to hand), and showcasing the less picturesque side of European cities; all a la the Bourne franchise.2
What the film lacks in stakes – the primary villain, Dreykov (Ray Winstone)3 doesn’t have some dastardly plan about to come to fruition – is made up for by a top-notch supporting cast. David Harbour is in his element as Alexei Shostakovich AKA Red Guardian, a washed-up super-soldier, overweight and obsessed with his glory days4, who’s the closest Natasha and Yelena ever had to a father. Rachel Weisz is no less effective as their would-be mother, scientist Melina, who may possess the knowledge necessary to bring down the Red Room.
Florence Pugh, meanwhile, may be Black Widow‘s MVP. Her line deliveries alone are worth the price of admission5 and she and Scarlett Johansson immediately slot into place as antagonistic siblings. There’s a great recurring joke with Yelena making fun of Natasha’s penchant for adopting fighting poses.
The interplay between this makeshift family6 is impeccably observed, thanks to Eric Pearson’s screenplay; neatly balancing comedy and pathos.
While there’s nothing on the scale here of the MCU’s more galaxy-hopping instalments, Black Widow is no slouch on the action front either: as well as the aforementioned close combat, there’s an ambitious escape from a Russian gulag,7 complete with avalanche and an slight update on the usual battle-in-the-sky climax.
However, the film never quite coheres as a satisfying sendoff to its lead character; insofar as, fundamentally, nothing changes from what we know of her departure from the franchise. One of the most intriguing characters, too – a mute, skull-masked combatant called Taskmaster, who can mimic our heroes’ moves – is ultimately shortchanged in the movie’s discussion about abuse and empowerment.
Luckily, Black Widow succeeds enough on its own merits and, with the MCU shortly to make a return to its more cosmic scale8, it’s good to spend a bit of time away from the gods and aliens.
Black Widow is currently showing in cinemas worldwide and is available to rent on Disney+ from 9 September, 2021.
- SPOILER – given she sacrificed herself during Avengers: Endgame to recover the Soul Stone.
- More abstractly, the punky blue hair of a young Natasha (Ever Anderson) made me think of Franka Potente’s similarly-striking dye-job in Run Lola Run.
- Whose attempt at an accent goes about as well as you might think.
- In a neat touch, he has KARL MARX tattooed across his knuckles, Night of the Hunter-style
- Just check out the deadpan “Ha” when she shoots down an enemy helicopter.
- You wait for one family-themed blockbuster and three come along at once…
- Which inevitably brings to mind the trailer for season 4 of Stranger Things, though Harbour reportedly went out of his way to ensure his appearances remained distinct.
- The rest of 2021’s releases all seem to deal with space or the multiverse in some way.