Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff fights and reunites in Black Widow, her long awaited origin story that’s part spy drama and all action
*Warning! This review contains spoilers for the opening plot of this film and plenty of spoilers to previous MCU entries!
Black Widow has been a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2010’s Iron Man 2, eleven years and nine(!) MCU appearances later, we are finally getting something of an origin story for Scarlett Johansson’s assassin turned avenger, rather awkwardly after she’s already been killed off.
Wedging its storyline in between the events of Civil War and Infinity War, Black Widow sees Johansson joined by Australian director Cate Shortland and new castmates Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour. Trying to create a fresh and satisfying backstory for a character who is already so well known to her audience was no small feat even before the myriad delays of covid, so does it all come together?
The film opens on a flashback to our first view of Natasha’s childhood. With a ‘mother,’ ‘father’ and cute younger ‘sister’ she is part of a family of Russian sleeper agents who have infiltrated the American Midwest to steal secrets. With their cover blown they make a frantic escape in a very tense set piece that sets the tone for the nearly non-stop action that will follow.
Flashing forward to the events immediately following Captain America: Civil War, Natasha is now on the run again, this time from the U.S government. Whilst attempting to hideout, she soon finds herself drawn back towards the brutal ”Red Room” that created her and dozens of other master assassin Widows.
Natasha quickly teams up with her former sister Yelena (Pugh), another Black Widow who has broken free of the red room’s control, mother Melina (Weisz) a former Widow turned scientist and father Alexei (Harbour), a Soviet super soldier who was supposed to be the counterpart of Captain America but has spent the last couple of decades in prison after falling out of favour.
With lots of bickering and sniping along the way, the reformed family hatch a plot to take down the villainous boss of the Red Room, Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and his deadly henchman Taskmaster, a seemingly superhuman masked figure who is able to mimic the fighting styles of the avengers with absolute precision.
There will be some who come in to this film wanting proof of Black Widow’s worth as a superhero (”you haven’t even got any superpowers!” someone blandly shouts at her at one point) and I think those people will for the most part be satisfied. This is a high octane thriller featuring all the explosions, car chases, slightly silly science, ridiculous set pieces and athletically choreographed fight scenes you have come to expect from a Marvel movie. Romanoff packs enough of a punch to carry her own movie with ease.
Whilst the villains are not particularly impactful (and for the love of god don’t listen too closely to Ray Winstone’s Russian accent) they are refreshingly down to earth nasty. Draykov’s means may be a little fantastical, but his core of being a criminal who kidnaps and abuses little girls to turn them into servants is a terrifically gritty plot that mirrors the all too horrible reality of human trafficking.
Not every villain needs to be a Thanos or a Killmonger. They don’t need some lofty world view or universe ending plan and allowing standalone films to have these smaller scale antagonists is what keeps the MCU fresh. (If the world was on the verge of ending every month you’d start to wonder where the other avengers were right?!)
For all the great action thriller spectacle it may be, the real strength of Black Widow is its introduction of fantastic new supporting characters (phase 4 is killing it in that respect.) Florence Pugh absolutely steals the show. Yelena is a smartass, deadpan, firecracker of a character.
With her training and fighting skills on par with Natasha it doesn’t take an insider to work out that this film appears to be passing the baton to her as the new Black Widow. The family scenes are funny and genuinely affecting in places and you’ll find yourself warming to unlikely heroes Melina and Alexei quickly and wishing we’d been introduced to them sooner.
Most importantly we finally, finally get some carefully considered writing and satisfying development for Natasha Romanoff. She’s not just a sexy woman flipping about in a catsuit; she’s a person with a complicated history that we get to explore, people that she cares about that we get to meet, emotions that we’re allowed to see. Black Widow goes a long way to correct shoddy writing in some of her previous MCU appearances, digging hard into the themes of coercion, trauma, and recovery that we have recently seen in the Winter Soldier’s storyline.
A standout scene in which Yelena tells Alexei about how the Widows are forcefully sterilised is brutal and bitter but immensely satisfying in that it puts an open discussion about bodily autonomy front and centre in a popcorn summer blockbuster. It goes some way to fixing that bloody awful scene in Age of Ultron where Natasha says she’s a ‘monster’ because she can’t have children, (though it’s existence still makes me want to punch things.)
The only real negative to Black Widow is that so much rich backstory is relegated to brief flashbacks. The long awaited ‘Budapest’ story is only told in brief and the Red Room is only seen in snippets. There’s so much here that you can’t help but miss the wasted opportunity; her training, her kills as an assassin, her meeting Hawkeye and switching sides to join SHIELD, her meeting Nick Fury – there’s certainly enough here for an excellent espionage trilogy in the vein of Bourne, had it only been launched in phase one with the other avengers origin films.
Still, for a film that was so long delayed because studio execs worried an audience wouldn’t want it – I guess it’s something of a compliment that my complaint about Black Widow is that I wanted more.
Found family and gut-wrenching trauma, domestic fluff and brutal hand to hand combat, a good dollop of humour; there’s so much to like about Black Widow that it easily slides in to my top ten MCU films. That post credit scene has me HYPED for what’s to come too – so, as ever, don’t forget to stick around.
Black Widow is in cinemas and streaming on Disney+ (with Premier Access) now