Those worried about a talented director’s distinctive style being smothered after a Marvel hire need not be concerned here. Though it ends up with pretty much the same final act as most MCU movies (fight atop something big falling from the air) BLACK WIDOW for its first half at least feels very much like a Cate Shortland movie – dark, psychologically complex and a little bit twisted. Where did Natasha Romanoff AKA Black Widow come from, what experiences made her and how did she end up with so much red in her ledger? We’re about to find out.
Between the world-changing events of CIVIL WAR and universal cataclysm of INFINITY WAR, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) goes on a solo mission to reconnect with her past, the surrogate family of spies she grew up with, and fights to take down the Red Room programme that is chemically indoctrinating young women into an army of deadly Widow assassins across the world.
I think the statute of limitations on ENDGAME spoilers has lifted, but if you’ve somehow not seen the second biggest movie of all time and still plan to, *spoilers in the next paragraph*.
Not every Avenger made it through Endgame, and some didn’t even survive to face Thanos the Mad Titan in the final battle. One of those was Natasha, who sacrificed herself to release the all-powerful Soul Stone to the Avengers’ care and thereby give them a chance to undo Thanos’ reality-wide random genocide. Because we know when this story is set and that Natasha’s death isn’t coming until five years in her future, a certain amount of tension is lost, but that’s the curse of a prequel.
Black Widow’s strongest passage is without doubt the first half, the chapter’s focus on the impact of growing up in an artificially constructed family, with real and painful emotions behind it. We open with a suspiciously tranquil scene in Ohio, with young Natasha and her sister Yelena’s comfortable life interrupted by a need to escape from US soil with vital intelligence, the “family” split up and returned to Russia via Cuba for a life of enforced espionage work.
We then return to immediately post-Civil War with Natasha on the run from Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt, earning his paycheque with his description of Ant-Man) then fleeing to Europe where the grown-up Yelena (Pugh) intercepts her and convinces her to join a very personal mission of liberation.
It’s an absolute joy to watch Johansson get some sisterly banter with Pugh and indulge in some more nuanced and poignant interplay with Harbour and Rachel Weisz, to the extent that you half-want a season of some kind of macabre family sitcom that’s just them eating around the dinner table, telling each other who they’ve killed today.
The film becomes a little less confident when the villains, chiefly a predatory Ray Winstone as General Dreykov (who only remembers he’s supposed to be doing an accent half the time) move into frame. His sickeningly invasive evil plan hits particularly hard in the age of MeToo, but it’s what he represents rather than Dreykov himself that’s scary, very little to do with Winstone’s first-base performance. Dreykov’s secret weapon, a masked warrior with photographic muscle memory known as the Taskmaster, is strikingly realised in contrast which makes it a shame that several action scenes involving the character never surpass the first.
Despite some smooth storytelling niggles, Black Widow ends up not only as one of the darkest and most violent MCU films, but also one of the most entertaining thanks to visceral and crunchy action scenes and the pleasing character dynamics. Natasha may have got her own movie about a decade after she should have done, but it was worth the wait and gives her a fine sendoff. SSP