(BLACK WIDOW is out 9.7.21.)

About damn time

It’s eleven years since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, and only now do we get a film for one of its founding members, which is a gamble, no matter how everything turns out. If it’s terrible, it feels like a wasted opportunity. But, on the other hand, if it’s great, like now, you can’t help but imagine all the other films we could have seen with her in the lead. 

By Marvel standards, BLACK WIDOW is a fantastic addition to the saga. It’s a bittersweet farewell to Scarlett Johansson’s majestic superhero, one we now realize we didn’t know at all.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW L to R: Yelena (Florence Pugh) and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) Photo: Film Frame ©Marvel Studios 2020

On the run

Set in the immediate aftermath of the fallout from their civil war, BLACK WIDOW finds Natasha on the run and her collected family scattered to the wind. Cap is in exile, and most others are in prison. Then, deep in the Norwegian wilderness, she receives word from her undercover spy family, who she once knew in another life, in need of her help.

Her surrogate sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh in a sweary, manic role), is in danger, their father (David Harbour as a Soviet Captain America) is imprisoned, and their mother (a stunning Rachel Weisz) has gone underground. The man responsible for their misery, Reykov (Ray Winstone with a gloriously flaky accent), still lives. If Natasha plans to move on with her life, she needs to settle the score with her past first. 

Said past is the driving force and best part of the film. Kicking off with an extended visit to Natasha’s life as a Soviet spy, WIDOW’s first fifteen minutes are tense and brutally effective. A montage featuring children sold, murdered, and brainwashed might even be too much for younger viewers. But it’s highly effective in setting up just how far removed from THE AVENGERS we are, and director Cate Shortland handles the evocative material gracefully.

It’s the action that takes a while to find its groove. Early fight scenes feel over-edited and even clumsy after Marvel got so good at them over the years. But by the time we reach the first major chase sequence involving some inventive uses for chimney stacks, WIDOW starts to feel more comfortable.

Wild moments, including the now contractual ending extravaganza, flirt with diminishing returns. It’s never pornographic like in the FAST AND FURIOUS films, where the plot is barely there to set up the subsequent set-piece. But BLACK WIDOW is a better movie when it slows down and doesn’t try to impress with the action.

A great cast

That’s mainly thanks to a game cast, each of whom feels like welcome additions to the ever-expanding Marvel universe. Pugh is the obvious standout, which Marvel is grooming to become the next Johansson down the line. I’ve already sung her praises elsewhere, and they all apply here as well.

Meanwhile, Harbour brings his oddball charm to a part that could easily grate. As Alexei, The Red Guardian, he plays a man out of time like Captain America. Only his exile isn’t one in ice and isolation, but a remote gulag, hidden away as a relic of a fallen empire. Harbour plays the part broad and silly, using the oafishness to hide a pained self-reflection he’s fighting to keep at bay. If Cap kept going because he didn’t know what he’d do without his self-inflicted purpose, Alexei goes because stopping would mean confronting all that he isn’t.

Then there’s Weisz, reminding everyone how she was, and still is, a bonafide action star when she’s not out-classing all others. As Melina, her part is sadly the smallest, but her presence lingers throughout the entire picture. By the time she gets to kick ass, you wonder why we don’t have an entire franchise for this group already.

(L-R): Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW, in theaters, and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

A definitive end

BLACK WIDOW is a strange film to start Marvel’s phase four — or is it concluding the previous one? Like SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, WIDOW is all about coming to terms with loss. But, unlike the web-slinger, this time, it’s a loss of a more meta nature. We’re seeing ghosts, and there’s an added sorrow to every victory because of it.

But WIDOW isn’t really linking the past with the present, as Natasha’s part in the grand scheme of things is now over. And because it comes so late in the (end)game, it’s not like we’re really learning anything new, either.

You could argue it makes Johansson’s finale irrelevant, or at least inconsequential, but WIDOW never feels slight or pointless. There’s the expected post-credits stinger, promising of yet another “in the next episode” type of tease, but there’s also finality to it that’s oddly comforting. This is the last we’ll see of Natasha, at least until the comic book stories go all wonky with the upcoming multiverse shenanigans.

And if it is an ending, it’s the quiet, mature, and no-nonsense denouement you’d imagine she would want. Sure, there’s a super-tank piloted by a faceless super-soldier called Taskmaster and a big set-piece involving a trained army of Black Widow’s; you can’t escape that with a budget like this. But in between those moments, spread over the arguably too long runtime of two and a half hours, are tender declarations of familial love. Be that family real or imagined.

It took too long to get here, but now that it’s done, Widow couldn’t have asked for a better send-off.