Black Widow, 2021.
Directed by Cate Shortland.
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle, Olga Kurylenko and William Hurt.
On the run from the authorities, Natasha Romanoff joins forces with her dysfunctional family in an attempt to bring down the chilling initiative that turned her into a ruthless assassin.
It has been a long wait for Marvel fans. When the slightly underwhelming Spider-Man: Far From Home landed in cinemas in July 2019 as a sort of light comedy chaser after the almighty whack of Avengers: Endgame, nobody thought it would be two years before the Marvel fanfare would fill multiplexes once again. But thankfully, the movie Kevin Feige and friends have been holding in their back pockets is something well worth waiting for. After 11 years and eight movie appearances, Scarlett Johansson’s balletic badass Natasha Romanoff is stepping into the spotlight for a solo adventure.
Black Widow finds Natasha dealing with the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, with government forces led by Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) on her tail. She reconnects with her not-quite-sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) in Budapest, where she learns that her previous attempts to destroy the Red Room programme and its boss Dreykov (Ray Winstone) were unsuccessful. Vowing to put an end to the inhumane initiative for good, Natasha and Yelena track down their not-quite-parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) in an attempt to work out where Dreykov is hiding the new Red Room.
This is inevitably a more grounded story than MCU fans have been conditioned to expect. Natasha is a superhero without super-powers and, given her fugitive status, even her usual array of gadgets and gizmos is significantly pared down. As Pugh’s Yelena remarks with dry wit after a particularly gruelling skirmish, “I doubt the god from space has to take an ibuprofen after a fight”. This is a movie in which director Cate Shortland – with a script by Thor: Ragnarok co-writer Eric Pearson – is unafraid to emphasise the vulnerabilities and frailties of her heroes. When everyone is a near-invulnerable god, stakes can be hard to come by but, when the heroes bleed and bruise like the rest of us, everything becomes a matter of life and death.
Johansson evidently relishes the chance to delve deeper into Natasha’s past here, showcasing her wry, world-weary wit as well as the genuine hurt of discovering that the red in her ledger was spilled for nought. She’s the unquestionable star of the movie’s action sequences and proves the anchor point for audiences exploring an entirely different corner of the MCU, with fights and stunts involving broken bones and busted lips rather than a purple fella chucking moons at a millionaire in a metal suit.
Shortland also opts to wrangle with an interesting wrinkle of the Black Widow character, in that she has a level of privilege not afforded to others in her position. Her membership of the Avengers insulates her from the continuing evil of Ray Winstone’s malevolent spy boss – painfully hamstrung by a ropey Soviet-via-Stepney accent – and the suffering of the remaining Widows. When she meets Yelena, who describes herself as “not the killer that little girls say is their hero” in contrast to her sister, Natasha is forced to confront the limitations of her own rather commodified heroism.
And Yelena flies through the movie as a whirlwind of charisma and energy – a fully-formed superhero in her own right. Anyone who has seen Florence Pugh’s meteoric rise over the last few years will be unsurprised by her hurricane-force star wattage, but the ease with which she becomes an action superstar is a delight to behold, elegantly carrying out an assassin mission early on and then deploying a car door to terrific effect in a breakneck chase through city streets. She also nimbly manages the lion’s share of the movie’s emotional lifting, communicating nuance through an inch-thick Russian accent.
It’s Pugh who unlocks the central idea of the movie which – fittingly given we’ve just seen a Fast & Furious adventure – is family. Natasha is positioned as a woman struggling with estrangement from her chosen family with the Avengers and grappling with the ersatz, dysfunctional mess of a family unit she was handed as a child before her conversion into a Widow. The film examines the notion of family as something which can be constructed and reshaped into its best form, rather than an immutable environment into which a person is born.
This family is embodied by David Harbour – sketched as far too much of a broad comic caricature – and the mercurial, strange character portrayed by Rachel Weisz. The movie moves at too much of a lightning-quick zip to allow Weisz to fully explore her intriguing role, with too many moving parts flying around for Shortland to be able to make the best use of such a marquee supporting player. None of this is too much of an issue, though, given the prominence of the sisterly bickering between Johansson and Pugh, which comes with real emotional weight alongside the likeable, quick-witted snark that is by now a Marvel trademark.
At times, it feels as if the enforced delay might have done Black Widow a favour. If it had emerged immediately after the likes of Endgame and Spider-Man, its grounded, decidedly non-super superheroism might have felt a little small. But after a two-year absence of multiplex MCU fun, and three enjoyable but different TV shows, this is very much a return to the enjoyable groove of Disney’s franchise juggernaut. And not only is it a thrilling couple of hours at the cinema, it well and truly anoints Pugh as Marvel’s next bona fide megastar. If a sequel would see her take centre stage, it can’t come a moment too soon.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.