What took you so long?
Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe before it was even really a universe, all the way back in 2010’s Iron Man 2. Now 11 years later (it should’ve been 10, but a little pandemic happened), she finally gets her solo movie with Black Widow. Not that these films haven’t gotten their use out of her (she is present in The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame… did I miss one?) but again, why did it take so long for her own solo movie? In any event, her solo movie has finally arrived, despite the fact that (spoilers if you still haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame) her character is dead (more on that later). It’s a flawed effort and not quite top-shelf Marvel, but delivers as a worthy sendoff that this badass woman deserves.
So yes, Black Widow is a prequel and a sequel, but in interesting ways: since her sacrificial death in Avengers: Endgame, this film takes place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, while also serving as an origin story (her background is touched upon in previous movies, but never fully discussed). Which kind of gives the film an interesting task, in that they have to not only develop the character essentially from the ground up, but they also have to show us why her loss was a big one. If you ask me, as good as Avengers: Endgame was, I did find her death to be underwhelming, in that she died in the middle of this huge movie, and it was a movie so huge that they didn’t really give us time to digest her death. What’s surprising about Black Widow is that it isn’t overly sentimental, but it still does a fine job of giving her a worthy sendoff, while also opening doors for her successor.
The film opens in Ohio, 1995, where we see young Natasha living with her family. Turns out, this isn’t her family: absolutely none of them are related. Her “parents,” Alexei (David Harbour, enjoyable but over-the-top at times) and Melina (Oscar winner Rachel Weisz) are Russian spies who have, I suppose, abducted Natasha and her “sister” Yelena, and they’re forced to retreat in the middle of the night. Amidst this retreat, the girls are abducted by Alexei’s boss, Dreykov (Ray Winstone, underwritten) and sent off to be trained as supersoldiers, of the sorts. This opening is honestly pretty cool, reminiscent of a Borne movie and set to a surprisingly effective rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (as a non-Nirvana fan, it’s cooler than it sounds).
Flash forward to after Captain America: Civil War, and Natasha (Johansson, always a stunner) is basically on the run, and living in a trailer. Yet her hiding is somewhat compromised by a package sent to her from Yelena (Florence Pugh), who is also pretty much as cool as Natasha is. Her cover is also soon exposed with the arrival of The Taskmaster, a robot-ish dude who is able to imitate your every fighting move. This character is cool and kind of frightening, though the identity of this person came as little surprise. Anyways, Natasha sets off to find Yelena, and while they don’t quite hit it off at first, they do join forces to find the Red Room, in which the two girls were trained from, which was initially presumed destroyed, and kill Dreykov, who was presumed dead. To do this, the girls decide to get the band back together, first by getting Alexei out of prison, and then finding Melina, who might have a better idea.
At first, I was dazzled by the action, which in all fairness is done well. Yet the first twenty minutes or so can feel a little relentless. Once the film takes time to breathe though, and makes time for Pugh and Johansson to banter, we feel at ease. These two, both Oscar nominees in 2019, work like a charm together. In fact, the four family members work well together, yet there was one aspect that didn’t fully convince. There is enough “family” talk in this film to spawn another Vin Diesel meme (I’m sure there’s already one out there), but in no way should Natasha or Yelena like these people. Sure they have their resistance but they’re ultimately charmed. So are we, but also, these two captured these children, brainwashed them into believing they were an actual family, and then had them sent off to a Russian prison for more brainwashing. Yeah, a tad difficult to warm up to, but eh, it’s Marvel.
The flaws in this film have pretty much been covered. Winstone is a menacing presence but he plays one of the more forgettable villains in recent memory. The family aspect as well, which, there is a scene between Harbour and Pugh that had me shaking my head. The lack of surprise from The Taskmaster (though there is a twist or two in here that is pretty good). All of this leads to a climax, set aboard a floating secret Russian assassin training camp in the sky, that is as ridiculous as that sentence. That’s just it though: it’s ridiculous, but it’s pretty cool. The rest can probably be said about Black Widow, and perhaps any of these movies. Not everything works here, but what does work gets the job done quite well. It’s nothing quite new but it is thoroughly entertaining and funny, with some dazzling (albeit ridiculous) action sequences. Considering this is the first Marvel movie in (gasp!) two years, it’s got enough of what we crave to satisfy, as well as serving as a fitting finale for this often unsung character, and the great actress who’s had the pleasure of playing her for 10 years.