Despite premiering at least three years too late, Cate Shortland’s Black Widow provides a welcome return to blockbuster entertainment from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a fulfilling sendoff for Scarlett Johansson’s titular role.
Johansson stars as Natasha Romanoff, who is on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D after the events of Captain America: Civil War. She ends up in a safe “house” in Norway, where she receives a package from an accompanying safe house in Budapest. The package contains vials of a substance that neutralizes the mind-control of Black Widow agents.
Romanoff is attacked by the mysterious Taskmaster, but survives and heads to Budapest to investigate. There, she finds her “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), another Black Widow who has been exposed to the substance and was freed from her mind-control. In order to expose the Black Widow program and kill its leader Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the sisters seek out their surrogate father Alexi (David Harbour) and mother Melina (Rachel Weisz).
Marvel films all feel a need for interconnectivity and this one is no different, but its connections are more subtle and fun than feeling forced. William Hurt shows up briefly to remind the viewer of the timeline, while throwaway lines from The Avengers are paid off as major plot points in this film. I’m not sure a Marvel film can ever be truly self-contained, but this is probably the closest example of that being the case.
This serves as the eighth time Johansson has taken on the role and she has grown truly comfortable with the characterization. Though by no means the most dynamic of the Avengers, Romanoff is her own person who has never had the chance to do what she wants. For the first time on screen, she is taking on her own journey and it feels refreshing to see her with some agency. As always, Johansson matches the rigorous physicality the character needs.
The supporting cast is what makes the film really move. Harbor is there mostly for comic relief, but he shows real love for his surrogate family as well as long-simmering content for what he sees as being slighted in his role as the Russian Captain America. His presence is always welcome on screen. Weisz has the least to do, but her ever-shifting loyalties keep the audience guessing about the kind of woman she is.
Pugh walks away with the movie. In addition to being equally up to the physical challenges that Johansson is, Yelena is snarky and calculated, but also wrought with pent up emotion. She sees her life as something that was stolen from her and it drives her to seek revenge. Through she does not pour out the emotion, her repression suits her character perfectly. I would expect to see plenty of Pugh in the MCU going forward.
Visually, Shortland keeps the action straightforward and easy to understand. Despite the obvious suspension of disbelief it takes to watch a Marvel movie, the balance of ridiculous and reality is well-placed and interesting. The film never breaks too far in one direction to make things too grounded or too grandiose.
Marvel films have set a standard of quality that Black Widow maintains wonderfully. Between a great cast and a self-contained narrative, the MCU is back and just as good as it has ever been.