Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff—aka Black Widow—has an extensive history within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Debuting in 2010’s Iron Man 2, the MCU’s first female superhero would go on to feature in six other films, including The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame joining characters like Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America in the upper echelon of appearances across Marvel’s movies. Like those three characters, Natasha is a critical fixture in making the “universe” part of the MCU feel as big as it does; unlike those three characters, it took 11 years for the character to receive her own starring vehicle. Simply put: a Black Widow solo movie is long overdue.
And so Black Widow finally arrives on July 9, a year and a quarter after its initial release was scrapped by the pandemic and almost two years after the character died in Avengers: Endgame. As such, the movie flashes back to the immediate fallout of Nat siding with Cap in Civil War. It turns out this isn’t the first familial dissipation for Nat, as we learn in the movie’s prologue—one that evokes feelings of an episode of The Americans—that the young super-spy used to live in the USA on an undercover operation in the 1990s. Faux parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), as well as baby sister Yelena (played as an adult by Florence Pugh), are torn apart upon completion of this mission, as both Nat and Yelena are recruited into the infamous KBG Red Room training program. Despite Nat believing she’d shut down the room years ago, she quickly discovers it is alive and more dangerous than ever. From here, she’s reluctantly forced to reconnect with her fractured family to shut down the Red Room for good.
Director Cate Shortland and writers Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer, and Ned Benson make the decidedly personal stakes of Black Widow sing, especially in the wake of Endgame’s seismic conclusion. The theme of family—ones we’re born with or the ones we create—is just as essential to Black Widow as in a Fast and Furious film and is best exemplified through the relationship between Natasha and Yelena. The first third of Black Widow digs deep into the complicated history between the two “sisters,” proving to be the strongest part of the film thanks to the tremendous chemistry between Johansson and Pugh. The latter continues her astronomical accent into one of Hollywood’s best and most interesting actors with a completely enchanting and superstar performance as Yelena. Anyone who has kept up with Pugh’s career knows she’s more than capable of selling high drama (watch Midsommar), but it’s fun to see how excellent of a comedic actor she is; Yelena often functions as the Costello to Nat’s Abbott, nailing joke after joke while Nat is left exasperated. The relationship between Yelena and Nat is one of the MCU’s best sibling duos, evoking and rivaling Thor and Loki. In just one movie, Pugh quickly solidifies Yelena as one of Marvel’s best new characters; I can’t wait to see what she’ll get up to next.
While Pugh’s performance is the showest of the movie, Johansson’s final portrayal of Natasha is full of nuance and subtlety. More than any other Avenger, Nat has lived almost exclusively in a grey morality—and Black Widow’s themes and story examine this accordingly, giving lots of weighty material for Johansson to explore. So much of Nat’s past has come in the form of quick bits of dialogue or rapid flashbacks, so it’s refreshing to see Shortland, Johansson, and crew provide more depth and breadth to seven movie’s worth of disparate character beats. Knowing this the last time we see the character adds a more profound sense of melancholy to these proceedings. It would have been so nice to have this story for Nat earlier in the MCU because Black Widow makes it evident there was a well of richness with the character just waiting to be explored.
The paternal and maternal sides of the family don’t work quite as well as the partnership between Nat and Yelena, mainly because Alexei and Melina reenter the picture pretty late in the game and don’t have quite as much time to get reintegrated. I didn’t quite vibe with Harbour’s performance to start—it felt like he was working too hard at times—but I’ve come around on it since. As the Red Guardian, the KGB’s sole super-soldier, he’s had to live in the shadow of Captain America for decades and has turned into a laughing stock in his old age because of it. Alexei is aware he’s a bit of a court jester, something which the movie leans heavily on, so it may take time for you to get calibrated to what he’s doing with his performance. Melina has her demons too, but we don’t get enough time with her to feel the fallout of those choices; Weisz is predictably excellent with the material she has, however.
As for the look and feel of Black Widow, Shortland pulls from a few different genres of spy films throughout Nat’s journey, evoking shades of Bourne, Bond, Mission: Impossible, and even Red Sparrow—albeit through that well-known MCU filter. The resulting action feels distinctive for a Marvel movie, even with Black Widow pulling inspiration (sometimes unsubtly) from those other franchises. The impressive fight choreography and kinetic action heat up even more when the Avengers-mimic and Terminator-inspired Taskmaster gets involved, doggedly stalking Natasha.
For as striking as these moments are, Black Widow still ends up getting bogged down by a CGI-heavy setpiece to conclude the film. This sequence is frustrating because it arrives in the aftermath of a pretty inspired confrontation—one that evokes feelings of Doctor Strange’s creative denouement—between Nat and the movie’s big bad (played by Ray Winstone). The proceeding CGI makes for some significant whiplash, rendering an otherwise interesting choice flat. I understand these movies have a formula, but with Black Widow marking the first part of Phase 4 and the 24th film overall, I (foolishly, perhaps) thought we might start to move beyond this rigid structure. It’s disappointing that despite the freshness that otherwise permeates the movie that we’re stuck with this ending.
What’s most frustrating is how long it took this long for Johansson, an essential part of the MCU, to get her solo project. However, Black Widow is worth the arduous wait, sending out this beloved character on a high note—especially for those who have become invested in the character over the last 11 years. Shortland and crew manage to pull off a difficult feat: making Natasha’s story significant, even with the audience knowing her bittersweet fate. It’s just a shame, in light of how entertaining Black Widow turned out to be, Johansson won’t get another chance to do it all over again.