Natasha Romanoff’s solo feature may be five or ten years overdue, but what director Cate Shortland has given us in Black Widow is better late than never.
Set in 2016, somewhere between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, we catch up with the fugitive Black Widow, on the run from SHIELD after helping Team Cap avoid submitting to the Sokovia Accords. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding out in Norway when an unexpected mail delivery and a subsequent attacker force her out of seclusion and headfirst into a confrontation with her past.
Marvel is at its best when it addresses real world issues in its storytelling. Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther each, in their own ways, confronted issues of colonialism and exploitation. Captain America: Civil War explored geopolitical conflict and issues like illegal immigration and refugees. Captain Marvel battled misogyny philosophically and literally. (In fact, that’s a war that still rages today, thanks to certain segments of the fanbase that can’t admit their own faults and let things go.)
With Black Widow, the issue of human trafficking is front and center, though in the MCU, trafficked young girls are turned not into sex slaves but into trained assassins, doing the bidding of a Russian oligarch named Dreykov (Ray Winstone).
Natasha soon heads to Budapest where she reunites with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), the two having lived as sisters years before when they were placed in a constructed family in Ohio as part of a Soviet spy plot. They concoct a plan to find Dreykov’s hidden lair, the Red Room. But to do that, they need help from the people who they once called Mom and Dad: Dreykov’s chief scientist Marina (Rachel Weisz), and Alexei (David Harbour), once known as the Red Guardian, the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America.
The plot of Black Widow is not complex. Natasha and Yelena need to find the Red Room, bring down Dreykov, and free the women under his control. Considering we have already seen the fate that awaits Natasha, it’s understandable that some may feel this should be a deeper or more complicated story. It is in some ways understated, true to Natasha herself.
There is, of course, an underlying sense that the movie is a set up for other future stories, just the way most of the MCU films are. But that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed as unimportant. This includes Black Widow, a film that is tasked with giving a heroine the sendoff she deserves, while also giving us the backstory that explains why she was so wracked with guilt for her past deeds.
For viewers who are able to separate the tardiness of the project, as well as its weird placement within the chronology of the franchise, the reward is an entertaining action flick with plenty of heart and humor. The fight scenes bring thrills worthy of the fiercest Avenger, and the frequent jabs at her membership in the super group give us an after-the-fact understanding that the world cared about Natasha Romanoff far more than the Avenger films told us.
Florence Pugh is the clear scene-stealer, hilariously commenting on everything from Natasha’s showy fighting stance to her pride in buying a very practical vest (so many pockets!). And while this is supposed to be our chance to understand why Nat feels so guilty, it is Pugh’s Yelena who gives us some of the most emotionally grounded and nuanced moments. More than a farewell to a beloved and underappreciated character, it is a great introduction to our next new favorite.
Armed with a good script from writer Eric Pearson, Cate Shortland’s direction unites important social issues with thrilling action. Pearson’s screenplay weaves in the economic fallout of the collapse of the USSR, and the ensuing power vacuum in the aftermath of the Cold War. Pearson previously co-wrote Ragnarok, and the two very different films clearly share cinematic DNA deeper than being mere franchise relatives.
The script is boosted by action that is well choreographed and beautifully shot by cinematographer Gabriel Beristain. Fist fights, car chases, prison breaks, avalanches, and so much more. This is a movie that looks great and is just so much fun to watch.
Shortland also opens with the most stirring credit sequence we’ve seen yet, a montage of images that lay out the sad story of Natasha’s adolescent indoctrination, set to a surprisingly moving cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Malia J. It carries a heavier tone than the film that follows, but the transition from one to the other manages not to be jarring or disingenuous to the weighty social issues at hand.
This is a story worthy of its title character, and brings a sense of closure that was missing from her final scene in Endgame. Black Widow is a film that should have come years ago. But there is nothing that can be done about that now. Instead of lamenting its late arrival, we should rejoice that it came along eventually.
Black Widow is now playing in theaters nationwide, and is available on Disney+ with premiere access.