Marvel Studios has become an unstoppable cultural behemoth. Under normal circumstances, their films routinely make a billion dollars at the box office, the kind of money that every other studio on the planet has been chasing ever since the 2012’s The Avengers proved that the interconnected universe of films is a thing that could work.
It’s a shame that these aren’t normal circumstances then, because with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic pushing Black Widow –the film so many fans have been waiting for for years– into a hybrid release, it probably won’t make a billion dollars at the box office. To be clear: that’s a shame because it’s excellent.
Picking up right where Captain America: Civil War left off, we find Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) on the run from General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) in the wake of her allowing Cap and Bucky to escape after the big airport fight. She gets to a safe house provided by a friend, Rick Mason (O. T. Fagbenle), and he gives her a package from Budapest. That package turns out to be from her sister Yelena, recently freed from the Red Room, the mysterious organization that trained them both –and that Natasha has thought she destroyed.
From there, they set out on an adventure to reunite with their parents, Melina (a Widow herself played by Rachel Weisz) and Alexi (also known as Red Guardian, the Soviet counterpart to Captain America, played by David Harbour), and reckon with their past by taking the Red Room down.
Their family, of course, is a sham. We learn in the first scenes that they were all together on an undercover mission in Ohio in the mid-1990s (a la The Americans), but they were each recruited and placed together separately, even Yelena, who is only 6 at the time. This family relationship is the core of the film, and the question of whether it was real or not pervades the narrative. The adult Natasha and Yelena fall back into an easy banter almost immediately, with differing perspectives on their “childhood” but camaraderie as sisters nonetheless.
It helps that Black Widow is excellently cast. All four of the main actors are excellent. Rachel Weisz is always a win and brings depth to Melina, a character with perhaps the most complicated relationship with the Red Room and who has the most to lose by taking them down. Her motivations are never in question, but there’s a clear inner conflict within her articulated by her performance more than anything.
David Harbour feels like he was born to play Red Guardian, the once-proud warrior now overweight, washed up, and pining for the glory days. He’s not quite the anti-Captain America, more of a contemporary on the opposite side, and I love that about him. His accent is thick and stagey, and there is a real physicality to his performance. This could easily have been a one-note character, but Harbour brings pathos and empathy to the part, as well as his comedic chops.
Johansson herself is still good as Natasha, and by this point, how could she not be. She has been playing the character in seven films over eleven years; the character is second nature to her now. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t give her all, though, and in the scenes where Natasha finally reckons with her past, she really shines.
The MVP of the movie, though, is Florence Pugh, who is excellent as Yelena. She provides an interesting contrast to Natasha as a Black Widow only just freed from the Red Room and one who was being controlled by even more insidious means than the psychological methods it is implied Natasha had to break free of. She is also hilarious. The trailers would have you believe that Harbour is the funny one, and he is funny, but Pugh gets all the best quips and one-liners and has the most fun as the pesky little sister to Johansson.
If that weren’t all reason enough to see the film, the action is also pretty great. The villain, Taskmaster, has the power to mimic and fighting style that he’s seen, and as a result, Natasha ends up having to fight against the styles of her friends, including shield throwing, bows with trick arrows, and panther claws. The fight choreography is good, and –for the most part– director Cate Shortland lets the camera hang back so we can actually see what’s happening. The first one on one fight with Taskmaster, in particular, feels like a dance as he mirrors Natasha’s actions.
The big third act set piece does end up being a bit of a CGI mess, but most of it is on point enough thematically and character-wise that those moments will let you forgive the few times that the geography becomes unclear or you lose track of someone.
Black Widow is another great solo outing from Marvel. It does suffer from some of the things that we have come to expect marvel movies to suffer from –including a less compelling villain than they should be– but there is far more to like here than to complain about. There are moments that you might see coming, but remember that note very reveal is a twist that is trying to outsmart you. Maybe the villain isn’t that compelling, but during the final reckoning between them and Natasha, the themes are laid out and reconciled so well that it doesn’t really matter. This film is about her facing the villain, not the villain themselves, after all.
At the end of the day, Black Widow is a great action movie, a great character story, and a fun spy thriller. What else could you ask for?
Black Widow will premiere simultaneously in theatres and on Disney+ with premiere access on Friday, July 9th.
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