The Marvel Cinematic Universe is back – and it’s about time. Principal photography on the long-awaited, much-anticipated solo outing for Scarlett Johannsen’s superspy Natasha Romanoff finished in October 2019 and events of the last sixteen months or so resulted in the film bouncing around the MCU release schedule and for a while, it looked as if the film might ultimately find itself shunted off exclusively to the Disney+ streaming service. Wiser heads have prevailed, though, and we can now finally head back to the Multiplex and enjoy the thrill of that evocative and rousing Marvel Studios fanfare before settling down to immerse ourselves in another instalment of modern cinema’s most successful and irresistible franchise.
Against all the odds – especially bearing in mind how long we’ve waited and how much our anticipation levels may have ebbed – Black Widow is another mighty Marvel triumph. Critics and MCU fans alike have questioned the point and purpose of the film, bearing in mind that we know, thanks to Avengers Endgame, the character’s ultimate tragic fate and whilst it’s true that this is a film that really should have been made and released several years ago, Black Widow has been cleverly structured so that the story itself is what’s important; what we know about her future is barely relevant and the fact that the audience knows she’s going to make it out alive at the end of the film really doesn’t diminish our enjoyment of a thrilling, absorbing adventure story that marries the best of Bond and Mission: Impossible (raising the bar certainly for the former of those esteemed franchises) with a generous helping of Marvel magic, humour, and spectacle. This is a film that finally gives us some context for Natasha’s life as an Avenger and a superhero and tells us something about her history and her childhood which, in some ways, is as tragic as her unavoidable destiny.
In Ohio in 1995, Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) and their two wide-eyed young daughters are on the run for reasons we’re not yet aware of. During an audacious escape sequence, it becomes apparent that Alexei is possessed of extraordinary strength and agility. The family flee to Cuba where they are met by the sinister General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and the fate of the entire family – especially the two young girls – changes forever as they are taken to the Red Room training facility.
Fast forward to 2016 and Natasha Romanoff is a fugitive from the Government, having violated the regulations imposed by the Sokovia Accords (see Captain America: Civil War). The Avengers have been split asunder and many of them are imprisoned. Natasha flees to Norway to keep her head down even as her sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) terminates a rogue Black Widow and discovers the secret of the Red Dust that removes Red Room conditioning. She sends the Dust to Natasha and in time the two are reunited – they’re very different people now despite their shared experiences – and Natasha learns that she has unfinished business not only with Dreykov, who she believed she had killed years ago but also with her own family. But the super-powered, armoured Taskmaster is on their trail along with a troop of trained Black Widows and the pair embark on an audacious jailbreak to free the one man who might be able to help them make sense of their past and bring a final end to the brutality of the Red Room.
Black Widow brushes aside those potentially valid criticisms of its timeliness by sheer virtue of the fact that its story is so damned interesting and the dynamic between Natasha and Yelena (effervescently played by Pugh, who virtually steals the show) is so potent. This is a film that races along from explosive set-piece to explosive set-piece; Natasha herself is on top form and the fight sequences are both balletic and kinetic as she takes on the imposing Taskmaster and groups of gun-blazing Black Widows. But the film’s real strengths are those familial bonds it eventually builds when Natasha and her 'family' are finally back together and we find out more than we or even Natasha might have suspected about her true background. David Harbour shines in these more intimate scenes, his bulk squeezed back into his Red Guardian costume (he was injected with the Captain America super-soldier serum) and, along with Pugh, he provides the film's best and most beautifully judged comedic moments and even though she’s slightly underused, Rachel Weisz is a formidable presence capable of her moments of ruthlessness when required.
Circumstance leads the entire family to the location of the Red Room and a final confrontation with the Black Widow training programme, the implacable Dreykov, and the Taskmaster, whose identity here might annoy Marvel purists but is entirely appropriate in this new context. The finale, needless to say, is action-packed and explosive… and you will, of course, stay for the post-credits sequence that links jaw-droppingly back to recent developments in other areas of the Marvel Universe.
Black Widow is terrific entertainment and if the film had appeared any earlier in the MCU timelines the chances are it would have been a rather different movie. As it is, it stands as a perfect ‘full stop’ to Natasha’s story, adding some much-needed colour to a character who had previously been a reliable Avenger whose previous life was little more than a blank page. If we’ve any criticisms – and of course we have – then it’s slightly frustrating that what’s been a well-balanced action movie with moments of genuinely affecting human drama tumbles into the standard bombastic Marvel CGI climax cliché and whilst Ray Winstone is good value as the ruthless Dreykov his Russian accents does meander now and again into Fiddler on the Roof territory. But these are really minor quibbles on what will never be remembered as a game-changing, top tier entry into the MCU because it was never intended to be taken that way. It’s easily top mid-level stuff, comfortably rubbing shoulders with the Ant-Man series and the early Thors, hugely entertaining in its own right, adding colour to an underserved supporting character and providing the cinematic thrills and spills that only the MCU can deliver with this effortless bravado.
Black Widow is in cinemas now and available on Disney+ with Premier Access.