It’s been a long time coming, for a few different reasons both in and outside of Marvel Studios’ control, but a stand-alone ‘Black Widow’ film finally arrived in theaters. While the movie doesn’t absolutely break the MCU formula, it definitely challenges it in interesting, and quite frankly, darker ways. Scarlett Johansson gets her solo due in a mostly satisfying way, and the movie introduces some compelling, exciting new characters with her estranged Russian spy “family”.
The movie opens with an extended flashback sequence from Natasha’s childhood (a harried escape from suburban Ohio?!) that reveals a heretofore unknown compelling nugget about the OG Avenger’s past. In addition to the traumatic experiences she was subjected to as part of the KGB Red Room, hinted at in past MCU films, apparently Nat was also part of a “The Americans” style, 90s Russian spy cell posing as a family in the US, complete with a Mom (Rachel Weisz), a Dad (David Harbour), and oblivious little sister (who grows up to be Florence Pugh in a Marvel breakout performance). This opening scene is expertly staged by director Cate Shortland, who, combined with a disturbing image-laden credits sequence accompanied by a slowed down, eerie rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, immediately sets a decidedly sinister and very different kind of tone then audiences of these blockbusters may be accustomed to.
Where the plot goes from here is best experienced as the ever ratcheting action pieces this thrill ride ends up being, but it’s placement in the MCU timeline is a curious one. Johansson’s killer spy turned superhero is on the run after the events of ‘Captain America: Civil War’ using her clandestine network to hide out and then reconnect with her fake family for a mission only they can aid in completing. It’s head scratching to feature Marvel’s first female Avenger in a solo film after the character’s fate in ‘Endgame’, but placing this film in this specific timeframe does seem to amplify the ramifications of the team dynamic cataclysm in ‘Civil War’ as well as flesh out Black Widow’s character arc from mysterious cypher to bedrock leader in ‘Endgame’s five -year post-snap world.
The effect is initially distracting, especially in the lead up to the release of the film, but once full immersion occurs, it’s hard to deny both the scale of a Marvel movie being back in theaters along with the surprising emotional pathos this movie coaxes out of its main cast. Not to say there isn’t plenty of laughs as is the Marvel way, but Pugh’s Yelena’s quips and Harbour’s Red Guardian’s boasts really land due to the deliveries and immediate embodiments these fine actors bring to their characters. While the final act does fall into a somewhat messy CGI battle, there’s still some fun to be had with the spectacle of it all. Everything leading to this point is truly surprising and compelling stuff, from the engaging character building and interplay between the actors, to the knockdown, hard-hitting brawls in the streets of Europe that are closer to something in a ‘Bourne’ film than anything in the MCU. It’s really too bad ‘Black Widow’ will likely never be the grounded action franchise within a franchise that Feige and crew always intended, but perhaps the success of this film may coax Johansson back for future installments set in the past . . .
Directed By: Cate Shortland
Written By: Eric Pearson; Story By: Jac Schaeffer, & Ned Benson
Running Time: 134 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of four stars) –OR- B+