Nearly a decade in the making and fourteen months in the releasing, the next chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is here at long last, two years after Spider-Man: Far From Home capped off Phase III in theaters. Fans had to content themselves with Marvel’s new above-average TV fare on Disney+ (or, I guess, some comics) until the world was ready for Black Widow…or at least a lot of the world. Calling them “most of the world” might be an overstatement considering the pandemic has not yet been called off in numerous countries and states. Alternatively, Disney+ subscribers who can’t wait for the home video release in October can cough up thirty bucks and slightly expand that virtual library of above-average TV fare.
For those trying to update their timeline scorecards at home, most of the 24th MCU film transpires mere days after the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which the Sokovia Accords mandated worldwide superhero regulation under the UN’s auspices, which in turn was among the reasons why the Avengers broke up and Our Heroes wouldn’t stop punching each other. Scarlett Johansson returns presumably one last time as ex-Russian super-spy Natasha Romanoff, on the run from UN cops led by U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt, that dangling vestige of the black-sheep Incredible Hulk). Ross is in the film just long enough to make every past or present U.S. Secretary of State envious and wondering why they never got to lead a whole armed combat squad into action. Thinking back on some of those officeholders, perhaps that’s for the best.
Natasha carries with her more than just the baggage of Civil War, though. Director Cate Shortland (an Australia making her American feature debut) and three credited screenwriters (including WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer) kick off the proceedings with a flashback prologue to that time in 1995 when she was a teenage Russian sleeper agent living in Ohio with two adult agents pretending to be her parents and a six-year-old who knew there was “adventure” afoot but for all intents and purposes believed they were all one big, happy, totally real family. Once their long-term undercover mission accomplished its primary objective, the quartet was sent back to the motherland for reuse. For the grown-ups that might’ve meant their next assignment; for the girls, it meant being dragged off against their will to the nefarious Red Room for more indoctrination and molding into ultimate killers — the Widows, by codename. Goodbye childhood, hello evil espionage.
In the present Natasha has put her old “family” behind her, but she’s not far from her fake kid sister’s thoughts. The adult Yelena Belova (Little Women‘s Florence Pugh) is a murdering thrall when she’s literally hit in the face with the best MacGuffin a Widow could ask for: a red gas that counteracts the Red Room’s mind control. Truly awake for the first time since childhood, Yelena acquires a stash of the antigen and forwards it to her “sister” the heroic Avenger in hopes that it might be useful. Circumstances instead lead the two ladies into an unintentional, contentious reunion. In the classic tradition of mighty Marvel team-ups dating back to the 1960s, they fight and fight and fight, they stop punching each other for a few seconds to compare notes, and they join forces against the real enemy: the Red Room itself.
For Natasha it’s the culmination of decades of suffering and painful memories, the chance for revenge, the chance to liberate hundreds of women like her from the assassins’ life, and the chance to find true closure on the MCU’s Black Widow saga before she heads off to Infinity War and beyond. With that newfound mission comes a shocking discovery: for years she thought she’d already blown up the Red Room’s director, the brutish Dreykov (Ray Winstone, who once held his own against a savage Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast), an Iron Curtain relic dead set on keeping his far-reaching project not just relevant but integral to his country’s ostensible world domination. To my ears his name sounded like “Dragov”, which to me is more menacing than “Dreykov”. One lightly evokes Ivan Drago; the other, Drake.
Anyway, Dreykov is alive and still manipulating young ladies to do his bidding because, as he muses, there’s an endless supply of them worldwide to kidnap and brainwash. One immediate problem with finding and offing this sexist grotesque: hot on their heels is one of his deadliest minions, an assassin code-named Taskmaster. Blessed with “photographic reflexes” (as the comics dubbed the ability to duplicate anyone’s fight moves) and high-quality replicas of the Avengers’ own weaponry — such as Cap’s shield, Hawkeye’s bow, and, uh, Wonder Woman’s sword? — Taskmaster is like the Dark Avengers rolled into one. The personality of the original printed-page version has been jettisoned along with his first job as the head of an evil henchman training academy, but his visual template receives a glossy upgrade that lends pizzazz to the melees, even though childhood-me is really upset about the changes.
One even bigger problem: Natasha and Yelena have no idea where the Red Room is. No one seems to. Clearly there’s only one way to solve that mystery: get the old gang back together. No, not the Avengers — the family they once shared. Dad (Stranger Things‘ triumphantly shlubby David Harbour) was actually a Soviet superhero named the Red Guardian, who swears he once totally held his own against Captain America, or maybe someone claiming to be Cap during his years in suspended animation, or maybe he’s as addle-pated as Grandpa Simpson and fought Cap in a dream. We never learn why his overlords sent a super-strongman on an undercover spy mission in America sans costume, nor do we have any clue why he’s been sent to prison in Siberia or worse. Within moments the ladies are staging a daring breakout with explosive results, then moving on to find their old fake Mom (Two-Time Academy Award Nominee Rachel Weisz), a scientist whose experiments may have made the Red Room possible, and who may or may not be ready for a change of scenery. Can this former furtive foursome find forgiveness, formulate a fight-plan, free their fellow flunkies, and finish off the felonious fat foreman and his fighting forces in a fittingly fantastic finale?
Black Widow fractures neatly into four segments as director Shortland and Marvel’s producers and VFX crew volley it back and forth. Home life with the incognito “family” — probably reminiscent of The Americans, which I’ve never seen — is all indie-drama intimate shaky-cam (which might explain some of my wife’s queasiness during our showing), sidling up to each of them as they work and play and frolic together until marching orders dictate they flee together. Then it’s pedal to the metal as everyone ages through the opening-credits montage (set to a cutesy-dirge cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that so triggered my pet peeve about such covers that I was hurled out of the film for two solid minutes) that segues into standard James Bond international travel, bouncing the characters from one arbitrary country to the next based not on story needs but on location scout negotiation results and/or the filmmakers’ bucket-list travel requests. (Someone behind the scenes super-loved Budapest, while Norway gets a five-minute cameo.)
When it’s time for Our Family to come together like an NBC decades-later relaunch, comedic timing is the order of the day as Harbour and Pugh lead a loose remake of 3rd Rock from the Sun, another wacky caper about four unrelated agents who cohabited in a faraway place under false-family pretenses. For that stretch of interplay the repartee is a revelation, particularly a scathing speech from Pugh (all improvised, incredibly) about the Red Room’s devious procedures for handling the Widows’ reproductive systems. What Natasha once revealed in one of the MCU’s more controversial moments, Pugh subverts into exasperated feminist disgust in a way that sends the once-macho Red Guardian cringing in a corner in humiliation.
The costars here are thoroughly on point and in-the-zone. The blustery Harbour has his quest to relive the glory days of his flawed memories, and the pride of a pretend patriarch begging to be punctured. Pugh is the young upstart disdaining her peers from behind a confident facade, but she’s also that confused six-year-old with very different feelings from Natasha about their bygone loving-family arrangement — a deeply accurate snapshot of how older and younger kids can have drastically differing responses to their family breakups. Weisz has the quietest, subtlest role of the four but exudes dignity, resolve, and thoughtful decision-making in every steps she takes from her hideaway home lab to the noisome grand climax, and checks her emotions longer than anyone else till exactly the right times for them.
It was around this act, give or take a dramatic change-up, that I realized I was experiencing my Buffy problem all over again: the ostensible “supporting” cast are so fascinating in their own right that the main character ends up taking a back seat. Scarlett Johansson’s name may be the one nearest the title, and it’s appreciated that she’s better served here than in any previous MCU film, but at times she’s lucky if she can keep up with the rest of the class. They’re rookies to the MCU, but their established acting bona fides are in full force. She’s stepped out of the shadow of all those highly paid guys who got solo films long before she showed up, but risks getting dwarfed by new shadows all around her.
Inevitably we must progress of course toward the Marvel movie proper, with its requisite hyper-edited fight scenes and its expensive computer sorcery and its massive structures exploding. (Yes, the Red Room’s square footage sprawls across much more than just the one room.) Ever since Gareth Edwards’ The Raid (and by extension the grisly acrobatics of his TV series Gangs of London) I’ve struggled to take Marvel’s Diet Rite martial arts seriously. Black Widow has some julienne-chopped sequences in which the editors have presented their favorite version of each individual split-second stitched together, with precious few moments lasting beyond the two-second mark. And yet the overall choreographic dynamics, especially whenever Taskmaster enters the fray, achieve something much closer than usual to my bar for action-flick hyper-ballets, possibly among Marvel’s best after The Winter Soldier. (The rarefied heights of Netflix’s Daredevil remain out of reach. I remain skeptical whether Shang-Chi can vault that pole in September.)
Despite some tonal disjointedness along the path, Shortland and company navigate Black Widow well past my admittedly low-key expectations toward an apropos denouement for its anti-heroine super-spy. It’s a curious choice that the crux of her only solo outing is all about her families — the peacemaking life lessons learned with her old arranged family in turn ostensibly inform her subsequent rescue of her found family upon her return to the Avengers’ mess. But by and large her decisions feel more than ever like they’re her own — from the company she chooses to put up with, to that ultimate future sacrifice that would see the mantle passed on to the potentially awesome Widow next in line.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Beyond those name-checked above: O-T Fagbenle (one of the library astronauts from Doctor Who‘s first River Song episode) is Natasha’s previously unseen supplier of vehicles and sundries who, in the classic tradition of such sidekicks, whines at length about how difficult it was to obtain super expensive equipment to her exacting specifications and yet somehow he always manages it. Olga Kurylenko (Oblivion, Quantum of Solace) is a relative of Dreykov’s who deserved better. As kids, Natasha and Yelena are played by Ever Anderson (daughter of Milla Jovovich and her favorite Resident Evil director Paul W. S. Anderson) and Violet McGraw (The Haunting of Hill House).
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after the Black Widow end credits. For those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know..
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship, especially if they’re two years behind on their Marvel viewing and haven’t seen either Avengers: Endgame or the final episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier…]
…we end in the very present with Yelena visits Natasha’s grave that is much more labeled than her long-lost birth mother’s. It’s also covered in memorabilia and tributes dropped off by numerous in-universe fans despite her lifetime body count. Yelena tries to pay respects but is annoyed at the woman at her side — shady U.S. government operative Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (a returning Julia Louis-Dreyfus), whom we last saw pitching a job offer to the disgraced John Walker at the end of Falcon/Soldier. Valentina is also her boss and has brought along a tablet to illustrate her next assignment — to track down the man she believes or merely alleges is responsible for Natasha’s death: Hawkeye! Soon to star in his own TV fare that is also hopefully above-average, Kevin Feige willing!
(Considering the only people present at Natasha’s death were Clint Barton himself and arguably Space Red Skull, one has to wonder if Clint came back alone from their otherdimensional mission and wouldn’t stop mumbling to himself, “I killed Natasha…I killed Natasha…” even though that’s not what happened, and eavesdroppers mistook his anguish for a confession. Or maybe Space Red Skull is a tattletale liar.)