When Natasha Romanoff was first introduced in the MCU 11 years ago in Iron Man 2, I didn’t immediately warm up to the character. Even Scarlett Johansson herself admitted Romanoff was portrayed more as a sex object, albeit a bad ass one. Thankfully, she continues to evolve for the better in the subsequent movies, as she becomes quite a formidable member of the Avengers.
Natasha has always been feisty, as shown in flashback as a tomboy preteen girl with blue hair (Ever Anderson, apparently she’s Milla Jovovich’s daughter!), growing up with her 6-year-old sister Yelena. It seems like a happy existence with their loving mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and dad Alexei (David Harbour) in an idyllic Ohio suburbs. But one fateful day, they suddenly have to leave everything behind and make a run for it, barely eluding authorities in the process. Soon young Natasha learn just who her parents truly are, a la The Americans who are Russian spies posing as a regular American family. We even meet Alexei’s boss, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) who leads the top secret Soviet training program known as the Red Room.
Astute MCU fans would remember that Natasha’s past has been teased several times in various films, Loki even specifically mentions Dreykov’s daughter in the first Avenger. Given she’s trained by a covert organization also means there are other Black Widows just like her. In the long opening credits, we are shown the rigorous training that turn girls like Natasha into powerful sleeper agents and assassins. One of those trained by the Red Room program is her own sister Yelena (Florence Pugh). While Natasha is on the run from Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) for breaking the Sokovia accord and goes into hiding in Norway, Yelena is having her own moment of revelation in Morocco about the Black Widow program. Their reunion is one of the most action-packed moments that’s fun to watch.
Though Black Widow is one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the movie plays out more like an espionage thriller more than a fantastical superhero movie. Not quite as bad ass as Bourne but more akin to Captain America: The Winter Soldier (still my favorite standalone MCU movie thus far). Even the tone, pacing and the way the large title cards reveal a new filming location reminds me of that movie. Perhaps it’s a nod to Natasha’s close association and friendship to Steve Rogers. After all, it’s because she chose to save him in Civil War that Ross is after her, and this movie takes place directly after that third Captain America film. Now, the film’s storyline doesn’t exactly move the MCU’s overall story forward the way other standalone movies did, it’s more of an extension of its vast universe, which I think makes it a unique film.
This movie marks the eighth time Scarlett Johansson’s played the Black Widow character and reportedly her last. Well, if that were true, she’d have ended on a high note. We have seen her fight alongside superheroes, displaying her mastery in the arts of espionage as well as exceptional weaponry and athletic abilities. It’s great to finally see not just her emotional side but also her valor and sense of nobility… which in a way is a harbinger to the moment she sacrifice her life for the good of mankind in Avengers: Endgame. Knowing her future fate doesn’t lessen the emotional value of Natasha’s story however, in fact it deepens it as we’re now given a glimpse into what makes her who she is.
Aussie filmmaker Cate Shortland was apparently hand picked by Scarlett herself (who’s listed as one of the executive producers) as she’s a fan of her sophomore indie film Lore, a historical WWII drama. Shortland might be new to the action genre but she proves herself adept in filming the dynamic action scenes. There are plenty of hand-to-hand combat and gritty fighting styles that feels more raw and chaotic than when she was fighting with the Avengers. She is fighting amongst mere mortals after all. Even Yelena makes a point of it after an intense fight/motorbike chase, ‘gods of thunder probably won’t need an aspirin after a fight,’ ha!
Some of the action are pretty brutal though, especially when they fight against a mysterious enemy in full armored suit called Taskmaster who can seem to mimic the fighting styles of various Avengers. The identity of the Taskmaster who reports to Dreykov is kept under wraps until the end, and I’m glad I wasn’t spoiled before watching it so I’m not going to mention it here either. My favorite fight scenes are between the two sisters in Budapest and the one where Natasha had to fight a whole bunch of fellow Black Widows!
What I didn’t expect is the amount of levity and humor which I find refreshing. I love that Scarlet isn’t above poking fun of her own character she’s played for over a decade. The way Yelena teases her relentlessly about her power pose (the full squat with one leg extended and throwing her head back) is hilarious! She calls her sister ‘a total poser’ and even tried to mimic the pose at one point. I love how she’s unfazed that Natasha is an Avenger and constantly makes sarcastic quips at her expense. Speaking of Yelena, I absolutely adore Florence Pugh!! I’ve seen her in four movies + one terrific miniseries and she’s such an effortless scene stealer! She’s charismatic, spunky with a strong screen presence, you just can’t take your eyes off her! Nice to see that she has a great rapport with Scarlett and I think she’d be a terrific actress to hand off the baton to.
Harbour provides a bunch of comedic moments and practically spoofing the fact that he’s also a super soldier and perhaps secretly wish he’d be an Avenger. He’s not ashamed that he’s kind of a fan-boy of his own daughter and constantly asking Natasha if her friend Steve aka Capt. ever asks about him. I love seeing Weisz as part of the MCU, that’s such inspired casting and both she and Harbour have some memorable moments here. One supporting character I wasn’t too familiar with is Mason (O-T Fagbenle) whose flirtatious banter with Natasha suggests he’s more than just a friendly ally who assist her with her ‘necessities’ while in hiding.
As for Winstone, I’m used to seeing him as a tough, working class bloke. Well, he swapped his Cockney accent with a dodgy Russian one and he doesn’t get much to do here. The relatively brief scene between him and Natasha isn’t really that memorable, so he’s akin to the villain in Thor 2. Can’t remember who it was? Most likely you won’t remember Winstone either, but thankfully the two female leads have plenty of memorable moments to make up for it.
I have to mention the rousing score by Lorne Balfe that I enjoyed quite a bit. I became familiar with Balfe through this indie rom-com Not Another Happy Ending starring Karen Gillan. I like how they use contemporary songs sparingly that fits nicely with the scenes. I particularly enjoy Malia J’s melancholic cover of Nirvana’s Smell Like Teen Spirit that’s played during the opening credits.
Overall there are lots to love here, the screenplay by Eric Pearson manages to balance the action, humor and emotional moments pretty well. It’s interesting how the major themes of behemoth franchises with the most bombastic action sequences (Star Wars, MCU, Fast & Furious) is ‘all about family’ and not necessarily those you’re born with. Black Widow is a fun mix of spy thriller and superhero genre that’s essentially about family ties. The movie looks great on the big screen so I’m glad it’s released when we can actually go back to cinemas again. I had so much fun watching this that I don’t mind watching it again.
Oh, be sure to stay for the end credits as Marvel shrewdly promote what to expect in the next MCU series on Disney+ coming later this year.