Even before the pandemic, Black Widow might have felt like a throwback. A solo film based on a character that probably should have had her own movie 10 years ago, set 5-10 years ago in the timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (depending on how you’re counting) and telling a story tied surprisingly closely to the 2012 Avengers movie?
It’s almost like discovering a 2016 Phase Two movie playing on TV that you somehow missed at the time. Add to that the 15 month or so delay for the film to actually hit cinemas, and Black Widow fans have been holding out for this movie for a long time. So was it worth the wait?
Well, the answer to that really depends on your perspective. If you’re looking for a Marvel movie to reinvent the wheel or raise the stakes creatively, director Cate Shortland's film might not be worth the long months of anticipation – but if you’re looking for a relatively fun Marvel-meets-Jason-Bourne adventure (complete with chems and mind control! Remember chems?) with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.
Though before you get stuck in, you might need to consult a Marvel timeline (or rewatch all the Marvel movies in order). Set after the events of Captain America: Civil War but before Avengers: Infinity War (you can more or less track it by the haircuts) the film finds Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) on the run, hiding out in a camper van and reciting the dialogue to Moonraker, apparently once a film she studied to blend in with Americans.
Shades of WandaVision there must be a coincidence (though it’s worth noting that series’ head writer Jac Shaeffer did help write Black Widow) – and in any case, it’s not long before the Sokovia Accords are the last of Natasha’s worries as she’s roped into a desperate mission to destroy the “Red Room” that created her and other “Widow” assassins.
Again, a handbook might be useful at this stage if you can’t remember what of Natasha’s backstory was revealed in previous movies. That said, Black Widow fills in even more gaps, opening with an extended '90s flashback that sees the fake deep cover family she was a part of with three other spies.
The most significant of this trio is Florence Pugh’s Yelena, a more junior Widow recently departed from the programme and determined to save the young women still trapped within it. In turns bratty, deadly and endearingly guileless, it's easily the breakout performance of the movie – and if Pugh does continue in the MCU, as the film hints, she’ll be a great continuing addition.
Still, she’s not the only one in Natasha’s retinue worth tuning in for. After a season of battling cartoonish Russians in Stranger Things, David Harbour decides to try things from the other perspective, playing former spy and super-soldier Alexi (aka Red Guardian, the Russian Captain America), who once acted as a “father” to both girls and now languishes in a Russian prison hoping for sporadic fan mail.
Ridiculous, violent and eye-wateringly stereotypical – generally speaking, the portrayal of Russians in this movie is not the most sophisticated – he’s still terrific fun, and a great pairing with Rachel Weisz as the family’s slightly chilly, less knowable “mother” Melina.
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Together these four form a kind of family unit, providing most of the film’s humour (especially Pugh, who has a great habit of teasing her older sister’s superhero habits) and its heart, even if at times it feels like we haven't seen enough of their dynamic to fully appreciate the emotional beats.
Facing off with them are a slightly underused gang of villains, including the much-teased Taskmaster (a villain with the ability to mirror fight moves, not a super-powered Greg Davies) and Ray Winstone’s Widow boss Dreykov. Oddly to the side (and not villainous, more neutral) is The Handmaid’s Tale star O-T Fagbenle, who mainly seems to exist to supply Natasha with various aerial vehicles and only appears in three scenes. Despite this, he still lands a character poster alongside the main stars, doing even less to earn it than the cat in Captain Marvel – it’s very odd, and it’s not entirely clear why he’s in the film by the end.
And his characterisation isn’t the only odd choice in Black Widow. Despite being the usual Marvel quip-fest, the film does also stray into some slightly dark territories that certain audience members could find upsetting, which sometimes jars alongside the jokes and broad Russian accents.
Meanwhile, on the action front it’s hard to fault the film on a technical level – a fast-paced fight between Pugh and Johansson early on sets the tone, and the spectacle only rises as the film continues – but there’s also little of the imagination and verve seen in the likes of the Bond, Mission: Impossible or Jason Bourne movies, which thanks to the more grounded abilities of the heroes in Black Widow (no Thunder Gods here) has to be the comparison.
Overall Black Widow is a fun film, and fairly different to anything else in the MCU in terms of style and story. If you’ve been craving the big-screen Marvel experience it definitely ticks those boxes (even if the lower stakes take a little getting used to after the heights of Avengers: Endgame), and you’ll probably leave the cinema with Florence Pugh as your new favourite superhero.
But with some strange beats, thin characterisation and missed opportunities, it’s not a stone-cold classic. Maybe if it had released in 2011, or even 2016 – but today, in the weird and expanding world of Marvel, Black Widow just slips to the middle of the pack.