We’ve needed a Black Widow film since the character was first introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2010’s Iron Man 2. Throughout the eleven years with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), audiences have learned so much about the character’s difficult upbringing in the infamous Red Room to her time with the Avengers and her ultimate sacrifice in Endgame. In Black Widow, we are given a glimpse into Natasha’s past and how that made her into the badass assassin we know today.
The film begins with a young Natasha in Ohio in 1995, living what looks to be a normal life with a mom, dad, and little sister. Little did we know, it was all a ruse set up by the Russians for her “parents” to gather information from the US government for the past three years. After they return to Russia, Natasha and her “little sister” Yelena are taken to the Red Room during a traumatizing montage of young girls being taken from their families, played over by a haunting cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Think Up Anger. Unlike the Marvel films we’ve seen before, Black Widow chose to have opening credits mixed in with the montage, which added some emotional weight to the story.
Fast forward 21 years later to a time between Civil War and Infinity War. Natasha is hiding from the government for her part in helping Steve Rogers and Bucky escape. With the help of her own handler, Mason (O.T. Fagbenle), Natasha is able to lay low for a little bit until trouble finds her. After receiving a package with an unknown chemical agent by her “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh), Natasha is attacked by the Taskmaster, a mercenary who works for the Red Room with skills of photographic reflexes and whose assignment is to bring back the contents of the package. After escaping from the Taskmaster, Natasha finds herself back in Budapest (yes, that Budapest) where her journey as an Avenger all started. We quickly learned Natasha had killed Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the overseer of the Red Room, in order to get out of the Black Widow program and join S.H.I.E.L.D.
But when Natasha finds out Dreykov is still alive and the Red Room is still active, she reunites with her fake family — “father” Alexei aka Red Guardian (David Harbour), “mother” Melina (Rachel Weisz), and Yelena — to finish what she started and shut down the Red Room once and for all. Although the film is titled Black Widow, it felt more like an ensemble between the four Russian operatives and how they came together as a family to right the wrongs of the Black Widow program. Some people may be upset with Natasha not being front and center in the film — as we all have been waiting for her own film for years — but the film clearly serves as closure for Natasha and wiping the red in her ledger, before embarking on her final mission in Infinity War/Endgame.
Director Cate Shortland balances the drama with perfect action-packed sequences. With Gabriel Beristain’s cinematography, Black Widow captures the beauty of the locations, even as the landscape around them is falling apart — whether it be an avalanche in Serbia or during a fight scene in which pieces of machinery fal down from the sky. Although the consequences in the film are low stakes, as opposed to the other films where the entire world is at risk, Shortland and Beristain kept the intensity high at all times, except for the quiet moments, which are not wasted. Those still moments had meaningful dialogue that pushes the character development further.
The action scenes were top-notch. Led by the same fight choreographer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and coordinator for Infinity War and Endgame, James Young brought the same energy to Black Widow. With stunt coordinator Rob Inch, Young executed several fight scenes that felt true to life — rather than being fought by a super-soldier. From Yelena’s knife-wielding skills to Natasha’s one-against-many-Widows sequence, the action and stunts were non-stop and extremely impressive.
The film isn’t perfect. It did have few shortcomings such as Dreykov being a cartoon-ish, one-dimensional villain with the sole purpose of being basically a Russian Hydra. Even his secret lair is similar to the previous Marvel villains that had no purpose other than world domination. There is no redeeming quality to Dreykov that makes him interesting at all, which is disappointing when we have seen a little more depth in Marvel villains from the past few films/series. Maybe if Black Widow had been a Disney+ series, the villain, as well as some of the individual storylines of the characters, could have been further explored.
Overall, Johansson portrays Natasha how she’s always portrayed the character in many of the Marvel films, tortured and battered by her past. Fortunately, in this film, we see where it all came from and it makes sense. Pugh and Harbour stand out in every scene they’re in and add some levity to the story. Pugh proves herself to be a suitable replacement for Johansson as the next Widow in the next phase of the MCU. The character is likeable and just as much of a badass as Natasha has shown to be over the years. Like Captain America, the name doesn’t just represent Steve Rogers, but is a title that is passed down to the next hero. Black Widow represents the legacy of Natasha and those Widows who will come after her, which I’m looking forward to.