Natasha Romanoff has been on a wild journey during her time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I’m not talking about the one that ended up with that noble plummet on Vormir. No, over her seven previous roles that were spread across numerous Avengers films and solo titles for other heroes, Scarlett Johansson’s fiery haired Russian agent has seen a character arc that saw her start as butt fixated eye candy – slash – living Avengers advertisement in Iron Man 2 to a thoughtful, intelligent ex-spy, struggling to find a place for herself while being forced into the glaring lights of superhero-dom.
It’s been an arc for a cinematic female superhero like no other and while she missed out on the final act celebrations of Endgame thanks to the inconvenience of being in a broken heap at the bottom of a cliff on an alien planet – she’s finally got her due with her very own solo movie.
After the events of Captain America: Civil War saw Romanoff off the grid thanks to her indulging in her favorite past time of defecting, the ex-Avenger is cooling her heels in Norway after giving William Hurt’s Thunderbolt Ross the slip, but after a run in with a nimble, skull masked, heavily armoured assassin code named Taskmaster, she realises that she’s going to have to address her long repressed past.
It seems that past contained a mock family unit of three spies and a Russian super soldier masquerading as an all-American family in Iowa back in the mid-nineties in order to steal mystery info for their handler, one General Dreykov who runs the Black Widow creating Red Room.
Reconnecting with her “sister”, fellow Widow Yelena Belova, she finds out that not only is Dreykov still alive after an earlier mission by Natasha and Clint Barton was supposed to have taken his life, but he’s now running the Red Room with a crack team of female assassins who are under a brutal form of chemical mind control who can no longer boast a will of their own. In fact, Yelena herself was a victim of this very control herself until recently so the two women form a spikey alliance and surmise that to track down their target they’ll have to track down the other members of their so-called family; the incarcerated, bear-like Alexei Shostakov (aka. The Red Guardian) and the reclusive Melina Vostokoff to dismantle the bloody legacy all four of them inadvertently created thirty years prior.
Can Natasha finally clean out some of that red in her ledger she’s always banging on about and take out a man who, in a timely plot device, sees young girls as just another faceless resource?
It’s been a smidge over two years since the MCU last rocked the multiplexes thanks to countless delays and false starts and curiously enough, the biggest threat to Black Widow long overdue solo movie turns out to be her very own team mates. After all, we now live in an area where, thanks to WandaVision and Loki constantly pulling rugs on us for weeks at a time while enthusiastically upending everything we thought we knew about the MCU’s surprisingly flimsy reality, are fans going to appreciate, what is essentially, a mere action flick that runs for a measley two hours and fourteen minutes? I mean, that’s barely half a season on Disney+…
Thankfully, to offset it’s more grounded tale in the face of surreal sitcoms and mischievous multiverses, Black Widow takes it’s cue from possibly the finest pure action movies in the MCU arsenal – that of the Russo Brother’s unfeasibly solid paranoia thriller, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (with a massive assist to the Bourne franchise) and while the actual carnage falls a little short of that lofty target, Black Widow manages to load it’s runtime with plenty of drama and character beats to prove that the feature films of the MCU are still incredibly vital.
Holding everything together is, unsurprisingly, Scar-Jo who finally gets to stretch her legs without having to concede screen time to thunder gods and billionaire, playboy, genius philanthropists. Giving her endearing quirks (Romanoff’s a keen Moonraker fan, apparently) and stoking those fires that eventually leads her to go on to be the main person holding the Avengers together after the events of Infinity War, Johansson puts in her best action role to date after the misfires of Lucy and Ghost In The Shell as the movie finally ties in all the scattered hints of her past into a cohesive whole.
If Johansson is the bedrock, then Florence Pugh is the revelation as her scrappier, more cynical sibling who’s constant teasing of her sister’s fighting poses is strongly mined for comedy. Also digging for laughs for all he’s worth is David Harbour as the oafish, self absorbed Red Guardian who’s Mr Incredible-style struggles to fit into his super suit thankfully overturn the drama – and dramatic is most assuredly is, with director Cate Shortland spinning a surprisingly dark plot that takes in child abuse and the forcible coercion of women to do inhuman things by power drunk men.
On the minus side, while I mentioned earlier that it wisely borrows stylistically from The Winter Soldier, it also seems to borrow a lot more too. Taskmaster, while a formidable heavy is an equally mysterious reconfiguring of the mind wiped Bucky Barnes with extra hints of Frank Grillo’s Crossbones and Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost thrown in for good measure and Ray Winstone’s clumsily accented Dreykov (does he even know what Russian sounds like?) is a far more misogynistic Alexander Pierce complete with a flying battle station that also spectacularly plummets out of the sky in the final act.
Still, the movie side of Phase 4 is still off to a familiar, rollicking start before we head into more uncharted territory with Shang-Chi and The Eternals, but possibly Black Widow’s greatest achievement is that in the wake of Endgame giving founding Avengers Tony Stark and Steve Rogers rousing send-offs, Natasha gets a whole movie for us to say goodbye to a character who’s been around since 2010.
Black Widow’s legacy is all but assured thanks to an end credit sting (holy fuck, I’ve missed those) that reassuringly nods toward the future, but with all credit due: Natasha has finally addressed the red in her ledger with style.