The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an odd, retro-actively conceived ongoing story which went from a series of separate but loosely-interlinked films to a converging narrative, to then a continuing tale which has become ever more convoluted. Some films are interesting whilst others merely plug gaps, and there are those that appear to be made purely for the sake of being made, and only exist seemingly to milk more money from committed fans that through a sunk cost fallacy are elbow deep into their pockets in their investment in the soap opera that is the Marvel saga. Fortunately, Black Widow is no filler, nor is it a cash-grab.
Superheroes can quickly become tiresome, especially when their god-like powers are only challenged by others in their league. It often feels manufactured, in that the exact right villain has shown up who threatens the hero using their sole weakness. Of course, many superhero fans enjoy this, seeing it as part of the process. I prefer a little nuance to my entertainment, and whilst I am not averse to big action sequences and I have a lot of love for blockbuster entertainment, I often find I expect better of the filmmakers than they actually deliver. Some Marvel films have surprised me, others captivated me, but many have been sub-par. I was pleased that Black Widow exceeded my expectations, and also went in a different direction to my initial anticipation.
Scarlett Johansson resumes her role as Natasha Romanoff, which she first took on in Iron Man 2. Having fought off aliens and monsters, she is something of a superhero, except she is lacking the super aspect many of her peers possess. There is nothing supernatural about her abilities: she is a highly trained spy and assassin. That human element makes her a more relatable hero, but also means she has physical challenges and failings as well as psychological ones.
Black Widow starts with a prologue set in the mid-nineties, where a young Romanoff is living in a salt-of-the-earth standard part of the US of A with her mother, father, and younger sister. Yet not all is as it seems—the family is a Russian sleeper cell, a manufactured family unit carrying out an post-Cold War infiltration. When the mission is over they flee, barely escaping, and the falseness of the family falls apart. Romanoff and her sister are taken to the Red Room, where they are trained to become assassins, and then the film proper begins.
The main plot concerns Johansson hiding out after the events of Captain America: Civil War. In short, she has violated an international treaty by doing hero stuff without permission, and so is on the run as a wanted fugitive. Though she is hiding out, she discovers a package sent to her from another safe house run by the same handler who has hidden her. This package is wanted by the film’s big bad villain, and so a masked killer is sent to find it. This leads Johansson to the other safe house, where she finds the woman who was once her sister in that sleeper cell family, played by Florence Pugh, and they set about taking down the Red Room.
There is a token MacGuffin here, in that Pugh has come into possession of a gas which frees the mind from being brainwashed. This is what has turned her against her former employers, and is what they are seeking to recover. That aside, the plot makes sense and although it is a spy thriller, it revolves more around family than conspiracy.
Through a series of big explosive set-pieces, Johansson and Pugh reunite their adoptive parents. Their father, David Harbour, is Russia’s only super-soldier—he was injected with a serum similar to Captain America that gave him superhuman strength—whilst their mother is a genius strategist played by Rachel Weisz. Though these four are not at all a real family, they come together as one and fall into the rhythms of a real family very quickly.
The writing here is tight and smart, particularly in the family settings. The dynamics, resentments, and power-plays that take place all feel accurate, and the actors relish their roles. Harbour is funny and brutish, Weisz controlled and caring, Johansson reserved yet angry, and Pugh aggressive and emotional. They work though they don’t, and the dysfunction that plays out is spot-on.
Cate Shortland, the director, pulls a lot of emotion from the script, forging a heart in a film full of car chases and fight scenes. It is a great family comedy, but also a very well-made action film. The stunts are huge and well performed, and although Marvel relies very heavily on pre-visualisation techniques, Shortland’s hand is apparent here in the differences to other MCU fare.
The only weak point of the film, for me, is Ray Winstone’s accent. His acting—his presence and performance—is perfect, as usual, but he cannot do accents other than his own. This has been proven time and time again, yet still he gives it a go. He is the main villain, and he is great, but his Russian is not. Putting that aside, however, and the subtext of the villain is very interesting: a man in the shadows who bullies and controls vulnerable young women, who hides from everyone yet is supposedly in control of so much. The parallels with notable figures from the headlines of the last few years are undeniable, and that is apparently intentional.
I enjoyed Black Widow and I will be watching it again. Though it fits into the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, prior knowledge is not really essential. There are a few scenes shoehorned in at the beginning and end of the film to attempt to make it part of the larger narrative, but in terms of Black Widow’s plot they are largely inconsequential. The only one that needs making sense of is right at the end, after the credits, in Marvel’s traditional next-instalment-nugget slot. To see this as a standalone, with only the mildest awareness of the main Marvel characters, that can be ignored. It is a good old-fashioned action movie with a contemporary angle, and worth your time.