Black Widow is a slightly smaller-scale Marvel entry, coming as it does on the heels of the epic one-two punch of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Honestly, that feels kind of refreshing right now, like an opportunity to simply focus on the journey of one character rather than having to mentally juggle all the implications for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Obviously, given the events of Endgame, this is a prequel, showing what Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) had going on right after Captain America: Civil War. It has all the hardcore action you'd expect, yet also a softer side that's immensely appealing.
The picture starts off with what, for my money, is the best prologue to any of the MCU adventures so far. Young Natasha and her beloved sister Yelena are yanked from their suburban home by “parents” Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz). Together, they have to rush to a local airfield for a daring escape from S.H.I.E.L.D. Natasha does not know why, just that she's separated from Yelena and her parents, then placed into the care of Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the Russian agent who will train her to become the figure we're all familiar with. This extended opening is tense and thrilling, perfectly setting up plot points the movie will go on to address in detail.
Then we jump ahead twenty-one years. Natasha is on a break from the Avengers, who are currently feuding. She receives a message from Yelena (Florence Pugh) reluctantly asking for help. Dreykov, she has learned, has been implanting his “widow” assassins with a mind control device, just like the one she removed from her own body. There is an antidote, but it must be protected and administered to the other young women forced against their will into lives of violence.
The reunion is not entirely pleasant, and that's where Black Widow gets really interesting. Natasha is reunited with her entire clan via the mission, and subsequently forced to come to terms with some uncomfortable truths – that her family was manufactured, that the others may not have felt a connection as strongly as she did, and that she had no genuine say in the path her life has taken. Right in the middle of the movie is a long dinner scene between Natasha, Yelena, Alexei, and Melina in which various issues are brought forth. What's astonishing here is that if you take out the superhero element, you've still got a top quality domestic drama, filled with emotion and pain.
From there, Natasha needs to find a way of accepting the reality of the situation in order to stop Dreykov. Can these four people call on whatever held them together twenty-one years ago to work collaboratively now? There's as much suspense in that regard as there is in the requisite action sequences. Director Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome) and writer Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) take the time to let the scenario play out in a satisfying, fully-developed manner. A healthy dose of humor ensures things stay meaningful without ever becoming dour. In the end, Black Widow offers a far deeper portrait of family than the Fast and Furious saga does with all its empty platitudes.
Action still plays a large part in the story. Stunning sequences are featured throughout. Aside from the prologue, there are intense martial arts fights, a thrilling free fall from the sky, and one heck of a cool car chase. Each of them is integrated into the plot, so they feel like natural extensions rather than diversions from it. Shortland stages them with skill and style.
Johansson is solid as always playing Natasha. That said, she's a bit upstaged in her own movie by two co-stars. David Harbour is hilarious as Alexei, who's all too eager to get back to his role as the superhero Red Guardian (i.e. Russia's version of Captain America), even if his costume is a lot more snug now. Then there's Florence Pugh, who absolutely owns Black Widow. Following her work in Little Women, Fighting with My Family, and Midsommar, she solidifies herself as the most exciting young actress out there right now. Pugh is magnetic and tough as Yelena. Hopefully, she will reprise the role in MCU movies going forward.
Dreykov isn't the most memorable Marvel bad guy, but otherwise, Black Widow is another action-packed winner. Don't forget to stay for the post-credits scene for a nice surprise.
out of four
Black Widow is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material. The running time is 2 hours and 13 minutes.