The Marvel Cinematic Universe has legions of die-hard fans and for a long time I considered myself among them. To be clear I’m still very interested in the sprawling universe and the direction it goes. I grew up with so many of these characters and I’m anxious to see what the creative heads have in store for them (and us). But I’d be lying if I said this new batch of upcoming films had me as excited as I used to be. One of the few exceptions is “Black Widow”, a movie that I expected to have implications for the future of the MCU, but one that felt firmly linked to the previous phase(s).
For years many of us have been clamoring for a Scarlett Johansson led Black Widow movie. She’s a character who has had a prominent place in the MCU yet still was more of a supporting player. We were all set to get “Black Widow” last year but COVID-19 ended up obliterating the movie release schedule. Now her movie has hit theaters and fans finally get that deeper glimpse into the character’s backstory we’ve been hungry for.
While most of the more recent (and upcoming) MCU films have been leaning towards the magical and cosmic, my favorite remains 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. It was certainly spectacular, but it was also more grounded than most of what we’re getting today. That’s the vibe I got from the “Black Widow” trailers and it’s exactly what I hoped director Cate Shortland would deliver. In a nutshell she does. In many ways her film has a very old school MCU feel and fits in much better with the older movies than the new stuff. In fact, outside of a its intriguing end-credits scene, it doesn’t progress any of the current MCU storylines forward. I’m sure some will see that as weakness, but for me its tighter focus was a strength.
“Black Widow” bounces all around the globe giving us big action at every stop. There’s a daring escape in Ohio, a killer fight scene in Norway, an exhilarating chase sequence in Morocco, and a crazy jailbreak in Siberia. And that just scratches the surface. The story (from screenwriter Eric Pearson) follows the events of “Captain America: Civil War” and sees Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) on the run from the US government for violating the controversial Sokovia Accords. She ends up settling off the grid in the mountains of Norway.
But before we get into all of that Shortland treats us to a compelling prologue set in 1995 Ohio. It’s here that we get a taste of Natasha’s childhood, especially her relationship with her kid sister Yelena. Don’t let their normal looking suburban American life fool you. Their parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) are embedded Russian agents and their “family” is actually an elaborate cover for their spy work. With the feds bearing down on him, Alexei and Melina take the girls and barely escape to Cuba. Once there, Alexei reports to his superiors while his “daughters” are put to sleep and taken away. This opening gives us a good first taste of Natasha’s tumultuous life.
Back to 2016, Natasha narrowly escapes a thrilling encounter with Taskmaster, a deadly assassin sent by Ray Winstone’s General Dreykov to retrieve a case full of vials that Natasha doesn’t even know she has. Turns out the vials were sent to her by her estranged sister Yelena (now played by Florence Pugh), who is holed up in a Budapest safe house after escaping Dreykov’s sinister Red Room program. It’s where young women are brainwashed and turned into “Widows” – killing machines under Dreykov’s control. The chemicals in the vials breaks his mind-controlling hold on the Widows which understandably poses a major threat to his nefarious operation. So Natasha heads to Budapest and has an unceremonious reunion with Yelena. Soon Taskmaster and a team of Dreykov’s Widows are hot on their tail. And later Alexei and Melina reenter the picture.
Sound like a lot? Honestly it’s a surprisingly dense story with lots of moving parts and more layers than I ever expected. Shortland’s ability to bring it all together amid so many action scenes isn’t just impressive, it’s miraculous. She also never loses sight of her central characters, routinely giving them breathers and allowing their relationships to unfold. Of course it starts with Johansson who at this point has made Natasha her own. She’s such a good character and one of her great allures is that she has no superpowers. She’s one of us although cooler and tougher. One the best lines in the movie jokingly speaks to her humanity, “I doubt the god from space has to take an ibuprofen after a fight.”
But it’s Pugh who’s sure to turn the most heads. As the tough-as-nails Yelena she has no trouble bringing out the character’s immeasurable grit and swagger. But through Pugh’s absorbing performance we also get to see Yelena’s tightly guarded vulnerability and her poorly veiled pain. And together with Johansson, she helps bring an emotional heft to their complicated sisterhood that grows more intense with each scene. I also have to give a nod to a terrific David Harbour who brings a light comic touch to his out of shape faux patriarch and former super-soldier who’s still yearning for his glory days as Captain America’s Russian rival. As for Rachel Weisz, at times she seems a bit cold and detached. She’s such a great actress and this is far from a bad performance. But compared to Johansson, Pugh, and Harbour she feels a little shortchanged.
While the vast majority of the action, the storytelling, and the character work is done well, not every decision Shortland and Pearson makes works out. A reoccurring struggle for many superhero movies has been nailing down a good villain. “Black Widow” has some serviceable baddies but they could have been so much more. Winstone’s gravelly snarl brings a certain level of menace to Dreykov but otherwise he’s pretty generic. Taskmaster is the much bigger misfire. Everything about the character’s look is great and the action scenes crackle with an extra burst of energy whenever TM shows up. But without spoiling anything, the filmmakers make an unfortunate choice that feels cheap and completely out of left field. I never bought it for a second and was left thinking about all the better things they could’ve done with the character.
Still, “Black Widow” is exactly the kind of movie to help energize the struggling theater business. Sure it’s available to stream on Disney’s Premier Access, but it shines on the big screen especially during its eye-popping final sequence that can’t possibly be appreciated as much on a television. Part family drama, part Bourne thriller, this is a fun action-fueled blockbuster loaded with kinetic fight scenes and rousing set pieces. At the same time the mostly self-contained story packs a surprising amount of heart and finally gives this long-running MCU character a proper send off. And then there’s Pugh, a great new face in the MCU and one sure to impact things moving forward. “Black Widow” opens today in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.