It’s about time Black Widow got her own movie — she’s the female leader of the Avengers and played by one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood. Since her poorly-aged introduction in “Iron Man 2,” Natasha Romanoff has emerged as a trailblazing superhero. Her demise in “Avengers: Endgame” remains one of the most shocking and heartbreaking moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Natasha’s past is one of the more intriguing backstories in the MCU. Her history as a Russian spy allows Marvel to make an espionage thriller in the same vein as the incredible “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” COVID-19 delayed the studio’s triumphant return to the theater, but — after 737 days — that marvelous red logo is finally back.
While “Black Widow” features excellent hand-to-hand combat and a righteous Florence Pugh, it’s bogged down by a boring villain and feels a few years too late.
In 1995, Alexi Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) are Russian spies commissioned in Ohio to steal S.H.I.E.L.D intel. They live with two surrogate daughters, Natasha (Ever Anderson) and Yelena Belova (Violet McGraw). Once the mission is complete, the “family” escapes to Cuba and both daughters are forcibly put through the Red Room, a female assassin network, to become Widows.
After the events of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from the U.S. government and is seeking refuge in Norway. Still working as a Widow, Yelena (Florence Pugh) is tasked to take out a rogue assassin and discovers a dark secret about the Red Room. She reunites with Natasha and their estranged parents to take down Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the Red Room leader, and his latest project, Taskmaster.
Director Cate Shortland (“Somersault,” “Berlin Syndrome”) understands this is a world of spies, not superheroes. For the most part, she refrains from using heavy CGI and focuses on practical action choreography. These sequences feel like ballets — majestic and precise — except the pirouettes are replaced with punches. The fast-paced opening chase sets the stage for the forthcoming action, capturing the audience’s attention from the get-go.
The first interaction between adult Natasha and Yelena is the best action set piece in the movie. Learning from the same program, these two qualified assassins copy each other’s moves in this scene: both spies swiftly go for the other’s gun and end up swapping weapons while trading quips and insults. Shortland is able to fuse “Mission: Impossible” style action with the juvenile energy of two bickering siblings. The punches — literal and verbal — feel real.
Shortland and her writers, Eric Pearson (“Thor: Ragnarok,” “Godzilla vs. Kong”), Jac Schaeffer (“WandaVision,” “The Hustle”) and Ned Benson (“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”), fall prey to issues found in many MCU movies. The director uses heavy CGI in the climax with some fake-looking explosion shots that are far below Marvel standards. No one will ever say no to seeing Johansson jump out of a plane sans parachute, but the film could’ve done without B-quality VFX.
The villain problem has been Marvel’s Achilles Heel. It’s no surprise the best MCU movies have menacing villains — Hela, Killmonger, Thanos, Mysterio, etc. Dreykov is a dull character, almost a bad caricature of a Bond villain. His only purpose is to give a clunky 10 minute monologue revealing his plans for the Red Room, taking the viewer out of the movie. Even with a cool suit, Taskmaster is an underwhelming antagonist whose reveal is highly disappointing.
Thankfully, the performances provide ample humor and entertainment.
Johansson gives a strong performance in her swan song. Very few actresses (and actors for that matter) can do action like her. She’s waited many years for a solo movie, however, the titular character surprisingly isn’t the main focus. Natasha has been marginalized in many MCU movies and, perhaps, in a case of poetic injustice, gets pushed to the sideline even in her movie. Whether this is a shortcoming of the script or by design, the other family members shine, particularly Pugh (“Midsommar,” “Little Women”) and Harbour (“Stranger Things,” “No Sudden Move”).
Pugh steals the show and pulls the rug from under Johansson’s feet. She’s responsible for the movie’s funniest lines — including a laugh-out-loud gag about Natasha always posing before she starts a fight. Yelena’s admiration of a vest with pockets is an example of many moments where Pugh is able to take command and rescue the film during the slower parts. She’s also terrific in the few emotional scenes where the viewer feels the pain in her quivering voice as she tries to keep fractured memories of her family alive.
Harbour and his awful Russian accent are incredibly funny. He does a good job playing the deadbeat father — a complete 180-degree turn from Hopper in “Stranger Things.” The accomplished Weisz (“The Mummy,” “The Favourite”) isn’t given much to do and her character warranted more screen time.
This movie should’ve been released in 2016 amid Black Widow’s character arc, not at the end of it. Most people know her eventual fate which takes out the tension from the film. Marvel seems to have taken the “better late than never” approach with “Black Widow,” but Natasha deserves better.
Natasha’s farewell will be remembered for one reason: Florence Pugh. Yelena is primed to be an integral part of the MCU and will win over many fans in one of the best performances in a Marvel movie.
Move over, Thanos. Florence Pugh is inevitable.
“Black Widow,” rated PG-13, is now playing in theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access.