Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been waiting a long time for Black Widow, and not just because the pandemic delayed it a year. Since being introduced in 2010’s Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson had played the Russian-spy-turned-S.H.I.E.L.D.-agent Natasha Romanoff six more times, and never in a film that bore her character’s name. A Black Widow solo movie seemed to be something Marvel Studios always talked about but never actually made, and I can happily report that Johansson and director Cate Shortland have done enough to prove the delay was unwarranted. Black Widow is a solid, fun action thriller boosted by its attention to character – but releasing it after Romanoff’s death in Avengers: Endgame makes the viewing experience a little bittersweet.
Set following the events of Captain America: Civil War, which left half of the Avengers wanted fugitives, Black Widow sees the titular heroine on the run when she is contacted by Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), her “sister” from a The Americans-style mission they were part of as children. Trained in the same Black Widow program that Romanoff believed had ended long ago, Belova informs her that its sinister leader, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), is alive and well – and that his methods have gone far beyond brainwashing. Pursued by his top operative, the combat-mimic Taskmaster, the two Widows set out to destroy Dreykov’s Red Room and free the young women still under his control.
The bones of the largely well-executed Black Widow play to Marvel’s typical strengths (expensive-looking action and quippy humor) without overcoming its typical weaknesses (one-note villains and too-neat endings), but Shortland fleshes out her film with character in a way that helps it stand apart. The ever-excellent Pugh (Oscar-nominated for Little Women) shines so brightly in every phase that she threatens to hijack the movie, but the director wisely uses her to add color to everyone else. Johansson projects the coy confidence and martial skill we’ve come to expect from Black Widow, and David Harbour’s turn as her “father” and former-Soviet super-soldier Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian, a send-up of the musclemen Romanoff has been stuck supporting over the last decade, gets plenty of laughs. But through their relationships with Yelena, both characters gain an emotional dimension beyond their roles as action hero and comic relief, and the movie is noticeably better for it.
That extra layer is also frustrating, something that is no fault of the film’s and entirely a result of its place in the release calendar. Pugh is a great addition to the MCU, and her character pops in part because of that – she clearly has a future, whereas Johansson’s Widow doesn’t. Their sisterly chemistry works so well that it’s disappointing to know we won’t get any more of it, especially since so much of Johansson’s Marvel time was spent testing her chemistry with other Avengers. Had this actually come out when it takes place, before Romanoff sacrificed herself in Hawkeye’s place because he has a family, that disappointment could’ve been put to good use. As it is, it’s a missed opportunity, an unfortunate aftertaste for what is otherwise a fun time at the movies. Here’s hoping it’s enough to teach Marvel not to leave their female superheroes sitting on the sidelines.