Well, it finally happened. Twenty-four movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Natasha Romanoff finally gets her own movie. Although the role is embodied by Scarlett Johansson, one of the biggest movie stars of the early 20th century and an actress who has starred in acclaimed dramas (Lost in Translation, Match Point and Marriage Story) and cult favorites (Ghost World, Under the Skin and Jojo Rabbit), her Romanoff, first introduced in Iron Man 2 (2010) is getting a very belated starring vehicle.
Deemed the start of the MCU’s “Phase Four” (despite being a sequel to Captain America: Civil War and a prequel to Avengers: Infinity War), Black Widow is an origin story dealing with her sad past. We witness Romanoff’s upbringing in a small town as a little girl, which was taken away from her. Her parents, played by David Harbour and Rachel Weisz, weren’t who they claimed to be. Natasha and her sister, Yelena, were forced to be live in The Red Room, where they were trained with countless other female assassins.
This is a really good movie. Yet, what we and certainly Johansson deserved was a great one. Black Widow isn’t the game changing, franchise groundbreaker I hoped for. Why was I hoping for something on that level? Because Johansson absolutely deserves it. Yes, she’s a mere cog in the giant MCU machine and, if she were to express a desire to move on, the company would of course be willing to recast the role (just ask the likes of Eric Bana, Terrence Howard and Edward Norton). However, they were lucky to get someone of her caliber in the first place.
Let’s be honest: except for Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson, Johansson can act circles around her Avengers co-stars (I’m looking at you Chris Evens, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan). This is a major league actress who has been benched and misused for far too many titles in the MCU. That it took this long for Johansson to get her first spinoff isn’t just overdue but embarrassing. It’s fortunate that the movie itself isn’t just busywork for the actress and her fans. The best thing about Black Widow is how tough it is, particularly in the first act. The prelude and opening title sequence are the emotional TKO the rest of this can’t live up to.
Johansson is excellent, investing as much emotion into the far-fetched proceedings as possible. Romanoff is indestructible to truly absurd, Ethan Hunt-lengths (she still shrugs off landing from huge falls). Take note of how good she is during her big, unsettling climactic scene with Winstone, in which the screenwriters have clearly seen RoboCop and steal a big plot point from that film. Apparently, OCP technology has been adapted for The Red Room (which, by the way, is also the name of Christian Gray’s sex dungeon from Fifty Shades of Grey and the alternate dimension sitting room from Twin Peaks, but Disney assumes you’ve probably never seen those, either).
Florence Pugh, whose startling lead performance in Midsommar was not a fluke, just about steals this and walks away with a breakout performance as Romanoff’s long-suffering sister. Ray Winstone gives a potently vile performance as the central villain and Weisz, as usual, is better than the material she’s been provided.
Harbour’s “Red Guardian” is a comic highlight, though a little of him goes a long way. Perhaps I’m just tired of actors botching Russian accents for comic effect, as though every line reading is ready for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. The accents are supposed to be on and off, as the characters are in states of disguise but it’s also a cop out and a problem for this movie. Seriously, these accents are iffy.
The story dives into material better handled in La Femme Nikita, John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum and, yes, even Red Sparrow. To cut this one some slack- the subtext here is everything, as Black Widow is really about freeing women from sexual slavery and human trafficking. Of course, no one on screen uses those terms and sexual abuse is never referenced (this is a Disney movie, after all), but the imagery of young women being forced to become slaves for a system run by a male individual, who strips them of their will to think for themselves, is loaded. I admire the subjects this brings up, even as no one takes the time on screen to discuss them.
It gets overly sentimental and jokey at times, particularly in the third act. Black Widow backs out of the harsher lessons of dealing with a broken family but, again, it is a Disney movie after all. The joke made at the expense of Romanoff’s famous action pose is amusing the first time but is repeated until it isn’t funny anymore. A few of the action sequences are impressive and Johansson makes the best of this, though even Luc Besson’s bonkers but exhilarating Lucy (2014) was a better tailor-made vehicle.
There just isn’t enough snap here to put it in the category of the refreshingly different, risk taking Marvel films, which are the best in the franchise. I’m talking about Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy volumes 1 and 2 (2014 and 2017), Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013) and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018), all of which feel less like narrative placeholders and more like truly personal works. Black Widow is more satisfying than several Marvel titles, but it really should have been much better than that.