For the kick-off to Phase Four and their first movie to hit cinemas after an enforced two-year Covid break, Marvel are atypically giving us a prequel in the shape of Natasha Romanoff aka: Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson)’s sorely overdue solo movie.
The opening introduces us to Natasha as a teenager, living in 1990s suburban Ohio with her “parents” (Rachel Weisz and David Harbour) and “sister” Yelena. We’re quickly informed that they’re in fact deep-cover Russian sleeper agents, who have to leave the US quick sharp because the mission is over and their cover has been blown. On ‘safer’ grounds back in the motherland, both Natasha and Yelena are separated from their cover-family and sent to the Red Room, the place where Black Widow agents are trained and brainwashed. Fast forward 21 years to Natasha, still on the run following the events of Captain America: Civil War – as the action of Black Widow taking place between the 2016 film and 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. When she receives a message from Yelena (Florence Pugh), Natasha will not only have to face her past but also go head-to-head with Taskmaster, a Skeletor-looking Red Room assassin who can mimic any opponent’s fight styles.
Aussie director Cate Shortland makes history as Marvel’s first female solo director and sadly, she’s been burdened with the unenviable task of looking back instead of moving forward. Natasha’s dark past was always alluded to in previous MCU films and Black Widow’s mission is to tie up loose ends. The question is: Were they that loose in the first place, and considering Natasha’s untimely demise in Avengers: Endgame, why now? Indeed, as entertaining as this 24th film in the MCU canon undoubtedly is, it never fully justifies its baffling timing and doesn’t feature any mind-blowing rug-pulls that could make up for it. There’s simply no escaping the fact that the film undermines the impact of an emotional farewell, is largely devoid jeopardy, and ends up feeling like a prequel to a story that’s already ended.
Not that there aren’t positives. The first (darker and far superior) half feels like a cross between The Americans and the Jason Bourne films, and it works wonders: gone are the intergalactic, planet-exploding shenanigans of the last Avengers films, replaced with something more akin to the espionage thrills of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And then there’s Florence Pugh, who is without a doubt Black Widow’s standout performer. She holds her own in the fight scenes and the verbal sparring matches between her character and Johansson’s are a highlight; keeping Pugh on the Marvel payroll for the next few phases of the MCU should be Marvel’s top priority. It’s just a crying shame that Johansson, who was always more than capable of carrying her own movie, ends up overshadowed by Pugh and is lumped with an overly familiar crash-bang-wallop finale. As such, its shrug of an ending means that the lasting impression is that of a strangely flat addendum rather than a fitting curtain call.
Black Widow / Directed by Cate Shortland (US, 2021), with Scarlet Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour. Starts July 8.