An uncharacteristically small MCU film that is grounded and effective, with strong work from Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh.
After a two-year hiatus, Marvel roars back to the silver screen with its first Phase Four film: Black Widow. An almost singular film with its lack of interconnectedness to other MCU projects, director Cate Shortland has made a flawed, albeit fitting, spy-action send-off for Scarlett Johansson’s loved eponym.
Natasha Romanoff has been a crucial part of producer (or overlord) Kevin Feige’s mammoth cinematic comic-book tapestry. Johansson’s alarmingly attractive super assassin was first introduced in Iron Man 2 and is factually the only worthwhile talking point in that film. From there the character was used as a tomahawk of heroic femininity in the testosterone-soaked sausage fests that form the first two phases of the MCU. Her involvement with each Avenger was unique; ranging from friends, allies and romantic interests. Romanoff’s role in the universe culminated in her moving, and ultimately universe-saving, sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame. This therefore staled anticipation for her own standalone film.
The elephant in the room is that no matter how good this film is, it is years late. There was a nice spot in the summer of 2016 for this film to have come out, especially as Black Widow is set immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War (released May 2016). Feige did make a blunder there, but in the long term it slightly enhances this film. For once an MCU project feels isolated and intimate; sequels and future narratives are not alluded to whilst the new characters have a certain unpredictability to them, as they could die without affecting the MCU films set in the present. This should be called the ‘Rogue One effect’.
With the events of Civil War looming over Black Widow, it provides an easy reason why no other Avengers can get involved in the action. This instalment sees Romanoff reunite with her childhood family (consisting of Rachel Weisz, Florence Pugh and David Harbour), to take down Ray Winstone’s patriarchal Russian kingpin before he does bad stuff from the sky a lá every other Marvel villain. In Endgame it is remarked that Romanoff had no family except the Avengers, but this film details her other non-biological family and the conflict between them all. Indeed, “family” is chucked around so much in the dialogue it seemed likely that Groot would walk in, strip off his motion-capture suit and reveal a teary-eyed Vin Diesel.
Pugh and Harbour are terrific additions to the universe. Whilst not aiming for laughs like a Whedon or Gunn Marvel film, Harbour gets some relatively funny moments that keeps the tone from straying too far away from audience tastes, as well as injecting some fierce Russian patriotism. However, one unfortunate limitation to the MCU in recent projects is the scripts’ allusion to topical or profound real world issues without fully commenting on them: lines about hysterectomies and female objectification in Black Widow are either played off as jokes or are so fleeting it seems pointless to include them to begin with. This is the drawback of 12-rated ‘issue’ blockbusters.
The spy tone echoes The Winter Soldier, as well as the hand-to-hand fighting, chase sequences and enormous location cards. Visual and verbal references to James Bond, Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible ricochet around the camera; Romanoff quotes Moonraker whilst a European based rooftop foot-chase followed by a motorbike chase echoes Fallout. Another connection to that action film opus is musical composer Lorne Balfe, who provides a similarly propulsive score that turns prison breaks, avalanches and daring freefalls into gripping set-pieces. Marvel has always had a problem with flat action and dull scores, but Black Widow does a better than average job for a change, perhaps due to the large lack of superpowers within the ensemble for a change.
Several of the action beats do feel like missed opportunities for some practical stunts instead of computer trickery and invisible stunt-doubles, but then again we cannot expect all Hollywood stars to commit like Tom Cruise might have. Johansson is very much relishing what is presumably her swansong for playing Romanoff, giving an airtight performance with a nice passing of the baton implied.
Black Widow may not contain YouTube-worthy scenes or earth-shaking audience applause moments, and time will tell what the legacy of this film will be for the series, but as a standalone blockbuster it is a worthy cinema outing.
Black Widow is out in cinemas now and is also available to rent on Disney+.