Black Widow was primed to be a contentious movie, even before the COVID-19 pandemic delayed its release for over a year. Ignoring the usual hemming and hawing from Certain Groups claiming that action-movies with female leads are doomed to failure and that nobody cares about superheroines, there was a sizeable group of people who claimed that Marvel Studios was looking to its past by filming a movie devoted to a hero who had been a supporting player in so many other movies, set outside of the progressive sequence of Marvel Comics movies to date. Throw in the Scarlet Johansson anti-fans and the critics who just plain hate superheroes and/or Marvel and there were a lot of people banking on this movie to be a failure.
Unfortunately for them all, but fortunately for the rest of us, Black Widow proves to be all that we’d hoped for and well worth the wait.
The film’s opening sequence introduces us to Natasha Romanoff at a tween and gives us some insight into her past and how she was raised in the United States by two Russian sleeper agents posing as husband (David Harbour) and wife (Rachel Weisz). Flash forward to just after the end of Captain America: Civil War, where a brief scene explains how Natasha was once a member of the Avengers, but is currently on the run after siding with the faction that decided to fight against the Sokovia Accords regulating superhero vigilantes. This exposition for those who need to know when the movie is set in relation to other Marvel Studios films passes quickly enough amid some interesting action sequences, before we get to the meat of the movie.
The actual plot centers around Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) – another one of the “Widows” trained by the Red Room program devised by the KGB to create an elite corps of assassins. Yelena was raised alongside Natasha, posing as her younger sister, but remained loyal to her handlers until recently, after being exposed to a McGuffin that undoes the brainwashing all Widows undergo. This leads her to reach out to the older sister she hasn’t seen in years, hoping she might help her to shut down the Red Room once and for all, free all the other women the program has enslaved over the years and kill Dreykov. the man behind the Red Room.
The direction by Cate Shortland is suitably intense and the screenplay by Eric Pearson manages a fine balancing act between being accessible to newcomers who might just want to see an action movie without all the superhero trappings and MCU devotees who will want to see a number of nods to the larger universe. (This isn’t surprising, as Pearson was also responsible for the script for Thor: Ragnarok.)
The ensemble all work well together, with David Harbour standing out as Natasha’s foster father. Yet there is a certain sense of melancholy to the film given that we know we won’t get to see Natasha and her first family together again due to her inescapable fate in Avengers: Endgame. Thankfully, the film does a lot to repair Natasha’s treatment in earlier MCU films, making the movie into a satisfying coda for her life, even if she honestly should have gotten a solo film detailing her past and her personality a lot sooner.
It spoils little to reveal that there is a post-credits scene but it should be said that you should probably be caught up on your Disney+ viewing for it to be fully appreciated. While this scene was meant to be seen before The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, I think it honestly works better for setting up what comes next if you’ve seen that show. Beyond that, however, Black Widow is a satisfying film on every front.