Note: This review includes an unavoidable spoiler for a major plot point of “Avengers: Endgame.”
After more than a decade as a member of the Avengers ensemble and an extra year of pandemic related delay, Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow finally has her own solo film. Part origin story, part side quest, “Black Widow” fills in much of the blanks in the Soviet spy turned Shield operative’s past and introduces a few new spin off characters.
“Black Widow” begins in a mid-90s suburb, where a seemingly normal family must make a sudden escape to Cuba where the two daughters are given to a mysterious organization called The Red Room. The audience rejoins Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) as an adult super-spy, on the run following the events of “Captain America: Civil War.” Her plans for a long retreat from society are foiled by a mysterious package arriving from Budapest, forcing her to reunite her “family” of spies and confront the demons of her past.
While Marvel has had a banner year for mini-series on Disney+, “Black Widow” is the first Marvel movie released in theaters since “Spiderman: Far From Home” more than two years ago. This was the first film I have seen on the big screen in more than a year, and “Black Widow” was a great way to return to the theater. It is not a perfect work, and it carries forward two of my least favorite threads from “Avengers: Endgame,” but it is an incredibly satisfying action movie with a lot of humor, heart and punching.
The new additions to the Black Widow extended universe are Natasha’s younger “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), and her once “parents” Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour).
What makes this film sing is the dynamic between Natasha and Yelena. Florence Pugh’s newly liberated Yelena is an excellent counterpoint to Natasha: sassy when Natasha is melodramatic, realistic where Natasha is heroic, and honest where Natasha is dismissive. Rachel Weisz’s Melina is a straight forward behavioral scientist unimpressed by Alexei’s showboating.
A minor quibble I have with this movie is its refusal to Google simple Russian naming conventions. Why are Natasha and Melina’s names Anglicized (-ov to -off) but Yelena and Alexei’s are not? Why does Yelena have the correct feminine -ova, but Natasha and Melina do not? The MCU has grossed over $22 billion at the box office, but this film still goes for some exceptionally cheap gags, primarily through Alexei aka The Red Guardian. His character is a holdover of cartoonish Soviet parodies, and (disappointingly) he carries on the “Fat Thor” trope from “Avengers: Endgame.”
While these new main players are overall very successful, there is a sense of missed potential from the background cast of the film, particularly the other Widows of The Red Room and the Taskmaster. Casting for the Widows is extremely diverse, but for the bulk of the film they have no speaking lines and no agency. There is a version of this film with an exceptional kick-ass team of vengeance hungry super spies that you get the briefest glimpse of in the third act. While this generally is just a sense of undiscovered potential, there are scenes of violence in this that are significantly more uncomfortable than what is typical of the MCU, particularly in the case of a death whose imagery foreshadow’s Natasha’s own demise in “Avengers: Endgame.”
“Black Widow” is truly a good Marvel movie, with just enough hints at greatness to leave you wondering what could have been. But it is overall an extremely fun Summer action film. If theaters near you are safe to revisit, I would recommend seeing it on the big screen, but it is also available to stream at home on Disney+ with Premiere Access starting July 9.