Black Widow is one of the most thrilling films in the entire MCU. It features bone-crunching fights, exotic locales, and a breathtaking battle amidst the clouds as Natasha dodges bullets and debris while freefalling towards the earth.
Despite Black Widow’s standout action sequences, this movie is never better than when its combustible team of heroes sit alone together, working through their family’s many hang-ups. Black Widow is a touching story of lonely souls aching for meaningful connections, spiced up with spy movie mainstays: car chases, cool gadgets, and mind control experiments.
Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), Yelena (Florence Pugh), Melina (Rachel Weisz), and Alexei (David Harbour) are four of the finest spies Russia ever produced. Back in the ‘90s, they were stationed together posing as an American family living in the United States. Once their cover is blown, they make a harrowing escape back to their homeland, where the family gets split up forever. The two children, Natasha and Yelena, are sent into the Red Room program and trained as Black Widow super spies, while Alexei is sent away to rot in an icy prison.
Skip ahead to the period between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, and the Avengers are no more. Natasha is a rogue agent on the run from the authorities for violating the Sokovia Accords. Natasha tries laying low until things calm down. However, this is the MCU, and a hero’s work is never done. Her former sister, Yelena, resurfaces and draws Natasha into another international crisis.
A Russian baddie named Dreykov (Ray Winstone) is using the Red Room program to mind-control a new generation of super spies to take over the world – or whatever it is megalomaniacs do. Natasha must team up with her former family if she has any chance of stopping Dreykov and his legion of Black Widows.
People criticize MCU movies for playing it safe and recycling the same ol’ action flick formula. That’s an argument I’ll shoot down another day. The MCU’s better titles (Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther) feel unique because they have their director’s fingerprints all over them. You can go ahead and add Black Widow director Cate Shortland to the MCU’s list of filmmaking auteurs. I can’t envision another filmmaker churning out an action epic that hits quite like Black Widow.
Every aspect of this film feels deeply considered. Everything from costume choices to character’s fighting styles reflects the film’s core themes in some way. For example, unlike Captain America, Natasha is physically disadvantaged against male combatants and must use guile to outsmart foes. Her first encounter with the armoured supervillain, the Taskmaster, isn’t a street fight so much as a battle of wits. Is it cool to watch? Hell yeah. Most importantly, these dazzling action sequences reveal these closed-off characters’ inner thoughts.
If you’re willing to engage this film beyond all the comic book movie flash and sizzle, there’s a lot to read into. This is a story about women having their voices suppressed by predatory men. It’s also a story where exceptional women are pitted against each other by a patriarchal figure – conditioned to tear one another down rather than build themselves up. Black Widow doesn’t beat you over the head with female empowerment themes, but these concepts are just as integral to the story as the film’s action sequences.
Don’t take this to mean that Black Widow takes itself too seriously either because it doesn’t. Not by a long shot. This film ranks right alongside the Fast and the Furious saga for off-the-charts ridiculousness-factor.
Shortland never forgets she’s creating a comic book movie and keeps things fast and loose. Black Widow nails the MCU’s signature blend of action and humour. Whenever Natasha, Yelena, Melina, and Alexei share the screen together, the film almost morphs into a sitcom.
The core cast is phenomenal, but it’s Pugh who steals scene after scene. It doesn’t take Pugh long to establish Yelena as one of the MCU’s standout female characters. Yelena doesn’t bite her tongue, kicks all kinds of ass, and has an odd love for dad-vests with way too many pockets. She’s destined to be a new fan favourite. I suspect we will be seeing a lot more of Yelena Belova in the MCU.
There’s a notable scene during Avengers: Endgame’s climax when the movie rallies most of the MCU’s female characters into an all-woman hero shot. Though well-intentioned, the moment always rang hollow. After all, the MCU sidelined every badass chick in Marvel Comics for a decade before producing a film with a woman in the lead role. Black Widow is the first time the MCU has given a female hero their proper due (sorry Captain Marvel).
Shortland has crafted one of the better entries in the Marvel movie canon. Black Widow is a top-notch summer blockbuster that contains genuine moments of beauty. It’s full of standout characters, white-knuckle action scenes, and resonant themes often lacking in tent-pole films.