In recent years, Hollywood has taken a renewed interest in Russia, specifically as a threat to the US. The latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) continues this pattern, following the trend of such films as “The Sum of All Fears,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” “Salt” and the TV series “The Americans.” The last two are particularly relevant for the opening sequence of Black Widow, which takes place in Ohio in 1995 and provides an origin story for Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, “Jojo Rabbit”). From there we flash forward to 2016 and the aftermath of “Captain America: Civil War,” with Romanoff on the run and, as you might expect, several steps ahead of her pursuers. Chief among them is William Hurt as Secretary Ross, and his presence ties the film to the wider MCU. For the most part, however, Cate Shortland’s film is a tighter affair than the more sprawling entries despite the globetrotting that includes Morocco, Norway, Budapest (finally we find out what happened there) and some secret locations in Russia.
Filling in some of the space between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” Black Widow follows Natasha as she goes back into her past, including her procurer Mason (an amusing O-T Fagbenle, “The Handmaid’s Tale” TV series), Russian spymaster nemesis Dreykov (Ray Winstone, “King of Thieves”) and, most importantly, the surrogate family that she reconnects with. The introductions of these characters allow for some great dynamics and set pieces as well as deep emotional beats. As Alexei/Red Guardian, the former Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America, David Harbour (“Extraction”) is a hoot, his disgruntled but big-hearted super-soldier providing as much charm as he does brute strength. Rachel Weisz (“The Favourite”) balances resolve and warmth as Melina, fond of family but committed to her mission, even as that mission changes.
The standout performance of the film is that of Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova, Natasha’s “sister.” Amidst the plot machinations and bombastic carnage, Pugh emerges with all the star power she has demonstrated since “The Falling” and “Lady Macbeth” and through “Fighting With My Family,” “Midsommar” and her Oscar-nominated turn in “Little Women.” Yelena is tough but displays a sense of fun, embittered but still has heart. The interplay between her and Natasha is warm and spiky, and the post-credits scene indicates that we will see more of her. In the action sequences, Pugh and her stunt double Michaela Mcallister prove themselves equal to Johansson and her double Heidi Moneymaker, as well as the other combating figures around them.
The action is worth noting because the majority of characters here have no super abilities. The super strength of one character receives little emphasis and the physical drama is more a matter of skills. This is pleasing because, for all its grand scale digital scenery, the MCU has always maintained a physicality that is certainly on display here, with kick-ass action with genuine heft and impact. Blows hurt, injuries are evident, physical prowess is a spectacular display. Also in keeping with the Marvel brand, screenwriter Eric Pearson provides ample humor, including a weird sequence involving pigs as well as knowing references to “Moonraker” and Natasha’s pose that both looks amazing and is acknowledged as being impractical. Such nods to the audience are not overplayed and add rather than detract from the viewer’s engagement.
Where Black Widow does falter is in other areas. The super spy outfits really stick out and leave you wondering how these secret operatives are supposed to blend in. There is a tired “You killed my mother!” plot thread that we have seen in movies from 2011’s “X-Men: First Class” to the recent “Cruella,” which takes away from the more altruistic motivations of our heroes. In addition, the combination of a recognizable name in the opening credits and a masked figure unfortunately spoils what is ostensibly a reveal.
Perhaps most gratingly, and as with many a mainstream movie, Black Widow has a fear of subtitles and the characters mostly speak English with Russian accents, even though everyone is ostensibly Russian. Accents sometimes slip and at times you wonder if Ray Winstone is really trying, while the one performer actually from that part of the world does not speak. The lack of non-English dialogue seems lazy and could have been explained, perhaps the characters avoid speaking Russian because of their trauma, which is hinted at without being too strong for a family friendly film with mass appeal.
The mass appeal does point to the ongoing potential of an established franchise like the MCU to explore issues and challenge a status quo. Perhaps unsurprisingly for Marvel’s first film with a solo female director (“Captain Marvel” had co-directors), the issues here relate to gender. The principal antagonist’s weaponization of misogyny points to wider social (and cinematic) patterns of men who use women. While far from being as hard-hitting as, say, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (Noomi Rapace would have been a great alternative Romanoff), Black Widow does engage with patriarchal contempt for women, especially girls, and how this contempt manifests. There is little grandstanding but the critique of patriarchy is clear, including the complicity of some women while powerful men think nothing of treating women and animals as something to be experimented on and controlled. Set against the basic human goodness of Natasha (for all the talk of red in her ledger, we know she’s a good person), Shortland highlights that such patriarchy must be (literally) brought down.
For all its spectacular set pieces including rooftop chases, helicopter prison breaks and freefall battles, the best clash in Black Widow may be a discussion about female anatomy, a discussion that freaks out a man accustomed to violence and assassination, while the women talk openly about matters that are often taboo. It is tempting to say that in the hands of a male director, this discussion would have been very different (see “Avengers: Age of Ultron” for a much cruder treatment of the same topic). Shortland succeeds in making a point about the female experience without beating a drum about it. Hopefully the MCU will continue to normalize such content and material, meaning that while Romanoff may have signed off, her ultimate legacy can be greater inclusivity.