My girls are toughest girls in the world.
After breaking the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from Secretary of State “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt). Hoping to stay hidden, Natasha is suddenly thrown back into the clandestine spy world she’s tried to put behind her for so long. After discovering the continuation of Russia’s Red Room program that turned her into the deadly Black Widow and its supposed deceased creator, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), she reunites her estranged family to help her destroy them once and for all; assassin sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), super soldier father Alexei aka Red Guardian (David Harbour), and brilliant scientist mother, and one of the original Black Widows, Melina (Rachel Weisz).
It’s been nearly two years since our last MCU film, Spider Man: Far From Home, but Black Widow throws us back into action with Avengers levels of excitement, even if it takes place a few films back. Set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow shows us some of the most vulnerable moments of Natasha’s life. Despite taking place near the end of the Infinity Saga, it carefully lays out Natasha’s past before joining SHIELD, and her assassination of Dreykov and his daughter in Budapest, the act that cemented her defection to SHIELD and that still haunts her to this day. The action is fun and there is plenty of spectacle, but at its heart, this film is about those moments of Natasha’s past as she figures out how to deal with her present circumstances of fixing both her Avengers family and her childhood family of Russian super sleeper agents.
The film’s best moments are when the Romanoffs are together, easily falling back into the rhythm of annoying sisters and awkward parents. Johansson as Natasha falling into the role of the overprotective big sister to an annoying little sister is a delight, and Weisz is as usual fantastic as Melina, the matter-of-fact mom who just accepts the family’s eccentricities. Between that mother and daughter duo, they could take on the world. However, it’s Pugh’s punk phase younger sister and Harbour’s boisterous, family black sheep dad who steal the show. While Nat and Melina focus on saving the world, it’s Alexei and Yelena who are usually in the background carrying the films’s comedy and drama in equal measure, trying to accept themselves for who they are and how they fit in this unconventional family. Seeing just how quickly and fully the Romanoffs come together again offers some insight into the Natasha we see in Endgame, the overprotective mom of the Avengers who is willing to give her life not just to save her friends or Clint’s family, but probably her own who may have been snapped away.
Despite the strength and development of the Romanoffs, Black Widow falls short in not realizing their full potential outside the family setting, and other characters as well. Alexei as Red Guardian, a self described rival to Captain America (though it’s unclear if they ever actually met) is mostly used as comic relief. Though he is very funny, he’s also a super soldier who rarely gets to flex his muscles. His big fight at the end with Taskmaster, one of the film’s big villains, is brief and unimpressive. Even Taskmaster as a big bad is underutilized, only showing off a few mimicked iconic moves from other Avengers, and the big reveal of their identity is hardly a surprise. While Natasha obviously gets the most action time in the film, it’s nothing we haven’t already seen in other Avengers films, and the final confrontation is less action or intrigue and more a standard toxic masculine villain defeated because of their monologuing.
Black Widow is also an unfortunate victim of Covid. Pushed back over and over again for over a year, and then being the first MCU film post-pandemic, there were high expectations that it just couldn’t live up to. While we’ve gotten three great MCU shows via Disney+, a new MCU film carries much more weight after 13 years of filling movie theatres two or three times a year. Sitting down in your living room to watch this new movie just isn’t the same, and that is a significant feeling. Of course this isn’t Black Widow’s fault, but simply a casualty of the situation we find ourselves in.
Black Widow is a fun addition to the MCU, and it’s best moments come from the complexity of the Romanoff family rather than the spy action we’re so accustomed to from Natasha. Despite its flaws, it’s good to be back watching MCU films again, and I’m looking forward to what Phase Four has in store.