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I’d be lying if I didn’t say I rather missed that Marvel intro on the big screen. Once that music kicked in and the countless characters that have inhabited this universe flickered across those mighty six letters, it was a warm feeling. A feeling of normality slowly setting back in. And normality would set in over the proceeding two and a bit hours, as this was a Marvel movie, with the usual flaws in place but also those very welcome joys back too. Warning some spoilers lie ahead…
It’s fair to say that Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) has been long overdue her own film, and this should have landed a few years back, especially when you consider the character’s fate as it stands in Avengers: Infinity War. That said, while this kick off to Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe may not be a rulebook-tearing course-altering start to things to come, it is another entertaining ride for the studio and a fitting final ride for the title hero.
Set in the fallout of Captain America: Civil War, a shattered Avengers team leads to Romanoff relying on her contacts and ingenuity to stay out of the firing line. That is, until that line changes, and her past comes calling in the shape of her childhood sister figure Yelena (Florence Pugh), a former trained Black Widow herself, who tells Natasha that the insidious “Red Room”, in which they were both brainwashed and trained to kill and serve, is still in operation, as is its cruel ringleader Dreykov (Ray Winstone). But Yelena has a weapon that might turn the balance of this shadowy world, a formula that can free the Widow’s from their master’s control, but he will do anything to get it, including sending tech-heavy super soldier Taskmaster after them. They may need to call in on some old “family” to not only bring down the Red Room but to stay alive long enough to do so.
Opening in 1995, as a young Natasha and Yelena and their assigned family Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour) flee the American authorities, I thought I may have a new MCU favourite here! This film’s enthralling opening scene followed by Monster-Verse-esque opening credits, backed by a sterling Nirvana cover by Think Up Anger and Malia J, was admirably dark for the often brighter and breezier Marvel and chillingly set the tone for the story early on. From then, this spy action/thriller takes flight and the Bond-like agency spectacle is not lost on screenwriter Eric Pearson, who even slots in a Moonraker reference (points for that!). It moves pretty nicely, with some excellent fight sequences and well crafted set pieces, sadly atypical MCU problems set in, by way of a bombastic third act syndrome, serious villain issues and heavy handed themes in the latter third, that disrupts the momentum a bit.
Director Cate Shortland wisely makes the utmost use of her heroes, but the narrative does seem to run a little too untidy, as the film’s worthwhile statements about powerful men’s commodification of women gets very on the nose and sometimes comes at the expense of some other interesting story elements and characters. The biggest disappointment comes in villain Taskmaster, whose look was of some debate already, but there was a pre-release anti-buzz surrounding the character, maybe that is why the twist that comes does not derail things like it did – the already problematic – Iron Man 3 because something was expected, but it still feels like the film waste’s the character’s potential in this first screen outing, even if the twist fits in with the film’s message, so to that point it serves a purpose, and you have to applaud the effort, though I can see Marvel maybe doing a retcon down the line. Perhaps a whole new character created specifically for this task, may have been a smoother route to take. Also, while suitably venomous as the big bad, Winstone’s Russian accent does have its slip-ups.
These are not small problems by any means but what ensures that Black Widow remains an entertaining offering, is its lead heroes, as Marvel again show they are better equipped at handling the good than the evil. Johansson’s return to the part was as great as you would expect and the film allows her to blossom in terms of personality and charisma more than previous offerings, where she was slightly pushed to the side. We find out what happened in Budapest, we find out what Natasha was up to post-Civil War and her story cannot be denied its empowering nature, and it is gratifying seeing her put some of her ghosts to rest. Though, it is her Widow sisterhood and family which you’ll be remembering most, and the best parts of Shortland’s film are its poignant notes.
It is clear as day here that Florence Pugh’s Yelena has a MCU future because she practically steals the show here, with a funny and heartfelt performance, not to mention a kick-ass onscreen presence. She is just superb and irresistible as a character that flickers with charm and depth, and the time spent with her and Natasha are moments to savour. As are the moments with Weisz’s compassionate Widow Melina and Harbour’s slightly narcissistic bulking but barmy former super-soldier Alexei (aka Red Guardian). It brings to mind the chemistry of the Parr family in Pixar’s The Incredibles (there’s even a squash into your superset scene!) and it’s equally as relatable and endearing to watch. There is also a fun supporting turn by O-T Fagbenle as the film’s answer to Q of sorts as Rick Mason, and a rather wasted Olga Kurylenko in a very reduced role, to fill out the cast.
Come the post-credits scene (a set-up for a Disney+ series over a cinematic work I reckon), you see where the future is moving, as Black Widow is really a film that peacefully lays to rest parts of Marvel’s past. It has its problems but you cannot say that it is not, even during some of these flaws, an entertaining and confidently crafted blockbuster, which welcomes fans back to big screen Marvel, and comes with their usual comedic treats and superhero clashing trimmings. The fights are fun, the score thunders along accordingly and you have yourself a good time with a film that is not tip top Marvel but nor is it dull or lifeless either. As send offs go, Natasha can allow herself a smile at her final mission…at least we think.
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