Given how dominant and ubiquitous Marvel movies and TV shows have become in our pop culture, it would be easy enough to roll your eyes and go, “Ugh, another one.”
But it’s been two years since the most recent Marvel big-screen outing, when Spider-Man: Far From Home closed out the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Three, hot on the heels of the record-breaking all-in action fest that was Avengers: Endgame.
With its original April 2020 release date put off multiple times by the pandemic, fans have been waiting for Black Widow for a while – even longer if you consider that many have been clamouring for a stand-alone Natasha Romanoff movie since the character’s debut in Iron Man 2 back in 2010.
It took Marvel far too many years to get behind a female superhero-fronted movie – not until some personnel changes at the top – which is why it’s taken 11 years for Black Widow to finally be splashed across the screen.
Was it worth the wait? Yes. Mostly.
Set in the time between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow sees Natasha on the run from the authorities, forced apart from her superhero family.
Plans to stay hidden go awry when her past catches up to her – her fake Russian spy family (a la The Americans) who she was posted in the US with for two years as a child (portrayed by Milla Jovovich’s daughter Ever Anderson, who is a dead ringer for both Jovovich and baby ScarJo).
Family ties, even fake ones, don’t break easily.
The reunion with fake sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), fake dad Alexei (David Harbour) and fake mum Melina (Rachel Weisz) put them straight on a collision path with the Red Room, the brutal assassin program which trained Natasha as a Black Widow.
Like most superhero epics, Black Widow went too hard in the third act with an over-the-top action sequence involving enormous set pieces that threatened to overwhelm the more intimate character work that preceded it, but it’s pretty much a given that’s going to happen.
It’s forgiven though because Australian director Cate Shortland brings a light touch to a film that, above all, is trying to tell the story of Natasha and not just how high she can kick.
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That’s made all the easier when you have someone like Scarlett Johansson who is, it must be said, not just a Marvel star but an actor who has been turning in thoughtful performances since breaking through as a child actor in The Horse Whisperer almost 25 years ago.
When you have that kind of power fuelling the emotional drama, you can place a lot more emphasis on key character moments and interactions than other Marvel movies have been able to muster.
MCU films such as Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy are funny, adventurous romps, but they don’t have the gravitas that Johansson and her Black Widow co-stars Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour can bring to a scene – although to be fair to Tessa Thompson, she hasn’t been given the opportunity to showcase her dramatic chops in the MCU yet.
Watching the four of them working a scene in which they must balance old resentments and current mistrust with the suppressed joy of being reunited is enthralling. You never forget how good these actors are, and how great Shortland is in eliciting and capturing these performances, often in handheld close-ups.
Johansson and Pugh nail the bickering dynamic of sisters and there’s a lot of fun, goofy dialogue between them, while Harbour as the beleaguered and overlooked Red Guardian unleashes that sense of play we know he’s great at.
That’s the real heart of Black Widow, not the fights and thrills – though there are some very tight action sequences before it becomes stratospherically silly.
Shortland has layered in visual references to many action and spy movies – including a nod to John Woo’s love of doves, Bond’s love of sliding down escalator railings and Charlize Theron’s down-and-dirty hand-to-hand in Atomic Blonde, not to mention its MCU predecessor Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Before it hits those final act problems, Black Widow is an impressive balance between family drama and spy thriller – and one of the emotionally stronger entries in the Marvel pantheon, worthy of Natasha Romanoff.
Black Widow is in cinemas from July 8 (with previews on July 7) and on Disney+ Premier Access ($34.99) from July 9
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Originally published as 11-year wait for massive movie