Natasha Romanoff may be dead in the MCU, but her solo big screen outing is worth a cinematic séance. Our film critic Travis Johnson checks in.
After Captain America: Civil War, but before The Avengers: Infinity War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run in Europe when she’s sucked back into her old life as a Russian superspy. Contacted by fellow Black Widow Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), she learns that the Black Widow program is still going and that the mastermind behind it, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), is not as dead as she thought – which is weird, since she was pretty sure she killed him.
Tash resolves to take down Dreykov and the Black Widow program once and for all. In practical terms, this means busting former Soviet superhero Red Guardian/Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) out of prison and finding retired Widow Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz). This isn’t just a case of recruiting old allies, though; back in the day the four of them were sleeper agents posing as an American family, and old relationships and grudges are still very much alive.
Director Cate Shortland is known for being a) Australian and b) making pretty downbeat dramas like Somersault (2004), Lore (2012), and Berlin Syndrome (2017), so it’s a bit odd to find her calling the shots on a big ol’ Marvel tentpole. At first taste, anyway; Black Widow is a much more grounded, street-level kind of affair than the high-flying, universe-shaking antics we’ve grown accustomed to, and Shortland’s character-first approach is a good fit for the material. Action fans shouldn’t worry; you get enough big beats to keep you happy, but the real interesting stuff here is thematic.
Indeed, the best point of comparison is the Jason Bourne series, wherein Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin must both evade his former leash-holders and face up to the wrongs he’s committed as a staggeringly lethal deniable asset. ScarJo’s Black Widow is in the same boat, minus the memory loss; indeed, she wishes she could forget that, in trying to take Dreykov off the board, she blew up his tween daughter and considered it a reasonable price to pay. She has, as the film reminds us at several points, a lot of red in her ledger. Can she ever balance the books?
The film also has a lot to say about the way women are commodified. Here it’s in the service of the State – all the Black Widows are women who are trained and brainwashed to be Dreykov’s personal covert army – but it’s easy to see the parallels with human trafficking and the international sex trade, especially given the film’s Eastern European, post-Soviet flavouring. Strip out the superhero antics and action choreography, and the battle that’s really being fought here is for self-determination, identity, and…family.
”Chosen family” is one of those themes that is irresistible to me, especially if that family is near-hopelessly dysfunctional but still better than the alternative. Here we get one for the books, with Tash suddenly lumbered with a boorish, boisterous father figure, a distant, distracted mother, and a bratty little sister. The cast are across-the-board great, with Pugh the clear MVP (impressive considering the other contenders) – there’s a dinner table scene where she knocks back a shot of vodka to hide her embarrassment at Harbour and Weisz’s flirting that is laugh out loud funny, but she also holds up her end of the emotional weight with assurance.
Indeed, it’s when Black Widow has to go “Marvel big” that it falters, although not to a degree that completely derails it. It’s just that, well, the big action climax onboard a high-tech flying base? We’ve seen that before. The film is much more comfortable and confident when it’s lurking in the shadows, flitting from safe house to safe house, and dealing with shady ex-spies and black marketeers. When the showcase spectacle starts, there’s almost an audible clunk as the gears shift and the second unit takes over.
But perhaps that’s simply the trade-off for a good Black Widow movie, one that is more interested in character and moral quandaries than superheroic posturing (Pugh’s Yelena takes Johansson’s Natasha to task for some of her more on-the-nose action flexing with the Avengers). Much like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, having a female director calling the shots makes for a very different visual experience – compare the somewhat lascivious way Johansson is shot in Iron Man 2 with her depiction here. For her part, Johansson is great in the role, and it’s clear that she’s relishing getting to do some real acting work as the character, grappling with ethical issues and traumas that previously had only been alluded to. It seems that this will be her last outing as the character (still, never say never in MCU), but at least she’s getting to go out on a high note.