Review: 'Black Widow' (2021) Dir. Cate Shortland
In development limbo for over a decade, and then delayed by over a year in 2020, the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally gets the chance to explore it's very own Black Widow story...
Following the Leipzig Airport confrontation between Captain America and Iron Man, and the resulting fallout of the Sokovia Accords, Avenger Black Widow Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) is on the run from the US Government.
Sent a mysterious mind-control toxin by former Widow Yelena Belova (Pugh) as a cry for help, Natasha unites with her in Budapest and learns that the ones behind the Black Widow unit are hunting Yelena to silence her due to the toxins she carries.
Coming to terms with her past and the people who changed her life for better and worse, Natasha must help Yelena stay alive and stop the ones behind the "Red Room" Black Widow programme before they pose a new threat to the free world...
Teased in 2010s Iron Man 2, expanded on in 2016s Captain America: Civil War and leading the charge in 2019s Avengers: Endgame, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow has been denied the change to have her own spin-off movie for many years, despite her popularity and MCU appeal. Yet now after a series of unfortunate delays, the Black Widow is back as the first Marvel movie in two years that has been too long for many fans dependent on recent TV shows offering a glimpse of the action and spectacle they miss on the big screen.
Relative newcomer to the industry and the MCU itself is director Cate Shortland who leads a strong cast of females that happily equal the males for a story Black Widow - or rather Natasha - finally deserves. After a blistering opening sequence that has all the exciting MCU trademarks of action and intrigue via flashbacks, nods to existing lore and life or death choices, there's a familiar thrill you can't help but have missed from these summer popcorn blockbusters presented in the comfort of the Kevin Feige superhero blanket.
We are given the chance to now understand how Natasha became the super spy / assassin we were introduced to years ago. Thanks to the introduction of new characters including Ray Winstone as 'Red Room' programme leader General Dreykov, David Harbour's scene stealing Red Guardian and O-T Fagbenle as S.H.I.E.L.D operative Rick Mason, the relationships that are forged from this new line-up help add some meat to the bones and give others the platform they need to progress the story.
Set just after the events of Civil War, this gives audiences the chance to slip into an established era of Natasha's life with understanding of her current predicament. Being a half espionage / half adventure story, we globetrot from locations including Cuba, Norway, and, of course, Budapest (Budapescht).
Johansson never falters in her portrayal as Natasha, balancing the reckless loner with the warmth of one who has a (dysfunctional) family to fight for, even when her world seems to be falling apart. This is a celebration of not just Johansson's role, but also a story that deserved to be told with a host solid talent to help her including co-star Florence Pugh as former Widow and Natasha's only friend Yelena. Pugh has a wealth of confidence to hold her own against Johansson as an equal, and delivers on all fronts, not just as a "side-kick".
Johansson, Pugh, Harbour and Rachel Weisz's mother-figure Melina have great chemistry together and play-off each other perfectly as that dysfunctional family Natasha called her own before the Avengers came along. It all helps build her character pre and post Civil War.
This is a role ScarJo was born to play, and even though her current arc ended with Endgame, this offers a whole new light on her story and lets her continue her inimitable portrayal with brains and brawn.
But she's not just on the run from the US Government. Natasha and Yelena must to contend with a host of Black Widows who make Charlie's Angels look like girl-scouts AND new villain Taskmaster out to protect a deadly and dangerous mind-control toxin. The masked Taskmaster is a silent assassin and a composite of all existing Avengers in terms of fighting style; basically Cap, Black Panther, Stark, Hawkeye and others rolled into one. What this rather under-used villain is protecting is the "Red Room" programme itself and those who operate it. While this is all a welcome window into the once unknown world of our Natasha, Taskmaster doesn't really feel they live up to the potential of what they could be. But, as is the way with many throwaway MCU villains who come and go.
One thing that stands out is the action. We have a few of the big CGI sequences to be expected, breaking the laws of physics for spectacle, but this is grounded by the practical hand-to-hand combat and stunt work. Be it with feet on the ground or cars and bikes racing through busy streets, the stunt team excel. Fights feel and look like they hurt and there is raw brutality that lends itself to the notion of what the Black Widows are, and this isn't lost. Fighting to survive and fighting to kill.
Comparing this to a James Bond espionage mission blended with Mission: Impossible flair is accurate. There is a lot of save the world moments and big set-pieces that could be lifted from either franchise, but are here wrapped up in the Marvel bow - less of the fantasy / superhero genre and more of the action / adventure.
The humour, heart and drama is well balanced with natural deliveries from all and never undercutting the bigger scenes at the expensive of a laugh. With such a emotive story about family looking to the past and the future, this is more focused storytelling from Marvel on a big scale with elaborate sets, an exciting score, great performances, stylish cinematography and slick execution.
Keep an eye and ear out also for some wonderful nudges and winks to MCU talking points such as Natasha's "hero pose", Captain America's history with the Red Guardian and the fan favourite Hawkeye incident.
A well overdue but well deserved story for Black Widow, and a return to big blockbuster MCU cinema. And any Avenger who loves a Roger Moore James Bond film is definitely worth investing in!
'Black Widow' is a Marvel Studios production