If the Avengers movies are broadly about a ragtag family of superheroes finding comradeship while forging an allegiance against evil, Black Widow is about another kind of alternate family, messed up by deceptions and bitter betrayals before rediscovering trust in an onslaught of explosive situations. Directed by Cate Shortland with propulsive excitement, humor and pleasingly understated emotional interludes, this stand-alone proves a stellar vehicle for Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, given first-rate support by Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour. Shifting away from the superhero template into high-octane espionage thriller territory, it makes a far more satisfying female-driven MCU entry than the blandly bombastic Captain Marvel.
Scripted by Thor: Ragnarok co-writer Eric Pearson from a story by Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson, the plot is situated between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. But it’s also sufficiently self-contained to work for anyone who hasn’t been keeping up with the Marvel Industrial Complex. A post-credits recruitment scene with a surprise cameo from a major-name star seen in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier indicates possible future installments that will bring at least one key character here back into the SHIELD-adjacent fold.
Sisters are doing it for themselves.
The attention-grabbing opening sequence starts out like a Terrence Malick remembrance of sun-dappled childhood before igniting into a suspenseful escape scene that might have been lifted from The Americans. The young Natasha (Ever Anderson) is a tomboyish preteen with a mop of acid-blue dyed hair, tooling around on her bicycle in the leafy Ohio town where she lives with her family in 1995. Her 6-year-old sister, Yelena (Violet McGraw) scrapes her knee and gets comforting kisses from their mother, Melina (Weisz), who reminds both girls, “Your pain only makes you stronger.” But the tender family scene is shattered when father Alexei (Harbour) returns home with news that they need to make a hasty exit.
Narrowly evading authorities and a barrage of gunfire, they fly to Cuba, where their identities as Russian intelligence agents posing as an American family are revealed before they are separated. Alexei expresses relief that his three years of thankless undercover obscurity are over, finally allowing the “Red Guardian” to get back to the super-soldier duties for which he was trained. But his boss, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone, with a dodgy Russian accent), seems more interested in the feisty spirit of Natasha, who is fiercely protective of her kid sister.
Cut to 21 years later, when Natasha (Johansson) is a federal fugitive being hunted by a SWAT team under the direction of U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), forcing her to leave the country and go into hiding in remote Norway. Meanwhile, Yelena (Pugh), now a highly skilled assassin, is in Morocco, having defected from Dreykov’s ranks and removed a tracking device planted under her skin. She outmaneuvers the female kill squad sent to eliminate her and gets away with a case of vials containing an antidote to Dreykov’s chemical compound designed to inhibit free will.
The globe-hopping plot then shifts to Budapest, where Yelena is holed up in a safe house and has just enough time to get reacquainted with Natasha in their slam-bang style before an armored vehicle is chasing them through the city streets. The deadliest of Dreykov’s soldiers on their heels is a microchip-enabled mimic, programmed to replicate any fight skills, including those of the now-disbanded Avengers.
If all this sounds like a lot of overcomplicated plotting, well, it is. So it’s a welcome respite from the almost nonstop visceral action when Shortland pauses long enough to allow Natasha and Yelena to reestablish the frayed bonds of their non-biological sisterhood with some scenes of good-natured teasing, banter and rivalry. Somewhat jealous that Natasha is a hero to little girls while she remains in the shadows, Yelena has a take on her sister’s signature hair-toss pose that’s especially funny. But whether the narrative is in amped-up overdrive or idling, the director and her magnetic cast keep us fully invested in their cautious reconnection and their ability to survive a series of life-threatening encounters.
The personal stakes are heightened further still when Alexei and Melina reenter the picture, the first in a thrilling Russian prison breakout and the latter on an isolated farm where she’s testing Dreykov’s mind-control programs on hogs. Gradually, the pieces come together to reveal the nefarious puppet master’s Red Room training camp, where orphaned or abandoned young women from around the globe are transformed into his “Widows,” a kind of fembot army of blindly obedient killers. “I recycle trash and I give them a purpose,” says Dreykov. “I give them a life.”
It’s in the epic battle to take down Dreykov and destroy the off-the-radar Red Room location that the film goes beyond the mere appearance of female representation and becomes a narrative entirely shaped by the fearlessness, smarts and badassery of two young women determined to liberate legions of others from inhumane exploitation. (They even find time to get creative with braided hairstyles in between clashes.) The ultimate in patriarchal evil, Dreykov congratulates himself on his genius in utilizing the only resource the world has too much of — girls. His plan is to command the Widows to gain control over international centers of power.
There’s a sly nod early on to the outsize supervillain nature of his ambitions, when Natasha chills in her wilderness trailer in Norway watching the cheesy 1979 James Bond space entry, Moonraker. But what makes the script so appealing is the balance of espionage intrigue akin to the Bourne movies, hard-hitting physical action — with the emphasis on hand-to-hand combat over weaponry — and unconventional family dynamics.
Unanswered questions that have bounced around in the heads of Natasha and especially Yelena for two decades surface in charming scenes at Melina’s hog farm. Weisz plays the exchanges with frank honesty tinged with regret, while Harbour brings a goofy endearing quality to his tattoo-covered tough guy.
There’s genuine poignancy in Yelena’s struggle to believe that any part of the familial bond of her early life was real. The remarkable Pugh, who just keeps getting better and better, brings warmth and complexity to that internal conflict of a woman trained to think not emotionally but tactically yet unable to suppress her feelings. Her sparky chemistry with Johansson yields many lovely moments of resilient sisterhood. And while this isn’t quite a Natasha Romanoff origin story, it does dig deep enough into the character’s pre-Red Room history to expose the raw wounds of a stolen childhood, which Johansson plays with touching vulnerability. It’s to her credit, though, that while the film bears her character’s name, it’s very much an ensemble piece for the four leads.
On the craftsmanship side, Black Widow is top-notch, with muscular camerawork from Gabriel Beristain and a wonderful score by Lorne Balfe that ranges from gentle piano to high-intensity suspense and almost into the operatic as it incorporates stormy choral elements. The editing of the fight scenes is perhaps a touch too unrelentingly fast, often blurring the choreography, but the physical side never feels overwhelmed by CG enhancement.
The production represents a huge leap in scale for Shortland, who made her name with the intimately observed Somersault before segueing to the Holocaust drama Lore and the psychological abduction thriller Berlin Syndrome. Those features all explored the lives of young women with sensitivity and genuine curiosity, something the Australian director continues to do here, adding unexpectedly rich dimensions to a genre that often shows too little interest in character. The payoff with a woman filmmaker from way outside the action sphere stokes anticipation for Chloé Zhao’s Eternals.