Black Widow (2021) provides a safe and steady set of hands to restore the MCU to a theatrical footing.

It’s become somewhat fashionable, it seems, to preface any review of Marvel’s BLACK WIDOW with some passing reference to it being about time or asking why it took so long for one of the most prominent and prolific Avengers to get her own solo movie. Whatever the reason, what struck me most strongly was that it simply wouldn’t have been possible to tell this story at the point at which it happens in MCU Continuity (somewhere just before the end of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR), just as the Infinity Saga was striking out in a decidedly cosmic direction. BLACK WIDOW returns the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a more grounded and ground-level adventure – or at least as grounded as things ever get for Marvel.

Black Widow Review

Opening in 1995 Ohio, we’re introduced to a Russian Sleeper cell in the form of a seemingly unremarkably prototypical nuclear family, ‘father’ Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), ‘mother’ Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), youngster Yelena Belova and a teenaged Natasha Romanoff just as their mission comes to an end in a desperate flight to Cuba. From there, the ‘parents’ head back to their duties while the children are separated and sent for training and reeducation in The Red Room, fountainhead of the Black Widow programme run by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Snapping back to the “present”, Natasha’s fugitive run is interrupted when a package arrives at her safe house, attracting the attention of Dreykov’s newest weapon, Taskmaster, and setting Natasha on a collision course with the darkest chapter of her past.

Where CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER delighted many at the time by bringing the flavour of a seventies political thriller to the action and adventure of the MCU, BLACK WIDOW sets out on a very similar mission, this time honing closer in tone and execution to the Bourne and more recent MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies, by way of the old school Bond style – the latter getting a nod in the form of MOONRAKER. There’s a harder edge to the action here, though, than anything Roger ever had to deal with and Natasha takes more of a beating here than she’s done in any of her previous outings.

There are elements of the story and the way it’s told which only really work because the audience has the foreknowledge of what is yet to come for Natasha and being aware of the events of AVENGERS: ENDGAME and beyond also dampen expectations of assistance from other characters in this globe-trotting but surprisingly contained adventure. Where BLACK WIDOW surprises is how much poignancy it manages to carry, despite the knowledge of what is to come. The introduction and exploration of Romanoff’s family and their divergent and convergent paths provides fertile ground for drama, conflict and humour. There’s an authenticity to the adoptive family’s relationship, particularly the ersatz sisterly bond between Natasha and Yelena (Florence Pugh). While there’s never any doubt this is Scarlett’s show, she’s confident and secure enough in her place in the Marvel pantheon that Florence Pugh gets ample opportunity to shine and stake her place in the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward, as do Weisz and Harbour even if the latter is often burdened with the duty of being the lumbering comic relief. With so much focus on, and so many, protagonists, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the antagonists aren’t particularly well developed or fleshed out. Taskmaster feels like a character that needed more action and more encounters with other MCU characters before coming into focus here and while Ray Winstone is decent star value as Dreykov, he feels very generically Russian General in a way that may actually be another homage to Roger Moore-era Bond movies.

Like many of the early Phase 4 productions, such as LOKI or WANDAVISION, BLACK WIDOW also ends up retrospectively providing deeper resonance to movies we’ve already seen. There’s a final confirmation of the very specific red in her ledger that haunts Natasha in AVENGERS ASSEMBLE and a surprisingly explicit backstory to Natasha’s wardrobe choices in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. It’ll also make you sad all over again by the time the credits have ended and the inevitable post-credit stinger has set up what will come next.

Action-packed, witty and more emotionally impactful than you might be expecting, BLACK WIDOW is a confident return to the theatrical environment for the world’s biggest franchise and the perfect springboard for a year that will see not one but two big introductory expansions to the MCU in SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS and ETERNALS plus a hotly anticipated third solo[?] outing for Tom Holland’s SPIDER-MAN in NO WAY HOME. There’s wiggle room, certainly, for a further outing for Johansson, thanks to a clunky and unsatisfying fade to black/ “Two Weeks Later” moment in the movie’s closing minutes and I’m honestly conflicted about whether or not it should happen or whether we should let her, like STARK, rest now and look to Yelena Belova for the future.

score 7