Movies get delayed for all manner of reasons, but few feel as overdue as Black Widow. Not only was its release held back more than a year because of the pandemic, but its actual production was delayed far longer. Talks began more than a decade ago about giving the character a solo adventure, but Marvel head Kevin Feige always found reasons to hold off — until the character was killed off in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. What should have been purely celebratory is now somewhat bittersweet, but happily, Black Widow is also a terrifically entertaining good time.
Sisters Natasha and Yelena look like normal American kids in 1995 Ohio, but looks can be deceiving. Their “parents,” Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour), are actually Russian spies, and after being forced to flee back to the motherland the artificial family is broken up and sent their separate ways. Twenty-one years later, and the now-adult sisters are on the run again. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is being pursued by government officials for her role in the disruption of the Sokovia Accords and suspicion of involvement in the killing of Wakanda’s king. Yelena (Florence Pugh), meanwhile, is still part of the top-secret Widow program that Natasha escaped years prior, but she too heads into hiding after breaking free of the mind control used to ensure obedient assassins. The long-estranged siblings reunite and join forces to end both the program and the villainous man behind it.
Black Widow is being billed as a standalone movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but while that’s something of an oxymoron it’s also something worth celebrating even as it kicks off Phase Four. Add to that checklist the fact that it’s only the second MCU movie focused on a female hero and the first to be solo-directed by a woman — more long overdue stats for a franchise that’s twenty-four movies deep — and it’s easy to see the importance of what it represents. All of that aside, though, it’s also a highly entertaining ride and a somewhat poignant goodbye to one of the MCU’s more beloved characters.
Director Cate Shortland brings Natasha’s time between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018) to the screen with an eye for human beats both humorous and heartbreaking. And along with Marvel’s in-house second unit, she also helps deliver some solid action sequences. Much of the latter feels more grounded than many MCU entries (at least until the third-act set-piece) — think more Captain America than Iron Man — and that makes sense for the character. Natasha is a stylish brawler who relies more on her skills than on gadgets, and while we still get some comic book antics showing the expected disregard for physics we also see the physical toll that all that fighting takes on a human body.
Just because the Avengers are out of the picture doesn’t mean she’s fighting alone, though, as in addition to Yelena she also has the only parents she’s ever known right there by her side. The four make for a rather eccentric family, and while action is on their doorstep, the movie wisely makes time for the characters to reconnect, lick old emotional wounds, and find new bonds along the way. Harbour’s Alexei offers a comic relief of sorts as an out-of-shape has been talking up his glory days of battling Captain America while Weisz’s Melina takes a slightly more serious approach.
The standout, however, is Pugh, who not only steals every scene but who also makes it clear she’ll be a charismatic and punchy force to be reckoned with in the MCU going forward. Pugh and Johansson have fantastic chemistry, and she shares much of Natasha’s fighting style while displaying even more sass. Yelena’s riffing on her sister’s “hero pose” is funny stuff, but she’s equally affecting at times including a sequence where she describes how all of the widows received forced hysterectomies while under the control of Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and his Red Room.
It starts as a mildly humorous beat but finds weight in Pugh’s delivery, and it’s one of many script elements that speak to the movie’s female focus. “The only natural resource that the world has too much of — girls,” says Dreykov, and it’s as political a statement as the MCU has ever uttered. From the La Femme Nikita-like training that the widows endure to the sad truth of women being prevented from choosing their own paths in life, Black Widow puts female issues front and center without ever making it feel forced or preachy. The plot accompanying those themes feels small by MCU standards, but that simplicity is a refreshing change of pace for a franchise that’s too often about saving the world.
Black Widow will have fans grieving Natasha (and Johansson’s performance) all over again, and while her solo feature should have arrived years ago it’s a case of better late than never as the movie delivers one last hurrah for our favorite Russian ex-assassin. It’s a fun, warm, and thrilling goodbye and the most sincere blockbuster about the importance of family you’ll see all year.
Black Widow releases in theaters and on Disney+ (with Premier Access) on July 9th.