Two long years have passed since Marvel Studios released their last feature-length picture in cinemas; in that time, our world has seen many drastic changes, some of which have been for the better. There is one thing that a global pandemic apparently cannot alter though, and that’s the well-worn formula of a Marvel blockbuster, a fact that isn’t necessarily bad.
Former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has gone into hiding after the acrimonious disbanding of the Avengers. At her safehouse in rural Norway, she receives a package containing vials of a mysterious red substance, and a photograph from her childhood. It’s not clear to Natasha why these objects are in her possession, but it is clear that someone is willing to kill for them – a nameless, metal-clad figure who can anticipate Natasha’s every move.
After evading this mysterious entity, Natasha traces the package back to the Hungarian capital of Budapest, where she meets with the sender: Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a Russian assassin and Natasha’s one-time surrogate sister. Yelena too is currently hiding from the very organisation that once employed her, and views Natasha as the only person she can trust (albeit rather tenuously) to help her evade capture.
Black Widow is a bit of an anachronism in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the 24th instalment heralds the beginning of a new Phase and Saga in the long-running franchise, introducing characters who will likely play a key role in future stories; yet it’s also a film that ties itself heavily to the past, taking place several years before the events of Avengers: Endgame and drawing upon the motifs of other Marvel blockbusters. As a result, it seems as though the picture is in a continuous state of limbo, unsure as to whether it can go forwards or backwards.
The film that Black Widow arguably takes the most influence from is The Winter Soldier, as evidenced in the action sequences. Most of these scenes involve close-quarters combat and are entertaining enough, but the intensity is marred by the fast pacing and shaky camerawork, ultimately leaving the viewer in a state of confusion. Of all the sequences, it’s a car chase through the streets of Budapest that impresses most, drawing comparisons with the ambush of Nick Fury in Winter Soldier and the vehicular pursuits in John Frankenheimer’s Ronin.
When not endlessly referencing the previous Marvel films, Black Widow does offer virtues of its own, including a greater insight into Natasha’s character. Her dark, complicated past is directly acknowledged here rather than hinted at, providing Romanoff with two attributes that before were sorely lacking: an intriguing backstory, and an understanding of what motivates the heroine. As a result, the screenplay has given Romanoff far more development than any other picture in the MCU to date.
Natasha isn’t the only female protagonist with nuance, since Black Widow has provided an equal in the form of Yelena. Headstrong, gruff and somewhat aloof, Yelena’s personality is the antithesis of Romanoff; yet in all other areas, the two couldn’t be more alike, with the younger Widow matching her older counterpart for strength, resourcefulness and agility, while also possessing a similarly murky history. And thanks to a delightful turn from Florence Pugh, Yelena’s snarky manner never comes across as irritating in the slightest.
Despite all this, Ms Pugh must settle for being the second-most compelling newcomer to the MCU, as the character who impresses most is Alexei Shostakov, a.k.a. the Red Guardian, a former Soviet agent imbued with super-strength. The role is played with great enthusiasm by David Harbour, whose rugged, menacing physique masks a warm, eccentric persona, one that makes him an indelible delight. So loveable is Alexei that he deserves a blockbuster of his very own, or a supporting role in a future Marvel instalment at the very least.
Pity the same cannot be said of Black Widow’s villain, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) who joins the ranks of the MCU’s many, many boring adversaries. This man is not the least bit sinister in either appearance or manner, has no readily definable traits and worst of all, possesses a Russian accent that is about as convincing as Winstone’s Bostonian accent in The Departed. It’s an abysmal effort, and one that shouldn’t be tolerated from Marvel Studios given their recent output.
Bland antagonist and familiar tropes aside, Black Widow is as satisfying as any other blockbuster in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Exemplary stunt-work, well-rounded protagonists, and confident performances from Pugh and Harbour are what hold the picture together, being enough to ensure it as a movie worth seeing.