It’s about time.
After her debut in “Iron Man 2” in a slinky, low-cut catsuit, Natasha Romanoff, or Black Widow, (Scarlett Johansson) has finally stepped out of her role as a supportive superhero-but-essentially-sidekick and into a fully-fledged protagonist in the summer blockbuster “Black Widow.”
Directed by Cate Shortland, “Black Widow” retreats back into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, timeline. The bulk of the story takes place immediately after “Captain America: Civil War,” when Natasha lives in hiding as a fugitive, her found family fighting and fractured.
The film sheds light on Natasha’s childhood, opening with an idyllic shot of 1995 Ohio as young Natasha (Ever Anderson) with blue-streaked hair plays with her little sister Yelena (Violet McGraw). Along with their undercover parents Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour), the girls pose as the quintessential nuclear family when they’re really Russian spies, and by the end of the opening credits, the girls are already hauled back to the sinister Red Room to be transformed from young women into “Widows,” or Russian killing machines.
“Black Widow” layers action sequences over emotional intimacy like indulgent frosting, but the actors are cleverly resistant to the narrative’s headless rush. Harbour in particular makes the most of his character’s dangerous stunts, centering Alexei’s conflicted feelings about being a father figure. He’s new to Marvel’s fast-paced action scene, but he never lets viewers see him stumble — unless, of course, it’s in character.
Fast-forward 14 years, and estranged adults Natasha and Yelena (Florence Pugh) have twisted and backflipped back into each other’s lives, teaming up to take down the still-operational Red Room and its leader Dreykov (Ray Winstone). The sisters decide to round up the rest of their fake family to gather intel about the operation’s location.
Though her character is unmoored, Johansson delivers an anchored performance, embracing the epic internal conflicts of a hero and filling her male predecessors’ shoes. It’s Pugh, however, who steals every scene.
As an actress, Pugh comes from the type of cinema that attracts award show buzz, and she’s known for playing complicated, empathetic women. She flexes her versatility as Yelena, easily elevating Marvel one-liners to their best with her satirical Slavic delivery. Yelena tells jokes the same way she hunts people — with perfect execution. She does not miss.
With surprising betrayals and high-tech gadgets, “Black Widow” captures attention and keeps it. The film runs for more than two hours, but the time passes surprisingly quickly. The first act of “Black Widow” sets the stage for a spy thriller, family drama and superhero flick all in one. It initially bites off more than it can chew. The choppy editing of near-incessant fight scenes spoils the film’s impressive visuals and leaves little room for the viewer to breathe. Yet once Yelena and Natasha round up their counterfeit relatives, “Black Widow” settles into its real rhythm, allowing the story to take a refreshing, more human shape.
Marvel movies often interrogate the line that discerns humanity from apathetic machinery, and “Black Widow” champions family as the antidote. Natasha’s interconnected family sustains enough interest to distract from Dreykov the undercooked villain. Yet, even he and the Taskmaster are given relevant pieces — more like crumbs — of character to complete the assignment.
It’s bittersweet to watch “Black Widow” — to watch Johansson hold her own, to watch her soar with wings of retroactive character development. The film emphasizes the preciousness and precarity of free will, ironic themes considering Natasha has spent most of her Marvel life upholding other characters’ agency while exerting little of her own.
Fans of the MCU have known for years that Black Widow is an interesting, complicated character, someone who’s deserving of a solo movie. The impulse may be to deride Marvel’s cowardice, and the character’s demise in “Avengers: Endgame” makes it hard to suppress the ache that comes from knowing Black Widow as a character holds so much more. That faith in her character, however, is something this exciting, generally awesome movie attests and affirms. It’s a fitting farewell to Natasha Romanoff, and though it’s well overdue, “Black Widow,” in all its epic scale and strong performances, is worth the wait.