Black Widow marks Marvel’s return to theaters after a two-year forced hiatus. Directed by Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, Lore) and written by Marvel veteran Eric Pearson (with a story by Ned Benson and WandaVision’s Jac Schaeffer), the film begins with an extended cold open that flashes back to Natasha Romanoff’s childhood. In a sequence that will make you long for The Americans, we learn that Natasha spent three years undercover with a fake Russian spy family in America’s heartland. Her “father” was Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour, having so much fun it should be illegal), her “mother” was Malena (Rachel Weisz), and her little “sister” Yelena. (Young Nat is played by Ever Anderson and young Yelena by Violet McGraw.) Natasha looks like a Nineties kid, with Kool-Aid blue hair, a softball tee, and a bike she’s allowed to ride after dusk. But of course, it’s all a lie and soon Natasha’s family unit is broken up when their cover is blown. The film then does something few Marvel movies do: indulges in an opening credit sequence set to a minor-key cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. When we resume the action, it’s 2016 and the immediate aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, and we follow adult Natasha as she tries to piece her life back together (again) after the Avengers implode.
The placement of this film is curious. There is simply no denying that it comes too late to the MCU. Natasha, one of the founding Avengers and the sole woman in the mix for years, deserved this much, much earlier, and Black Widow arriving after we already know Natasha’s ultimate fate does let some of the dramatic air out of the tires. It also forces the film to clumsily shoehorn some continuity into a film that excels when it is most unburdened by larger MCU storytelling. This film works extra hard to sort out Natasha’s line from Endgame in which she claims she had no family before the Avengers, and it never quite lands on a sentiment that fully services this film AND that line. It’s just awkward. Much better is everything revolving around Natasha’s life outside the Avengers. The first half of Black Widow is EXCELLENT, featuring some of the best character work in a Marvel movie ever. It’s not just all the new facets to Natasha that we see, it’s how immediately clear and interesting characters like Alexei and Yelena are. (Malena fares a little less well for reasons we’ll discuss in a minute.)
While Scarlett Johansson has never been better as Natasha than she is here, Florence Pugh as Yelena absolutely steals the show. Yelena is less contained than Natasha, more temperamental, more CHAOTIC. Pugh, donning a Russian accent that is, at least, not distracting, infuses Yelena with bristly little sister anger and gleeful assassin energy. Unlike Natasha, who wears her past’s burdens like a veil, Yelena has developed a more outwardly outgoing attitude and perverse sense of humor, ranking potential deaths by their relative coolness and constantly needling Natasha for “posing” during her Avenger fights. Yet, there are clear moments when we see how her own past weighs on Yelena, and how her personality has developed not as a series of façades against these hurts, but as an armored shell. Where Natasha turned inward, Yelena turned outward, and that allows the character—and Pugh—to have a lot more fun in the moment.
But then the third act of Black Widow arrives and with it comes the usual CG-nonsense. It feels especially out of place here, given the character-focused first half of the film and the more grounded, knuckle-busting fights between Natasha and the mysterious villain, Taskmaster. Black Widow is begging for a smaller scale, more intimate finale that keeps character at the fore, so the sound and fury of a typical comic book climax is somewhat disappointing. The film also works hard to connect the entire hinge of Natasha’s arc on an off-hand reference in The Avengers to “Dreykov’s daughter”. Not everything has to connect and forcing a significant chunk of this film to pay off a random insult from Loki is frustrating. Some riddles aren’t meant to be solved, it’s okay for a character like Natasha, who thrives in shadows, to remain a little mysterious. Not every single thing has to be explained and accounted for like these movies have an actual ledger to balance.
The other strike against Black Widow is a feeling that pieces are missing throughout the film. Malena, for instance, falls a little flat because her character is thin compared to Alexei. He, we learn, is the USSR’s only supersoldier, created to combat Captain America both on the field and in propaganda (a reference to fighting Cap in the 1980s could be bullsh-t or could be a tantalizing hint of Cap’s second life). Malena, meanwhile, is of a previous generation of Black Widows, shaped and abused by the same program that made Natasha and Yelena. She has a big science brain, but we learn nothing else about her. It feels like we’re building to a revelation that ultimately never comes. Likewise, we meet a shady friend of Natasha’s called Mason (O-T Fagbenle). He provides some fun character context for Natasha’s spy life, but he is also completely superfluous to events. It would be one thing if Marvel regularly indulged in fun but pointless side characters, but they do not, which makes Mason particularly stand out. Once again, it feels like some reveal is missing that would bring this character more fully into the story.
It is a testament to Black Widow’s strengths, though, that it succeeds despite third act nonsense and those strange, not-quite-connecting story elements. This is as good of character work as Marvel has ever done, and in more ways than one, Black Widow is a return to form for Marvel. It’s a throwback to the beginnings of the MCU when Marvel movies were a little simpler, a little more stripped down, and focused a wee bit more on character interactions than shoving 900 units of plot in our faces as fast as possible. In their decade-plus reign over popular cinema, Marvel has made some really good movies, and some comparisons are apples to oranges because the tones between certain characters diverge so widely—Natasha Romanoff and Thor, for example, share completely different tonal universes—but Black Widow stands out as one of the best movies they’ve ever made. It’s definitely the best one since The Winter Soldier that doesn’t involve space.
Black Widow is in theaters and available on Disney+ with Premiere Access from May 9.