2021, PG-13, 134 min. Directed by Cate Shortland. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone, William Hurt.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 9, 2021
What happened in Budapest?
It’s been a burning question in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an in-joke between Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton, aka Black Widow and Hawkeye, one that has always hinted to their dark, pre-Avengers days as killers and spies. In her long-overdue solo film, former Russian superspy-turned-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent-turned-superhero Romanoff finally faces what she did there, and her legacy as an assassin who saved the world.
But isn’t she dead? Well, yes, she sacrificed herself to save the universe in Avengers: Endgame, and this being the MCU and not comicdom, dead really means dead this time. So Black Widow is one giant flashback, taking place after the battle of Leipzig/Halle Airport in Captain America: Civil War. The Avengers have been split asunder, half of them are either on the run or imprisoned on the Raft, and Natasha (Johansson) is in that first category, outwitting hero-hating Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (a returning Hurt) and heading into exile. And this is where Black Widow really starts to flourish as its own entity within the bigger story.
After all, Marvel’s genius has been in channeling seemingly unrelated genres into the superhero format (what is Winter Soldier but a Cold War conspiracy movie through a blockbuster lens, and what fires up the engines of Peter Quill’s Milano more than the classic wacky heist movie?) and blending the DNA in a way that leaves both pretty much intact. So it is with this missing chapter and fitting solo outing for Johansson, who spent multiple movies turning what could have been a background character into the backbone of the Avengers.
What the writing team of Marvel veterans Jac Schaeffer (Wandavision) and Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and newbie Ned Benson (and, of course, whatever long game producer Kevin Feige is playing) adds to the equation is a smattering of every spy action film since perestroika. Some nods are overt (like a high-speed pursuit involving a tank that feels like a GoldenEye homage); some are narrative, such as an opening that will appeal to fans of The Americans; while others are more systemic and stylistic, with the super polished fighting forms of the early Avengers films getting a post-Jason Bourne gritty rubdown. Compare it to the cuts and scrapes of the other films, or when Rhodey was crippled and all he got for his pains was to be held, pietà-style, by Tony Stark: This time around limbs are broken and grotesquely flopping, and there’s actual blood in the water. It’s a subtle evolution, equaled by a remarkably dry sense of humor.
The two elements meld when Yelena Belova (Pugh) scathingly points out Natasha’s predilection for landing in a superhero pose in the middle of a fight. The pair have history that goes back decades, to childhood - a time built on lies that emanate from the Red Room, the oft-referenced school for assassins that created the Black Widow. Russia remains the villain, a component baked into Natasha’s story since her inception, and so diversions across the world, from Ohio to Norway to Hungary (yes, we finally learn about Budapest), inevitably lead to the depths of Mother Russia and one of the best MCU villains to date: General Dreykov. Played by Ray Winstone, he’s not a cosmic threat à la Thanos, but a genuine monster. And flickering Russian accent aside, it’s perfect Winstone material, a heavy with a callous heart who relishes the pain he has inflicted.
In the middle of her intra-film exile, Natasha is dragged back into the old world of the Red Room when her “little sister” Yelena goes on the run and they both end up in Budapest, both free of Dreykov’s mind control but pursued by his chief enforcer, the mysterious Taskmaster. Through the mandatory elaborate set pieces, they reunite with the rest of their dysfunctional faux family: mind control researcher Melina Vostokoff (Weiss, deliciously unhinged) and Russia’s Captain America knockoff, the Red Guardian (Harbour at his most brilliantly bombastic as the blowhard not-quite-hero). As an operator in the shadows, Dreykov’s influence is felt by his absence, and so it’s the reassembling of the proxy family that dominates much of the story. There’s a delightful dysfunction, subtly wound up as each member is added back into the mix, and the sibling rivalry between Yelena and Natasha leads perfectly to that expansion.
But this is Johansson’s chance to bid farewell to a character that arguably should have had her own solo film/mini-franchise years ago. Black Widow gives Marvel’s superspy the callback-filled swan song that she and the loyal audience deserve. It’s a reminder why she was cast to make Robert Downey Jr. look like a chump in Iron Man 2. The assurance, the deviousness, the compassion, the scathing sense of comedy, all given free rein. It may all be a flashback, but Black Widow is truly a bridge with a true direction as the MCU moves into its post-Avengers era.
In cinemas and available on Disney+ Premier Access July 9.