'Black Widow' Is a Fun Step Backwards for the MCU Directed by Cate Shortland

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O. T. Fagbenle
'Black Widow' Is a Fun Step Backwards for the MCU Directed by Cate Shortland
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Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a. Black Widow) died during 2019's Avengers: Endgame — spoiler alert! — so giving her a movie of her own feels a bit like the MCU's answer to one of those A Star Wars Story spinoffs. It might be fun, but it's not going to push the arc forward — a surprising move from a studio that has treated its films more like serialized episodes than stand-alone features.

After Marvel switched up its formula on recent Disney+ shows, Black Widow feels like a step backwards — both in style and chronology, as this film is set in the pre-Snap period after 2016's Captain America: Civil War. For anyone wondering why Marvel chose this particular moment to give Black Widow her own film, watching it won't clarify anything.

It begins as an origin story, opening with Natasha Romanoff's childhood in Ohio, where she is posing as the daughter of Soviet spies Alexei a.k.a. Red Guardian (David Harbour with a slapstick accent) and Melina (Rachel Weisz with a pretty good accent).

Flash forward to adulthood and Natasha has gone from Soviet assassin to Avenger — although her past comes back to haunt her when her hideout is targeting by a mysterious, ultra-powerful super-soldier. This leads her to reconnect with her undercover sister Yelena (Florence Pugh with an uncomfortable-to-listen-to accent) and parents, as they attempt to take down the training base known as the Red Room and deprogram the worldwide army of brainwashed Widows.

Director Cate Shortland and screenwriter Eric Pearson aim for pathos, and while the drama doesn't exactly fall flat, it's far outshone by the artful action sequences. A high-speed chase in Budapest, an escape from a Russian prison, and numerous dance-like fight scenes are particular highlights. Harbour brings his signature brash, bozo-like humour (think Jim Hopper with superpowers), and Pugh wonderfully roasts Black Widow's signature hair flip in a nice moment of meta self-mockery.

This is the first feature film in Phase Four of the MCU, but it feels more like a holdover from Phase Three. With that in mind, it's actually a good thing it got delayed from its original release date in May 2020, since we've now seen more of how Marvel's future will play out thanks to more adventurous shows like Loki and WandaVision. But as a standalone action caper full of big booms and beautiful brawls, Black Widow has bite. (Marvel Studios)