This week’s Black Widow may have put a new hit Marvel franchise in motion.
It is intimate, aggressive, funny, and brutal in every PG-13 sense possible. It’s an Eastern European Marvel superhero tale that gives hearts to heartless characters without falling into the typical Marvel trap of ending with a neatly tied bow. And the entire cast nails this balancing act.
Perhaps best of all, star Scarlett Johansson (playing the titular character) finally gets to deliver on her Marvel hero status instead of serving as a crutch for a randomly selected male Avenger. She doesn’t waste this opportunity, yet she still proves generous as a co-star, so much so that she helps launch Florence Pugh (Midsommar, Little Women) as the Marvel universe’s most compelling new hero in years.
Stark divergence from the usual
This review includes mild plot spoilers, arguably fewer than you might ascertain from watching the film’s trailer. Ars takes care to leave as many plot points unspoiled as possible, but some are mentioned and clarified for the sake of this review’s insights.
Black Widow fits into an existing, wide-open gap in the MCU: that time after Captain America: Civil War when Johansson’s character, Natasha Romanoff, went dark for a while. She had family business to attend to, you see, and in Black Widow she gets to handle it without any previous films’ cast members or plot points getting in the way.
This week’s standalone film opens with a flashback to mid-’90s American suburbia, where childhood versions of Natasha and her younger sister Yelena alternate between play and acrimony. This pastoral scene, unsurprisingly, is interrupted by the kind of holy-cow action sequence you might expect from the first 15 minutes of a Marvel tentpole film. Among other things, the sequence explains how little Natasha eventually became a solo Russian assassin, and a mile-a-minute montage fast-forwards from that origin story to her post-Civil War escape from the grid.
Turns out, one important person has a line on Romanoff’s location even though she carefully covered her tracks. Natasha receives a mysterious package with a childhood photo of Yelena and herself tucked inside. Time for a reunion.
Sealed with a kick
“Family” in Black Widow is as complicated as it is in real life. The opening sequence reveals that mom (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener) and dad (David Harbour, Stranger Things) are far more than mere suburban parents, in terms of secrets and firepower. While they step aside for much of the film, their return complicates the already-strained relationship that Romanoff and Yelena must reckon with upon their grown-up reunion.
As actors, Johansson and Pugh are so good as sparring sisters that I put down my usual film-review notebook and relished their repartee whenever they shared a scene. Their dynamic immediately feels fully formed and three-dimensional, as sealed with a kick, not a kiss. Yelena’s adult version arrives in the film just as battle-hardened as her better-known MCU sibling, only with more Eastern European grit and dark humor. The character shines once she salts her wounds (both the literal and figurative ones) with vodka.
Meanwhile, Johansson bounces off of her co-stars with sarcasm, laughs, and dry humor, particularly a new, hapless assistant (O-T Fagbenle, The Handmaid’s Tale). But she’s at her best when she makes room for Pugh’s quips before delivering her own brutal rejoinders. “You left me for dead, but eff you, I couldn’t care less” isn’t the easiest relationship to sell, but Johansson and Pugh bring the receipts.
Black Widow‘s eventual “nuclear family” reunion proves even more prickly and emotionally volatile. Each family member leaves at least one encounter not only without resolution but arguably worse than if the family had never met again. It’s among the ballsiest broken-family dynamic I’ve ever seen play out in a Disney-produced “tentpole” film, and maybe this is my own dysfunctional family bias talking, but I adored the film’s willingness to commit to unease—which all four lead actors clearly relish. In particular, we watch mom and dad’s hubris and cognitive dissonance collide with decades of childhood resentment, and the results are a far cry from the bold-word cheese of an average comic book panel.
Making the most of “PG-14” action
As is typical in a Marvel film, Black Widow‘s characters vent their emotional extremes by way of wild action sequences. But unlike most Marvel films, this film lands somewhere between John Wick and the Bourne trilogy in terms of framing and brutality.
“Intimate” may seem like a strange descriptor for a Marvel film’s butt-kickings, but Black Widow‘s cinematography and directing team nail the careful balance between tight zooms, handheld cameras, and enough space to let a fight’s impact breathe. Romanoff’s first nighttime fight against the mysterious, masked Taskmaster is a highlight: all fists, kicks, and leaps, as framed in a beautifully lit scene while both characters try to wrest control over a mysterious package. Shortly afterward, another hand-to-hand battle revels in the smashing and destruction of whatever doors, cabinets, and items anyone can reach, all exploding in dust and agonized screams. (At its most intense, I’d rate the film as “PG-14” and would advise parents to think twice about bringing their youngest to the theater.)
Black Widow‘s action eventually explodes into slightly unwieldy CGI, with screen-filling explosions and skies full of debris. It’s not that these CGI sequences look bad, since Marvel continues to invest in careful rendering and framing, but that the film’s best practical effects look so good. One chase sequence follows its heroes over countless Budapest rooftops before taking to that ancient city’s streets on motorcycles and tanks. Another sequence opens with a Russian prison riot, and the prison’s dilapidated, exposed-stone interiors pop in terms of contrast levels against the sequence’s crushing punches and shoves. And a late-film dive into a secret Russian facility bursts with opulence and ’60s chic that counts as some of the MCU’s best set design yet. I wanted more of that stuff.
Also, honestly, I wanted Black Widow to be a bit longer. It’s the rare MCU film that left me wondering how much dialogue was left on the cutting-room floor, particularly among Romanoff’s family members, and I wouldn’t have minded more opportunities to see Weisz and Harbour reconcile their past selves with their present ones. Even so, Black Widow is careful to focus on that core family unit while providing just enough breadcrumbs about the film’s big bads to avoid feeling unwieldy. I like how easily the movie’s plot can be summed up and connected to emotional conversations, as opposed to the usual MCU issue of drawing a massive spreadsheet of which superhero had which connection to which organization and which double-cross.
Zigs where Captain Marvel zagged
Marvel keeps getting better at this standalone film thing. Black Panther is a fantastic execution of a full fictional universe, as connected to our modern world. Ant Man needed two tries to nail its goofy ’80s-allegiant action formula. And perhaps most comparable here, Captain Marvel offers a deft, fist-pumping origin story that specifically targets families without necessarily feeling childish. But Black Widow is easily the MCU’s most confident and palpable shot at the concept yet, and not just because it zigs where Captain Marvel zagged (as far as pushing a PG-13 rating to extremes). Rather, it successfully reckons with the tiring expectation that everything in a Marvel movie is going to turn out fine, and it shows how fantastic such a film can be when things don’t wrap up tidily for all involved.
I hope that Black Widow is just the first of many expectation-subverting experiments from the Marvel powers that be. Thankfully, Black Widow makes clear that Pugh’s scene-stealing performance isn’t her last for Marvel.
Black Widow is now playing in theaters and via Disney+ with Premier Access for an additional fee of $30.
Listing image by Marvel Studios