Following her heroic sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame (2019), Black Widow sees Scarlett Johansson reprise her role as Natasha Romanoff for (most likely) the final time in an action-packed, heartfelt blockbuster.
Despite other (read: male) characters like Iron Man and Captain America receiving more than their fair share of solo outings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Natasha Romanoff has always drawn the short straw. But now, after 11 years of watching her being cruelly sidelined in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we finally have the privilege of witnessing Black Widow star in her own solo film. It has been a long, gruelling wait, and not just because of Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter’s reluctance to endorse a female-led project. Set prior to Endgame, in between the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), the film was originally scheduled for a 2020 release; however, the COVID-19 pandemic saw this date repeatedly pushed back, with Black Widow finally seeing a July 2021 release.
The film opens with a trauma-filled montage, accompanied by a powerful and chilling cover of Nirvana’s ’90s grunge classic ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, setting an appropriate tone. Romanoff and her ‘sister’ Yelena (Florence Pugh) had a complicated and gritty childhood, to put it mildly: torn away from their birth families, their childhoods were mercilessly ripped from their hands and replaced with indoctrination and deception.
The girls grow up as members of a group of heavily brainwashed female assassins, known as “Widows”—from which Natasha, of course, escaped before becoming an Avenger. Now Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the leader of the Russian ‘academy’ in which the original Widows trained, is trying to revitalise the project with a small army of mind-controlled young women. The only way for Natasha and Yelena to fight back, and gain their freedom once and for all, is to take down Dreykov and use some convenient antidotes to end the mental enslavement of which Yelena was once a victim.
Director Cate Shortland, and co-writers Jac Schaeffer Eric Pearson and Ned Benson, pay a well-deserved and fitting tribute to the iconic titular superheroine, as well as placing the spotlight on new female heroines and icons-to-be, in this long-awaited big-screen induction into Phase 4 of the MCU. (Schaeffer, of course, was also the head writer on Phase Four’s first televised instalment, the surreal and widely-acclaimed WandaVision.) After all, it’s not hard to see Pugh following in the blockbuster footsteps of the phenomenal Johansson. By banding together, the two create something of a dream team, more than successfully capturing the sisterly connection and unmatched on-screen chemistry between Natasha and Yelena. Mixed in with its more serious themes, this side order of sibling rivalry turns the plot into a quirky mix of emotions, family relationships and war. True, those darker themes of brainwashing, trauma, violence, identity and mental torment could have been explored much deeper, but we can forgive Shortland’s decision to avoid solely basing the film around them when the end result is so entertaining.
Pugh makes an excellent superhero blockbuster debut, her on-screen presence as Yelena mirroring (and sometimes rivalling) that of Johansson’s as Natasha. Personally, having admired Pugh since her international breakthrough in 2019’s Midsommar alongside many other acclaimed projects, I was eager to witness her first appearance in my favourite cinematic universe—and as expected, she did not disappoint. The Little Women (2019) and Lady Macbeth (2016) star perfectly embodies her many-layered ‘badass’ character, sprinkling the seriousness with comedy to create a perfect and intoxicating mix.
Perhaps the character development could have been more thorough, although let’s hope no-one criticises the film for being ‘too spy-like’: it is, after all, about two spies. Still, despite straying from the usual heroic themes and conventions typical of an Avengers vehicle, Black Widow easily stands on its own two feet. The strong direction and script show a brand-new side to the MCU that fans will no doubt hope to see more of in the near future, infiltrated with the classic action overdose that we all know and love. And of course the post-credits scene, along with the news that Pugh will return as Yelena in upcoming television series Hawkeye, is sure to leave viewers full of curiosity as to where, how exactly, and with whom we will next stumble across the Widows.
Overall, Black Widow surpasses expectations (as always, Marvel refuses to fall short of the mark), holding its own despite the pressure of following in its TV counterparts’ footsteps, and opening the floodgates to Phase 4 of the MCU. In short, this long-anticipated cinematic success was more than worth the wait.
Black Widow was released in cinemas on 9 July 2021, and is streaming now on Disney+ (Premier Access only).
Words by Mia Stapleton
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