Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 14 minutes, Director – Cate Shortland
With government agents trying to track her down Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) confronts her past by seeking to take down dark forces who continue to manipulate and torture young girls into soldiers.
It’s been a long road to a solo big screen outing for Scarlett Johansson’s Nathasha Romanoff; and not just because of a pandemic. A Black Widow film has been rumoured and talked about for years, since the first Avengers film, and now she’s finally been given a solo outing. While many may have wanted to see the much-discussed, and referenced in this film, Budapest mission with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye this film places Johansson’s tough-fighting spy just after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. She’s on the run from government agents trying to bring her in for going against the Sokovia accords. Living a quiet life outside of a remote Norwegian town she’s forced to directly face her past after an explosive encounter with a masked fighter tracking down a series of mysterious vials.
Romanoff’s past has been briefly mentioned throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the past, and initially it feels as if this prequel is going to look into just that. However, once the film finds it’s footing and has more certainty in what it actually wants to do with Natasha, instead she finds herself stopping it from repeating for other victims of Ray Winstone’s Dreykov. For decades he’s taken young girls and manipulated and tortured them into becoming mindless killing machines. “Weapons with no face that he can just throw away”. Assisting Dreykov is the unknown robotic figure of Taskmaster. A figure who appears to memorise their enemies styles and tactics, using them against them and also future enemies.
Yet, these two villainous forces are somewhat pushed aside to focus on Natasha’s distant family. Sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) takes the spotlight most of the time, and often feels like the co-lead – it’s clear that she’s being built up to have a bigger future in the MCU. Meanwhile father figure Alexei (David Harbour) is wistfully remembering his glory days as the Red Guardian, making up history with Captain America, and maternal Melina (Rachel Weisz) has been spending her time researching and developing various pieces of tech and training pigs. Both are over the moon to see the return of their daughters, the dynamic between the four is clearly felt and each actor puts in a good performance that certainly helps bring about some humour every now and then. However, when it comes to latter stage fight scenes (of which there are many in the somewhat lengthy third act) there feels like a number of characters and events to keep track of.
It’s evident throughout the film that once it gets going there’s a lot going on. Initially things are somewhat simplistic, but as the family elements becomes a greater force and is delved into more over a long dinner-table scene themes, elements and ideas are added and the overall film begins to feel busier. The balance of the drama with action is well-handled and for the most part the action scenes work rather well. They might feel somewhat chaotic, often holding too many cuts to be able to properly follow. However, when there is a firmer hand on what’s being followed there’s certainly an entertainment factor to see Johansson embracing the kicks and punches as she finally headlines her own solo film after over a decade of playing the pivotal title character. Which makes it even more of a relief when the plot finally begins to kick in, after a lot of set-up and jumping back and forth to introduce and get to certain characters, perhaps the reason why we see so little of Dreykov and Taskmaster. Because of this the villains simply feel like slight barriers rather than fully-detailed bad guys, they appear to pose little threat.
Yet, the spirit still largely remains with Johansson and Pugh. Weisz and Harbour provide good entertainment with their interactions and relationship, and also give and take plenty of punches themselves, yet the focus is truly on the former pairing. This is certainly an introduction for Pugh, but certainly not a handing over of a baton. There’s an almost refreshing nature to the lack of send-off that Johansson receives here. No bittersweet tones or teary goodbyes. We know her story continues after this film, and so does director Cate Shortland with her treatment of the character in the latter stages of the film, and indeed throughout it. This is simply another, if rather personal, mission for Natasha Romanoff. One that acts as a subtle detail adding build-up to her continuing, from this film, arc in Infinity War and Endgame.
The villains certainly don’t feel like much of a threat and while slightly uneven Black Widow works as a fine, balanced character-building bridge for Scarlett Johansson’s entertainingly clever, tough-fighting title character.