Black Widow (2021)

Marvel Studios
If ever there was a time when the world needed a Marvel film to bring everyone together, it is now. And Black Widow is very likely the one to do it.

COVID-19 put a bit of a kink in Marvel’s plan for world (cinematic) domination, but, with the studio’s new release, Black Widow, they have picked up right where they left off in 2019, when the last Marvel Avengers film, Avengers: Endgame, helped put Marvel’s parent company, Walt Disney Studios, over the $11 billion mark for the year, commanding an historic third of all domestic box office grosses that year. The Marvel juggernaut is a hulking beast in the industry that will not likely stop swallowing up everything around it now that cinema is starting to creak back to normal, but even the genius brain trust with the golden touch over at Marvel are sure to be amazed at the luck of their timing. The fact that Black Widow was the next film in the hopper when the pandemic hit is perhaps the best thing Marvel could have hoped for. Not only will it satisfy all of those mega-fans who have been longing for another Avengers movie, but it is the perfect film to welcome back all audiences to the theater because it finally is an Avengers movie that is made for everybody, and anybody can enjoy it, whether you are steeped in Marvel mythology or not. Unlike Avengers: Endgame, which may have turned off some casual Marvel viewers due to its need for an intricate knowledge of the Avengers compendium to enjoy it in any way, Black Widow merely sprinkles Avengers references here and there, but is mostly just a fun, action-packed thrill ride that anyone can enjoy, with a perfect feminist bent that just may win over the audiences who were disappointed by Wonder Woman 1984.

Like Wonder Woman, Black Widow is directed by a woman, Cate Shortland, only the second woman to direct an Avengers film for Marvel, the first being Anna Boden, who co-directed Captain Marvel, along with Ryan Fleck. Shortland, however, is going solo on Black Widow and, much like both Wonder Woman films, which were directed by Patty Jenkins, it does make a difference. It may not make a difference fifty years from now, when at least half of all films should be directed by women, but now, when it is still so rare for a big-budget, tentpole, franchise film to be helmed by a woman, the difference is noticeable and meaningful. And makes it better.

What makes Black Widow so much more enjoyable than your standard superhero fare is the fact that it doesn’t even feel like a superhero movie until about 90m in. Yes, there are references to super soldiers and serums and super strength and chemical alterations, but there is no flying into space on fancy ships, nor is there any flying around at all, for that matter. Black Widow is much more of a standard spy movie than it is a superhero one, much more James Bond than Iron Man.

Scarlett Johansson plays the titular hero, in what is ostensibly a prequel to Endgame, taking place after Captain America: Civil War in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s complicated timeline. Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, is on the run from the authorities who want to capture her. She comes across her sister, Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh, who reminds Natasha of a dark part of her past that Natasha realizes she must confront. Both Natasha and Yelena were kidnapped as young girls and sold to an evil organization which created an army of female assassins, brainwashed to be spies and weapons of death and destruction all over the world. Now Natasha and Yelena set out to free the rest of the women from their captivity, but they must first find a way to infiltrate the secret organization, led by the same evil scientist (played by Roy Winstone) who captured them, who is protected by his army and a super soldier who is also under his spell.

Natasha and Yelena get some unexpected help from two other former spies who once pretended to be their mother and father, Alexei Shostakov and Melina Vostokoff, played by David Harbour and Rachel Weisz. The best parts of the film are when these four vicious killers, all trained to be spies and assassins, sit around and bicker like a regular family. The gift of these four actors playing off each other, of which Johannsson is the weakest link, is one that keeps on giving, as Eric Pearson’s screenplay is lifted at every turn by the line readings and the chemistry between these actors that is just as entertaining in the quiet scenes as it is in the big, loud ones. And all credit to Johannsson, who checks her ego at the door, not needing to dominate, let alone even be in every scene. She lets the other three actors truly shine, especially Pugh, who mines every bit of humor, fury, reticence and melancholy in her character, making one wonder if she might have her own franchise in her future. Harbour and Weisz are equally charming and funny in their own rights, Harbour flaunting his many skills in a showy and entertaining performance, and Weisz swooping in below the radar to steal scenes later in the film, never letting us forget her Oscar signifies nothing else if not her versatility.

But there have been wonderful performances in numbing and dumb superhero movies before. What makes Black Widow such a well-rounded experience is the fact that the movie that’s built around these actors is so strong, and doesn’t get in its own way. Pearson keeps it focused and Shortland keeps the action constant and purposeful, never pointless or eye-rolling. There are shades of so many different influences in this film, from the aforementioned Bond to films Hanna and Red Sparrow and television shows The Americans, Killing Eve and Stranger Things, that what makes Black Widow work so well is its feeling of groundedness, its simplicity, its modesty, and yes, its sense of familiarity.

The action scenes are exceptional and will give you everything you could ever want in a summer movie. If you thought Harley Quinn featured some kick-ass women in some kick-ass fight scenes, Cate Shortland says hold my beer as Black Widow ups the ante for female action movie equality in a film that is so good you won’t even notice how few men are even involved in the action sequences—or how little they are missed.

In the end, Black Widow is just what a world waking up from a coma needs: a female-centered action extravaganza with exceptional performances, lots of laughs, and just a touch of that Marvel magic that just may be the antidote we’ve all been waiting for.

Review originally posted on AwardsWatch.