'Black Widow' Is a Great Spy Movie, and a Worthy Goodbye to Johansson's Romanov
Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow finally gets her solo story, and if this is the last time we see her as Natasha Romanov, this movie does right by both the actress and the character.
It's a shame we didn't get this 'Black Widow' movie a few years ago, because it's hard to imagine that Marvel Studios wouldn't have found a different path for Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanov in 'Avengers: Endgame.' This is a satisfying spy movie set in the larger MCU, and although the baton is definitely passed, we're definitely going to miss the Black Widow that makes a final appearance in this movie.
The story starts off in Ohio in 1995, with a young Natasha and Yelena under the care of their parents, Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour). If you've seen 'The Americans' or 'Little Nikita,' you have a pretty good idea what's going on; the family is a cover for a Russian espionage operation that's coming to a climax. Natasha and her "family" make a narrow escape from S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and then it's off to Cuba for a reunion with the man behind the mission, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), before heading back to Mother Russia. But young Natasha is having none of it; she and Yelena want to stay in the states, but they get pulled apart, drugged, and shipped off to the infamous Red Room to become tools of the state.
Years later, we see Natasha on the run, after the events of 'Captain America: Civil War.' She's almost captured by Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt), with this moment serving to give us a guide as to when this movie is happening in the MCU timeline. Meanwhile, in Morocco, Yelena (Florence Pugh) is targeting a fellow agent, but when Yelena is sprayed by a mysterious red dust, she seems to suddenly realize she's been under some sort of mind control. The rest of her team promptly turns on her, before another narrow escape - it seems these run in the family.
Natasha finds Yelena hiding in her own Budapest safe house, the two "sisters" team up to find out what's controlling the minds of the other agents in the Widow program. To find that out, they'll end up needing the help of both of their "parents," and the stage is set for what turns out to be a pretty effective spy thriller.
It must be said that Florence Hugh almost completely steals the whole movie; her Yelena manages to push Natasha's buttons in a way no one else in the MCU has before, and her specific comments about Natasha's fighting poses are pitch perfect. Hugh and Johansson have a breezy chemistry together, letting us see two women that work together effectively while still bringing up old family grudges.
While we're talking about family, Harbour and Weisz give us former parental figures that still have real affection for their ersatz daughters, showing very real regret at what would later happen to the two girls. As with any family, there is teasing and sniping that's hinting at decades of emotion, and all four of these actors sell it well. Weisz shows us a Melina that is trying (and failing) to convince herself that her patriotism justifies her actions. Bombastic Alexei may seem to be gleefully reliving his past glories, but Harbour lets us see that Alexei is also hiding his own regret and loss.
Director Cate Shortland has put together a pretty impressive effort here; she impresses with the action set pieces, while showing us a family that is trying to heal old wounds. We've waited a long time for a solo story for Natasha, and Shortland's movie delivers an emotional arc for Nat that hits all the right emotional notes, while fitting within the greater MCU storyline. We know what's coming for Black Widow, but that doesn't take away from the resonance here.
There's not much to say about the Taskmaster character that won't quickly dip into spoiler territory, except that the stunt coordinators have done a great job showing us someone that can mimic the fighting styles of other characters, such as Hawkeye and Captain America, and even Black Widow herself. My only complaint here is that Ray Winstone seems a bit underused, and that the mind control plot isn't that engaging. Although compared to an Infinity Gauntlet, what would be?
In the end, this is one of the better entries in the MCU franchise, and worth seeing on the big screen.