If the MCU’s cultural phenomenon were a swimming pool, then Black Widow requires a doggy paddle out to the deep end. Along the way, you’ll pass twenty-three movies, multiple TV shows, social media tie-ins, video games, and Youtube shorts. You don’t have to master that entire juggernaut to stay afloat, but miss just enough of Marvel’s sprawling narrative tapestry and expertly planted in-jokes and this movie becomes a tedious slog of judo chops and vodka shots. And that trek will only bring you up to a story that doesn’t so much redefine the MCU as supply a little extra shading and texture to one of its heroines. Of course, dedicated fans will dive right in, while noobs might find that the journey from Iron Man to here is just a smidge on the prohibitive side.
That might sound like I’m trying to steer you away from the Marvel franchise, and I’m not. At their best, these movies are smart, silly, and refreshingly self-deprecating. Head on over to Disney+, and take ’em in incremental doses. You won’t be disappointed.
Now that I’ve said my piece, and chucked out a few $100 words–I’m real proud of prohibitive–it’s time for me to bust out some 90s chat room font: !SPOILER ALERT! Everything I type from here on assumes you understand enough Marvel shorthand to see Black Widow. Otherwise, you’ve been warned. LoL. Todd is away, y’all.
Black Widow recounts the personal–and sometimes painful–odyssey of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), somewhere between the events of Civil War and Infinity War. Now a fugitive, Natasha receives a cryptic message from Morocco that evokes some troubling memories from her life before joining the Avengers. This puts her in the uncomfortable position of eluding the judgment of her adopted family, while also taking a difficult look at the makeshift foster family who once left her behind.
It seems that back in the 90s, Nat once lived in suburban Ohio, amidst a Norman Rockwellian landscape of lilting fireflies and little league games. She and her adopted family are really Russian plants, sent to gather some nefarious mind-control tech. Alexei (David Harbour), the shambling father figure, is a hairy, boozy, Brawny Towel counterpart to Captain America, while Melina (Rachel Weisz) is the ass-kicking mother of all Black Widows. Their would-be daughters are Nat (Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw). This thermonuclear family gets a tantalizing taste of Americana, before circumstances rip them apart. Ultimately, each of their lives gets spun onto its own violent trajectory.
Cut back to almost-now, and Yelena has some horrifying news for Natasha: The Red Room, where both women were once stripped of their humanity and molded into ruthless hunter-killers, is still abducting and training young girls against their will. This prompts the pseudo-sisters to form an uneasy alliance for the purpose of confronting their absentee foster parents and dismantling the cruel institution that stole their childhood. Along the way, Natasha and Yelena also run afoul of the Taskmaster, a mysterious villain who can mimic any fighting style.
The resulting film delivers a compelling blend of fast-moving fun and compelling, character-based drama. Most of the action scenes are ambitious and exciting, even if Marvel still doesn’t know when to stop hacking them up in the editing bay. (Seriously, I almost needed a dramamine patch during an apartment brawl.) Johansson has slow-played real warmth and empathy into Natasha, making her one of the most relatable of all the Avengers. She also has instant chemistry with Pugh, who is clearly being groomed to inherit the titular role. Her Yelena has a cynical, petulant sarcasm that makes for some great moments with both Johansson and Harbour.
On that subject, Harbour gets tasked with much of the film’s humor, and he obliges by walking off with most of his scenes. His Red Guardian is a bawdy, sweaty antihero who wears his flaws on his sleeve of stretched Soviet spandex. As Melina, Weisz lives with a potent mix of deep-seated pain and genuine pride in her foster daughters. Everyone in this little KGB family gets played by an award-winning actor, and they all do their part to make sure we never stop rooting for them.
If there’s a flaw in all this, it’s that Widow peaks a little early. The first half churns on edgy Bourne energy and that crackling dynamic between Johansson and Pugh. Things peter out in the final act, especially once the movie settles in for the obligatory CGI blitz of stuff gettin’ blown the hell up. At 134 minutes, there isn’t quite enough fuel to keep the fire going.
But don’t let that harsh your geek-buzz. If you’ve enjoyed this Marvel marathon thus far, chances are that Black Widow won’t do anything to let you down. It’s funny, well-acted, and even a little thought-provoking. Or, well worth a swim to the deeper end of the pool. Just make sure and maneuver around the DCEU on your way there.
134 min. PG-13. Disney+ (w/Premium Access)