Black Widow review: A thrilling, dark spy flick
Dark subject matter8
Ivan Radford | On 09, Jul 2021
Director: Cate Shortland
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Ray Winstone, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour
Where to watch Black Widow online in the UK: Disney+
“It’s like you think everyone’s looking at you all the time.” That’s the sardonic take of Yelena (Florence Pugh) on the way that Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) strikes a pose during fights. It’s a playful bit of banter between sisters, as well as a chance for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to continue its trend for self-reflection after the end of its Avengers saga – from WandaVision to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the MCU is now smartly reevaluating its previous outings and using that fresh perspective to both steer its universe forwards and develop the characters within it (either to pave the way for future heroics or respectfully put them out to pasture).
Black Widow, a much-belated solo outing for the non-super-powered Romanoff, is very much a farewell to its leading lady, but it’s one that acknowledges and atones for the way she’s been presented in the past. Yelena’s mocking of Natasha’s hero stance is a wry comment on the way that Black Widow has often been objectified and relegated to the sidelines in the Marvel films to date – a brief attempt to give her some complexity in Avengers: Age of Ultron resulted in an awkwardly written remark about her being a “monster”, because of what had been done to her during her training to become an assassin. This movie clearly doesn’t think of her that way, and crucially shows us that she doesn’t think of herself that way either. This is a low-key, grounded thriller about a woman reclaiming her story and sense of identity.
This being a Marvel movie, that subtext is rendered as surtext and the themes are flagged up as explicitly and unsubtly as possible. But what’s wonderful about Black Widow is that, for most of the well-paced two-hour runtime, you can easily forget you’re watching a Marvel movie at all. That’s largely because the script – by Thor Ragnarok’s Eric Pearson, with input from WandaVision’s Jac Schaeffer, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’s Ned Benson and Nicole Holofcener – smartly sets its events between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Rather than hamstring the film’s creative possibilities, it allows Black Widow to go off-piste, with no cameos to distract from the story, no super powers that require escalating CGI punch-ups, and the introduction of Yelena (who will reappear in future Marvel projects) firmly rooted in their shared history. Even Natasha’s struggle for redemption (correcting the so-called red on her ledger), which was her defining character trait in earlier MCU movies, is given a concrete source, rather than vague guilt over the actions of a brainwashed killer.
All of this adds up to a spy movie that has surprising heft. From the introductory set piece, things feel closer to The Americans than Captain America, and the opening credits instill a Bourne-inspired vibe that more than pays off when Natasha and Yelena first cross paths for a bone-crunching bout of fisticuffs. By the time a fun car chase is unfolding across Budapest, director Cate Shortland has crafted a globe-trotting piece of espionage that rivals Bond and Mission: Impossible for thrills, complete with aerial absurdities and a plan for world domination.
But there’s a darkness that’s all Black Widow’s own, as Natasha works to bring down the Red Room, the controlling shady organisation led by Dreykov (Ray Winstone) that preys on orphaned girls and turns them into unquestioning executioners. This is Disney, so Shortland avoids the unpleasant sleaziness of Red Sparrow – but retains the bite of a film that doesn’t flinch from pointedly discussing the female reproductive system and the abuse that each of the Red Room’s women have experienced. One scene in which Yelena calls out a sexist quip is one of the best things that the MCU has ever produced.
And yet there’s also more to the film and its female protagonists than just their trauma. There’s a rich seam of sisterly support and affection that Johansson and Pugh sell with a sparky sincerity – Johansson clearly relishes the chance to flesh out Natasha as a person, while Pugh matches her in the action stakes and brings a bright humour to their exchanges. Each one allows the other to let their guard down while still taking care of business. They get excellent support from Rachel Weisz and David Harbour, who play the duo’s parents. While a brief pause for a dinner table debate would seem ill-advised in a 007 flick, it’s an essential and entertaining moment here, teasing out affection and laughs, while still paving the way for explosions and face mask shenanigans.
More than 10 years after the start of the MCU, it’s still no mean feat to balance the “geopolitical stage of international conflict” (as David Harbour’s washed-up Soviet icon puts it) with personal catharsis, but Black Widow pulls it off with aplomb. Delayed repeatedly due to the coronavirus pandemic, it emerges after a slew of Disney+ series as a palette cleanser for Marvel’s big screen outings – a reminder that comic book movies can tick the required boxes but also do their own thing. After months of sitting indoors watching things from the sofa, it’s perhaps appropriate that the most revelatory moment in the whole film is a scene where Natasha sits down to relax and watch a film on her computer, quoting along with the dialogue. The fact that the film is Moonraker is all too fitting and yet wonderfully incidental – for a brief spell, it’s as if is no one’s looking at her.
Black Widow is available with a Premier Access fee of £19.99 on Disney+, in addition to a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.