The Marvel movies have become as American as apple pie. Or “American Pie” since that Don McLean ditty is featured prominently in Black Widow, a stand-alone feature designed to fill some backstory of Scarlett Johansson’s OG Avenger. Is it necessary? That’s debatable. However, the unexpected COVID layoff of nearly two years between MCU titles and some solid performances makes this a welcome addition to the franchise.
I guess I should say SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t taken in the rest of the cinematic universe so there’s your warning. Avengers: Endgame marked the demise of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow as she went out in self sacrificial fashion. Her previous sacrifices for a darker cause are explored here. The film opens in 1995 Ohio with Natasha and her little sister Yelena being raised by parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz). It’s all a front, though, as mom and dad aren’t really their folks. They are Russian spies on a mission for General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and once the Midwest job is completed, the fake family unit is broken apart.
Natasha, of course, grows up to be the fighter we have seen in numerous other blockbusters beginning with Iron Man 2 and so on. Yelena grows up to take the form of Florence Pugh and she gets her training as well through Dreykov along with numerous other orphaned girls turned assassins. As far as timeline purposes go, Black Widow happens between the actions of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. That’s when The Avengers were experiencing their roughest patch with Tony Stark and Captain America at odds and the others being forced to choose sides.
Since Natasha is a wanted woman by the U.S. Government, she reunites with her long lost “sister” and “parents” in Budapest (remember to pronounce the SH sound in the word) in an effort to stop Dreykov’s mind control of his female army. Unlike other MCU pics, this truly is a stand-alone piece. None of the other Avengers are present and that gives time for new secondary characters to shine. Foremost among them is Yelena and the winning performance given by Pugh. She makes enough of an impression that I hope for her future involvement in other chapters. Harbour is good for a few comedic highlights as he reminisces about his time as Red Guardian (when he apparently had some battles with Captain America).
The MCU always comes down to bloodline dynamics and it is in abundant supply here. If Black Widow previously felt like a slightly underdeveloped character, there’s enough familiar familial dynamics to check off some boxes. Where Black Widow is weakest is not in the action sequences. They’re as first-rate as you’d expect. Cate Shortland makes her first contribution to the series in the director’s chair and she and the tech team certainly get a passing grade. The film’s liability is the villain Dreykov who doesn’t make much of an impression in the fairly short amount of screen time he’s given. This is not a unique flaw in the MCU. For every Loki or Thanos, there seems to be a handful of forgettable baddies.
We already said bye-bye to Johansson’s Black Widow once, but this callback to a time before her heroic departure proves the levee isn’t dry when it comes to her entertainment value. And it also shows she leaves behind previously unknown associates that could provide more highlights.
*** (out of four)