Producers: Marvel Studios, Disney
Runtime: 134 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
EE Critic Score: 8/10
Black Widow is the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is set in the time between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War and focuses on Natasha Romanoff, former Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Avenger, as she goes on the run from the government and gets hooked back into her former life as an assassin for the Red Room.
The film is a send-off for Scarlett Johansson's character, who was a major player in many of the previous MCU films without ever getting a feature of her own. Black Widow explores Romanoff's background and motivations while introducing some new faces that promise to be MCU fixtures going forward.
We open on a flashback to the '90s, in Ohio, where two sisters and their mother are preparing dinner. The father arrives home, disturbed by something. Their dinner is interrupted by the sound of police sirens. The family quietly slips away, burning their house down behind them. The police find them as they board a small plane in a makeshift airport. The father, exhibiting superhuman strength, fights the police off with a rifle as the mother attempts to launch the plane. She is hit by gunfire, and the elder daughter takes over the take-off sequence. The father climbs aboard the wing and together the family gets away, flying to Cuba. There, the mother is taken by medics, and the father is congratulated on his escape by a Russian man, who refers to him as the Red Guardian. The father turns the two daughters over to the Russian man, who sedates them and takes them to a secret facility called the Red Room. As the credits play, we see the sisters (Natasha and Yelena), and many other girls, subjected to physical and psychological experimentation and combat training.
Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself on the run from Defense Secretary Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and the U.S. Government. She flees to a safe house in Norway. Meanwhile, in Morocco, an all-female team of special operatives track down another woman. One of the operatives, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), corners and kills the woman, though, in the process, she is blasted in the face with a red aerosol the woman was carrying. Following this, she regrets killing the woman. She gathers the remaining vials of aerosol and sends them to the safehouse in Norway.
Romanoff at first doesn't know what the package is, but she comes to understand that it is valuable when she is attacked by a skull-masked figure who fights in the style of Captain America, then switches to mirror Romanoff's own combat skills. Narrowly escaping, Romanoff takes a closer look at the package, finding the vials and a strip of photos of herself and Belova back when they were girls in Ohio. Unsure of how else to contact Belova, Romanoff returns to Budapest, where she had defected from the Red Room to S.H.I.E.L.D. by assassinating the Red Room's director, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). She and Belova meet in another safehouse, where, distrustful of one another's motives, they fight to a truce. Belova tells Romanoff that Dreykov survived the assassination attempt, and that, after Romanoff's betrayal, he had put the other Widows under direct, chemical mind control. The red vials contain a counter-agent that freed Belova and could be the key to destroying the Red Room.
The masked assassin, who Belova identifies as Dreykov's top agent, known as the Taskmaster, arrives in Budapest in an armored car and chases Romanoff and Belova through the city. They escape. Romanoff calls an underworld contact asking for transport. On such short notice, the contact, Mason (O-T Fagbenle), is only able to secure an old helicopter. Romanoff and Belova set out to find the Red Room's secret location, starting by springing Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), the former Soviet supersoldier who had posed as their father in Ohio, from a prison in Siberia. The trio track down Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), the Red Room scientist who had posed as their mother. Vostokoff is still working with Dreykov; she was the one who developed the mind-control chemicals, which she demonstrates on a pig, also named Alexei.
Vostokoff calls Dreykov's agents to capture the others. They are all taken to the Red Room, which is revealed to be a flying fortress in the upper atmosphere. Shostakov and Romanoff are placed in neighboring cells, and Belova is sent to have exploratory surgery on her brain to identify how the chemical mind control was broken. Vostokoff, accompanied by the Taskmaster, goes to meet with Dreykov personally. However, it is revealed that she is actually Romanoff; the two Widows had disguised themselves and each other. The real Vostakoff springs herself and Shostakov from their cells, and signals Belova to use a blade hidden in her clothes to escape the surgery.
Romanoff confronts Dreykov, first apologizing for killing his young daughter in the process of trying to kill him back in Budapest. Dreykov laughs that Romanoff has been haunted by this for all these years. He unmasks the Taskmaster, revealing his daughter Antonia (Olga Kurylenko). After Budapest, he had salvaged her broken body, turning her into a cyborg combatant capable of matching any attacker. As Vostokoff, Shostakov, and Belova begin to sabotage the Red Room's thrusters, Dreykov sends the Taskmaster to stop them. Left alone with Dreykov, Romanoff tries to kill him, but finds herself unable to pull a trigger or swing a blade to do so. Dreykov had used an early form of mind control to block any Widow from harming him, triggered by his own scent.
The other three trap the Taskmaster in one of the cells, and succeed in destroying the engines keeping the Red Room aloft. As it begins to fall, Romanoff deliberately breaks her own nose against Dreykov's desk, severing the nerve keeping her from attacking him. Dreykov slips away as his Widows arrive and all attack Romanoff. As Romanoff is overwhelmed, Belova arrives with the red vials rigged into a grenade. The blast reaches all the Widows, freeing them from Dreykov's control. Romanoff and Belova tell the other Widows to get far away, then set off in pursuit of Dreykov.
Vostokoff and Shostakov escape aboard a jet, though pursuing Red Room agents force them down into a crash. Romanoff encounters the Taskmaster still trapped in a cell. She is unwilling to kill Antonia all over again, so she releases her, then flees for the flight deck. There she finds Belova standing atop Dreykov's escape jet. Belova blows up the jet's engine, killing Dreykov in the blast and throwing herself out into the open sky. A scene of Belova, Romanoff, and the Taskmaster skydive-fighting ensues.
Once they have all arrived on the ground, Romanoff blasts the Taskmaster with a red vial, freeing Antonia from her programming. As wreckage continues to fall, two groups arrive: Secretary Ross and a convoy of U.S. soldiers, and the freed Widows aboard a still-functioning Red Room jet. The Widows take Vostakoff, Shostakov, and Belova away. Romanoff remains to face Ross.
The film jumps forward a week. Romanoff meets with Mason, who has now secured a S.H.I.E.L.D. Quinjet. Romanoff sets out to free the other Accords-non-compliant Avengers, setting up the events of Avengers: Infinity War.
In a post-credits scene set after Romanoff's death in Avengers: Endgame, Belova visits Romanoff's grave. There she meets Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who offers her a job assassinating Clint Barton, who de Fontaine says is responsible for Romanoff's death.
This film came out to a somewhat lukewarm reception back in July, and I'm not talking financially, although that saga of ticket sales undercut by streaming rentals and the ensuing lawsuit from the star whose pay was accordingly undercut was a thrill ride to watch in its own way. I mean critically, and with audiences, it didn't really splash. Having now seen it, I have a guess why: it's too gritty. It's not even that gritty, but this is the closest an MCU film has gotten to the feel of the Dark Knight trilogy. The situations are played very dark, the humor is very sparse and very dry, and the action is very painful looking. Marvel movies always have fight scenes, they're always violent. But it's usually not this real-seeming. When the Hulk grabs Loki by the feet and bashes him into the floor over and over, it's a violent scene, but it's also comical. It's like a cartoon. Loki lays there a while, gives a little groan, but he's fine. He doesn't die. He doesn't even seem much hurt later. In this film, though, there's a lot of bone-breaking, with visibly disjointed aftermath.
That said, this film basically succeeds at what it sets out to do. Telling the mysteriously hinted-at backstory of an established character can and has backfired. Official explanations often can't live up to the stories already playing out in the audience's heads. This film helps itself by not just telling Romanoff's backstory straightforwardly, but rather telling it by telling a more contemporaneous story that deeply ties to it. So we come away from Black Widow with a deeper understanding of Natasha Romanoff as a character without having every reference ever made to her past laid out in front of us.
More than once the Red Guardian claims to have fought Captain America, despite the fact that, in the MCU, Steve Rogers missed the entire Cold War era while frozen in the Arctic. I'm not sure what to make of this. Shostakov is probably just lying, but Falcon and the Winter Soldier did show that there were other supersoldiers active during the mid-20th Century. Maybe Shostakov's boast is a hint at one of those.
Dreykov worked well as a villain here, though I do think that the collapse of the Soviet Union could have played a bit more directly into his story. I did find it odd that he died in a big fireball, rather than more conclusively, where there was a body to recover. Usually, this is done to leave things open for a character to return later, but that seems like a really bad idea, given that this film was all about finally killing him and Natasha Romanoff isn't even still alive, at this point.
The Taskmaster is a sore point for a few comic fans. Aside from the mimic powers and the skull mask, Antonia Dreykov isn't really anything like the comics' Tony Masters. At least not yet, she isn't. She's very conspicuously left alive at the end of this film, and I could easily see her experience having to act against her will for years leading to her becoming a takes-no-sides-but-her-own mercenary more akin to Masters in subsequent appearances.
And speaking of people introduced in this film who we'll be seeing again, Florence Pugh as another Black Widow makes a strong first appearance here. It seems she's being set up as the antagonist for this Christmas's Hawkeye series. Other than that, her affiliation with Contessa de Fontaine points to a possible team-up with U. S. Agent and maybe other people later. It seems she, or somebody, is setting up their own team of Avengers.
Recommendation & Rating
If you didn't see this when it was in theaters, and you're wondering whether to see it now, I'd say whether you'll like it or not depends on how much you liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's a similar sort of superhero/spy thriller film, albeit darker in overall tone. I would not recommend it to people who prefer the Guardians of the Galaxy or Spider-Man film's funny moments and sci-fi action set-pieces. I also wouldn't recommend it to younger MCU fans, since a lot of the fights are more brutal than the franchise standards.
Black Widow succeeds in showcasing the title character while telling its own compelling story. It's not the best MCU film, but it's exciting and never collapses under the weight of detailing a known character's backstory.
8/10 — Without significant negative worth. Able to be recommended to the interested without reservation.