While the Marvel train kept a-rollin' during the pandemic with home offerings like Wandavision and Loki (A thousand thank yous, Disney+!), the blockbuster movies have been on ice for a couple of years (Screw you, Pandemic!).
The drought ends with the long-delayed Black Widow, a fine sendoff for Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff, and an even finer intro for Florence Pugh's new Marvel entry, Yelena Belova, Natasha's little sister. It's the film Natasha deserves, and the Marvel movie universe returns to the big screen in typically solid fashion.
Say this for Marvel: They do a nice job of telling origin stories in a mode that always feels new. This time, they go with director Cate Shortland, who delivers a heartfelt, gritty ode to the beloved Natasha while not skimping on the face-melting action. There are sequences (including an air battle late in the film) that account for some of Marvel's best. You won't be disappointed if you choose to view this on the local big screen rather than at home (the film is available on Disney+ as a premium rental during its theatrical run). Black Widow delivers the cinematic adrenaline, and Marvel canon, you've been waiting for.
The story goes back to Natasha's early years and, no surprise, her childhood truly sucked. Her dad is Alexei, played by the always fun David Harbour. Harbour's Alexei is an exiled former Russian superhero dying to put his suit back on. When he does, there's some extra pounds around the waist...and on the butt, and in the upper thighs, etc. Harbour's character is a flawed man with a terrible dark side, but the actor also finds the humor and humanity in him.
Rachel Weisz is Melina, Natasha's mother, a renowned Russian scientist who teaches pigs to do human things. Natasha and Yolanda are given a strange upbringing by Alexei and Melina, followed by time with the film's main villain, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Dreykov raises the girls in his Red Room (no relation to Twin Peaks), where they both learn the ways of the assassin by means of abuse and mind control.
Natasha has always been the most "human" of the Avengers, and it makes sense that the bad guys and action in Black Widow are a little more down to earth. No time travel, no exaggerated superpowers, no multiverse. This chapter deals primarily in more realistic adversarial battles. Well, realistic is an exaggeration, but it's absent of the mostly supernatural stuff. Doctor Strange doesn't show up with the Infinity Stones and Thor isn't throwing hammers. This one has car chases and fist fights!
Black Widow is, of course, a prequel, which deals primarily in the time before Natasha dying her hair blonde and heading into the events of Infinity War and Endgame. Credit the writers, and Johannson, for making Natasha's time on screen enjoyable and exciting despite knowing her eventual fate. As always...STAY FOR THE END CREDITS. It always amazes me when everybody gets up and leaves during Marvel credits. Will they ever learn?
Johannson and Pugh are an atomic duo, convincing ass kickers with good senses of humor. Their initial meeting is one for the ages, lacking hello hugs and leaning more towards guns in the face and knives at the ribs. The transfer from actresses to stunt people during this sequence is seamless. Again, Marvel has its shit together.
This is Shortland's first foray into blockbusters, and she aces it. Many things in this movie whirl around your head and explode, and Shortland keeps the visuals realistic and the editing assured. The film is high and tight on all tech counts. The performers do a fine job with those other, more introspective parts of your brain that don't need to see things blowing up all of the time. The film is well balanced.
Johannson, more than likely, moves beyond Marvel to other adventures from Black Widow. Pugh on the other hand has just begun in the universe, her Yelena playing a prominent part in the upcoming Disney+ series Hawkeye. (Yes, Jeremy Renner will soon be shooting those arrows again.) It's a fitting, exciting, and heartwarming pass of the baton, and a reminder that while a bunch of books have closed in Marvel world, the entertainment future is firmly in hand.