It is rather embarrassing that it has taken Marvel this long to make a Black Widow film. While Marvel has always moved at a snail’s pace when it comes to diversity and inclusion – out of 24 films, Black Widow marks only the second female led work – it has been especially infuriating for fans who have watched other Marvel characters cut in line ahead of Ms. Romanoff, more than once in some cases, in the cinematic queue. Ever since she first appeared in Iron Man 2, fans have watched her arc grow from problematic (Avengers: Age of Ultron) to emotionally resonating (Avengers: Endgame) on the margins of other character’s stories. Even now, when finally given the chance to claim the spotlight she longed deserved, her coming out party is crowed by those around her.
Black Widow may be billed as the origin story of assassin-turned Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), but it is clear the film’s real goal is to establish Romanoff’s sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) for future Marvel projects. Taking viewers back to Ohio in 1995, Cate Shortland’s film opens by showing how the lives of the estranged siblings were sent down a turbulent path the moment their parents, Alexi Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), were forced to flee America. Despite their seemingly wholesome family demeanor, the clan were under cover Russian operatives working for Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a high-ranking officer in the Soviet Armed Forces.
In charge of the Red Room, a secret Soviet program where abducted young girls are brainwashed and trained to become assassins known as “widows,” Dreykov’s businessman aesthetics cannot mask his ruthless nature. He is the type of man whose seemingly untouchable status makes him even more embolden and deadly.
Decades later, Dreykov’s legacy still haunts Romanoff as he is the reason for many of the sins she is still trying to atone for. Despite believing that Dreykov is dead, Romanoff finds herself pulled back into her former life when she receives a mysterious package from Belova. Recently freed from the clutches of the Red Room, Belova came into possession of the antidote that could help deprogram active widows around the globe. Setting aside their differences, the siblings soon realize that they will need to reunite their makeshift family, and deal with the baggage that comes with it, if they hope to find out the Red Room’s latest location.
Fractured familial bonds permeate every corner of Shortland’s superhero espionage tale. Set after the events of Captain American: Civil War, Romanoff spends a good portion of the film trying to make sense of what has become of The Avengers. While she has faith that that her chosen family will comeback together, she is less keen on revisiting the former spy family that was thrusted upon her. It is when exploring how Romanoff navigates the shattered glass of the past, first attempting to step over it completely before realizing one will always get cut if left unaddressed on the floor, that Black Widow is as its messiest from both a narrative and pacing perspective.
Although it is evident that each member is carrying their own emotional scars and insecurities, many stemming from witnessing the dark side of a world where widows are treated like disposable guinea pigs, the film struggles to reconcile these beats with the Marvel checkboxes it must also tick. Shortland has proven in her previous works that she knows how to tell stories about families pulled apart, however, here she is attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole. This is most evident when observing the Mission: Impossible style journey Romanoff’s family ultimately embarks on and the roles that Shostakov and Vostokoff play in it.
Although Shostakov and Vostokoff are interesting characters on their own, they are not given that much to do in the grand scheme of things. As a result, the climatic set piece feels uneven and unnecessarily chaotic. Furthermore, as fun as it is to see Shostakov boisterously cling to his alleged past glory, while attempting to hide his loneliness, it is never as compelling as observing the sisterly dynamics that play out over the course of the film. Black Widow works best when focusing on Romanoff and Belova as they slowly try to rebuild their bonds while evading groups of widows and the relentless Taskmaster, a villain with the photogenic ability to mimic fighting techniques.
Using the sibling banter to enhance several thrilling set pieces, that feel straight out of a Jason Bourne film, if Bourne was being chased by Terminator’s T-1000, the first half of Shortland’s film moves at a brisk pace. It is here where Belova’s charisma really shines, while Romanoff’s vulnerability is allowed to grow organically. In exploring the similarities and differences between the siblings, both women were trained to be killers by the Red Room, but only Romanoff truly knows was it means to be free; Shortland raises intriguing commentary regarding patriarchy and the trafficking of women. Unfortunately, despite its dark opening credits, this is still a film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so the themes are not explored with much depth.
As MCU films go, Black Widow, much like the family at its core, is a messy affair. Although the action sequences are entertaining, the awkward dramatic beats hinder the overall flow of the film. Black Widow reinforces that the family we envision is not always the family we get, but sometimes they are exactly who you need.