Marvel has had the proverbial red in its ledger for quite a while now. One of the biggest stars to sign up and commit to underpaid supporting roles within multiple entries has been Scarlett Johansson. More so than Robert Downey Jnr. or Samuel L. Jackson she has proven the franchise’s mainstay over various self imposed phases. After a decade on the frontline of team-ups and falling outs with the Avengers, they finally announced her solo adventure… and then killed her character off. This prequel, set curiously between Civil War and Infinity War, helps to finally fill out her much hinted at dark backstory while giving her a chance to hand the baton over to a future heir apparent. You might expect this ultimately inconsequential late chapter to either create a get out clause to Natasha Romanoff’s big heroic sacrifice or to be a celebration of a character and star who has added so much needed continuity and sex appeal to the ever expanding Marvel universe… but really this is a superhero tinged spy thriller made because everyone realised Scar-Jo deserved her own movie away from the boys and there was a financial appetite for it. Why it has come so jarringly late in the cycle is anyone’s guess -it certainly feels more essential and cinematic than Doctor Strange or Captain Marvel’s origin features, and is a more compelling release than that childish Ant-Man sequel. Whether you approach Black Widow as an orphan of scheduling conflicts or mega budgeted contractual obligation, it is probably fair to say it should have been made in 2017 ahead of other projects. Still… this is easily the best Marvel movie since Thanos clicked his big purple fingers. Catch it at a multiplex on the biggest screen if you can!
Once you can get your head around where this belated piece of the jigsaw puzzle fits into the overall picture, the lack of urgency and impact to the overarching grand narrative proves negligible. It is a really entertaining spy thriller which relies more on stunts and chutzpah than magic lasers and weightless CGI. For the first two acts this plays more like an action movie in the Bond / Bourne / Hunt mode. Maybe not quite as muscular as those series at their finest but certainly of that ilk. Bones crunch, cars rev and you are emotionally engaged with the bodies in flight. The sleeper family on the run prologue is particularly remarkable for its patiently escalating peril and getting young Natasha in the driving seat while introducing her “family.”
Maybe it will annoy the hardcore fanbase but Cate Shortland’s direction is notable for its real world trappings, generosity to showcase the actors natural chemistry and pointed avoidance to give in to the usual Marvel cliches over the first 90 minutes. That doesn’t last – the big finale takes place in swirling, weightless digital debris, the big bad proves a damp squib afterthought and the stand alone nature can’t help but hint at potential THINGS TO COME when it should just focus on telling its own story. I doubt indie director Shortland needed to really be on set all that much once the Red Room begins to self destruct for twenty long minutes but what she delivers before is pretty admirable. We’ve come a long way since we met the Black Widow cleavage first, spilling out of her leather jump suit in Iron Man 2. Who was expecting a decade later to see her in story that references child soldiers, FGM and the disposability and exploitation of young girls out with the white western world? Does it work as a kid’s movie? I don’t know, that’s another question but I appreciated the maturer, dourer and astute aspects of it.
Really though this is should be a showcase for Johansson to shine away from flirtations with the more recognised male capes. She does seem a little subdued, overly happy to share the spotlight with her new cast members. It definitely feels like her character who saves the day ultimately but maybe after multiple movies pitching so other characters can knock it out of the park Johansson is a little too generous here letting other characters steal the scenes. Always the team player? Or maybe just a little bored of the playbook now her place in the queue has eventually come to the front after so long waiting? If this definitely is her last hurrah as THE Black Widow, you kinda wish it felt more definitively her movie or capped her heroics off with a celebratory legacy moment that foreshadows her eventual universe saving demise. It feels weird we are all aware the closing scenes were written and shot knowing her P45 is already filled out and in the post but she just wanders over casually to a superjet as if she’ll be back in the office after the long weekend.
What an impressive support cast! The Marvel behemoth can afford the best money can buy. If I were Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone or the incredibly underserved Olga Kurylenko I’d just thank my agent for my new swimming pool and not get too bogged down in the sparseness of the part on paper. It is the double team masterclass of scene stealing from Florence Pugh and David Harbour you have to watch out for. Still at a point in their respective burgeoning stardoms where they still feel fresh to audiences, they grab the ungainly aspects of this movie and just run with them. I’m sure their best moments were scripted by a factory of jobbing writers as with all Marvel entries, but they make their quips and little personable bits of business feel more organic than anyone else has managed to in over 22 other films. You relish the scenes where Johansson, Weisz and they get to play off each other and walk away knowing that either could handle this kinda huge affair off their individual backs with flair. If Kevin Feige does plan to spin-off either stand out into their own solo jaunt then hopefully next time he won’t wait until a decade has drained all the essential juice out of the adventure. Ending on the ultimate positive, they make this a summer blockbuster worth booking ahead for.
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