Eleven years is a long time to wait for a character finally to be given its due in a stand-alone movie. While Ironman, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk all had their own starring vehicles before The Avengers, Black Widow only appeared in a supporting role in Iron Man 2 before that team-up, which truly secured the Marvel Universe’s box office power. True, she had more screen time than Hawkeye’s cameo in Thor, but the downside was the sexist nature of the role. Captain America: The Winter Soldier solidified Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow as an integral part of the Universe, while her sacrifice during Endgame was devastating, even as it fulfilled the character’s arc. But through these past eleven years fans have continued to clamor for a stand-alone movie.
Now after that long wait, extended by over a year because of COVID, Black Widow finally gets her due. It’s not so much that the film’s time has come as the field was plowed in preparation for this seed to grow. When Marvel began its own conquest of the theaters, after having its most popular characters (Spider Man, the X-Men) make millions for Sony and Fox respectively, there was resistance to the idea of a female superhero. One of the emails released in the Sony hack years ago was a mucky-much at Marvel saying a female superhero would never work. Then came Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, which blew that prejudice to dust. Captain Marvel did a similar service for the Marvel Universe and marked the first time a woman helmed a Marvel film with Anna Boden co-directed and co-writing the script with her partner Ryan Fleck. That opened the way for Black Widow, and for it to be directed by Australian director Cate Shortland.
The film begins by expanding on Natasha’s backstory. We meet the pre-teen Natasha sporting blue-dyed hair and living in Ohio in the early 1990s with her “family”: blond younger sister Yelena, mother Melina (Rachel Weisz), and father Alexi (David Harbour). We soon learn it’s all a front, a KGB created family to give Alexi cover while he steals research from SHIELD and deliver it to Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the head of the Red Room where female agents are trained to be Widows. They barely make it out of the US to Cuba, with Natasha having to step in to save them all when Melina is injured. The reward for Natasha and Yelena’s service is to be put into the Widow program.
Twenty-one years later, Natasha (Johansson) is laying low in Europe after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Secretary of State Ross (William Hurt) is gunning for her, but she stays several steps ahead of him. At the same time, Yelena (Florence Pugh) is part of a team of Widows going after one of their own who’s gone rogue. Yelena mortally wounds the woman, only to have her release Red Dust from a vial. It’s the antidote for the Widows, releasing them from the mind control drug that forced them to obey Dreykov’s orders. Yelena gathers the other vials and flees.
Mason (O-T Fagbenle), a longtime contact of Natasha’s, sets her up with a safehouse in Scandinavia. He also delivers a box filled with mail from the safe house in Budapest that Natasha had used. Natasha and Hawkeye mentioned Budapest a couple of times in previous films, and we learn that the operation they worked there was the assassination of Dreykov. Mixed in with the mail is a box containing the Red Dust vials. Natasha is ambushed by the Taskmaster, a relentless assassin who’s after the chemical, but the Black Widow manages to escape with the vials. She heads for the Budapest safe house where she finds Yelena in residence. Yelena lets Natasha know that Dreykov is still alive and running the Red Room from a secret location. To find it, they will need the help of Melina and Alexi. All the while the Taskmaster hunts them all.
Black Widow is one of the most grounded of the Marvel Universe movies, since its main characters aren’t so much superheroes as people with preternatural skills. Rather than massive amounts of computer graphic special effects, much of the movie is good ol’ stunt work. One of the best set pieces is a car and motorcycle chase through the streets of Budapest with camerawork that puts you in the middle of the action.
Shortland, though, isn’t just interested in action. The movie focuses on character development, particularly of Natasha, Melina, and Yelena, and mines a good amount of humor as well. Yelena kids Natasha for being a “poser” for doing her classic landing crouch. They also bond over a vest that Yelena has because it has a tremendous number of pockets. This is a movie that not only passes the Bechdel test (whether a movie can have two women characters who talk about something other than the male lead), but it may be the first superhero movie to win that test with its female-centered cast. The good news is, while Shortland is the first woman to solo direct a Marvel film, she won’t be the last; Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao is putting the finishing touches on The Eternals, due out later this year.
The movie owes much to the spy films of the ‘60s and ‘70s with double-crosses and triple-crosses galore, but that keeps the story moving at a breakneck speed throughout its 2¼ hour running time. Black Widow easily slips in near the top of the Marvel Universe, on the same level as The Winter Soldier and Black Panther. It was a long time coming, but it is a joy that it has finally arrived.