Versatile and action-packed ‘Black Widow’ finds a way to surpass high expectations 



To fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, aka the M.C.U., Natasha Romanoff has been a hero without a real identity in over twenty movies. Thankfully, talented Australian director, Cate Shortland, has provided some clarity as well as depth with her latest, “Black Widow.”

Audiences first met her in Jon Favreau’s 2012 hit sequel, “Iron Man 2,” a decent yet overall less-beloved sequel where Johansson stole every scene she was in-whether it was flipping Favreau’s Happy Hogan in the ring or taking out a dozen bad guys at one time. But who is she? She’s a dynamic Russian spy-turned-Avenger who sounds twice as sad as Ray Charles when she proclaimed in the trailer for her new stand-alone film, “you don’t know me.”

It was the truth but thanks to Cate Shortland’s thrilling and grounded (at least for a Marvel flick) espionage action-drama, that mystery is gone. Did “Black Widow” live up to the hype? Before a virus brought down the movie house last year, every M.C.U adventure release carried the weight of seven seas, everybody looking for something to burn down about it–even the most tiny detail. Let’s just say this held up the Kevin Feige comic book movie standard while elevating one of its core characters. If this universe had four pillars of support, Johansson’s unstoppable yet self-tortured hero is in there. Like her spy buddy, Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), she’s the relatable one in the group–a human being trained to be a machine, even if she never wanted to be.

Before we get into the other goods on display, let’s talk about the plot without spoiling much. The film picks up after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” which saw the Avengers disbanded and spread out all over the globe in two groups. As Natasha notes early on here, they got divorced. She’s the orphan in that debacle, laying low and off the grid. What we’ve known about Romanoff is that she was taught her ruthless fighting skills in The Red Room, which was orchestrated and led by Dreykov (the ever-sinister Ray Winstone). But “Black Widow” takes us back into her past to illuminate her story and give her a true identity. Unlike Tony Stark and Steve Rodgers, who are referenced here often, Johansson’s tale never got the origin treatment until now. The reveals are endless, but let’s keep it brief.


We find out she has a sister named Yelena (Florence Pugh), who may be more dangerous than her now but was once her best friend. They were little girls whose parents, Melina and Alexi (Rachel Weisz and David Harbour), whisked them off to an airport runway in Ohio before they were drugged and shipped off to the Red Room. That’s the first scene of the film, which goes on to show the family coming back together decades later to track down Dreykov and stop his madness.

I’d rather say no more, and get to what I loved about this movie. Spoilers are for amateurs.

Johansson FINALLY got her moment and hit a home run here in understated fashion. The Jewish actress first took our breath away at 17 years of age in “Lost in Translation,” and scored two Academy Award nominations two years ago. But it’s this role that has made her a hero to young girls and women across the world, the part that connected. The depth the actress brings to the role has always been a living thing in past Marvel movies, but here it’s allowed to breathe. It’s her movie.

Even if Pugh and Harbour nearly steal it. Call them the secret ingredients that once again shows how smart Feige and company are at compiling wonderful collections of actors, both young and seasoned. Pugh is quickly becoming a household name; anyone who saw her wit and ferocity in “Fighting with My Family” knew that before her 2019 moment, which included an Oscar nomination for “Little Women.” Her scenes with Johansson resonate due to the talent and ingenuity shared between the two actresses. Buying them head-on should have been a far more difficult task, one they help make seem organic.

Harbour is beloved as the noble sheriff on Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and a collection of smaller film roles but his Red Guardian-a man who thought he was going to be Russia’s Captain America-really unleashes the versatile array of his abilities. His Alexi is a dark horse comedic weapon. He’s the main source of comic relief here. More than anything, it’s the humility and hilarity that Harbour gives the still super-strong yet out-of-shape Alexi that sings the most. I hope he sticks around.

Cheers to Weisz for shaking up our expectations and keeping things unpredictable in her layered role as a caregiver whose combat skills are only outran by her regret. Again, a talented actress with a meaty role in a comic book adaptation.

But the biggest hero trick here is taking a larger-than-life world and grounding it in a “Captain America: Winter Soldier” environment. Like The Russo Brothers’ breakout 2014 film, Shortland’s and a team of storytellers-Eric Pearson, Jac Schaeffer, and Ned Benson-keep the two-hour film humming with depth, humor, and a few plot twists that should please and intrigue. The action sequences and stunt work carry a “Bourne Identity” flavor. Don’t get me wrong, Johansson and Pugh take many beatings and miraculously survive a series of perilous setbacks, but there’s blood and deep-rooted, yet complicated, family stakes that keep it level-headed.

While I’m not sure how rewatchable it will be and can admit that some parts of the film made the pacing lose its balance, I was left very satisfied. After all the delays and release date swaps, I can proudly say this film delivered in a big way–it satisfies the cravings Marvel fans surely have after a two year wait between cinematic releases (“Spider-Man: Far From Home” was the last). But don’t worry. If you had to walk into this film cold to the previous films, enjoyment could still be had. It’s a modern-day take on an action-centric spy thriller.

At the end of the day, “Black Widow” is the sizzling commencement that officially launches the summer movie season, something that “Fast 9” failed in a big way to do two weeks ago. Like Justin Lin’s film, this film has over-the-top action that requires a suspension of disbelief-but it also has plenty of heart, rhythm, and reason to exist that no bald-headed, muttering anti-hero could ever discover.

Thanks, Cate Shortland. You set a wicked stage that allowed us to see Johansson’s Nat as a real multi-faceted character while introducing us to other engrossing personalities. The expectations were pretty high and “Black Widow” found a way to surpass them.