"You are the only superhero person that I know."
It took over a decade, but fans can now celebrate as Scarlett Johansson's beloved Avenger has finally gotten her long overdue, well-deserved stand-alone film. Though for many, that celebration will be short-lived as Cate Shortland's Black Widow introduces audiences to a new style of Marvel storytelling, one that reads more 007 than comic book heroin.
Opening in Ohio, 1995, Shortland introduces us to Natasha Romanoff's childhood. The film, containing a certain degree of mystery and intrigue, works to showcase the broad strokes of her upbringing without giving away too many details. The result is a heavily foreshadowed segment that though attractive, adds little beyond the expected tropes and clichés.
When the Romanoff family lands in Cuba, floppy disc in hand, there are few moments of uncertainty as the primary plot points begin to take shape. When Natasha and her sister (Florence Pugh) are sedated, and the opening credits are cued, there is no doubt, stylistically speaking, that Black Widow is an MCU film unlike any other.
After the opening credits, which montage us forward twenty-one years, we see Johansson's Romanoff standing over a public sink, a mob of officers closing in on her outside. Situated just after Captain America: Civil War, Romanoff, along with the other Avengers, is on the run, evading the government as she works out their differences.
As one would expect, the bathroom Natasha is occupying is different from the one the officers have surrounded, providing a generic tease to the painfully basic and rudimentary approach Marvel has opted for with this film.
But rest assured, where the story lacks, the action more than compensates. Though often over the top and painfully ridiculous, the world surrounding our lead protagonist is evolving, most notably in the number of other Widows that exist. With Romanoff staying off the radar in a secluded safe house, things need to stay low-key. But a busted generator sends her into town, where she comes face to face with the lethal Taskmaster.
A giant explosion and impressively choreographed fight sequence on a bridge gets the adrenaline pumping, even if we aren't entirely sure what is going on. The quick movements and sharp camera angles add to the emotion, one that intensifies as Natasha grabs her once discarded mail and leaps into the river.
The mail in question is a package from her sister containing vials of a drug that release the nervous system of the power and command that their once leader Dreykov (an engaging Ray Winstone) has over his newly assigned Widows. Unlike when Natasha went through the program, Dreykov now relies on science to ensure the loyalty of his soldiers. That assurance is confirmed after an intense, albeit humorous, sibling brawl transforms into an ambush in an apartment in the heart of Budapest.
As questions become increasingly easier to answer and a car chase sends the two ladies through the streets of the bustling city, it's hard not to smile at the extreme antics on display. Albeit entertaining, Black Widow often bridges over into ridiculous territory. Though the move is acceptable, the finesse audiences are accustomed to seeing within the MCU is missing as Black Widow struggles to capture and maintain its delivery.
Nevertheless, as the sisters work to rescue their father from his life sentence and reconnect with the rest of their supposed family, the predictable third act comes into view. With a hefty amount of baggage to unpack and a rather dramatic incident involving a pig, we learn that the Romanoff's connection to Dreykov runs deeper than Natasha initially assumed. It is here that the film, once again, begins to lose its focus, undeniably prioritizing visual aesthetic over narrative competence.
I do give credit to Shortland, the finale sequence is visually stunning. But with regard to storytelling, there isn't much there. Instead of keeping audiences on the edge of their seat, the film attempts to stir up laughs and lighten the mood, likely attempting to remove any sense of dread centered on the known facts surrounding Natasha's eventual fate. Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed the film. However, its inability to commit to its style and thwart the seemingly unspoken requirement that all female lead action films must center on family, love, acceptance, and forgiveness is frustrating. I am not surprised; I simply wish and expect more. Both Johansson and Romanoff deserve as much.
*This film is available in theaters and via Disney+ Premiere Access.