If there is one glaring side effect of the current surfeit of Marvel films now out in an increasingly superhero-overwhelmed world, although to be fair Black Widow is the first release in the MCU since July 2019 (Spiderman: Far From Home), it’s that everything is starting to merge together into one action-filled, super high-octane blur.
In and of itself that’s not a problem since if there is one thing that sells to Marvel’s core fan base, it’s that there are lots of spectacular action sequences and they are ever louder, longer and more visually intense.
That they also usually stick to relatively the same formula is also part of the formula for many people, and this is fair enough in one sense, since what you sometimes want when you go to the cinema is big, dumb diverting blockbuster fun.
In Black Widow, however, set after the highly disruptive events of Captain America: Civil War – although the final credits scene is set following Avengers: Endgame; thanks to Vulture for that piece of chronological clarification – while we get the usual explosions and hard fought battles and good vs evil confrontations, we also good a great deal emotional resonance than is usual in an MCU entry.
It’s not that the MCU films are devoid of emotional impact.
You would have to have a hard heart indeed not to have felt all the feelings at the end of Avengers: Infinity War or have had your heart pulled out of your chest as the curtain fell on the startling events of Avengers: Endgame, but by and large Marvel movies chief stock in trade has not been a deep dive into muscular, substantial, emotional-filled storytelling.
That all changes with Black Widow, which takes audiences back, way back in fact, to the very start of Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) life which is, as you might expect from someone with trauma swimming in her anguished eyes, was not an altogether happy one.
Quite why it was happy is something that has to be left to the revelations-heavy narrative, but suffice to say, the orphan of Marvel lore finally gets a retcon-ed family only to have it taken away from her for 21 years by some fairly horrific events.
While specifics are too spoiler-laden to be of any value here, Natasha’s family redefines the idea of “complicated”, a construct that seems happy but which a great deal of pain underlying it especially when events conspire to pull it part one brutal, infinitely painful night.
Just over two decades later, and Natasha has clawed her way out of the cesspool of misery that was much of her life, having found a home and family with her fellow superheroes – though at the time of Black Widow, there’s less domestic bliss and more violent fury, much to Natasha’s regret – but you never ever really leave family, even her strange mess of one, behind, and so when her younger sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) pops up suddenly needing her help, she leaps right in though not without some serious misgivings.
You can understand her reluctance; after a lifetime spent escaping her past, Natasha has not wish to go diving straight back into it.
But with General Dreykov (Ray Winterstone), the Russian mastermind who made Natasha and Yelena’s lives hell during their years of harsh militaristic training at the Red Room where they became fearsomely good, highly-controlled killers, back on the scene, and with the means provided by Yelena to bring him down in hand, Natasha really has no choice but to take a stand, the stains of the past be damned.
Black Widow, which also sees her reunited with her father Alexei Shostakov / Red Guardian (David Harbour), who is a pleasing study in comedic narcissism and earnestness, and her mother Melina Vostokoff/Black Widow (Rachel Weisz), who is part of the same program as her brutalised daughters, thus carries a considerable amount of emotional behind it, delving deep into the great pain that defines Natasha and her strange, twisted but broken family.
While all this may sound deadly serious and emotionally intense and it is, there’s also a great deal of levity to be had too.
Florence Pugh is a notable standout in this regard, delivering her feisty, comedically-laced lines with a chutzpah that is refreshing and a marked contrast to her far more intense older sister.
At one point, the two sisters are driving furiously fast through the streets of Budapest, pursued by still-brainwashed fellow Black Widows and a scarily tall, relentless, helmeted figure known as the Taskmaster, which ends up with Yelena sustaining some fairly bloody if survivable, injuries.
As Natasha defends her plan on the run, Yelena quickly responds with “Yeah, great plan; I love the part where I almost bled to death”; during the same piece of traffic ducking and diving, Yelena steals a commuter’s car off him and after Natasha admonishes her for doing so, Yelena, without missing a beat, says “What? You want me to chase after him and unsteal it?”
And so it goes on and on, Pugh delivering killer line after hilariously killer line but also proving herself more than capable of playing affectingly scene-stealingly vulnerable too.
You could well argue that Pugh steals the film off Johansson at more than one point, and given that Black Widow is the first film in Marvel’s Phase 4 slate that makes sense (especially given the Yelena-centric final credits scene), but really the two actors stand toe-to-toe beautifully, each playing masterfully off the other and giving the film a hugely rich emotional heart that lifts it well beyond its frequent action-jammed scenes.
Black Widow may not the finest Marvel film out there but it is a fine piece of deeply emotive filmmaking that dares to spend a significant amount of its running time taking a deep dive into the backstory of one of its hitherto main characters and by so doing, cleverly setting up the next run of MCU films.
You can only hope that Marvel doesn’t forget the lessons of Black Widow, that it is manifestly possible to have whizzbang action and spectacular scenes (the taking down of Dreykov and his lair is gloriously over-the-top) and still have a beating heart right throughout the narrative, one so palpably affecting it lifts the film out of the blurred miasma of MCU films and makes it something movingly and memorably special.