Black Widow is the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to hit theaters in over a year (it’s also available via Disney+ Premier Access). Yet, while its opening was delayed due to the pandemic, even if it had come out on its original release date in May 2020, it still would have felt like it came later than it should have. That’s because, although Black Widow is billed as the first movie in Phase 4 of the MCU, the story actually takes place between Phase 3 films Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. That means the events of Black Widow happen at least five years prior to the storyline the MCU intends to tackle in the rest of Phase 4.
As a result, while there’s a lot to appreciate and even some things to love about Black Widow, it’s hard to shake the feeling the movie should have happened years ago. After all, this is a character who was introduced way back in 2010’s Iron Man 2 and has appeared in half a dozen additional MCU films since. The fact that she’s waited this long to get her own movie feels like a missed opportunity in the usually meticulously planned franchise. Nonetheless, the film does a nice job filling in some of the blanks of Natasha Romanoff’s mysterious past and introducing several compelling new characters.
Black Widow, which was directed by Cate Shortland and written by Eric Pearson, starts with a flashback to a brief time in Natasha’s childhood that may have been the only period of relative normalcy in her life. It then moves forward 21 years to show how the character, once again played by Scarlett Johansson, is living following the dissolution of the Avengers after Civil War. Soon, a near-fatal encounter with a mysterious adversary leads her to seek out Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), the long-lost “sister” she hasn’t seen since their “family” was forced to go their separate ways when they were children.
Like Natasha, Yelena was trained as a Russian assassin and forced to do her handlers’ bidding. After claiming her freedom for the first time in her life, she and Natasha team up to take out the Red Room, the organization that trained them. Their quest leads them to reunite with their former mother and father figures, Melina (Rachel Weisz), a brilliant scientist, and Alexei (David Harbour), aka Red Guardian, a super-soldier who was supposed to be Russia’s answer to Captain America.
The best parts of the film happen when the faux-family members come together in various configurations. The history and enduring feelings of attachment between them make for delightfully entertaining dysfunctional family dramedy that’s unlike anything the MCU has done before. The stand out here, by far, is Pugh, who absolutely crackles as the sister who both loves and resents Natasha. She’s funny, smart, and kicks ass — and she brings out the best in Johansson, whose scenes with Pugh are some of the most fun and dynamic in the film.
The same can’t be said about the action. While the film has some exciting stunts and exhilarating moments, overall the action feels more lackluster and by-the-book than it does in many other MCU films, especially the two Captain America movies in which Johansson played a major role. This is a shame in a story that features Taskmaster, a villain who’s supposed to be capable of mimicking all of the fighting styles of the Avengers combined. Ultimately though, neither Taskmaster nor Red Room mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone) feel nearly as interesting or intimidating as they should.
Moreover, even though she’s the title character, the film doesn’t shed as much light as fans may hope on what makes Natasha tick. She was the one and only Black Widow who ever left the clutches of the shadowy Red Room, but the movie only nods at the personality traits that gave her the strength to do so, a missed opportunity that continues to obscure a major part of the character’s backstory. Instead, it’s Black Widow‘s introduction of a whole new set of family relationships that is the most engaging and creative thing about the film — and what makes it worth watching. If only the movie had come sooner it might feel more vital to the MCU’s main storyline.