Black Widow marks the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to hit theaters since Spider-Man: Far From Home was released two years ago, and it was well worth the wait. In a perfect world, Scarlett Johansson's first standalone film as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff would have happened 10 years earlier, but Black Widow manages to be an extremely welcome case of "better late than never." Johansson's return as Natasha could have felt forced after her death in Avengers: Endgame, but Marvel succeeded in creating an entertaining and well-deserved swan song for the franchise's original heroine.
After an action-packed, high-stakes opening that follows young Natasha and her odd little "family" of Russian spies, Black Widow picks up right where Captain America: Civil War left off. Natasha is on the run, not yet reunited with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and the rest of the fugitive Avengers who are seen together at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War. As Natasha plans to go into hiding, an unexpected reunion with her "sister," Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), leads to the discovery that girls are still being forced into the "Red Room" assassin training that creates the Black Widows. Natasha must bring together the "family" from her youth and go on a new adventure that forces her to confront the past she tried to leave behind before joining SHIELD.
Hardcore Natasha Romonaff fans might be disappointed to learn that Black Widow is much more of an ensemble piece than some of the standalone Marvel movies that came before it. However, if you don't mind watching Nat share the spotlight, Black Widow is nothing short of a great time. Johansson shines in the role she first portrayed 11 years ago in Iron Man 2, building on the Avengers: Endgame character development that showcased her selflessness. Natasha's growth is only heightened by the work of Pugh, David Harbour (Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian), and Rachel Weisz (Melina Vostokoff). Pugh manages to steal every scene she's in, as the film feels just as much hers as it does Johansson's. The movie is much funnier than expected, thanks to Pugh and Harbour, whose Alexei serves as a delightful antithesis to Captain America. Harbour takes that lovable yet flawed father characteristic that makes him such a standout in Stranger Things and mixes it with a brutish, dopey charm. The chemistry between the core four stars elevates the heart and humor of the film and will make you wish Marvel had brought them together years earlier.
Black Widow's only true weakness is its villains, who are beyond forgettable when you consider Marvel's dynamic run of Thor: Ragnarok's Hela (Cate Blanchett), Black Panther's Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame's Thanos (Josh Brolin), and Spider-Man: Far From Home's Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). While many Marvel Comics fans will be thrilled to see Taskmaster in action, there's not much to the character beyond the impressive fight scenes. As for Ray Winstone's Dreykov, he is an important part of Natasha's backstory and therefore helps boost her personal stakes, but his place in the film leaves something to be desired. After years of villains with immense flair and personality, it's hard to be captivated by a man whose sole trait is imprisoning young girls.
Black Widow is well-paced and filled with exciting action sequences, led by director Cate Shortland. Making the movie a prequel to the last two Avengers films lowered the stakes by a large margin, but sometimes a fun little side quest is a preferable treat. The balance of action and comedy is an enjoyable return to Marvel's simpler days and while the movie isn't the franchise's all-time best, it has some of Marvel's best character dynamics to date. Black Widow never quite matches up to the perfection of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but the film still marks the franchise's strongest action-packed spy thriller since the Cap sequel was released back in 2014.
Black Widow will be available to buy on Disney+ Premier Access, but if you have the chance to see it on the big screen, you should absolutely take it. The film will be the ideal return to the theater for any moviegoer, even those who are just casual fans of the MCU. While it's hard not to dwell on the fact that Black Widow should have been made a decade ago, the new movie still manages to be a well-placed addition to the franchise and the perfect send-off for Scarlett Johansson and Natasha Romanoff.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Black Widow arrives in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 9th.