Heading into Black Widow, the latest Marvel superhero flick, I wasn’t sure what I hoped for—because I wasn’t entirely convinced it was necessary. The origin stories for the members of the original Avengers lineup were covered over a decade ago, and it’s not like I needed to know how Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson’s) story would end. (Spoiler: She dies halfway through Endgame and is given a send-off that neither felt complete nor made me want more.) In the other Avengers movies, I’d heard enough—too much, in fact—about all the “red” in Nat’s “ledger.” She’d already revealed she’d been forcibly sterilized, and she’d gotten half a love story. What else was there to explore?
Sure, the character of a brainwashed assassin gone good is intriguing enough to build a movie around, hypothetically. And her position as the first female member of the team pointed to the idea that this movie should exist. But to be honest, after the totally (I think) mediocre Captain Marvel, I’m no longer sold on female heroes for female heroes’ sake. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Black Widow is mostly unconcerned with its place in the Marvel canon; in fact, it doesn’t even try to add too many twisty new dimensions to its titular character. It’s a more straightforward spy-action flick in the vein of *Mission: Impossible—*and it’s just as fun.
Like the currently airing Loki, another spin-off about a canonically dead character, Black Widow finds a pocket of time when its protagonist was M.I.A.: Natasha’s months in hiding following the attack at the U.N. in Civil War. A wanted fugitive, the former killer is just trying to stay out of everyone’s crosshairs when she finds herself in possession of a chemical agent that can de-brainwash Red Sparrow girls like herself. It sounds more complicated than it is: The juice is the MacGuffin, so Nat’s got a team to round up. And not just any team: her family. We meet dad Alexei (David Harbour), mom Melina (Rachel Weisz), and sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) in an extended cold open reminiscent of The Americans—establishing that for one brief shining moment, young blue-haired Natasha had an adoptive spy family in suburban America.
Though their faux-familial unit has since fallen apart, Natasha needs them to accomplish her goals, leading to a jail-break sequence I suspect would be thrilling in a theater and a dinner scene that’s as close as Marvel will ever come to Arthur Miller. Oh, Alexei does long for his glory days as the Soviet version of Captain America, but not as much as he longs for Melina. In a franchise notorious for being weirdly sex-averse, it’s almost relieving to know adults in this universe are not only familiar with the concept, but into it.
Johansson, Weisz, and Harbour are all having fun without relying on smirks or sarcasm, and Pugh is an absolute gem. All four seem relaxed and at ease in their characters. No one’s trying too hard to be “iconic” or GIF-able. The sisterly chemistry between Johansson and Pugh is delightful, but it’s in the foursome moments that the script really pops. Jokes that might seem obvious—mom says wear a seatbelt!—are just a little more delightful delivered with complete seriousness. Natasha has referred to the Avengers as her “family,” but I don’t think I’d want to do Christmas with all that testosterone and angst in one place. The Romanoff-Belova-Shostakov-Vostokoffs, though, I’d hang with.
There’s a hefty dose of Cold War oversimplification at work in the political motives of generic villain Dreykov (Ray Winstone). America equals freedom; Iron Curtain equals control. But unlike the hemming and hawing and endless debates that plague the other Marvel movies, here it’s just a pretense for the fights. And the fights are good!