Black Widow (4 stars)

The titular superhero finally takes centre stage in this emotional MCU prequel from Cate Shortland

The 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow, has taken its time to get to us for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because of the repeated release date delays forced upon it by the pandemic and, secondly, and more significantly, as a solo outing for the KGB-assassin-turned-Avenger has long been mooted, including as early as 2004, prior to the creation of the MCU. Oddly, it's taken the character being killed off (in 2019's Avengers: Endgame) to get the film off the ground, so it assumes the form of a prequel. Scarlett Johansson returns as the titular bad-ass, or 'poser' as her little sis amusingly puts it, while acclaimed Australian director Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome) is the first woman to take the helm of a Marvel film alone.

Following a short 1995 prologue which finds a young Natasha Romanoff (played initially by Ever Anderson) living as part of an Ohio-based family, who are revealed to be an unrelated quartet of Russian spies, the film skips forward 21 years to after the events of Captain America: Civil War. With the Avengers in turmoil, Natasha takes time out to reunite with her fake family to launch an assault on General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a dastardly and globally influential foe she thought she had killed as part of her defection to SHIELD. 'I'm actually better on my own,' she tells her fixer friend Mason (O-T Fagbenle) when he brings up the sore subject of her superhero pals.

Dreykov is Natasha's former master, the creator of a network of oppressed 'widows', kidnapped as girls and mind-controlled into complicity. We meet Natasha's 'younger sister' Yelena (Florence Pugh) as she recovers her free will and the two are reunited before they track down their 'parents'; Alexei (David Harbour) describes himself as 'the Soviet Union's first and only super soldier' and is currently languishing in jail, while Rachel Weisz's brilliant scientist Melina still has connections to Dreykov's shadowy organisation the Red Room.

Shortland's sensitive and beautifully fluid directorial approach and some superb casting pay dividends in a film that gets under the skin of an Avenger more than we've perhaps ever seen in a Marvel movie. Shortland's technique suits the naturally understated Johansson, who has been swamped, side-lined – and, as she herself has pointed out, objectified – by some of the brasher films in the series, and she convincingly conveys Natasha's sense of a childhood lost.

Given that it plays out against a backdrop of female enslavement, the themes are undoubtedly dark, yet Black Widow glosses and skips over a lot of the detail, maintaining enough of a feeling of fun and familiarity, whilst distinctly doing its own more feminist thing. A handful of preposterously scaled set-pieces (the aerial climax, a prison break-out) should please die-hard Marvel fans but these feel more generic, and it's the hand-to-hand scuffles and Alexei's feats of marvellous strength that provide the real excitement and better suit Shortland's intimate style.

Although some of the plotting in Eric Pearson's screenplay (based on a story by Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson) is a bit rushed and clunky and Winstone isn't a fabulously memorable bad guy, the central quartet's dysfunctional family dynamic is a hoot; Alexei and Melina get stuck into some gross flirting, Pugh's Yelena is hilariously sulky (enjoyably and anomalously recalling the actress's Oscar-nominated turn in Little Women) and believably adrift after years of subjugation, and the buddy stuff between her and Johansson is adorable, while the undercurrent of hurt and regret that all four bring to the table is very persuasive indeed. It all adds up to a film that feels like a fittingly emotional final hurrah for a much-loved heroine.

Available to watch in cinemas from Wednesday 7 July and on Disney+ Premier Access from Friday 9 July.

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Black Widow

  • 4 stars
  • 2021
  • US
  • 2h 13min
  • 12
  • Directed by: Cate Shortland
  • Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone, Rachel Weisz
  • UK release: 7 July 2021

Scarlett Johansson's Marvel character gets her first solo movie.