Black Widow review: Marvel thrills, James Bond-style
This slick MCU superspy adventure is back on Disney Plus now.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
This could be superspy Black Widow's toughest assignment yet. Two years ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe crescendoed in an interstellar Endgame bursting with a galaxy of superhero stars. After a lengthy COVID-enforced hiatus, how can a spy flick with barely any superpowers measure up? Scarlett Johansson and a perfect cast of new faces made Black Widow a pandemic-busting box office success, and, following its summer premiere in theaters, it's finally available on Disney Plus for no extra fee.
The film opened July 9 in theaters and streamed on Disney Plus for an extra $30 Premier Access fee that same day. It hit digital Aug. 10, and DVD and Blu-ray Sep. 14. And it's now free to all Disney Plus subscribers without the fee.
Disney's streaming service eased fans back into the MCU with winningly weird TV shows WandaVision and Loki. That means Black Widow's slick but straightforward action could feel even more out of date. Thankfully, this sure-footed, entertaining comic book adventure takes the spy formula and sprinkles it with Marvel magic for anyone who wants a twist on James Bond thrillers like No Time to Die, also out this week.
Black Widow (the film) is the first solo outing for Natasha Romanova (Johansson), an assassin-turned-Avenger and an ice-cold Russian killer. So why does her movie open with young Natasha enjoying an idyllic childhood in the sun-dappled suburbs of 1990s Ohio? When Marvel's super-cops SHIELD close in, Natasha's nuclear family is revealed to be less all-American and more like The Americans.
Cut to Natasha on the run from US authorities again, except now she's grown up into Scarlett Johansson, and she's in trouble for going rogue in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. Throwing her phone in a fjord, she's soon safely off the grid and tucked up in a bolthole watching James Bond movies on a tiny TV. But trouble still comes a-calling, and this time Natasha faces her own traumatic past as she settles old scores.
From opening flashback to post-credits scene, everyone dons skintight superspy outfits and it's off around the world for an adventure in the style of Bourne and Bond, complete with rooftop snipers, motorbike stunts and hidden supervillain lairs. A Q-style quartermaster even doles out help along the way, while a remorseless masked henchman makes things difficult.
Black Widow isn't as grittily inventive as the brutal, stunt-filled fights of Charlize Theron's similar espionage punch-up Atomic Blonde, or as seductively stylish as recent Bond films like Skyfall. And it remains to be seen if Black Widow's set pieces are as indelible as any stunt in the Mission: Impossible series -- or even Marvel's own memorable moments like Winter Soldier's elevator fight.
Still, director Cate Shortland takes the spy-on-spy action to the eye-popping next level. Even with no superpowers at play, each relatively grounded fistfight or foot chase quickly dials up to entertainingly ridiculous proportions. It isn't Fast and Furious 9 level of physics-defying ludicrousness (thankfully), but big scenes like an icebound prison break are exhilaratingly heightened enough to be worthy of the big screen.
Most importantly, Black Widow highlights Marvel's biggest (or at least most consistent) strength. The big-budget effects are all very fancy, and there have been plenty of stirring set pieces. But starting with Iron Man in 2008, Marvel movies have had their share of baggy storylines, underwhelming action and forgettable enemies. Black Widow's plot revolves around yet another device the film doesn't seem to care about, while baddie Taskmaster is an undercooked villain. But what makes Marvel movies work every time is the casting. When you get right down to it, the MCU is built on a foundation of characters and stars you want to hang out with.
In this case, Johansson is matched with Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour as Natasha's spy family. And every one of them is a joy to watch.
It's great to see Pugh on the biggest possible stage after her star-making turns in unsettling horror flick Midsommar and touching wrestling comedy Fighting With My Family. As Natasha's younger "sister," she's like Black Widow with the gloves off. Their spiky sisterly banter is both infectious and touching as they bond over their shared trauma and equally skilled use of violence. Johansson knows exactly what she's doing as she glides from kicks to quips, but Pugh's charming combination of vulnerability, comic timing and general badassery comes very close to stealing the whole show.
Harbour has a ball going from Stranger Things' burly sheriff to larger-than-life superhero. With "Karl" and "Marx" tattooed across his knuckles, the bearded and bear-like Russian hero known as the Red Guardian just wants the Communist Party to feel like a party. Like Pugh, Harbour is in scene-stealing form with his hilarious and grubbily sexy performance.
Rounding out the dysfunctional family, Weisz has less of a showboating role. But she plays amusingly off Harbour's broader performance and brings a touch of class to proceedings. Whether they're together as a unit or sparking off each other individually, the interplay among these four stars carry Black Widow when the relatively straightforward story meanders or action peters out.
There's a lot of pent-up expectation built up around this film. We haven't had a Marvel movie since 2019's triple-whammy of Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home. It's a big change going from a film every few months to nothing for two whole years, so the question is whether the Marvel juggernaut will keep on rolling or whether audiences have cooled toward the whole superhero thing.
It doesn't help that Black Widow is hardly as audacious or imaginative as bonkers Marvel TV shows WandaVision and Loki, though it definitely covers similar geopolitical territory to The Falcon and The Winter Soldier with considerably more panache.
Helpfully, Black Widow is an established character, and fans have wanted to see Johansson in a solo movie for years. Pandemic aside, this film was a long time coming. It's great to see Johansson leading such a slickly entertaining female-centric action flick, and it's not every big-budget blockbuster that tackles the coercion of women's reproductive rights as a means of control.
Smart, sexy and perfectly cast, Black Widow barely has a story to speak of but still manages to be a huge amount of fun. It may be understated compared with Endgame's cosmic histrionics, but still feels worthy of the big screen. The MCU's cinematic comeback is more thrilling than Godzilla, infinitely better than Infinite and gives F9 a run for its money. All thanks to four stars who nailed the assignment.
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