By the standards of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow feels a little dated.
We’re now at a time when superhero exploits are filled with powerful cosmic gods, bizarre sitcom worlds, and space lizards that control the flow of time. Compared to that, a globe-trotting story about secret agents doesn’t sound too exciting. There isn’t a single alien or witch. So though Black Widow technically kicks off the fourth phase of the MCU — which also includes the likes of Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — it plays out more like an earlier, more straightforward Marvel movie. Really, it almost doesn’t feel like a superhero film at all. Think of it more like the MCU’s take on James Bond.
Black Widow starts out rather peacefully, with a stereotypical nuclear family in a small suburban town. It looks idyllic — but it’s also fake. The family is part of a front for Russian super soldier Alexei Shostakov, aka the Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a spy who doubles as a scientist. Very quickly their covers are blown and the family is forced to escape, and along with their “daughters” — Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) — they make a daring escape to Cuba.
The story then fast forwards 21 years. (Chronologically, it takes place right after Captain America: Civil War.) Romanoff is on the run, hunted by the head of a mysterious organization known as the Red Room, which also happens to be the group behind the Black Widow program. Eventually, she partners with her estranged sister, now also a trained Black Widow herself, to take them down.
The movie has a lot of the hallmarks of a classic spy movie. There’s a shady evil group (the Red Room utilizes mind control for nefarious means, including keeping the Black Widow agents in line), jet-setting jaunts to a handful of countries across the globe (that includes the likes of Cuba, Morocco, and Norway), a technological MacGuffin that everyone is after (a secret serum that negates the effects of mind control), and lots of daring escapes where virtually everything explodes (in the first hour alone there are two scenes that involve near-death escapes via plane or helicopter). Romanoff even has a sketchy friend who can get her whatever she needs, whether it’s a trailer to hide out in or a helicopter to fly to Russia.
As an action movie it’s solid, with lots of fun set pieces to gawk at and a particularly menacing villain in Taskmaster, who stalks Romanoff like a Resident Evil monster crossed with Winter Soldier. It also works surprisingly well as a standalone story. While there are a handful of references to other movies, and fans will likely enjoy delving deeper into Romanoff’s backstory, you can mostly ignore all that if you want, and you’re still left with an entertaining spy thriller. (The most Marvel-y thing about Black Widow is its post-credits scene.)
If that’s all Black Widow was, it would be a fine, if forgettable, romp. What makes it work is the surprising amount of humor and how it elevates the rest of the story. Romanoff is as dour as ever, but here it feels deliberate; the movie does a great job of humanizing a character that’s far too often been relegated to a supporting role. And her more serious tone is balanced out nicely by comic relief from Harbour and Pugh, who see her as family rather than an Avenger. Harbour absolutely hams it up as a walking definition of toxic masculinity, a former superhero past his prime who is slowly realizing he may not have been all that heroic to begin with. You really get a sense of his character as he sits in a Russian jail, easily beating a lineup of inmates at arm wrestling, all while getting a tattoo and making bold, if impossible claims, about his long-term beef with Captain America. He has so much fun, even struggling to squeeze into an old costume from his glory days.
Pugh, meanwhile, deals with a life full of hardship — as we learn in the movie, only one in 20 Black Widow agents actually survive the training — with full-on sarcasm. She’s constantly making quips to lighten the mood, is irreverent in her glee for death, and takes a lot of joy from making fun of the most serious Avenger. You never knew the Black Widow needed a little sister mocking every instance in an Avengers film where she does something meant to be sexy, aloof, and cool, until Pugh is doing contortions on the floor of a gas station asking why Natasha always poses like that.
The highlight of the movie is the strange, uncomfortable, and yet familiar dynamic that arises when the four get back together two decades after pretending to be a family. They settle into their old rhythms despite the years, and violence, that separate them. When the sisters rescue the Red Guardian from a secluded, maximum security Russian prison, he can’t help but lean into his fatherly instincts in his own unique way, gleefully boasting about their murderous careers. It’s the same misfit energy that binds the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Maybe it feels like a family because they’re the only ones who can stand each other.
Black Widow still doesn’t reach the heights of the best Marvel has to offer. But at the very least it manages to carve out its own space in the ever-crowded MCU. Instead of pushing things forward, it offers up blockbuster action that’s almost comforting in its familiarity: laughs, explosions, and characters you can’t help but root for, no matter how bad they actually are.
Black Widow premieres in theaters and on Disney Plus Premier Access on July 9th.