This was my first visit to the cinema in over a year, and it was good to be back in the dark watching a movie on the big screen. This movie, the latest instalment in the MCU was delayed a couple of times because of the whole COVID situation, which is a shame as it felt like we’d already waited a long time to see Scarlett Johansson’s character take centre stage.
The problem is that while the movie is hugely entertaining, Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is massively outshone by some of the supporting players. The film is a bit of an odd one, timeline wise as it takes us back to the gap between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, which is a while ago now. We all know what’s coming up for the Widow, and compared to the threat of Thanos, this feels like small potatoes.
The movie kicks off in 1995, when we see a young Natasha as part of a Russian undercover operation with her “parents” Melina and Alexei (Rachel Weisz and David Harbour) and younger sister, Yelena. When their mission is complete, and with SHIELD hot on their trail they have to flee, which reveals that Alexei is actually a supersoldier and they manage to get to Cuba, where they meet Alexei’s old friend and are separated. Natasha is returned to the Red Room, the project that trains young girls into Widows, Russia’s covert assassins, and Yelena is also taken by the programme although they are separated.
Jumping forward over two decades Natasha is on the run after aiding Captain America during the Avengers’ infighting and goes into hiding. Yelena (Florence Pugh), however, still works for the Russians and is hunting down a young woman in possession of a secret chemical. When exposed to the chemical Yelena is freed from the Red Room’s mind control and it’s revealed the woman she has just fought and killed is an ex-Widow herself. Yelena sends the chemical to Budapest, and it’s delivered by a friend to Natasha, now hiding out in remote Norway.
Unfortunately, the Red Room have sent the Taskmaster after the vials too, and this masked assassin, capable of mimicking any fighting style, attacks the former Avenger, who barely escapes. In Budapest the “sisters” reunite, although tensions exist over the fact that Natasha never looked for Yelena and clashes over her position as a superhero and motivations. They decide they need to shut down the Red Room, free the other girls from the mind control and bring down Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who Natasha thought she had already killed as part of her defection to SHIELD.
But, in order to do so they need help, and this sets them on a course that will see them having to break Alexei aka The Red Guardian, from prison and track down Melina, who may know more than they think.
This has all the MCU hallmarks of fast, engaging action and great humour, while also managing to land some genuinely moving character moments, unfortunately, a lot of these come from the other characters, and this feels less like Johansson’s swansong and a way to introduce Pugh’s character, who looks set to continue in the MCU (Thunderbolts?). Yelena is incredibly likeable and funny, and as the complete innocent caught up in the undercover op has the most heartbreaking arc, as she hears the others discuss the mission as having been fake or an act, whereas to her it was the happiest time of her life and she viewed them as her family.
To this end one of the most emotional scenes comes between her and Harbour’s buffoonish Alexei. Alexei is shown to be a washed up braggard, obsessed with his glory days. After he talks about his dissatisfaction with his time undercover, and how boring he found it, wishing he was fighting elsewhere, Yelena talks of how hurt she was. And then, in a simple, fun moment Alexei shows that he did care and has fond memories of playing her father.
For me the movie belongs to Pugh, and I can’t wait to see more of her, although I’d also love to see Harbour come back as I’m a big fan of his work here as the former soviet superhero.
There are other problems with the movie, namely that as with Ant-man and the Wasp we have a situation where a villain feels overly sympathetic, and also that the presence of several other Widows makes Natasha seem less special or skilled. She’s not even portrayed as having been the very best of the group.
There are some nice touches, and great humour, but it’s sad to see the title character be one of the least interesting things in the movie. It’s entertaining enough and a solid action blockbuster with a shadowy conspiracy vibe, but it feels like a lesser entry in the MCU canon, and I kinda think it might have been better done as a miniseries like Wandavision or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Still, it was great to be back in the cinema and this gets most things right. 7/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.