“Black Widow” opens with a flashback sequence that takes audiences back to before Natasha Romanoff was a Russian spy turned Avenger. In this sequence, she is just a young girl biking on the street of a city in Ohio and eyeing fireflies with a twinkle in her eye. These are the days of innocence — the days of family dinners and listening to classic rock. Then Natasha is plucked out of her beautiful yet straightforward life and forced into the Widow-maker called the Red Room.
The flashback sequence is enchanting and gives audiences a taste of Natasha’s past while leaving them with questions. Featuring both family drama and conflict as they escape S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, this is one of the best Marvel movie openings. Following this bold escape, one of the best opening credits sequences in any Marvel Studios movie rolled.
During the credits, grainy footage introduced the Red Room and its unique Black Widow training methods. We see young women captured and brainwashed by faceless figures opposite staged home movies. There are girls learning combat, watching mind-numbing television, and photos of Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the Russian figurehead of the Red Room. He will be Natasha’s primary target.
The flashback and credits sequences promise something new for Marvel. They boldly step into a world of espionage that is reminiscent of “Captain America: Winter Soldier” but with a visual twist. “Black Widow” is initially espionage by way of arthouse. Marvel arthouse may have to wait until maybe Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals” in November because after this opening, “Black Widow” falls hard into retreading other Marvel adventures.
We enter Natasha’s story following the events of “Captain America: Civil War.” She is on the run, and her sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), recently has been broken from Dreykov’s mind control. This moment is particularly silly because red sciencey pixie dust shoots up, touches her face, and breaks her from the Red Room’s spell. “Black Widow” appeared to be a grounded Marvel spy movie, but this is an element that pulled me right out of its “grounded” world. It would have been far more interesting for Yelena and Natasha to break the “spell” through words rather than Widow wizardry.
After the sisters reunite, they work together to end the Red Room and Dreykov’s reign of terror. But they won’t be able to do it alone. They’ll need the help of their father (David Harbour) and mother (Rachel Weisz). Scarlett Johansson is fine as Natasha in her stand-alone film, but the producers surrounded her with people who effortlessly stole the show. Harbour and Pugh are both the heart of the film and funny in their roles.
Harbour plays Alexei with a pathetic charm. He’s a man who longs for the past when he donned the suit of Red Guardian, a super-soldier who may or may not have beaten Captain America in combat. He also tries to connect with his daughters even though he is partially responsible for their indoctrination.
Pugh’s performance is understated but effective. When she relaxes her tough exterior with a tear in her eye, it’s believable. We’re supposed to follow the plot with Natasha, but Yelena is the film’s emotional center and the one who most changes. Weisz is good in her role, too, but the writers don’t give her enough to do.
Johansson does her best to give Natasha emotional depth, but it’s surface-level at best. She’s made better movies in the past, and I’m thankful she’s leaving Marvel behind because she’s much better in non-Marvel movies. She deserved better than this by-the-numbers movie as her sendoff.
The beginning of “Black Widow” may have intrigued me, but it failed to hold my attention. Dipping one toe into a different form of filmmaking isn’t bold enough for Marvel to break boundaries. It’s time to jump in feet first. I hope “Eternals” or “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” forced them to make that jump.