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Black Widow is in UK cinemas and streaming on Disney+.

‘Madame Natasha’ – code-named the Black Widow – was introduced in comics in Tales of Suspense #52, The Crimson Dynamo Strikes (1964), personally ordered by Nikita Kruschev to spy on Iron Man. Initially just a seductive secret agent, she returned 12 issues later with a super-villain outfit, only to reform and defect, then bounce from comic to comic as a supporting character, only occasionally landing her own title.

Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha debuted in the otherwise unsatisfactory Iron Man 2 (2010), and punched far above her weight in Avengers and Captain America movies before dying heroically to save half the universe in Avengers: Endgame (2019). Perhaps to keep Johansson on board with the franchise, Disney/Marvel have long promised a Black Widow solo vehicle – set, obviously, in a gap between earlier movies when the heroine was still alive.  

As is becoming a habit, an indie director – Cate Shortland, best known for the claustrophobic abduction drama Berlin Syndrome (2017) – has been given the wheel. She has to manage the evident tension between sequences required of every Marvel movie (spin-and-kick fights, Hindenburg-like large flying objects coming down in flames, ‘reveals’ of new action figure-worthy outfits and antagonists) and smaller, intimate, odd character beats that tie the set-pieces together.

As a wry supporting character, Johansson’s Natasha was a scene-stealer; here, she has to take the straight woman lead, while Florence Pugh’s Yelena – a character who has taken over the Black Widow title in comics – nibbles at Natasha’s poise with barbed observations about her signature action pose and guilt-trips her into a murky espionage fantasy that contrasts with higher-flying Avengers antics (“I bet God from space doesn’t have to take percodin after fight“).

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow as Florence Pugh as Yelena in Black Widow (2021)

This Black Widow’s career is entirely post-USSR, which cuts out quite a bit of her interesting comic book backstory. Like Red Sparrow (2018), which now seems like a more realist take on the character, Black Widow gets round the geopolitics by suggesting Russia that hasn’t really changed since the Cold War – acknowledging that David Harbour’s Red Guardian was once intended as a Soviet answer to Captain America. 

Drawing on the TV series The Americans (2013-18), Natasha’s origin story now features a faux-family assembled for a deep cover mission to Ohio in the 1990s. This makes for an interesting, unusual set of tensions among people who aren’t really related but once had to pretend they were, with the fillip that Yelena didn’t initially understand the charade. In an aside that provides a rationale for the odd sexlessness of Marvel’s recent movies, Yelena bitterly explains (in a Killing Eve accent) to her fake father that no, she isn’t angry because she has her period because the Red Room he handed her over to performs a “radical hysterectomy” on all its recruits so she can’t have a family of her own and is permanently in a simmering rage.  

At one point, Natasha holes up in a Norwegian caravan/safe house and watches Moonraker (1979), glumly reciting Roger Moore’s worst quips at the screen, but if Black Widow – the ‘spy’ Marvel movie in the way Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was the ‘space opera’ Marvel movie and Ant-Man (2015) the ‘heist’ Marvel movie – taps into an era of James Bondage, it’s the up-and-down run of Pierce Brosnan.

Ray Winstone does an evil Russian accent, vehicle chases wreak havoc on busy Hungarian streets, a mid-film set-piece (a prison break during an avalanche) is stronger than the overfamiliar climax (another crashing sky-base) and wildly fantastical elements (a cyborg mimics any fighting style, tossing a Captain America shield or sprouting Black Panther claws) don’t quite gel with the generally sombre, low-key, scruffy tone of the personal story.

Further reading

Avengers: Endgame review: the finale these heroes deserve

By Kim Newman

Avengers: Endgame review: the finale these heroes deserve

Cate Shortland on escaping suburbia in Australia’s arthouse cinemas

By Cate Shortland

Cate Shortland on escaping suburbia in Australia’s arthouse cinemas

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