Florence Pugh and Scarlett Johansson deserve credit for demonstrating that their foes-then-friends dynamic could sustain a whole film.

Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, has been a fixture in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2010, frequently noteworthy but seldom the star. After all, her first appearance was in Iron Man 2: someone else’s film. Despite being played by Scarlett Johansson, Ant-Man managed to sneak ahead of her in line for his own standalone film – two of them, in fact. Not exactly a criticism; those Marvel films are excellent, frequently brilliant diversions, a welcome splash of low-stakes frivolity amid all the warring global devastation.

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But Johansson is smarter than that, even if the character of Black Widow, as written, has occasionally felt like a glorified side story, intensified by the star playing her and a few well-placed empathic bullet points: nods to the traumas she endured as a child in the super-secret program that made her who she is; some painful condolence with the likes of the Hulk — stuff for fans to remember.

She’s a skilled Russian assassin with a background in hand-to-hand fighting. She can’t shrink like Ant-Man or grow to the size of the Hulk. She isn’t a billionaire super-genius like Tony Stark, nor is she a physiologically altered freak show like Spider-Man, Scarlet Witch, Captain America, and so many others. She’s a spy with a shady past.

Cate Shortland’s latest MCU film, Black Widow, expands on the shards of what we know about Natasha Romanoff and tries to make it worth a two-hour watch. It begins in 1995, in Ohio, when she is a youngster with a family — but don’t go too detailed. Suffice it to say that Natasha’s parents, Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), are not her parents. Her sister is not her sister. In comes the haunting past.

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You know, espionage. A family on the run; a family that isn’t really a family; Midwestern Americans are actually Russians with hidden agendas.

When we return to the present tense — to action set after Captain America: Civil War — we’ll find an intriguing scheme in “chemical subjugation,” a deeper look at the Black Widow program and the man who runs it, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), an enigmatic foe called the Taskmaster, and, far more satisfactory than all of that, Florence Pugh. It’s a curious movie: it starts strong with its greatest action, storytelling, and wit, only to be sidetracked by exposition that, like a black widow, works to let the air out of the room for being so obvious rather than enhancing what’s there.

According to Natasha’s revelation in Age of Ultron, we already knew that the mysterious program that created her did unthinkable horrors to her as a kid, including a forced hysterectomy. Black Widow handles these and other ideas — the phony family company, the nationalism flavored with a definite Cold War flavor, the spy-op that turns youngsters into killers — as simple backdrop; none of it, aside from the childhood trauma, appears to carry much weight.

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It’s all simply dressing for the same old origin narrative, one that, luckily, doesn’t push too hard to link to the surrounding MCU content; but also barely skims the surface of its own plot.

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It’s not really a spoiler to suggest that at the center of this tale is essentially a child-trafficking operation — something that feels implied from what little we know about the film’s heroine up to this point. It’s also a recognized Soviet cliché. What it boils down to for the film is a lot of playing both sides emotionally. These assassins, known as Black Widows, are heartless! Until they aren’t. They’re a vicious bunch! Until they aren’t. They are anonymous, they are (in Dreykov’s words) “garbage,” and they are (in Pugh’s Yelena Belova’s words) weapons without faces. Until they flip and become Avengers — or, I suppose, Avengers’ would-be sisters.

The film announces its spy-flick credentials with a worldwide sweep (Cuba, Morocco, Norway, Budapest… Ohio), a snowbound jailbreak, a bit of slip-sliding down a building’s sloping roof, and a charming half-second of Natasha streaming a Bond movie. It’s all simply signaling; none of it would be as interesting if we hadn’t already seen it because the film does so little with what it has. The joy, as is so frequently the case with the MCU, is in recognition: feeling like we “know what the movie is doing,” that we understand what it’s trying to conjure, that we’re in on the joke, that we get it. OK. So we understand. So, what now?

Above all, Pugh and Johansson deserve credit for demonstrating in the film’s first act that their foes-then-friends dynamic could sustain a whole film. Pugh is especially brilliant when the film lets her be when she gets to mock the film’s pretenses, the hero-worship stuff that, at this time, has become a little tired. But, at the same time, the franchise’s desire to poke fun at itself has grown tiresome.

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For a time — for the stretch of the film that is action-forward, with no exposition, just characters duking it out, with a shootout turning into a knife fight turning into a weird mutual-choking exercise involving a curtain – the film seemed like it was going beyond that. Lean, a little nasty, and largely direct. Just Johansson and her opponents were kicking each other’s asses. I’d still watch the film. I doubt the MCU will ever make it.

There’s a lot of anticipation surrounding this picture. We haven’t seen a Marvel film since Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019. It’s a significant jump from a picture every few months to nothing for two years, so the issue is whether the Marvel juggernaut will continue to roll or whether moviegoers have grown tired of the entire superhero thing.

It doesn’t help that Black Widow isn’t as daring or inventive as the wacky Marvel TV programs WandaVision and Loki. Still, it does cover comparable geopolitical ground as The Falcon and The Winter Soldier with far more panache.

The standalone side from the pandemic, this film has been in the works for a long time. It’s fantastic to see Johansson in charge of such a slickly entertaining female-centric action film, and it’s not every big-budget movie that addresses the coercion of women’s reproductive rights as a form of control. Fortunately, Black Widow is a well-known character, and fans have long desired to see Johansson in a standalone film.

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Black Widow is smart, seductive, and brilliantly acted. Despite having no narrative to speak of, it manages to be a lot of fun. It’s subdued in comparison to Endgame’s cosmic histrionics, but it’s still cinematic. The MCU’s cinematic return is more exciting than Godzilla, immeasurably better than Infinite, and rivals F9. All thanks to the four stars who nailed the task.

Black Widow Movie Ending Explained! How is it Connected to MCU?

Although Black Widow concludes Scarlett Johansson’s MCU tale, it also looks ahead to the franchise’s future while linking into previous Marvel films.

The MCU has finally told Natasha Romanoff’s narrative in Black Widow. While it is a less definitive finale than Avengers: Endgame, it is also fairly forward-looking. As Scarlett Johansson exits the MCU, with only the remote chance of a comeback in the far future (depending, no doubt, on some narrative gymnastics), her genesis story has finally been told.

In the end, Black Widow began and ended roughly where everyone expected it to: in the aftermath of the Civil War’s climax events and before the reemergence of the Secret Avengers, respectively. However, timeframes in the MCU are no longer linear, as Natasha’s tale spans her childhood in the 1990s and the long-teased critical events in Budapest nearly two decades later. There was no investigation into what happened in the Red Room for her. What transpired in that room was less essential to Natasha’s identity than what happened outside of it. Still, it almost felt like a victorious, defiant rejection of the notion that there was where her genesis resided.

Despite how perfectly it would have fit into the MCU’s Phase 3, Black Widow could and would not have been created at any other moment in the franchise’s history. This is a narrative that is about the experience of abused and mistreated women as it is Natasha’s own delayed story. The MCU has just never done stories like this before. Here’s what the finale of Black Widow actually means, how it relates to other Marvel flicks, and what it means for the future of the MCU.

The Black Widow Finally, Natasha received her memorial.

It wasn’t the big, star-studded ceremony that was Tony Stark’s burial after Endgame. Still, MCU fans finally got to witness Natasha pay her respects. Given that their relationship had always been real, it seemed natural that her sister would be the one to grieve for her rather than the family she selected following her defection from the Red Room.

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It’s sad that Julie Louis-Dreyfus’ appearance somewhat undercut the poignancy of the moment. Still, it was obviously determined that the set-up for Yelena’s return was worth it. At the very least, it provides more information about the enigmatic Contessa than The Falcon & The Winter Soldier provided, implying that she works for an as-yet-unconfirmed mystery enemy. Whether that is true or not remains to be known, but having a moment snatched from Black Widow fans as a character overpowered by a comedic nose-blow is a betrayal. And, more importantly, it doesn’t explain why Nat couldn’t have a memorial within Endgame’s runtime.

What Happens Next for Yelena? Who She Meets at the Grave of the Black Widow

For those who haven’t seen The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Julie Louis-Dreyfus’ Contessa Valentina (or “Val”) is a new MCU power figure with the mission of hiring superpowered or extraordinary individuals for an as-yet undetermined project. According to speculation, that might be the MCU’s version of the Dark Avengers or a fresh take on the Thunderbolts. What matters is that Val now has two recruits, with Yelena joining substitute Captain America John Walker, albeit their chemistry appears to be different.

Yelena’s relationship with her looks to be more of a dissatisfied employee feeling, which has lasted long enough that when Val delivers her a dossier on a target, she refers to it as “your next target.” It’s unclear when she hired her, but it had to be before Walker, whom Val appears to woo with flattery.

Val also reveals why Yelena is in Disney+ Hotstar’s Hawkeye, suggesting Clint Barton as her next mission and responsible for Natasha’s murder. Clearly, while the MCU’s in-universe population is well-versed in what transpired between the Avengers and Thanos’ forces, the real facts of Nat’s death remain a well-held secret. Along with Tony Stark’s sacrifice, this is a betrayal of the noblest single deed in the MCU. The fact that Yelena trusts Val’s evaluation of Hawkeye indicates that she knows more than she’s saying and that her strategy involves teaming up with the Avengers.

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What the Ending of Black Widow Really Means

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The most heinous act perpetrated by Avengers: Endgame against Black Widow was not murdering her but attempting to persuade the audience that she did not deserve her own monument. That was in response to the long-running unfairness of Natasha never having her own tale in the MCU. She was either a supporting character, a minor hero, or her significant stories were left untold.

Whatever the intricacies of Black Widow’s scheme are, the most important takeaway is that she finally saw that reversed. Not only that, but Natasha’s tale – and the story of the liberated Red Room victims – is an overt metaphor for the exploitation of young women and girls, which has similarly not found a home in Hollywood to be conveyed. This film would not have existed even a decade ago.

It’s a crucial narrative undercurrent, and it’s fitting that Natasha’s legacy in the MCU was liberating others who suffered the same horrors she did and stopping Dreykov from taking additional victims. But Black Widow’s narrative was significant, and it needed to be ultimately shared. After all, she was the hero that recruited Hulk, brought down HYDRA by exposing her own faults, led the Avengers in the aftermath of Thanos’ snap, and turned Hawkeye away from the abyss.