Review: ‘Black Widow’ (Marvel’s Moonraker)

A retconned legacy for an overlooked Avenger.

Following the events of Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself pursued by Secretary Ross (William Hurt) in violation of the Sokovia Accords. Slipping out of the country to a remote hideaway, Natasha is attacked by a masked assailant who mimics her fighting moves as fast as she decides them. When she discovers the assailant’s actual target is a cache of vials containing an unknown red substance, a picture of two young girls tells her who sent them. Enter Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a former Black Widow trained in the Red Room as Natasha was… and who posed as her sister in the mid 1990s during a Russian spy infiltration. The reunion sets in motion a plan to bring down the training facility created by Dreykov (Ray Winstone) once and for all, but they’ll need the help of their former fake father Alexei (David Harbour) and their mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) who both have secrets of their own.

As a mysterious and lethal operative, a Black Widow feature film is long overdue, not to mention usurped by Captain Marvel being granted the spotlight in the first lady-led MCU feature. Delayed due to COVID and shared on Disney+ as well as in theaters, the anticipation for the next big in-theaters Marvel film — the first of four due out this year — is palpable, especially in light of the success of each of the MCU television series that have been holding over audiences. With a great cast and the potential to lure moviegoers back to the silver screens, will the one-two punch of a Disney+ Premium and theatrical release show Ms. Romanoff’s send off some love?

Like Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. before her, Scarlet Johansson has stated no intention to return to the MCU, so Romanoff’s fate at the end of Avengers: Endgame is sealed… for now. It’s both sad and frustrating it took the MCU almost tens years to finally give Black Widow her due, but it’s with an origin that feels too much like a back door pilot for Florence Pugh’s Yelena and the ready-made legacy of the Red Room in some form of spinoff. Nonetheless, it’s a solid thriller in the James Bond vein featuring good actors doing a great job with the material given, plus the Disney Marvel machine cranked up to eleven making it look as good as modern technology can safely allow.

The parallels to 007’s Moonraker are numerous, from Taskmaster as the Jaws-like unstoppable henchman to hatching as secret plan for world domination remade in the villain’s twisted image, and even flipping a trusted comrade with insider knowledge. At the same time, it’s also a family spy drama ala “The Americans,” which is where a lot of screen time is filled with elements of future (read: non-Black Widow) stories that’s only slightly less manipulative than Iron Man 2. Happily, the film makes the most of those relationships, especially the banter and oneupmanship between Johansson and Pugh culminating in a fake-family reunion that emulates every holiday gathering ever. After figuring in the mid-credits bonus scene, it isn’t hard to see what the true purpose of the film is, but it does manage to provide some measure of closure missing from Romanoff’s past… and a better reason why she was good with her fateful final decision.

There are better and worse MCU films than Black Widow, but after waiting so long for another Marvel property that isn’t a six-hour long miniseries on Disney+, it’s a nice to have the house that Stan Lee built back in theaters. While there are three more new Marvel films coming up before 2022 — two of which are unproven properties — it remains to be seen how long the Mouse House can keep reinventing the superhero genre before it eventually goes the way of mobster movies and the Western.

Black Widow is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language, thematic material, and Hawkeye’s contradictory remembrance of Budapest still remaining a mystery.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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