If you’re going to have a Russian-engineered chemical sprayed in your face, it might as well be a sparkly red substance that lands like fairy dust. That glittery, enigmatic scene in Black Widow is only one of the fresh choices in the film about Natasha Romanoff, trained as a Russian assassin before she joined the good guys and turned Avenger. The movie seemed to take forever to arrive, with scripts and rumours gestating for years, then a 14-month-long pandemic delay. The time lapse turned out to be an asset. Tensions between Russia and the West have ramped up more than anyone might have guessed in 2010 when the Avengers franchise brought in Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Iron Man 2. Now her movie lands at just the right time, sending Natasha back to Russia, a country that continues to be one of Hollywood’s great villains.
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Maybe it’s no surprise that the film is entertaining and full of action. It is unexpected, though, that Black Widow may be the least Avenger-like movie in the series so far. No offence to the other Avengers, but after all this time a tweak in the formula is a good thing. Black Widow sets itself apart by emphasising Natasha’s past, and her reunion with her fractured, drolly comic family. Not a peep out of those other superheroes.
A swift, exciting 10-minute opening fills in the background. In an Ohio suburb in 1995, 12-year-old Natasha, her hair dyed blue, lives with her blonde little sister, Yelena, and their parents, Alexei and Melina. Played by Rachel Weisz and David Harbour, the parents are like the Jennings in the spy series The Americans, Russian agents hiding in plain sight.
Cate Shortland, who has directed small character-driven films (including the eloquent World War Two drama Lore) might seemed like an unusual choice for Black Widow, but she quickly demonstrates that she can create exhilarating action. When the family has to make a quick escape from the US, Dad shoots at oncoming police cars, Mom pilots a getaway plane, and even Natasha is called on as co-pilot as they leave the only true home the girls have ever known. The sisters, who are not actually related to each other or the bogus parents, are sent to the Red Room, where Russia trains girls to be spies and assassins.