Those are high stakes for an average movie, but they’re comparatively low for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, considering one of the last installments concluded with a fight to save half of Earth’s population, and by extension, the very universe and timeline. But even with its time-traveling and superhero-stuffed final battle, Avengers: Endgame still devoted more time to its characters than its combat.
Once Black Widow gets going, it barely stops to take a breath, which is a real change of pace for the MCU.
Judging from the official trailer, which includes a clip from every big set piece except for the opening plane escape, fans expected some action, but perhaps not quite this much. Maybe that’s because Black Widow is a standalone film and a prequel. Maybe it’s because three of the four leads are female and best known for prestige projects. Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh and Rachel Weisz have all been nominated for Oscars in recent years, for Marriage Story, Little Women and The Favourite respectively. Maybe it’s because espionage stories can often be heavy on team recruitment and planning. Black Widow doesn’t seem to care about any of that. Its trio of highly respected actors (plus David Harbour, who absolutely keeps up with them) do their own thing with both the superhero and the spy thriller genres, and kick some serious butt in the process
In part, this is because Black Widow pretty strictly adheres to one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting — show don’t tell — right from the beginning. The audience is shown only a few moments of domestic mundanity during their undercover mission before it’s off to Cuba in a biplane, with dad shooting at strangers from the wing. There’s no forced dinner table conversation in which characters offer up each other’s names and backstories. For the most part, Black Widow is — like most good spy thrillers — confident enough to let the viewer figure things out. Thus, exposition is given on a need-to-know basis.
Taskmaster and Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff in Black Widow
From there, Black Widow contains at least as many more action scenes as you can count on one hand, each more explosive than the last. Taskmaster bombs Natasha’s car and copies her fighting style on the bridge. Natasha and Yelena tangle in her apartment before they’re chased by Taskmaster and some Widows through the streets of Budapest. In one of the film’s most entertaining sequences, they break Alexei out of jail with an action figure, a helicopter and an accidental avalanche.
But for a very few moments that feel like video game cut scenes, in which Natasha procures necessary equipment from Rick Mason, the only prolonged scenes that aren’t all out fight choreography are featured in the trailer as well. Having evaded Taskmaster, Natasha grabs a drink with Yelena to catch up. After springing Alexei from prison, the family reunites at Melina’s pig farm. But even that scene starts with a pig’s near death experience and ends with Dreykov’s massively armed forces coming to capture them.
One way the film moderates its pulse-racing in the final act is with tricky little flashbacks to the previous scene at the farm. It appears that Melina has stayed loyal to the Dreykov and the Red Room when she tells Natasha they’re on their way. What isn’t shown, at least until those flashbacks, is that mother and daughter have planned to infiltrate the Red Room. They just haven’t let Alexei and Yelena in on their scheme yet.
Black Widow’s big bad battle starts strong, with some great face offs for Yelena, Alexei and Natasha. But it goes off the rails when Melina disables the skybase’s engine, and minutes later, the characters are literally fighting hand-to-hand as they fall through miles of sky, mostly without parachutes. None of these characters have extraordinary powers, except Alexei and Taskmaster, who is revealed to be Dreykov’s daughter, Antonia. And even those powers pale in comparison to Hulk or Thor. Black Widow might have the most action, but that doesn’t mean its the MCU’s best action, and it also doesn’t make it the best movie. Though the majority of the action scenes strike a good balance between exciting and plausible, the over-the-top conclusion cheapens the final impression.
Implausible but awesome action scenes are as much a reason to see a Marvel movie as they’ve always been, but as previous MCU films and the three Disney+ series have demonstrated, there’s nothing wrong with slowing things down and getting to know each other. Some of Marvel’s best moments (the shawarma scene, the Mjolnir lifting contest) have been little more than people talking in rooms. Though it may end up ranking somewhere in the middle of Marvel’s ever-growing list of movies, Black Widow should be appreciated for the adrenaline rush that it is, and the surprising amount of character development it accomplishes along the way.