The Marvel Cinematic Universe is, for those not entirely committed to the project, at its best when it delivers films that tweak the dials on the dashboard. This is perhaps the agnostic’s way of saying the most enjoyable ones are the most atypical. The last two Spider-Man adventures were delightful variations on the traditional high-school comedy. Lord knows what genre Thor: Ragnarok fell into, but it was more fun than a whole trainload of partying monkeys.
Arriving a year after its original release date, the already overdue stand-alone project for Scarlett Johansson’s sleek secret agent always promised to find its own path through the mayhem. Natasha Romanoff is, after all, among that semantically insecure class of superhero – Batman being the most prominent – who doesn’t have any superpowers. She is a highly trained fighter. She is handy with a pistol. She lands in a balletic fashion that provides the current project with much scope for self-satire. Might we get something closer to an espionage film than another intergalactic conflagration between irritable demigods?
Yes and no. Mostly set in the period after 2016’s Captain America: Civil War – you surely won’t need to be told why we’ve travelled back for an interquel – Black Widow has as much to do with Natasha’s attempts to address the damaged relationships that formed her arachnoid persona as it does with efforts to save the universe. There are what I take to be knowing nods to Paramount’s competing Mission: Impossible franchise. You couldn’t quite say the fights have the crunch and ache of barroom brawls, but they do, at least, ape the quasi-real dynamics of a Bourne punch-up. And, yes, the film does end with the traditional grandly staged city-shaking chaos. That’s fair enough. Fans deserve their fix of the MCU opiate.
The most effective sections of the film, however, concern conflicts between Natasha and her sister figure, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). The picture begins in the olden times that were 1995 with the young Natasha (Ever Anderson) living in a sunny rural idyll with Yelena, their robust father, Alexei (David Harbour), and their equally unyielding, humourless mother, Melina (Rachel Weisz). The happy times end with the prospect of a raid, and the family – Russian agents, of course – flies to Cuba and contemplation of a future in the secret world.
There then follows a clatter of temporal and geographical leaps that would defy any attempts at malicious spoilerage. Yelena and Natasha meet up again in Budapest for a bit of an argy-bargy. A puzzlingly dressed meta-agent is on their tail. Along the way we learn something about how the two women were cynically programmed to become the efficient operators we see on screen. Cate Shortland, the Australian director of Somersault and Berlin Syndrome, brings out the best in her four leads with an eventual family reunion that interjects a lot of self-conscious humour into the affair. “Why do you do the fighting poses?” the less flashy Yelena asks Natasha.
A brief shot of Moonraker, the film that announced James Bond’s slide into full-on comedy, offers further confirmation that Shortland doesn’t expect us to take any of this too seriously (though some will). But the actors are sufficiently committed to lend the film a degree of emotional heft. Weisz and Harbour have fun with their gruff stereotypes. Johansson and Pugh offer convincing, almost complementary takes on the two “widows”. The former, in what we must take to be her Marvel swansong, is always the most responsible person in the exploding building. Already established as a wizard with buried irony, Pugh politely steals the film with a witty performance that makes sense of even the silliest moments.
Where next for the MCU? We shan’t say. But a post-credit sequence offers a few enigmatic clues. Only the fully boned-up will know what it means.
In cinemas from July 7th and on Disney+ with Premier Access from July 9th