If you had to kill off an Avenger, would it be Hawkeye or Black Widow? Having grown up in an era of entertainment that’s ruled by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I remember engaging in this debate more than once during my childhood. Never mind the Big Four (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk); which of the two most mortal superheroes — you know, the boring ones — could you live without?
When Black Widow jumped off a cliff to save Hawkeye in “Avengers: Endgame,” the MCU answered that exact question. This became a linchpin moment for the franchise that’s been met with much ambivalence and hangs over the entirety of “Black Widow,” Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story”) long-awaited solo film.
The movie opens with a flashback in Ohio in 1995, where a young Natasha and three other agents of the nefarious, Soviet-made Red Room are undercover, posing as a happy family. Although the four are inevitably separated, Natasha’s affection for them and their fabricated but nonetheless sincere family dynamic is clear. Over two decades later, having defected from the Red Room, Natasha is alone and on the run following the events of “Captain America: Civil War.” The reappearance of Yelena (Florence Pugh, “Little Women”), her younger sister during the mission in Ohio, and the opportunity to bring down the Red Room kicks the action into gear.
In their search for the Red Room, Natasha and Yelena gather up Alexei (David Harbour, “Stranger Things”) and Melina (Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite”), who once played their parents. Their reunion and the reestablishment of their relationship turns the second act partially into a fun family comedy that employs many recognizable tropes, complete with a dinner table scene in which the family bickers (Melina tells Natasha not to slouch and Alexei tells the girls to listen to their mother). Although their conversation eventually ventures into a more somber territory, the cast’s strong performances and comedic elements provide much-needed levity for a film that easily could have taken itself much too seriously. The consistently wonderful Florence Pugh shines during these family scenes in particular, connecting the comedic and dramatic elements as she jumps deftly between exasperation with the others and devastation at their refusal to acknowledge that their family was real.
The younger/older sister dynamic that Pugh and Johansson play so well is primarily responsible for the successes that “Black Widow” claims. Many of the small moments Yelena and Natasha share will look incredibly familiar to anyone with a sibling, right down to the way they glance quickly at each other across the room when their parents say something dubious. Even the parts that feel like typical Marvel fare — a motorcycle chase, a helicopter rescue, an airborne final battle — are anchored by their relationship and by the lengths they are willing to go to for each other. Their final scene together may be one of the most touching interactions in any Marvel movie.
It’s a little ironic, then, that much of what makes “Black Widow” good on its own is also what makes it feel cold in the MCU’s broader context. There’s no shortage of fans and critics who were, to put it mildly, upset about Natasha’s death in “Avengers: Endgame.” Giving her a family retroactively, establishing relationships that could have been expanded on through more solo movies if her character was alive, gives fans that much more potential to mourn. After years of delays and bad excuses for not making a Black Widow film, it’s hard not to wonder if things would be completely different for her character now if “Black Widow” had actually come out after “Captain America: Civil War” — where it belongs chronologically.
Natasha’s death makes “Black Widow” feel necessary, not within the Marvel timeline, but within the film’s metacontext: the fans’ love for her character and their desire to see her finally given her due, which is by no means a bad reason for the movie to exist. As a reluctant but nevertheless consistent Marvel fan myself, “Black Widow” is something I’ve waited on for years, and I’m glad that the 13-year-old in me can finally put the issue to rest. It’s not exactly the sendoff I envisioned for a character I love, but it certainly does what it can under the circumstances, and it has a lot of fun along the way.
Daily Arts writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.