The long-anticipated Natasha Romanoff origin story arrives burdened with glorious purpose. Delayed multiple times since its intended May 2020 release date due to the pandemic that shall not be named, acceptable arguments from many that a solo film for one of Marvel’s longest running characters should have been released a long time ago, and added pressure of being one of the biggest films to take us back to the cinema since they reopened mean Black Widow’s expectations have unintentionally skyrocketed. It’s futile to argue whether this film will be a financial success, but Black Widow could be a sign that, in a post Endgame world, it’s high time for Marvel to shake up its formula.

On the run following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) receives a mysterious package from her long-lost sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). Setting it upon themselves to take down the Red Room, the abusive centre Natasha and Yelena grew up in to become the super spies they are today, all the while hunted by a new threat in comic-book favourite villain, Taskmaster, the two Widows are sent on a globe-trotting mission of international espionage.

Of the several obstacles Black Widow has to overcome, its timeliness is arguably its most damning. Only bestowing a spin-off after her unfortunate demise in her last outing gives the film a real sense of futility for her character. Natasha is a fan-favourite, with her adoring fans latching onto any nuggets of information provided over the last 11 years, so while Black Widow does fill in some helpful holes, you can’t help but wonder why we are only now receiving this story. Setting the film so deliberately after Civil War only serves as a justifiable explanation of why she is unable to call upon the other Avengers to help her, but in the grand scheme of the MCU, Black Widow would have been much better served to be released before Infinity War.

Be that as it may, Black Widow has a lot of positivity going for it. Scarlett Johansson has nearly perfected the character over the years; like Robert Downey Jr., it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Johansson has imbued Natasha with increasing humanity over the years, developing from someone who works exclusively alone to someone who admits she needs help and coordinates her team to the best of her ability as she becomes an integral part of her Avengers family. With the new additions, Rachel Weisz is an under-utilised but fun inclusion into the dynamic as the over-bearing Russian mother, Melina, to Natasha and Yelena, never better than in the enjoyable interpersonal family drama at the dinner table in the second act. David Harbour, slighted at being the Russian inferior to Captain America in a fun but under-explored subplot akin to the Space Race of the 1960s, is a terrific addition to the crew. A hulking behemoth locked in a wintry gulag for years, Harbour’s Alexei barrels through his enemies in a bid to earn a bout against Steve Rogers himself; while he may not be the best Dad in the world, his worth as a battering ram for his girls cannot be underestimated.

Florence Pugh, meanwhile, continues her ascent to the very top of Hollywood, and is the film’s best element by a clear margin. Pugh has an addictive and engaging personality whenever she is on screen, and this continues with Yelena. While Natasha likes the occasional quip, Yelena is funny throughout, whether verbally sparring with her older sister or criticising her role as an Avenger (there’s a very funny meta-commentary on her superhero landing), Yelena brings a much-needed spark to proceedings. After the relatively slow, meditative start, she arrives with a bang and maintains that high intensity throughout, capitalising on the chaos to become an instant success. Director Cate Shortland has openly discussed this film being the “passing of the baton” from Natasha to Yelena, and the prospect of Florence Pugh engaging with the wider roster of heroes is thoroughly exciting.

With Yelena’s arrival comes the film’s best sequence, a fabulous combination of sisterly bonding and heightened super-spy action through the streets of Budapest. At its best, Black Widow echoes a similar vibe to the Charlize Theron vehicle, Atomic Blonde, and encapsulates how much better the film is when it keeps its feet on the ground. A scrappy fight in an apartment as Natasha and Yelena hurl themselves through windows, into door frames, and smash plates to evade capture brings some effective kinetic energy to proceedings. As the action continues into vehicular warfare, the high-quality work continues, with Yelena taking over and delivering one of numerous wow moments with a car door, but Shortland and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain are meticulous in their efforts to create impressive sequences that are both easy to follow and thrilling to watch.

With the devastating toll such violence can have on our Earth-bound Avengers, Black Widow grounds the action in more reality than the average MCU effort. It’s much more human, allowing the action to leave a real impression. It’s abundantly clear how much effort has been put into its hand-to-hand combat; it may not be as slick as it is in films like John Wick, it has an air of The Winter Soldier meets Bourne about it with its hyper-kinetic camerawork circling its combatants. A late-film fight sequence that sees Natasha square off against multiple enemies is particularly impressive, overwhelming Natasha with multiple attacks from all angles as she’s thrown against pillars and dropped onto a table with astonishing force.

An early clip from Moonraker foreshadows the Bondian finale that awaits as our heroes confront their villain high in their ivory tower. While the film has a lot of the elements for a decent Bond homage, the pieces don’t come together well enough to provide an entirely satisfying conclusion. Dreykov’s mysterious henchman, Taskmaster, barely registers as a threat, with the added spice of mimicking other Avengers (Captain America, The Winter Soldier, and Black Panther are all knowingly referenced by Taskmaster’s fighting style) a mere gimmick than a genuine problem for Natasha to overcome.

Frustratingly, as we move deeper into its final act, Black Widow has that sense of Marvel obligation to make its action as big as conceivably possible, resulting in a dramatic, massive sequence in which our heroes fall with style. It’s visually appealing, as most Marvel films are, but its relation to the rest of the story feels tenuous at best. Black Widow’s story is inherently personal as Natasha and Yelena strive to destroy the Red Room, the system that created and abused them, freeing yet more women from the evil clutches of its creator, Dreykov (an enjoyably hammy Ray Winstone). Why this story needs such an enormous sequence that stretches the limits of what our human heroes can do is beyond me, and smacks of its creators being forced into the Marvel formula, when breaking conventions and going smaller would have served its story far better.

The insular nature of Black Widow’s story is appreciated (there are no universes at stake here), the ground-level action is impressive to behold, and Florence Pugh delivers a terrific performance, setting up a potential new favourite character for so many Marvel fans. It just feels as though Black Widow had a few too many hurdles to clear. Burdened with such massive expectation, the external real-world context proves too much for the film to overcome, and as the film descends into the Marvel formula, it strays too far from what served it so well up to that point, resulting in a fun if inconsequential entry into Hollywood’s most successful franchise.

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Black Widow will be available in cinemas and on Disney Plus Premier Access from July 9, 2021