My regular reader will know that I’m no devotee of the Marvel brand; the films are a mixed bag, even if the admirable continuity, big-name casting and injections of humour make these films tolerable for the casual viewer. Bringing in fresh directors has also been a plus, with Shane Black, Taika Waititi and others managing to make more personable movies than the house style might seem to allow. Thus Phase IV begins by bringing back a neglected character, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and hiring arty Cate Shortland to direct; with a directive to expand the female side of the MCU, Black Widow’s mission is to take the franchise in a more feminine and feminist direction.
A lengthy prologue establishes the kind of broken family of genetic super-soldiers that we might expect from a Black Widow origin story; Stranger Things’ David Harbour and Rachel Weisz are the parents, and Florence Pugh is Yelena, another surrogate child being brought up in the US. Fast-forward to 2016, and Natasha Romanov (Johansson) and Yelena encounter a substance called Red Dust, which enables them to escape from the domineering power of the Red Room, the source of the genetically engineered super-soldiering business. Natasha and Yelena are re-united with their adoptive parents, and set a collision course with those who seek to enforce servitude on them and other women.
Those who find the epic scale and pomposity of the MCU somewhat exhausting should warm to the reduced stakes and personal drama here; Black Widow feels like a super-charged spy-movie, albeit one obsessed with displaying female posteriors. Johansson is terrific as Romanov, pushing much further to humanise the character than the vapid sex-doll featured in several earlier entries; this version of Black Widow is easily the fullest incarnation of a character given short shrift up until now. The fringe notes are interesting too; Romanov watches Moonraker on her laptop, quite a juxtaposition to put the old Bond against the angst-ridden espionage game of today. Black Widow also seems anxious about the effectiveness of her septic tank, although frustratingly this plot-element is largely left unexplored. But the jokes here and better than most comedies, from Weisz picking up after an action scene by nattering away on her phone like a mother on the school-run to Yelena’s constant belittling of Natasha as a ‘poser’.
And the action isn’t bad either, with a decent car-chase through the busy streets of ‘Budaphest’ and a pretty awesome helicopter-prison break that goes south rapidly. That Yelena comes out laughing after a mistake on her part causes a deadly avalanche reveals a problem; the small stakes of the story don’t quite sync with the huge-scale set pieces. And a lengthy scene in which Ray Winstone repeatedly punches Johansson in the face is regrettable. One of the elements of the old cinema we could do without is violence to women, and although Shortland has crafted a snazzy summer action film, it would have been nice for Black Widow to skip this particular man-hurts-woman cliché. Such reservations aside, Black Widow delivers the goods as a summer blockbuster; as a curtain-call for Johansson, this kicks the requisite ass.