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Black Widow review – Florence Pugh shines in a fun but formulaic Bond riff

The long-awaited Scarlett Johansson solo vehicle is a solid actioner but fails to break new ground with the character

More than a year after the last instalment, the Marvel factory has finally reopened with Black Widow, the superhero solo vehicle Scarlett Johansson should’ve been gifted roughly half a decade earlier. Her super spy/Avenger Natasha Romanoff perished at the climax of 2019's Endgame, though, meaning this prequel inherently lacks even the low-level stakes of the most inconsequential Marvel entries.

But maybe now, in an era in which many of the original stars have moved on, stakes are less important to the studio than longevity. In the hands of Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, whose previous output mainly consists of psychologically-driven dramas, Black Widow delivers pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the Marvel machine of late: it's slick, watchable, and funny, but always tittering on the edge of soullessness.

Family is the driving force here, as Black Widow sets out to paint some backstory for its titular heroine. Natasha, it turns out, used to have one of her own – a ragtag group made up of mother Melina (Rachel Weisz), father Alexei (David Harbour, who doubles as Soviet superhero Red Guardian and is having a blast), and sister Yelena (played as an adult by Florence Pugh). The film's most interesting stretch comes in the opening section, revealing this manufactured clan as a group of The Americans-style Russian sleeper agents living a double life in 1995 Ohio. When their cover is blown, they're forced to escape by air to Cuba, pursued by agents.

Back in the present day (well, almost) and following the Avenger-based fallout of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha flees to Europe to avoid capture at the hands of General “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt). There, she's reunited with Yelena after several years apart, who's in the process of exposing the sinister network that brainwashed them both as children and turned them into ruthless assassins –  or “Black Widows” – known as the Red Room. Together, they reunite with their long lost “parents” – cue the bickering and trademark Marvel banter – to take down Ray Winstone's awkwardly accented Russian villain, who's clearly moulded in the Blofeld vein.

Of course, Natasha and her Yelena wrestle with countless violent figures – including each other – as much as this movie wrestles with the notions of what makes a family. The action is blunt, effective, Bourne-like, with people flung repeatedly in the air, bodies smashing into the sides of doorways and tables, scrabbling for whatever they can use as weapons. Through the streets of Budapest, an armoured truck chase proves the film's most satisfying set-piece. Later, a climatic battle at a sky fortress (!) is both exhilarating in design and excessive in its use of CG – a perfect metaphor for the MCU at large, perhaps.

In spite of its clear Bond-like influence, though, which does add a new flavour to proceedings, there remains something rudimentary about Black Widow, a sense that – as the first proper prequel in the MCU, not to mention one about a deceased character – the movie could have been more narratively daring or experimental in nature. Anyone expecting a more reflective, in-depth character study of this long-time Avenger will find that Black Widow never really probes Natasha or her past in a way that feels satisfying enough for a farewell movie.

Johansson is her usual compelling and sardonic self, but it's Pugh – ten years Johansson's junior – who makes the biggest impression. This, in case you hadn’t guessed, is a star vehicle that doubles as a passing of the torch – the studio's first proper acknowledgement that these iconic superheroes are likely to move forwards through the generations in different incarnations. Johansson has proven an excellent Romanov over the past eleven years; on this evidence, Pugh has what it takes to make the character equally her own, maybe even more.

Black Widow is now showing in cinemas and streaming on Disney+.

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