Set between the events of 'Captain America: Civil War' and 'Avengers: Infinity War', Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) reconnects with ex-members of the Red Room, a secretive Russian organisation she was a member of that trains assassins to kill without question utilising mind-control techniques. Learning that it's still active, Romanoff must face her past and destroy the Red Room once and for all...
Marvel's scheme of releasing standalone movies in between the over-the-top 'Avengers' extravaganzas has served them well in the past. 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier', 'Thor: Ragnarok', and 'Captain Marvel' have all proven themselves as worthy additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, each connecting with the other which connects with the other until the tapestry of comic-book blockbuster action is woven together. 'Black Widow' comes into this just as a new phase is beginning. There's plenty of speculation as to why it's taken this long for the character to get a standalone movie, seeing as how she was first introduced in 'Iron Man 2' all the way back in 2010.
The character's always sat uncomfortably among the ridiculously overpowered superhero antics of Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, and even Captain America to a certain extent. Even the character's very name suggests a murkiness and moral ambiguity that isn't all that in keeping with the clear-cut lines of Marveldom. Yet, in 'Black Widow', these are embraced. In fact, a major plot point involves an indiscriminate murder that comes back to haunt Johansson's steely-eyed spy, not to mention a Bond-esque plot involving mind-controlled assassins tipping the balance of power around the world. Each of the ensemble characters - David Harbour's outrageously Russian super-hero Red Guardian, Florence Pugh's chippy Yelena, and Rachel Weisz's placidly maternal Melina - are in the same boat. They're tired of being pawns in a game that's being played around them.
More than other Marvel movies, 'Black Widow' tries to ground the story in a personal, character-driven narrative. The only reason Johansson's character gets involved is that she initially believed that the Red Room - the organisation which trained and gave her a certain set of skills - was destroyed. Now, she's going back to finish the job. There's no save-the-day plot, it doesn't tie into the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's literally a group of disgruntled agents getting payback on their former masters. Think 'Mission: Impossible' if Ethan Hunt and his band of merry agents had enough of being geopolitical lynchpins and decided to bring it all down.
Like previous Marvel directors before her, Cate Shortland is able to bring a level of empathy to the character-driven scenes and has a deft command of action and pacing. Some of the setpieces have shades of 'GoldenEye', 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout', and even John Frankenheimer's 'Ronin'. Shortland's previous work in psychological thrillers 'The Berlin Syndrome' and 'Lore' gives her an edge with the kind of pulpy material at play here. Johansson, for her part, knows how to work with the character and the new additions in David Harbour, Florence Pugh, and Rachel Weisz are all welcome. Pugh, in particular, excels in the role of Yelena and David Harbour's Red Guardian provides all the comic relief with ease. Ray Winstone has a good turn as the slimy puppeteer, but it never quite reaches the heights of, say, Michael B. Jordan in 'Black Panther'.
Like all Marvel movies, the usual caveats apply. There's a CGI-laden final act, but it's got some cool flourishes to it. It doesn't go out of its way to try and hook up with other characters from the franchise, but at the same time, you get the sense that 'Black Widow' has arrived four or five years too late. After the character was written out with such finality in 'Avengers: Endgame', it's almost insulting to it to bring it back for a movie that it deserved long before this time.