When I hear the name “red room,” the place Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow needs to visit to set the world right in this latest MCU action adventure, my mind immediately goes to Twin Peaks and a dancing dwarf, a giant, and Laura Palmer whispering in the ear of Dale Cooper. Alas, that Lynchian Marvel mashup will have to wait for another day, but Aussie director Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome) proves a capable hand at the rock-em-sock-em action; explosive; outsized violence; and huge dollops of humor that mark the Marvel universe as she brings Black Widow‘s saga to a satisfying close and introduces a new bad-ass superheroine in Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova.
A back story set during an idyllic Ohio summer disrupted by sudden flight when Natasha is a young tween establishes a familial bond between Natasha, Yelena, and adult spies Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour) aka Red Guardian. Their reunion and the bulk of the movie takes place between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War when The Avengers are split apart and Natasha is at loose ends without her makeshift superhero family. Her attempt to lead a quiet life is disrupted when she finds herself face-to-face with an unstoppable, metal-clad enemy that vaguely resembles a terminator if those were designed to look like robotic versions of Day of the Dead skeletons. That encounter and a mysterious package that arrives at her lonely trailer set her on the path to Budapest where an angry reunion awaits with her little “sestra” Yelena.
For Natasha, the time has come for a reckoning with her past, not just with Yelena and eventually Melina and Alexei, but also with her nemesis and former master Dreykov (Ray Winstone). All roads lead to the Red Room where Dreykov controls an army of “widows,” young women just like Natasha and Yelena, trained in the arts of assassination and violent chaos. Taking him down becomes Natasha and Yelena’s mission, and they pull Alexei and Melina into their orbit to advance their plan.
As typical in any Marvel movie, there are huge set pieces and massive battles. Shortland proves herself a master of timing, keeping the action fresh and exciting. She also keeps the humor bubbling toward the surface. The sibling rivalry between the two girls from different mothers, Natasha and Yelena, is frequently funny. But the ace in the hole for Shortland and screenwriter Eric Pearson is Alexei, a bumbling antisuperhero who barely fits into his Red Guardian spandex and is deeply and comically jealous of Captain America. But he’s also kind of what he appears to be in those early Ohio scenes, a bumbling suburban dad, a sitcom foil for smart, capable women like his faux daughters and ultra-efficient Melina. Harbour is hilarious and he is well-matched with Weisz, who is clearly having a blast as an agent as comfortable wielding automatic weapons as she is working in the lab.
The thrust of the movie is Natasha confronting both what was done to her when she was only a child and her complicity in ruining other people’s lives. Natasha was introduced into the Marvel film universe in 2010 in Iron Man 2, a character Johansson has honed over the years. All of that character work pays off in a deeply felt, resonant performance as she bids Natasha adieu. Pugh as the boisterous, more tumultuous Yelena has the showier role, but Natasha is Black Widow‘s emotional center.
After a two-year lay-off between movies (thanks, pandemic!) and as so much of the Marvel universe has moved to Disney+ with the introduction of WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Solider, and Loki, it is a wonderful thing to see it return to theaters. Black Widow provides the perfect reentry into the immerse, larger-than-life, comic-book world back where it belongs – on a really big screen.