Despite its inconsistencies, Black Widow delivers in thrills, wit and action – making it a welcome return to the MCU.

A spoiler for Avengers: Endgame lies ahead.

Two years ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) closed one of the most engrossing cinematic sagas in the last decade with Avengers: Endgame. Comprising 23 films, the Infinity Saga earned more than $22.587 billion at the box office and cemented Marvel as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. As the MCU enters a new phase, one of the franchise’s more overlooked core characters is finally getting their own solo film.

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Directed by Cate Shortland, Black Widow now marks the first film in Phase Four of Marvel’s big screen outings. Set  shortly after the events in Captain America: Civil War,  we meet Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)  as she’s forced to confront a dangerous global conspiracy that has ties to her past.

The film introduces Natasha in 1995 Ohio, where she lives a happy life with sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), mother Milena (Rachel Weisz) and father Alexei (David Harbour). One night, the family is forced to flee their home to evade the authorities and the girls end up in the ‘care’ of Red Room head Dreykov (Ray Winstone). He trains young girls to become part of his personal army of ‘Black Widow’ assassins. 21 years later, and Natasha discovers that there is unfinished business involving Dreykov and teams up with her family to take him down.

Given Natasha’s fate in Avengers: Endgame, a solo film centred around her character comes across as a celebration of sorts. She’s been in the MCU since 2010’s Iron Man 2 (the third movie in the series), so Black Widow provides Natasha to shine as the hero that she is. Unlike her fellow Avengers, she isn’t blessed with superpowers or protected by high-tech armour. Instead, she’s a skilled yet vulnerable killer who wants to prevent her past from dictating her future.

Coming across as something of a spy film, Black Widow explores more of Natasha’s backstory and the relevance of the Red Room. Teased in the film Avengers: Age Of Ultron, screenwriter Eric Pearson offers a better understanding of the Red Room’s sinister roots and reminds audiences that the MCU has enemies on Earth. In this case, the cold-hearted Dreykov, whose lack of remorse behind his army of assassins (and his disregard for women as a whole) makes him truly despicable.

Amid the action set pieces, Black Widow treads lightly on the theme of family. Despite being an Avenger, Natasha has always been an emotionally closed-off character. Therefore, she struggles to entertain the idea of normalcy when she reunites with Yelena. Despite some initial tension, there’s a subtle sisterly bond that offers wit, heart and a rare sense of trust that stems from their mutual antagonism against Dreykov. This sisterhood drives them to seek out and reunite with Milena and Alexei, only for them to exacerbate their underlying trust issues (for good reasons). Although a brief reprieve over the dinner table provides some family-like banter, they remain fractured while the film’s coherency quickly falls apart in its final act, as the narrative rushes to fill in unexplained gaps such as Milena’s connection to Dreykov and the history of the super-powered henchman Taskmaster.

Despite its inconsistencies, Black Widow is nonetheless a welcome return to the MCU. Marking her fourth directorial feature, Shortland is assured in directing Black Widow. She incorporates a visual balance between ambitious action sequences, which deliver in physicality and impact, and intimate scenes that deliver snippets of chemistry and comedy.

Although the film offers some uneven supporting performances such as the overlooked Weisz and inconsistent Winstone, Johansson anchors Black Widow with a focused performance and great chemistry with the consistent Pugh, whose complex performance as Yelena easily establishes her as the series’ newest hero.

Black Widow, ultimately, delivers in thrills, wit and action. It’s not only an entertaining slab of girl power but celebrates its title character by her stepping away from the Avengers and into the limelight.

Black Widow is in cinemas from July 7, order it on Disney+ with Premier Access from July 9.

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