In the year-plus that Black Widow has been sitting on the shelf—it was originally scheduled to kick off the summer movie season of 2020—so much has changed that it’s still hard to process it all. The world where the lengthening days of late spring signaled a mass migration to the multiplex seems like a faraway place in the summer of 2021. Disney/Marvel has spent that year-plus revising and re-revising its release strategy for Black Widow. Would the film have a theatrical-only window in the old pre-pandemic style, drop simultaneously in theaters and on streaming, or, like Pixar’s Luca, be made available only to subscribed home viewers? In the end the studio elected to combine the traditional brick-and-mortar option with a pricier-than-usual streaming one: On July 9, it will be made available to Disney+ subscribers as a “premium” title for an additional cost of $30 on top of their $8-a-month subscription. This dual release will test the willingness of lockdown-weary audiences to bestir themselves from their by now severely dented couch cushions to see what the trade press still calls, with touching hopefulness, an “event picture.”
Can a picture still be an event? Do the activities of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, during a previously undocumented hole in the Marvel timeline (in between the action of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, if you’re keeping track) hold enough interest for viewers—who for the past 15 months have been able to access ever-increasing quantities of new Marvel content from home—to get them back in theater seats, with a bucket of popcorn in one cupholder and a vat of cold soda in the other? All I know is that for this theater-loving but generally Marvel-indifferent viewer, Black Widow, directed by the Australian indie filmmaker Cate Shortland, was an unexpectedly welcome reminder of why big screens and comic book superheroes go so well together.
By the standards of sprawling, star-packed ensemble spectacles like Infinity War or Endgame, Black Widow practically is an indie film. Yes, it’s a wildly expensive, globe-spanning spectacular with an action sequence virtually every 15 minutes of its two-hour-and-14-minute running time. But there is something refreshingly intimate about its focus on the story of a single character from the Marvel lineup, and a human character at that—Black Widow is a highly trained superassassin turned crusader for justice, but as another character points out, she still needs to take ibuprofen after a particularly bruising showdown. Johansson has taken issue with the sexism that relegated her character to a supporting role in the Marvel universe, where she was sometimes reduced to an object of the male Avengers’ comic lust. (When Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark encountered her in Iron Man 2, his parting remark as she walked away was “I want one,” parried by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts with a crisp “no.”) That criticism can certainly not be made of Black Widow, which places Natasha and another woman, her younger sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), at the center of the action and wastes not a second on any hint of romantic involvement for either character. (It’s been observed that the Marvel universe is a depressingly sexless place; that’s not entirely true here, but the few lines of mildly naughty dialogue occur between Natasha and Yelena’s parents, to their grown daughters’ embarrassed consternation.)
The sisters’ origin story is established in a pre-credits sequence set in Ohio in 1995. Natasha, played as a child by Ever Anderson, rides her bicycle through tree-lined streets on her way home to play with her kid sister (Violet McGraw), watched over by their loving mother Melina (Rachel Weisz). Everything seems idyllic, until the girls’ father, Alexei (David Harbour), comes home with an urgent if cryptic bit of news: The family needs to make a quick escape to avoid some unnamed but long-feared threat. After a hair-raising (and laws-of-physics-defying) escape by plane to Cuba, they’re intercepted by Russian bigwig General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) who separates the children from their parents and from each other, sending the girls to a training facility for elite assassins.
Twenty-one years later, we meet the adult Natasha in rural Norway, where she’s hiding out from a team of federal agents led by Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). Natasha is on the outs with both the feds and the Avengers, having just violated the Sokovia Accords (don’t ask, it’s a whole thing). She is on her own, living in a trailer and trying to keep out of trouble—until an encounter on a bridge with a mysterious assailant in high-tech armor leaves her with evidence that her younger sister is still alive and living in Hungary. When Natasha shows up in Yelena’s Budapest flat, their shared greeting ritual is not a hug and a cup of tea but a knock-down, drag-out fight (with some nifty choreography involving mutual strangulation by shower curtain). Both women have been trained since childhood to trust no one, and it takes time for them to realize they share a common enemy: Dreykov, who has been kidnapping little girls around the world to raise them as part of a squad of mind-controlled superkillers. Yelena, formerly a member of his group, is now in possession of an antidote to the general’s brainwashing technology, but in order to put it to use, the sisters must first locate their long-lost parents. This task will involve airlifting their dad out of a Siberian prison (in the middle of an avalanche, no less) and then tracking their biologist mom down at a remote farm where she tests out mind-control techniques on pigs. In the meantime, the sisters learn things about their parents that will be no surprise to anyone who watched The Americans but that shake their worldview to its core.
The less-than-happy family reunion that anchors the movie is played in an unusual emotional register that’s both more dramatic and more comic than your average Marvel film. The personal lives of the Avengers generally tend to be revealed only in glimpses of downtime between strenuous bouts of universe-saving. Once in a while there are suggestions of off-screen romantic entanglements or, in rare cases, family lives, but like seemingly every protagonist in pop culture at the moment, they are above all consumed by their work. Black Widow, on the other hand, incorporates the family story into the villain intrigue: The second half of the movie has Natasha and her family taking on the evil Dreykov as a highly dysfunctional four-person unit. In an amusing reversal of the MCU norm, it’s the women who run the show when it comes to both brains and fighting ability; dad Alexei (as played with endearing gusto by Harbour) fancies himself an invincible superhero called the “Red Guardian” but in fact is a blustering braggart whose only superpower consists in getting on his daughters’ nerves. Weisz’s Melina is a less juicy character to play, but she also gets a few funny scenes and more than one chilling one as her character’s motives conflict: Is she driven by ideological fervor, wifely devotion, scientific curiosity, or maternal pride?
As the sisters try to piece together which parts of their briefly happy-seeming childhood were real, Johansson and Pugh exhibit real sibling chemistry, whether they’re strangling one another with that shower curtain or squabbling over drinks about what Yelena sees as her now-famous sister’s “poser” superhero persona, the catsuit-clad, hair-tossing Black Widow. Johansson brings new layers of vulnerability and self-doubt to a character who’s been given little to do but strike those poses for too long, while Pugh proves that she is the golden girl of casting directors everywhere for a reason: She can nail any emotion from grim determination to childlike neediness and explode off the screen with energy in the action sequences, all while speaking in a Russian accent that, though I can’t speak to its precise fidelity to the real thing, is both credible and consistent throughout the movie. A post-credits stinger featuring Pugh and a beloved comic actress who has never before intersected with the Marvel movies leaves us with the impression that Yelena Romanoff will have a mission to fulfill in an upcoming MCU installment; I think I can say for the first time in years about a Marvel property that the next chapter can’t come soon enough. Black Widow is too long, too loud, preposterously overplotted, and slightly headache-inducing—all arguably features and not bugs when it comes to big tentpole blockbusters. But walking out of it I felt like summer had finally—finally!—begun.
For more of Slate’s coverage of Black Widow, listen to Karen Han and Dana Stevens discuss the movie in spoiler-filled detail.