Film Review – Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson has been a major part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for just over a decade. Her first appearance as super-agent Natasha Romanoff (aka “Black Widow”) was back in Iron Man 2 (2010). While the character has played a substantial role in making the MCU a blockbuster powerhouse, she has been relegated – at least up to this point – as a supporting player to the likes of Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). It’s a bit of a shame that her first starring vehicle – Black Widow (2021) – comes so late in the game. This is especially true given the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Because this entry plays as a sort of prequel – taking place between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – it does act like a consolation prize. At this point in the storyline, the Avengers have been split up and many have gone on the run, Natasha included. Since dedicated fans already know where things are going and where Natasha ultimately ends up, seeing what happens here has a bittersweetness that’s hard to ignore. If this is going to be the last time we see Johansson as this character, the sendoff feels like the studio heads tossing her a bone.
With that said, Black Widow is an entertaining installment, complete with big set pieces, funny one liners, and memorable characters. Director Cate Shortland and screenwriter Eric Pearson shape the narrative as an action thriller, with Natasha confronting her past and dealing with those that put her on the path as an assassin. Those looking for the superpowered, cosmic light shows of Doctor Strange (2016) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) will not get that here. This is a much more grounded tale, at least in superhero terms.
Riffing off the Fast & Furious franchise, the production leans heavily on the theme of family. For Natasha, she juggles between the conflicts of two opposing families. The first is the Avengers, and the second is the “family” she knew growing up as part of the Soviet Union. Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) were not the typical parental figures, to put it mildly. The secrets they kept from Natasha instilled much of her distrust. Although what they put her through helped mold her into an efficient fighter and spy, it also contributed to her lack of emotional connection with other people. When Natasha reunites with them to help thwart a massive, shadowy conspiracy (which I will not describe), the family “reunion” is a little less than warm.
The other part of Natasha’s family is her “sister,” Yelena (Florence Pugh). Yelena went through the same torturous training that Natasha did as a child and is just as good at taking down enemies. Yelena becomes Natasha’s ally and partner, even though their first encounter involves beating the crap out of each other. As Yelena, Pugh is given plenty of opportunity to display her onscreen charisma, knocking out jokes like hotcakes. In fact, a little too much attention is given to the character. In a movie that’s meant to be the Natasha/Scarlett Johansson show, Pugh comes in and steals much of the thunder. As per usual MCU practice, things are set up for us to see more of Yelena down the road. I just wish the movie wasn’t so eager to “pass the torch” to the next generation as opposed to letting Natasha get her overdue recognition.
Some of the early action set pieces are well orchestrated. It’s a nice change of pace, since the MCU has progressively gotten more super powered with each entry. Instead of flying aliens, magical incantations, and reality bending, we have good old hand to hand choreography, gunplay, and chase scenes. The best sequence features a car and motorcycle chase through the streets of Budapest, where Natasha and Yelena try to outrun their pursuers. The way they twist and turn in the street, barreling through narrow lanes with bullets flying everywhere has a nice, practical feel. It’s like a tampered down version of the Paris chase scene in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). Things get out of hand in the second half, climaxing with an aerial assault so outlandish that videogame designers may think it too over the top, but that goes with the territory, doesn’t it?
Ray Winstone plays the big baddie Dreykov, head of a black ops organization with direct ties to Natasha. As the villain, Winstone plays his character like a traditional Bond villain, in that he has his henchman (or henchwomen) do all his bidding as he sits comfortably behind a desk. And just like a Bond villain, Dreykov spends an exorbitant amount of time explaining away his master plan. Why do bad guys have to take so long to tell their stories when they could just simply kill the good guy and be done with it? Dreykov has a more sinister aura when he isn’t on screen. When characters talk about him and when we see the devastation of his power is when the character feels most dangerous. It’s only when he’s revealed and goes on an endless exposition dump that he becomes forgettable.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is at an odd transitional phase. Many of the characters we know and love (and the actors that played them) have moved on. The major plot thread of Thanos has been completed, and we’ve seen more storylines unfold on television than on the big screen. Black Widow sits somewhere right in the middle of all this change. It’s an entertaining romp for a character that waited too long to get the spotlight. While this does everything fans hoped it would, it feels like the studio doubled back and corrected a missed step. This should have been the beginning of Natasha’s story, not the end.