Black Widow is the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the first to release in theaters in almost two years. It is set just after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and follows the titular character, a.k.a. Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johannson), as she goes on the run from the U.S. government following her violation of the Sokovia Accords and direct assault on the Black Panther (if you recall, this was during the airport fight, when she helped Steve and Bucky flee). Needless to say, things have gotten complicated, as the former Soviet assassin turned defector to the United States now has no country to call home, and no family to return to…or so she thought. As it turns out, Natasha’s former surrogate sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) is attempting to contact her in order to ask for her help freeing the other Widows from the Red Room – the mysterious location of Natasha and Yelena’s original indoctrination – and the control of the man behind it, who is thought to be long dead. With limited resources and strained relationships to the only ones who can help her, Natasha must confront the darkness of her past, and once and for all put an end to the very organization that made her what she is. This film also stars David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone, and William Hurt.
The history of Black Widow’s release is complicated, to say the least. Due to the overwhelmingly fast advance of the infamous COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 across the globe, and after a worldwide movie theater shutdown, the film was postponed to November, where it remained on the release schedule for some time. Then, a while later, once it was realized that this worldwide nightmare would actually last quite a lot longer than it ever needed to (and those averse to basic vaccine logic and common sense science certainly weren’t gonna help speed things up), the film was once again delayed to May of 2021. And then, due to some inevitable release calendar shuffling and an eagerness to just get the film in front of eyeballs, the final release was set for yesterday, July 9, with the added bonus of a Disney+ Premier Access release. From the time of original release date to the eventual one, Disney+ has launched no less than three brand-new MCU shows, two of which have now concluded (and one whose finale is in less than a week). The middle of those shows – The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – was meant to be the first one out of the gate, and was supposed to have come out before this film, so naturally, there’s a lot of re-contextualization that needed to be done, and the spotlight on Marvel Studios has never been larger. So, after fans clamored for a solo feature for so long, was Black Widow, the first MCU film in almost two years (and the single movie most likely to get people back into the habit of theatrical moviegoing), worth the wait? Well…sort of.
In its purest sense, the primary reason this movie was worth all the waiting was just getting to see an big-budget MCU movie on the big screen again. My showing was packed with eager fans ready to come back to the movies for the series they know and love, and that’s a really underrated aspect of watching these things theatrically – the sense of community one feels with everyone else around them experiencing this event. Unfortunately, the film can’t help but feel like a placeholder due to both its setting and some story elements that felt woefully underwritten for only the MCU’s second female-led superhero outing, especially one concerning a character fans have been clamoring for a solo movie from since Iron Man 2 in 2010. Don’t get me wrong, as a movie, Black Widow definitely works just about as well as most other mid-level entries in the unstoppable force that is the Marvel machine: the action is pretty decent, the performances are all really solid and get the job done, it moves at a solid clip so you’re never bored, and the central mystery at the heart of it all is actually not what one might expect come time for the big reveal. However, all of those things have their own little caveats in this one that force them not to live up to the potential they all have. And a lot of that comes down to a balance problem that the film just doesn’t seem to know how to work around.
To start with what really works, the opening chase sequence of the film is quite thrilling and really well-helmed, even if we never do get anything quite to its level in the film after that. The tension, the desperation as an “Americans”-style espionage family has to flee back the motherland is palpable, and they manage to give genuine weight to the surprisingly dark proceedings immediately following that chase. The performances throughout the film are also pretty good across the board, even great in some cases. Scarlett Johansson is in as fine a form as ever as Black Widow, and wears the character extremely well, although the script itself doesn’t give her a lot of room to flex her acting muscles like she could in other things such as Marriage Story or Under the Skin. Rachel Weisz is also good for what little screen-time she actually has, but unfortunately isn’t in it enough to make much of an impact on almost anything.
However, it’s Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova and a delightfully over-the-top David Harbour that end up stealing the show nearly every time they’re on screen. Harbour’s bad Russian accent aside, the man is having an immense amount of fun in the film, and I do sincerely hope we’re able to see more of the Red Guardian in future projects. It’s Florence Pugh, though, who ends up stealing the movie out from under just about everyone, including Scarlett Johansson. Pugh commands the screen every second she’s in the frame, and everything that works about the movie is dialed up to 11 as she makes all the funniest jokes, gets all the best action moments, and generally keeps the more out-of-the-box elements at a believable level. It’s a pretty safe bet to assume that the future of this character lies on Pugh’s shoulders, but luckily, she’s got pretty strong ones to carry it on.
Unfortunately, the performances are the only positive I can elaborate on at length without getting too close to spoiler territory for comfort, so now we have to move on to the negatives, starting with the fact that Taskmaster as a villain just isn’t compelling or all that interesting past the initial confrontation with Black Widow. The Taskmaster, for those who don’t know, can mimic any combat move by simply watching it happen once, the conceit being one can never use the same move twice while fighting, or Taskmaster will rip them to shreds. There’s a lot of potential there for really cool, interesting fight sequences, but the film really only ever uses this once, and the next time we see any of the Avengers’ moves being used in a Taskmaster fight, the movie cuts away until after the fight is over. Beyond that, there’s just not much to the character other than that they really just act as a secondary villain to the main antagonist, whom I won’t spoil the identity of here, but is by far the most underdeveloped villain the MCU has had in quite some time. His name is mentioned several times leading up to the climax of the film, but we never really get to know him as a character, and once the film does get around to him, he really doesn’t do much but talk about how powerful he is, only barely giving a demonstration before he’s pretty hastily being dealt with.
And that’s really Black Widow’s biggest issue: a lack of character development. Up to this point, we’ve known all about Natasha Romanov, but never really knew her. It’s all been unexplored backstory and lore, never a deep dive into who she is as a person or what got her to where she was outside of the Avengers circle, and this movie, for whatever reason, never goes deeper than what we already know beyond a few flashbacks that seemed like a more interesting movie. We only get to see the events that happen to or around her, but never the ones that challenge her perception of things or the ones that made her into the trained killer she already has been for the past 11 years. What we know about her at the end of the movie is the same stuff we already knew about her at the beginning, and the character just sort of stays in one spot the whole time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it doesn’t really work for this character, and the film left me disappointed that there wasn’t any deeper insight into Natasha’s being. The film also has a little bit of trouble balancing its story and action beats in ways that feel more fluid. What’s there works well enough, but there’s not quite enough story up front, and not quite enough action towards the middle of the movie. The pacing of it all isn’t affected enough for it to be an egregious error, but one imagines the structure of the film could have used another pass or two in order the make it flow more naturally.
In the end, Black Widow is hardly a bad MCU film by any stretch, and in fact has a lot of good things going for it, but wasted villains, a lack of character development for the central protagonist, and a story that doesn’t feel like it can really go anywhere significant since it’s stuck between these other films makes it feel like mid-tier Marvel at best. At its best, the film is entertaining, sure, but it still feels as if it’s just trotting along to the ones that can make actual progress, and ends up feeling kind of empty as a result. It’s a pretty good time to have at the movies, and I’m glad the MCU is back in theaters, but if you’re hoping this will be the grand resurrection of Marvel’s theatrical dominance beyond the box office, the one to blow your socks off, I’d suggest maybe waiting for Shang-Chi or Eternals instead.
I’m giving “Black Widow” a 6.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.