Review: “Black Widow”

Regardless of your feelings on the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the film industry, it does feel like a signal of some normalcy returning seeing an MCU film in the movie theaters for the first time since 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” which immediately followed the franchise’s massive “Avengers: Endgame.” But what makes it even better is that this new movie centers around Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson).

Natasha hasn’t exactly gotten the star treatment in the MCU, despite being a regular fixture in it since her debut in 2010’s “Iron Man 2.” Marvel Studios’ as a whole hasn’t had a great track record when it comes to the portrayal of female heroes in their movies, whether it’s the fact that up until now, their only one out of 23 movies starring a woman was 2019’s “Captain Marvel,” or whether it’s the empty pandering seen in moments like the gathering together of a large group of female heroes, most of whom had never even interacted with each other, for a hero shot during Endgame’s climactic battle. Natasha, from her mysterious past to her incredible stealth and fighting abilities to her genuine affection for her teammates, has always been a compelling character, but she has also always remained thoroughly in support of the MCU’s male heroes. In “Iron Man 2,” it was Tony Stark; in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” it was Steve Rogers; and in all of the “Avengers” movies, it was the other Avengers, who always got more time in the spotlight than her, until—spoiler alert—she sacrificed herself for them in “Endgame” (yeah, I’m still mad).

The idea for a “Black Widow” solo movie has been kicking around since before the MCU even got started, when Lionsgate began developing the project in 2004. “Black Widow” could have easily felt like too little too late after all that time, especially as we already know her ultimate fate thanks to “Endgame.” But this movie, directed by Cate Shortland from a screenplay by Eric Pearson, fits snugly in between “Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War” and ends up being a solid thriller that feels different from most of the other entries in the MCU—even if it also feels like a missed opportunity to explore some issues on a deeper level.

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in “Black Widow”

Black Widow” opens with an idyllic scene in small town Ohio. A mother (Rachel Weisz) teaches her two daughters (played by Ever Anderson and Violet McGraw) about the natural phenomena in their yard before venturing inside to have dinner as they wait for their father (David Harbour) to come home. But when he does, it is immediately clear that something is wrong, something that prompts the family to abandon their home and quickly go on the run. But once the group reaches their new destination, we realize that this isn’t an average American family; this is a group of Russian spies who have been working undercover for years, only pretending to be a real family for appearances. And despite the fact that they are only children, the two young girls, Natasha and Yelena, are violently whisked away for more training at the Soviet training facility known as the Red Room.

Fast forward 21 years, and an older Natasha (Johansson) has been separated once again from the only family she’s ever known after the events of “Captain America: Civil War” creates a rift between the Avengers and forces many of them to go on the run, Natasha included. When she unwittingly gets her hands on an antidote that removes spies from the control of the Red Room, Natasha is reunited with Yelena, who up to this point has still been working for the Red Room and its leader, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), but is now dedicated to freeing the other Widows from his grasp. Their mission to take Dreykov down brings their surrogate family back together, as they recruit Alexei, aka the Red Guardian (Russia’s equivalent to Captain America) and Melina, one of the Red Room’s top scientists, to help them.

The first film to kick off Marvel’s fourth phase, “Black Widow” manages to simultaneously reflect on the past, look ahead to the future, and stand as its own movie. It’s a little too obvious that “Black Widow” is trying to emulate spy thrillers of the past. In one scene early in the movie, we even see Natasha watching the 1979 James Bond movie “Moonraker,” her ability to quote the scene on screen making it clear that she’ s more than familiar with the material. “Black Widow” does bear some resemblance in both style and substance to more contemporary espionage thrillers (I was especially reminded of 2018’s “Red Sparrow,” whose spy training school mirrors the Red Room in this movie quite a bit), to the point where it doesn’t really have a distinct look of its own. But while it may not feel that different from other spy movies, it does feel markedly different from other Marvel films—at least until we reach the film’s third act which devolves into a series of action sequences filled with dull CGI effects and ridiculous stunts that feel the more on par with the superhero fantasies we’re used to seeing from the MCU. But Natasha is not a person with spectacular powers, but a person with spectacular abilities, and the first third of the film demonstrates this with some rough-and-tumble hand-to-hand combat scenes that are punctuated with brutal sound effects that really make you feel the impact of every punch.

“Black Widow” is a great showcase for Johansson, as her character finally gets the chance to take charge of her story, both from a physical standpoint (as she leads the mission to take down Dreykov) and from an emotional standpoint (reuniting with her surrogate family and facing the pain of her past with Dreykov). But the supporting cast ultimately has a lot more personality and often outshine her in her own movie. The most notable standout of the cast is Florence Pugh’s Yelena. Pugh plays Yelena as a young woman who always wanted a normal life—even their makeshift family in Ohio was real to her—but doesn’t really know how to approach normalcy after she is freed from Dreykov’s influence. She’s tough but also very funny, and is a lot more outgoing than the more guarded Natasha. It’s also clear that she has been living a very different existence from Natasha ever since the latter joined up with the Avengers; in some of the film’s more meta moments, Yelena pokes fun at Natasha’s superhero poses, but she also raises the question of what good the Avengers have actually accomplished. Harbour also gets to provide a lot of comic relief, while simultaneously being forced to reckon with the feelings he has for his forced family. And it’s always a pleasure to see Weisz, who perhaps keeps this family even more grounded than Natasha does with her reliable presence.

Scarlett Johansson, David Harbour, and Florence Pugh in “Black Widow”

The surplus of fun heroes in “Black Widow” is balanced out by the lack of compelling villains. Winstone is appropriate gross as the real big bad, although the Taskmaster—a mysterious, metal-suited figure who can mirror the abilities of others—is the one who poses a more immediate physical threat to Natasha and the gang. Taskmaster has a long history in the Marvel comics, but “Black Widow” takes the character in a completely different direction, one that I won’t specify here to avoid spoilers, but that I found very intriguing and in line with the movie’s overarching themes of family and free will.

But some of those same themes could have been explored with a lot more complexity in “Black Widow” than they actually are. In fact, I’d argue that the first half of the film promises that they will be, before the remaining runtime is spent locked in one large fight scene that drowns out the deeper issues at hand. The Widows were taken from families they will never know, implanted with technology that allows Dreykov to control them, and forced to become killing machines from an early age. But the Red Room goes beyond merely controlling their minds. It controls their bodies as well. At one point, Yelena talks about how she doesn’t get periods and can’t have children because the Red Room forcibly removed all her reproductive organs—reached inside her and sliced up and pulled out her uterus and ovaries. This conversation, surprisingly, occurs during one of the movie’s lighter scenes, a deadpan response delivered to Alexei when, just after he is picked up by Natasha and Yelena, he derisively asks Yelena if she’s so irritable because it’s her time of the month. But Yelena’s coarse language and the imagery they conjure are harrowing. It also provides an added layer of meaning to a conversation Yelena and Natasha have earlier in the film. When Yelena asks Natasha if she ever wanted children, Natasha, misty-eyed, glances away in response. There’s also the issue of child trafficking in general, and the implication that the Dreykov disposed of any parents who came looking for their kids, and there’s something especially gross and predatory about the way Dreykov controls the young women through pheromones. But “Black Widow” doesn’t explore any of this with much complexity outside of these women didn’t have any free will before, and now they do. Maybe that was too much for a Marvel movie to take on, but some of Natasha and Yelena’s conversations early on led me to believe they might go there. The focus is definitely less on the free will aspect of the characters’ pasts and more so on their struggle to reconcile with what about their childhood was real and what was not, and to define their relationships with the people who were their closest thing to family.

Even though “Black Widow” may fall short on some things, it’s still incredibly entertaining, and it’s great to have such a character-focused film that gives a lot of context to Natasha’s past without being a full-fledged origin story. It may feel like an odd film to kick off the MCU’s next phase of movies timing-wise, but it makes me more excited than I previously anticipated for what is coming down the line—and hopefully that includes more stories featuring more diverse groups both in front of and behind the camera.

“Black Widow” is now playing in theaters and is available to watch on Disney Plus with Premier Access. Runtime: 133 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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