Black Widow : Review
It’s odd. Black Widow has been chosen to kick off Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it easily outclasses its predecessors by retaining its humanity while bearing more excitement than any of its predecessors. Seriously, this film is balls-to-the-wall action through and through, and it’s got a perfect mix of everything – stellar fights, excellent characterization, resonant drama, and laughs aplenty. It’s also a worthy tribute to one of the most stalwart Avengers who didn’t get the chance to make it out of Phase Three, finally giving the titular character the due she most certainly deserved.
We’ve been getting glimpses of Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) life in fits and starts from her Phase One appearance in Iron Man 2, and we got some definition of her backstory in Avengers: Age of Ultron. But nothing has been explicitly defined about her beyond the vagueries and insinuations offered in other films. What do we truly know about Natasha Romanoff? She’s a trained assassin, having been put into a Russian program since early childhood and subsequently turning her back on it for a shot at redemption. “I’ve got red in my ledger; I’d like to wipe it out,” she says to mischief god Loki in 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers.
Black Widow gives us her childhood beginnings as part of a Russian sleeper cell residing in an American neighborhood circa 1989 that looks like the same place where Eleven flips a government vehicle in Season 1 of Netflix’s Stranger Things. Natasha (played as a child by Ever Anderson), “father” Alexei (David Harbour, coincidentally a star in Stranger Things), “mother” Melina (Rachel Weisz), and “sister” Yelena (Violet McGraw) seem to be the typical suburban fantasy – a married couple with great kids and a nice house – until they’re given about an hour to pack up and fly to Cold War-era Cuba for refuge, upon which they’re separated by handler Dreykov (Ray Winstone). We’ve heard Dreykov’s name once before – specifically, in the retort Loki gives her after the “red in my ledger” quote. (“Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Dreykov’s daughter?”)
The font used for this film’s intertitles gives us a huge heads-up as to where this film falls in the MCU timeline. We’re taken back to Natasha’s abrupt exeunt from Captain America: Civil War right after Black Widow’s opening credits (only the fourth time an MCU film has had an opening credits sequence – the others being The Incredible Hulk, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), with General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) leading a strike team intent on taking her into custody. (In case you don’t remember, she let Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes go after the airport fight in Captain America: Civil War, considered by Gen. Ross to be a violation of the Sokovia Accords established in that film.)
As a testament to Natasha’s resourcefulness, she evades capture and sets herself up for a life of seclusion in the hinterlands of Europe, only to be drawn back into conflict when Yelena (played as an adult by Florence Pugh) comes into receivership of a gas capable of reversing chemical brainwashing. Specifically, the kind of chemical brainwashing the aforementioned Russian program – called “The Red Room” – inflicted upon their trainees. Adult Yelena’s first seen as the point man in an operation to retrieve this gas, only to be exposed to it and wiring her with the resolve to take down The Red Room and anyone running it. The only way she can do it is with the help of her ersatz family, which means involving the in-hiding Natasha, imprisoned Alexei, and Melina, one of the architects of the Red Room.
Black Widow combines elements of the Bourne trilogy (no, we don’t speak of The Bourne Legacy) and James Bond films to power Natasha’s heretofore-unseen MCU arc, reconciling her past with her present and future. There’s a certain sadness inherent in the film due to the foreknowledge of where her character winds up, but that’s the point; it’s her personal journey to be free of the shackles binding her to her past, leaving her free to continue her life in service of the greater good. The film is a thrilling look back at where Natasha has been and how she achieves peace with the bodies she’s left in her wake.
On the face of it, this entry into the MCU is firing just as expected, with the humor and action being up to the requisite specs. However, this is the first of the MCU films that’s wall-to-wall excitement from start to finish. Sure, there are limited slow spots for exposition, but there’s always something – a plot twist, an intense fight scene, or an unresolved plot thread getting resolved – waiting to pounce on us. Black Widow starts off at a breathtaking pace with its character-defining cold open and simply piles on more and more until we’re happily exhausted from all the hubbub as the credits roll. (BTW, stay tuned for a post-credits scene, a payoff that will definitely excite fans of Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.)
But even more important is the humanity that Pearson and director Cate Shortland impart to Black Widow. Each scene unfolds and builds upon the previous one, amping up the tension, emotion, or action while cleanly maintaining each character’s arc and purpose. There’s actual meaning in each figurative step our characters take, and it’s the first to be free of the easy outs of money, social status, or access to high tech. Sure, there’s the fact that Alexei is also a chemically-enhanced super-soldier, but that doesn’t take precedence over the smarts which Natasha, Yelena, and Melina use to make their machinations stick. Black Widow relies on smarts and what a 1980s television movie Hard Knox called “maximum utilization of available resources,” as this sham family unites and becomes a real family.
The spotlight, of course, is on Scarlett Johansson headlining her first and last MCU film. Even though her presence in seven previous MCU films is heavily felt, this is the first time we’ve been able to pull back the curtain and see what made her into the dual-Glock-wielding badass we first saw in 2010’s Iron Man 2. (All things being equal, she didn’t really use guns in that movie.) Johansson maintains the soft-spoken, sadness-tinged vibe with which she defined Natasha in prior MCU appearances; here, it’s especially felt with the task set before Natasha and the knowledge of what she has to do to be free of the last tethers binding her to her past.
As a yin to her yang, Florence Pugh comes off as incessantly watchable as the kid sister who was forced to undergo harsher disciplinary training and chemical alteration. Yelena takes the voice of the younger generation, rebelling against the vanguard’s rules and blazing her own trail. She’s given the best comedic spark of the film, especially spiking the film in scenes where she takes the mickey out of the pose that’s become synonymous with Natasha – i.e., the three-point landing – and other Avengers-related jabs. Pugh leans hard into being the little sister out to prove something, and she becomes a triple threat by delivering a performance full of emotion, comedy, and action. She fairly steals the movie from under Johansson, but only just. Make no mistake: Natasha is the centerpiece, the linchpin of Black Widow, and it’s her journey out of the shadows of her past which drives the entire film.
Coming as Black Widow does after Avengers: Endgame, the MCU is catching up rather than pushing forward, which is what it has always done and should continue to do. As such, the late additions of the female-centric films Captain Marvel and Black Widow feel more like tokens than actual layering. To be frank, there’s something unfair with how it’s taken so long to get to the heart of Natasha Romanoff. Frequent teases throughout the last eleven years were not enough for someone who’s proven herself capable to stand alongside a chemically enhanced scientist, a super-soldier, a wealthy genius, a government assassin, and a Norse god.
Black Widow is one of the most entertaining, action-packed, and absolutely fantastic films in the MCU, and while it sends its central character off with unparalleled action and smarts, it does beg the question: Why wait until now? This is quite a substantial character-building MCU film, but the only purpose it serves seems to be as an afterthought instead of the primary focus it should have been. True, the post-credits scene might throw a different light on which character was being developed, but Natasha deserved this attention a long, long time ago. Should we be thankful it’s come at all? Yes. Should we be annoyed that it’s come too late? Again, yes. Black Widow closes out Natasha’s arc with a resounding explosion, and it’s all too sad that this is the last we see of her.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material.
As expected, there is a post-credits scene.
Running time: 134 minutes.
Released by Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.